(On Cable TV, June 2018) The problem with second seasons of high-concept shows is that you don’t quite have the same element of surprise in reserve. In Westworld’s case, it means that the dizzying timeline tricks and character revelations of the first seasons can’t be exactly reproduced, and that the show has to work within known parameters. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t try to keep things interesting. Set in the few days immediately after Season 1, this second series follows characters as they react to the events of the first season, revealing new secrets along the way and digging even deeper in mind-twisting questions about personalities and predetermination. Thanks to the endless wonders of flashbacks, simulations and body/mind separation, nearly the entire cast is back (yes, even those confirmed dead), meaning that the solid acting talents of the series are once more on display. Tessa Thompson gets a deservedly more prominent role, while Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Rachel Lee Evans all keep on doing what they did so well the first time around. While I was initially disappointed by the series’ renewed focus on the park (I expected the hosts to escape in-between seasons), the park’s uncovered secrets made things even more interesting. And while this second season is straightforward about its dual-timeline structure, it does experiment with storytelling in focusing certain episodes on specific characters (some of them peripherals) and taking trips in other theme park areas to hilarious parallel effect. My pick for most-improved character goes to Lee Sizemore, formerly an annoying writer here transformed into the incarnation of everything he wished for (including a late empathy boost for his own creations) in a neat commentary on the relationship between creator and characters. Meanwhile, the season’s best episodes (setting aside the season finale that features so many character deaths that it feels obliged to have a few resurrections as well) has to be the eighth, in which a relatively unsophisticated character discovers the true nature of his world in a mostly self-contained episode that spans decades of series history. There is, once again, a lot of material to digest in Westworld—the storytelling is challenging, the themes are explored to the point of pretentiousness, and the science-fiction devices used in generally compelling fashion. It all amounts to solid TV—worth following as it airs, episode after episode.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) Early word on Westworld was not good. Hyped by HBO as their next big-budget SF&F show now that Game of Thrones is on its way out, the show suffered ominous-sounding production delays while scripts were re-tuned, which didn’t bode well in the wake of Vinyl’s failure. But while this first season definitely has its issues, the result occasionally reaches delirious peaks of peak TV goodness, playing with savvy audience expectations and delivering reality-altering perceptional shift. While the show begins and more or less ends where Michael Crichton’s original 1973 movie did, there’s a lot of complexity under the surface, and the attitudinal shifts in the show’s sympathies for artificial humans is notable. In-between Inception and Memento, show-runner Jonathan Nolan is known for mind-warping scripts and Westworld is occasionally no different: the first episode is a fantastically twisted introduction to a familiar concept, while the end-stretch of the series delivers solid revelations about the nature of some characters, narrative time-play and unexpectedly philosophical rambling. It’s hardly perfect: much of the stretch between episodes 2 and 6 could have been compressed in half the time, while the so-called deep thoughts of the conclusion feel both ponderous and nonsensical. But when Westworld works, it really works. Episodes 1, 7 and 10 alone are worth the long stretches in-between. Top-notch actors such as Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton deliver good performances, the script cleverly plays to an audience that demands more from their TV miniseries and the visual polish of the result can be astonishing. Even the most pretentious aspects of the script can be seen as a plus given how high it aims. The sympathy of the series for its synthetic characters is a notable representation of the maturing of media Science Fiction—especially when humans act this rotten, can we really blame the robots for turning on their masters? I’m not sure where season 2 can take us, but as far as HBO is concerned, it’s mission accomplished for Westworld—expectations run high for the follow-up.
