(Video On-Demand, February 2018) I’ve heard Roman J. Israel, Esq. discussed as a fascinating character study wrapped in an underwhelming story, and that certainly has some merit as a description. The best thing about the film is Roman J. Israel, Esq. as played by the ever-capable Denzel Washington, a genius-level lawyer with substantial social interaction problems. Comfortable in his role as the rarely seen brainy half of a two-man small legal outfit, Israel starts having problems once his partner dies, leaving him to fend off in a hostile environment. Getting hired is difficult enough that he’s got to accept a few favours, but staying employed is even more difficult when his personality clashes with just about everyone in a top legal firm. Issues of romance, class, crime and legal ethics come to complicate this already challenging situation, but even with all its flourishes (and occasional action sequences), Roman J. Israel, Esq. seems to deflate as it nears a conclusion. I suspect that the film would have been more successful with a more upbeat ending. In the meantime, we are free to admire Washington’s portrayal, or its nuanced look at the life of an idealistic lawyer. Both Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo continue their streak of good supporting performances. Writer/director Dan Gilroy doesn’t meet the considerable expectations set by his debut feature Nightcrawler, but his follow-up remains a watchable effort and a decent showcase for Washington.
(Video On-Demand, January 2017) I’m not, in theory, a big fan of supernatural police thrillers—usually, the fantastic elements overwhelm the procedural aspects of the thriller and make much of it moot. Solace’s particular reputation is affected by the knowledge that it took nearly two years to be released, and that it ended up on VOD rather than theatres. All of this makes up for low expectations, but there’s something curiously engaging in the result. The plot is filled with nonsense, the “rules” are barely adhered to, the characters are sometimes barely sketched … but it sort of works thanks to the directing and acting. Anthony Hopkins headlines the film, playing a psychic asked by a police friend to help with one last case … a case that seems to be targeting him directly. Colin Farrell turns in a remarkable third-act appearance as the antagonist, marking up another good supporting role now that he’s wisely shied away from superstar status. But director Afonso Poyart turns in the best performance with savvy directing that’s not above borrowing familiar images and methods, but still elevating the material above B-grade status. There’s a surprising amount of special effects, especially in the last third of the film, keeping up Solace’s ability to keep viewers interested in the most basic what-will-happen-next sense. There’s some interesting material in the conclusion of the film, even as broad as it can be at times. In short, I had a better-than-expected time, and that’s enough for a marginal recommendation as something more than the usual VOD thriller.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2016) I actually wanted to like The Lobster more than I did. In theory, I agree with the idea that we need more absurdist comedies, that fantasy is a great way to talk about the human condition through metaphors (why do you think I like Science Fiction so much?) and that not all of human experience has to fit in the “married with children” paradigm. The Lobster tries to fulfill all of those wishes, but the way it does so isn’t quite the one I was hoping for. While billed as a comedy, The Lobster can be surprisingly violent and unpleasant, going from one extreme to another without quite finding the synthesis of its sides along the way. It deliberately ends on ambiguity, but that doesn’t necessarily bother me as much as the carefully deliberate way it seems to take place in another kind of reality, without necessarily portraying believable human emotions. The early inventiveness of the opening half isn’t quite matched by the second one, and the absurdity of the premise often sabotages any attempt at taking it all more seriously. It is, in other words, a deliberately artificial film, and it doesn’t take much to snap out of it if you even have the slightest objection or question. There are layers of meaning, of course, and ways to argue endlessly about the slightest detail. It doesn’t take things seriously nor comfortingly—the deconstruction of marriage is as brutal as anything else seen recently on this side of Gone Girl, and the laughter can feel a bit hollow when confronted to such bleak existentialism. At least Colin Farrell (in his post-stardom tour of fascinating roles) is pretty good, and he’s surrounded by equally capable players such as John C. Reilly and Rachel Weisz. Still, the star here is writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, who brings his own unique sensibility to a film that no-one else would have executed in the same way. The Lobster is a perfect date movie for philosophy majors—but I’m not sure about anyone else.