(On Cable TV, February 2018) Is it possible for a film to be so good as to become invisible? The 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility has, in adapting Jane Austen’s novel so well, become part of the fabric of pop culture. It launched an Austen revival that continues even today, it solidified the career of its director Ang Lee, netted Emma Thompson an Oscar-winning reputation as an actress and screenwriter and became a strong calling card for other actors such as Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry. It cleverly alters the plot and themes of the original novel for modern sensibilities, and delivers everything with an appropriate atmosphere of period detail. In short, it succeeds at being what it wanted to be. Alas, I was surprisingly bored through it all, and I suspect that much of the problem lies in the film’s own success. Since 1995, there have been an explosion of Austen-inspired material, and many of my favourite ones have remixed the material in ever-stranger ways, from Los Angeles-set From Prada to Nada, to Canadian-Indian musical Bride and Prejudice, to the unlikely mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies … and the list goes on. Going back to the unadulterated source material at a time when it has become such an inspiration isn’t necessarily dull … but it does feel overly familiar. I will also note that Sense and Sensibility is the film of film uniquely affected by mood—it doesn’t make much an effort to draw audiences in (the beginning is notably in media res), but rather relies on pre-existing sympathies and goodwill. If it so happens that you’re distracted or otherwise less than receptive … this may also be an issue. So: Good movie, muted impact—by creating an incredible legacy for itself, Sense and Sensibility may have dulled its own reception twenty years later.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) In genre-literature fandom, there is this incredibly unfair cliché that the average “mainstream” literary novel is nothing much more than a college professor writing about upper-middle-class ennui, tawdry affairs, dysfunctional families and pretentious pseudo-philosophy. In this light, The Ice Storm hilariously become an example of the form despite a few references to the Fantastic Four comic books. It is about upper-middle-class ennui and tawdry affairs, as husband and wife from different couples have an affair that is exposed during the course of the film. It is about dysfunctional families, as the kids of those two families have their own experimental games. The pretentious pseudo-philosophy comes from contemplating comic books, unsatisfying lives and unusual weather events, with a side-order of communal swinging at seventies key parties. The film is sure to resonate with many viewers—the 1973 setting is convincing down to the awful fashion, Ang Lee directs with a sure hand, and the film has a strong cast of then-established actors (Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, all very good) with a miraculous near-handful of then-rising names that have since done much (Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes). But it doesn’t take much distancing to find The Ice Storm slightly ridiculous even as the film reaches for grief in the face of a freak death and familial reconciliation after trying times. From a non-sympathetic perspective, the clichés accumulate at a furious rate, the dramatic heft of the death isn’t earned and the film concludes without having much, everyone still being the same flawed characters than they were at first. But hey—it got nominated for a bunch of awards, so it must be good, right?
(On Cable TV, June 2017) Much of the online chatter about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk had to do with its 3D 120 fps 4K UHD presentation in a handful of high-end theatres, but that’s completely irrelevant to the experience of seeing it on regular HD cable TV. Stripped from its technological innovations, the film becomes something far more ordinary: Yet another drama about veterans coming back home and having trouble coping with the nature of American society. It’s not a bad subject, but it has been overplayed lately, and Ang Lee’s latest film doesn’t do much to bring something narratively new to the table. Oh, it’s skillfully made: Setting much of the story at a Dallas football game, arguably the purest essence of basic Americana, is good for a few uncomfortable parallels with what soldiers are being asked to do abroad. Weaving in motifs of Hollywood dramatization, religion-obsessed cheerleaders, excessive eating and overblown fireworks all serve to heighten the unreality of “coming back home”. Still, there aren’t that many surprises in store. It’s nearly a given that whatever heroic sacrifice performed by the soldiers will prove to be far more gruesome in the flashbacks. There’s a blip of interest at the very end, when a decision made by the lead character is portrayed as continuing the horror rather than further serving the country. But otherwise, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is thin gruel. Well-made gruel, though: Ang Lee remains a veteran director, and perhaps the most interesting thing about the result is how he’s able to coax good performances out of Kristen Stewart (in her best damaged-by-life mode), Steve Martin (as a loathsome millionaire) and Chris Tucker (looking much older now). Still, the lack of impact of the movie as shown at home is enough to make anyone ponder the worth of technological innovations if they can’t be as effective under all viewing conditions.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) As someone who read Yann Martel’s novel a while ago, Life of Pi held few surprises from a narrative point of view: The big-screen adaptation faithfully recreates the novel’s structure, its main plot beats (including the slap-back ending) and a good chunk of the story’s thematic concerns. As a result, I’m not overly bothered by the overdone spiritual content, or the trickster nature of the ending. It remains, at its most basic level, the story of a teenager’s survival ordeal as he’s stuck for most of a year on a lifeboat with a full-grown Bengal tiger. Still, as with the novel, I was far more interested with the detailed practicality of the protagonist’s lifeboat ordeal than with the multiple levels of interpretation, the spiritual content or the work’s boastful assertion that it will make audiences believe in God. Much of Life of Pi is immediately accessible as a succession of terrific imagery, you-are-there details of lifeboat survival and good old-fashion resilience in the face of terrible adversity. The special effects are terrific (the two storm sequences are simply amazing) and director Ang Lee’s skill in making the film both visceral and ethereal is something to behold. You’d think that the film would start to repeat itself given the limited setting, but Life of Pi remains engrossing for as long as its characters are drifting at sea. While I suspect that more spiritually-minded audience will get more out of the film, I’m sufficiently impressed that it can still manage to reach and fascinate audiences such as myself, purely as a survival thriller.