(Second or third viewing, On DVD, September 2017) I’ve been on a semi-streak of American space program movies lately and revisiting The Right Stuff was practically mandatory as a bookend to Apollo 13. Adapting Tom Wolfe’s superlative docufiction book, writer/director Philip Kaufman’s film is epic in length (nearly three hours) and clearly in myth-making mode as it draws a line leading from cowboys to astronauts by way of test pilots. It’s a long sit, but it’s filled with great moments, enlivened by a surprising amount of humour and a joy to watch from beginning to end. It helps that it can depend on great performances, whether it’s Ed Harris as a clean-cut John Glenn to Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, among many other known actors in small roles. It’s an astonishing ensemble cast for a wide-spectrum film, though, and it manages to compress quite a bit of material in even its unusually long running time. As a homage to the space program, it remains a point of reference—even the special effects are still credible. Despite a generous amount of dramatic licence (including the infamous Liberty Bell 7 incident, now thoroughly debunked thanks to the 1999 recovery of the capsule), the film seems generally well regarded when it comes to historical accuracy. From our perspective, it credibly humanizes yet mythologizes the test pilots who were crazy enough to go atop rockets when they were known to explode shortly after launch. It’s a stirring bit of filmmaking for viewers with a fascination for technological topics and the history of spaceflight, and it has aged rather gracefully. I loved the movie when I first saw it (in French, on regular TV interspaced between ads) and I still love it now. As suggested above, The Right Stuff is an essential double feature with Apollo 13, and both movies even feature Ed Harris in pivotal roles.
(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) I remember standing in line to watch this film on opening week, and being energized by the result. Decades later, Apollo 13 is still as good as it ever was—as a triumphant look at the American effort to land on the moon, it remains unequalled, and while the then-astonishing special effects have aged, they still hold up reasonably well—that launch sequence is still awe-inspiring. They may never be a movie about Apollo 11 because it went so well, but the Apollo 13 mission was a different story, and it’s through that fateful flight that we get a look at the astonishing achievement of the American space program. The historical details are immediately credible, and there’s much to be said about a film made in the nineties to reflect events that were then barely more than twenty years past—trying to recreate 1973 today would be more difficult and probably less authentic, without mentioning all the people who have since died and wouldn’t be there to provide their advice. Reportedly free of major inaccuracies, Apollo 13 can’t quite escape some artistic licensing issues, whether it’s leaden explanatory dialogue, scenes set up to discuss a thematic concern or the vastly overwrought climax played up for all it’s worth. Still, these are small concerns compared to the entire film—it remains one of director Ron Howard’s most successful films, and it features a cast of a half-dozen great actors, from Tom Hanks’ immediately sympathetic commander Jim Lovell to Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and one of Ed Harris’s career-best iconic performance as no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz. Everything clicks together to make up that elusive movie magic, effective even when knowing exactly how everything will play out. It’s not meant to be subtle (the last-act passage in which NASA reflects that Apollo 13 will be remembered as one of their “finest moments” lays out what viewers are expected to take away from the film itself) but it’s remarkably effective. As a lapsed space buff, I can’t help but love Apollo 13, but I’m reasonably sure that it remains a great movie for everyone even today.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) Prepare your hankies, because Stepmom is determined to make you cry as hard as you can. The narrative threads are set up early, as the younger second wife of a sympathetic but featureless man (Ed Harris) can’t quite get the respect she wants from her stepchildren. Real mom is best mom, and so Susan Sarandon puts Julia Roberts in her place a few times to establish the narrative tension right before her cancer diagnosis is revealed. The rest is by-the-number sentimental filmmaking by director Chris Columbus, made fitfully interesting by a few hilariously unrealistic looks at fashion photography and adequate performances. Harris, Sarandon and Roberts can’t disguise that this is a very specific kind of movie. Everything plays exactly like we expect, and the result defies any attempts at deeper analysis or even sustained interest. Stepmom will appeal to its target audience and leave large groups indifferent. It is well made, but it is not worth more than a moment’s attention.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) The submarine-movie subgenre is interesting in that there are only so many things you can do, story-wise, aboard a submarine. Sense of isolation; claustrophobia; being stuck with an insane individual; nuclear weapons (sometimes); submarine fights; ocean dangers; the list is finite, and nearly every submarine movie ever made seems to play with the same ideas. Phantom is no exception: while “based on a true story” (albeit the most incredible interpretation of events, with an added dash of magic science to make things even less plausible), it’s resoundingly familiar in the way it re-uses common plot elements. That’s not necessarily a bad thing –execution is everything, and writer/director Todd Robinson does a generally acceptable job at transforming a fairly low budget into a cold-war nuclear thriller. A good chunk of the film’s success can be attributed to a trio of capable veteran actors: Ed Harris as the flawed captain, William Fichtner as his capable lieutenant and David Duchovny as a potentially dangerous outsider. The film has enough credibility to carry audiences across the less-believable moments, and the sense of tension that comes from being confined in such a small space for so long is also good enough to entertain. But while Phantom is generally fine for audiences with an interest in its style or subject matter, “generally fine” isn’t enough to elevate it above its subgenre for a wider audience. It doesn’t help that the film shoots itself in the foot with an ending that tries to fit narrative consolation with cold hard historical fact. While the result will be just entertaining enough to satisfy those who are predisposed toward submarine movies in general, Phantom doesn’t have what it takes to reach a much bigger audience.