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) Oh, what a mess. A problem with urban fantasy is the tendency to just keep stuffing the story with magic without pausing to reflect on whether it all fits together, and Winter’s Tale has a bad case of dumb world-building piled upon nonsensical mythology. There’s something about stars being people and not stars, something about Satan and his demon knights, something about having one miracle to spend in one’s lifetime, something about being amnesiac for a century… or whatever. It barely fits together even as a summary, let alone in the details. I’m told that the novel on which the film is based is far more coherent, so the blame here would go entirely to writer/director Akiva Goldsman, proving here that almost two decades of bad reviews since Batman & Robin can’t entirely be blamed on directors mangling his scripts. Interestingly enough, little of the film’s problems affect the actors in it: Colin Farrell is OK as the lead, while Jessica Brown Findlay is very good as the romantic lead despite being burdened with an awful role. Russell Crowe and Will Smith are curiously enjoyable as the villains of the story, despite (again) not making much sense as such. Jennifer Connelly looks lost in an underwritten role –one of the many issues with Winter’s Tale is that it jumps forward in time, but can’t be bothered to decide whether the circa-2014 story is a third act or an epilogue. (But then again, the film is so bad at math or elementary logic that in 2014, one of the non-magical characters should be 108 years old.) Interminable digressions help make the film feel even longer than it is, while fairly good production values can’t paper over the dumb script. It’s one of the defining characteristics of bad movies that whatever profound sentiment they try to express is met with eye-rolling and accusations of pretentiousness, but by the time Winter’s Tale last few moment try to smother viewers in a gelatinous gloop of unearned sentiment, you too will understand why the film is more laughable than interesting.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) For some reason, I expected a bit more oomph from this thriller. Colin Farrell isn’t the big star he used to be, so it’s not as big a surprise to find him in a quasi-direct-to-video thriller. Still, much of Dead Man Down has the unfortunate tendency to combine a dreary-dull atmosphere with far-fetched plot beats: New York in the rain, disfigured heroine, brooding protagonist on one side; intricate revenge plan, grandiose crime bosses, rat torture, pickup crashing into a house on the other. Director Niels Arden Oplev is best-known for the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film, but there’s a mild-mannered lack of edge to his style that make the film a bit boring to watch despite its outlandish elements. Everything’s gray and grimy… except for Noomi Rapace, looking good despite being supposedly disfigured to a point where kids shout “Monster!” at her. Dead Man Down surely won’t make waves or history despite finding a few interesting shooting locations near New York City: it’s a bit too sedate for the wild story it’s trying to tell, and not quite deep enough to masquerade as a character drama beyond the shootouts. At best, it’s a competent time-waster, the kind of thriller you find late at night and can’t find any better choice.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) Writer/director Martin McDonagh clearly isn’t happy doing the usual or the expected: With this crime comedy, he plays around with structure, experiments with form, and uses a comic crime thriller to reflect on the place of violence in movies. Collin Farrell is low-key but effective as a screenwriter who turns to a friend in order to get some inspiration for his next screenplay. Sam Rockwell is quite a bit flashier as said friend who finds himself creatively inspired, and starts bringing the screenwriter into his own criminal enterprise, where we meet an unusually reflective Christopher Walken. It quickly leads to a clash between true psychopaths, repentant ones and unexpected ones. McDonagh’s dialogue is as good as could be expected from a playwright, and his directorial technique feels a bit more natural than in his previous In Bruges. Seven Psychopaths takes a turn toward meta-fiction in the third act, as it tries to reconcile the impulses of thrill-seeking viewers with the humanistic instincts of a filmmaker trying to avoid gratuitous violence. While the result feels a bit more scattered than it should, it’s an unusually intriguing film, and one that has quite a bit more thematic depths than the usual crime thriller. As a bonus, it’s also quite funny… except when it decides not to be.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) The Way Back is inspired by a story that may or may not be true (check Wikipedia for the controversy), but the premise is the stuff of epic adventure as a few prisoners escape from a Russian Gulag and make their way, on foot, to India –crossing Siberian forests, enormous caverns, the shores of Lake Baikal, vast plains, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas along the way. By the time the film ends, it feels like an odyssey, and not solely in the best sense: This is a long, sometimes tedious film. The characters suffer, the attempted realism of the presentation offers very little levity, and the script doesn’t trouble itself with compelling dialogue. As a result, The Way Back feels longer than it should, and ends up shortchanging viewers on the “viewing pleasure” aspect. Still, there’s a lot to like and admire: The scenery is often breathtaking, the actors (including Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan) do a fine job in rough circumstances, the story kills off a number of characters you wouldn’t expect, and the feeling of a difficult odyssey certainly comes across on-screen. A bit of plot-tightening, more compelling character work (enough so that we can distinguish between the minor players) and some punched-up dialogue may have helped The Way Back rise above the good and become great.
