(On Cable TV, September 2016) Not every good foreign movie has to be remade by Hollywood, and the latest piece of evidence for this assertion is Secret in their Eyes, the somewhat forgettable remake of the acclaimed Argentinian thriller El secreto de sus ojos. It’s not as if this Hollywood version is completely worthless: If nothing else, here are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and a surprisingly unglamorous Julia Roberts doing their best in their given roles. I also found a provocative parallel in equating the original’s “Pinochet years” with this remake’s “post-9/11 era”. The plot is also partially streamlined, getting rid of a lot of non-essential material even though the result is still a bit too contrived and verbose to qualify as fast paced. Otherwise, though, there isn’t much here worth noticing for fans of the original, and one or two things have been taken away from the original, such as the incredible one-shot sequence that is limply made ordinary in this remake. If you haven’t seen the original and if you are in the mood for a leisurely-paced thriller, Secret in their Eyes will do the trick. For everyone else, though, it’s a mediocre film that will never earn (nor deserve) even a tenth of the attention given to the original Oscar-winning film.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) As post-apocalyptic thrillers go, Z for Zachariah plays things more intimately than most. There are only three characters in the story, hence the drama: Margot Robbie initially stars as a young woman who has almost unexpectedly lived through a global nuclear disaster, her universe now limited to a small valley where the radioactive fallout can’t enter. She’s managing to hang on, but her world is turned upside down when she comes across another survivor, a scientist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Their relationship is difficult to begin with, yet things get even more complicated when a third man, much younger and friendlier (Chris Pine) also makes his way in the valley. The resulting tension isn’t pleasant for anyone, especially when science and religion are set up as mutually incompatible pursuits, and an unhealthy rivalry begins between the two men, leaving our heroin scared and disturbed from her lonely life. Far from being cheerful, Z for Zachariah works well as an acting showcase for all three actors (with Robbie earning a chance to prove the kind of dramatic talents that don’t fit with her persona in blockbuster movies) but get annoying when it aims for simplistic allegory. As a feminist twist on post-apocalyptic stories, it’s inconclusive—another five minutes of definitive resolution may have helped matters, especially given the liberties taken from the original novel. It amounts to a film that qualifies as mildly interesting but not essential, unless you’re a post-apocalyptic junkie or a fan of the three actors. At least it does a few unusual things in the sub-genre, and it handled with some competence.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) My life circumstances at the moment mean that I rarely get to watch a film from beginning to end, uninterrupted: I often have to watch films in 30-minutes intervals and while that usually annoys me, it proved to be a relief in taking in 12 Years a Slave, as unflinching and dismaying a depiction of slavery in the antebellum American south as anything we’ve seen on-screen –at least since the deliberately more exploitative Django Unchained. The true story of a black free man kidnapped and pressed into service for more than a decade away from his family, 12 Years a Slave is designed to be infuriating and depressing at once. Once stuck in the slavery system, our protagonist gets no say over his well-being; in fact, the first thing he understands is that the truth will not set him free, and may serve to kill him. The second thing we viewers learn is that a system of slavery means that everyone is prisoner of that system; even kind and god-fearing people are beholden to its requirements, making any escape seem remote. Director Steve McQueen never shies away from the shocking moments, and sometimes even designs his films to confront viewers with the horrors of the situation: witness the agonizing minutes-long hanging shot, or the uninterrupted whipping sequence. Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent in the lead role, but the film benefits from strong supporting performances by the likes of Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who serves as the audience’s conscience by playing a Canadian. I tend to expect the worst from movies that play up their social-conscience themes, but 12 Years a Slave shows self-confident filmmaking savvy, and stands out as a fantastic piece of work even with the harsh subject matter. Don’t miss it, even if you have to take a break from the horror once in a while.
(In theaters, July 2010) There is something both successful and not quite satisfying in this Cold War espionage thriller throwback. The straightforward revival of Russians sleeper agents as antagonists in Salt is amusing (even more so given recent news items seemingly custom-made to market the movie), whereas the good old suspense mechanics of assassinations and chases are competently handled. After The Recruit and Law Abiding Citizen, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer is quickly becoming a reference for thrillers with just enough twists to be interesting, whereas director Phillip Noyce is good but not great as an action director. (Sadly, the post-Bourne editing is often too frantic to be effective: There’s one over-the-shoulder shot of the heroine jumping down from one vehicle to another that would have been gripping as a one-shot, but is stupidly cut in two by a meaningless insert.) As for the actors, the three lead characters seem ready to play according to type: Angelina Jolie as the capable action heroine no matter the hairstyle, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the stand-up guy you can depend on, and Liev Schreiber as the one you can’t completely trust. In terms of pacing, Salt’s forward rhythm is undermined by unexplainable lapses: What should have been a full-speed-ahead action spectacular is slowed down by moody pauses and too-lengthy flashbacks that approach parody at times. Preposterous plot problems can be forgiven in the name of pure thrills, which is fortunate given how the cheats become bigger and bigger as the film moves in its final act. When it works, Salt is pure summer entertainment, going back to solid stunts rather than an overuse of CGI. It’s fun rather than ambitious, solid rather than innovative, and just insane enough to make something palatable from Cold War plot elements we thought dead and buried. Expect a sequel.
(In theatres, November 2009) It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Roland Emmerich’s 2012 tries to ape and one-up much of the disaster-movie genre. Where else can you find a 10.5 earthquake, a super-volcano and a mega-tsunami in the same movie? As such, it demands to be considered according to the particular standards of the disaster movie genre, and that’s indeed where it finds most of its qualities. The L.A. earthquake sequence is a piece of deliriously over-the-top action movie-making (I never loved 2012 more than when the protagonists’ plane had to dodge a falling subway train), the Yellowstone volcano sequence holds its own and those who haven’t seen an aircraft carrier smash the White House now have something more to live for. The problem, unfortunately, is that those sequences are front-loaded in the first two-third of the film, leaving much smaller set-pieces for the end. This, in turn places far more emphasis on the characters, dialogue and plot points, none of whom are a known strength of either the genre or 2012 itself. Sure, the cast of characters is either pretty (Thandie Newton! Amanda Peet!), competent (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover) or entertaining (John Cusack, Oliver Platt). Of course, we want to see them live through it all. But as a too-late consideration of ethical issues bumps against less-impressive sequences and significant lulls (including a 15-minutes-long prologue), it becomes easier to see that this 158 minutes film is at least 45 minutes too long and suffering from a limp third act. The defective nature of the roller-coaster also makes it less easy to tolerate the hideous conclusions, screaming contrivances and somewhat distasteful ethics of the screenplay. While the clean and sweeping cinematography (interestingly replaced by a hand-held video-quality interlude during one of the film’s turning points) shows that 2012’s production budget is entirely visible on-screen and will eventually make this a worthwhile Blu-Ray demo disk, there isn’t much here to respect or even like. At least special-effects fans will be able to play some destruction sequences over and over again.