(In theaters, July 2011) Two and a half years after a catastrophic global meltdown, movies are starting to reflect the soul-deadened guilt of those who kept their jobs. Playing heavily on wish-fulfillment, Horrible Bosses dares to ask how much better life would be if people could just get rid of their awful supervisors in the most definitive way possible. It takes strong protagonists to keep our sympathy in such circumstances, and Horrible Bosses get two out of three in that matter: Jason Bateman continues his streak of playing endearing everymen, while Jason Sudeikis somehow manages to make us look past his character’s horn-dog issues. As the remaining member of the trio of oppressed worker looking to dispatch their bosses, however, Charlie Day is almost more annoying than useful, and the tic of reverting to a high-pitched whine whenever things go wrong is annoying the moment it happens a second time. Then there’s the other half of the deal: the bosses. Fortunately, that’s where Horrible Bosses wins a perfect score: Kevin Spacey is deliciously slimy as the kind of arrogant sociopath that climbs up the corporate ladder; Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as a loser working to extract as much loot out of the family company before it goes bankrupt; whereas Jennifer Aniston is all sex-appeal with bangs, toned body and racoon eyes as a crazed harasser. They deserve their fate; the protagonists have suffered enough; and the film can stand on its own. It does get better as it develops, mostly due to some clever writing, sympathetic performances (including Jamie Foxx as a criminal consultant), a few twists in which real world problems become comic plot points, and a conclusion that neatly wraps things up. While Horrible Bosses won’t stick around in popular culture, it’s a decent example of the kind of film it wants to be: It’s amoral without being offensive, edgy without grossing-out and polished to an extent that it leaves little if any unpleasant aftertaste. Good enough for entertainment; consecration isn’t an essential prerequisite with a good-time comedy like this.
(On DVD, May 2011) Director Joel Schumacher’s public profile arguably peaked in the late nineties with his disastrous stint as the director of the two worst Batman movies ever made. Upon its release, Tigerland had been hailed as a return to form for the director and it’s easy to see why even a decade later: A Vietnam movie set entirely stateside, this drama studies the gradual transformation of a cynical young man as he goes through infantryman training in anticipation of a foreign deployment. The harsh reality of the training is well-depicted, but it’s really then-unknown Colin Farrell’s performance as Roland Bozz that holds all the attention. Mirroring contemporary audiences’ mindset, Bozz knows that Vietnam is a prodigious waste, has read all of the anti-war books and has little patience for the charade of training. He’s a free spirit stuck in a machine grinding down everyone to the same component pieces. It would have been easy for the film to turn into a comedy in which an unrepentant Bozz knows best, or a crude anti-war statement in which the only way out is to get out. But Tigerland is after something slightly different in putting Bozz up against other facets of morality and the logical consequences of his own compassion. There’s a lesson in leadership there, in reluctant responsibility and in the humanity to be found in even the most inhuman structures. It helps that Tigerland’s dialogue are a notch over the average, and that the film feels gripping even though solely set during the training phase. The film earned some critical notice upon release but practically no commercial success, thus qualifying for an evergreen “hidden gem” recommendation. Never mind the often too-grainy cinematography and the impression that half the actors look like each other: This is a decent Vietnam picture, and it has a bit more than the usual in mind.
(In theatres, February 2010) Yet another entry in the “Film I wouldn’t see if it wasn’t for their Oscar nominations” category. Would I willingly go see the story of a past-his-prime country music singer who learns to deal with his alcoholism while romancing a single mom half his age? Gee, Oscar, you really make things difficult for me this year, don’t you? Cheap shots aside, there’s a little bit to like in Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges is great in the title role, and the various details about life as an ex country music star are fascinating. Maggie Gyllenhaal is as cute as she can be (which is a lot) as the single mom, whereas Colin Farrell has a small and perfect supporting role and Robert Duvall is up for another kind bartender role. This is not a fast film, and it’s definitely aimed at a quiet Midwestern audience. Bits and pieces of the film are trite and obvious (who couldn’t see the whole “missing child” moment coming?), and the overall arc of the film seems copied from VH1 specials. Still, for a movie that has practically no guns, explosions, comedy, one-liners, car chases, giant robots or anything designed to get me in the theatre, it’s a bit more bearable that I expected. But I’m as far from Crazy Heart’s target audience as I could be, so never mind me and go read a review from someone who cares more about the film.