(On-demand video, August 2012) There’s a comforting familiarity to genre exercises that makes it easy to forgive them for, well, being genre exercises. Man on a Ledge may benefit from an unusual premise (man goes on a ledge as a diversion for a heist), but it quickly becomes just another thriller with the usual palette of elements: clever virtuous thieves, corrupt cops, framed hero, rapacious journalists, and so on. To its credit, Man on a Ledge plays its thriller cards well, especially in the first act of the film while all of the plot strands are being set up. It’s the second third that hits a bit of a lull as the same situation is re-threaded for about 15 minutes: thrillers live or die on narrative energy, and there’s a sense, as the thieves goof around their target, that time is being wasted. At least the last act of the film speeds up again, leading up to a nice appropriate moment of stunt-work. Some dynamic camera work helps keep up interest throughout, but some thanks must be given to the good cast assembled here for the film: Sam Worthington as a scruffy protagonist, Ed Harris as a rail-thin villain, up-comer Anthony Mackie as a partner working at cross-purposes, Elizabeth Banks as a damaged police officer and Genesis Rodriguez as a wise-cracking rogue. It plays reasonably well as a genre thriller, and that’s fine if that’ all you really want to see. Where it falters is in comparison with other better movies of this kind –specifically Inside Man, Spike Lee’s far-better “New York crime thriller” entry which felt as if it had some connections to contemporary reality rather than just being a somewhat showy thriller. The far-fetched nature of Man on a Ledge’s plot could have used a bit more grounding (so to speak, ahem) and that’s probably when genre exercises can go astray, by being more focused on their own plot convolutions rather than spending just a bit more time on making it feel even more credible.
(On-demand video, April 2012) As far as mid-sixties coming-of-age films go, That’s What I Am has almost all of the usual elements: Life lessons, befriended outcasts, wise teacher and eighth-grade first love. It plays without surprises (although some of the expected plot beats aren’t dwelled upon –I was sure that something was going to happen to the car, for instance) but it does so with warmth and wit. The narration is better than usual, the characters are nicely defined, there are quite a few moments of decent humanity (something that’s perhaps a bit too rare nowadays) and the film does have a certain narrative energy in finding out what’s going to happen next. Ed Harris shines as the protagonist’s influential teacher, but the child actors all turn in some good work as the students. I’m still trying to figure out why the film was produced by Word Wrestling Entertainment, but never mind that logo: That’s What I Am is the kind of small-expectations movie that fills up a nice quiet evening. It’s perhaps not special enough to warrant an effort to seek, but it’s absolutely fine at what it attempts 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.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) Political junkies will get their fix of gossipy fantasy in this made-for-HBO docu-fictive account of Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 American Presidential race as seen from her Republican entourage. Fans of the original Halperin/ Heilemann book will be surprised to find out that this adaptation barely mentions the Obama/Clinton contest and focuses solely on Palin’s selection and the backroom dealings of the Republican strategists trying to do what they can with an unsuitable candidate. At its best, Game Change is a fascinating look behind the scenes of a major political campaign as a team of self-aware political professionals has to deal with a wholly unsuitable candidate. It plays like a mainstream Hollywood comedy in which a half-wit is thrust in a position of importance… except that it really happened, and it happened recently in an American presidential election. True enough, Palin occasionally comes across in the film as more admirable than her public personae would suggest: a dedicated mom, perhaps a figure to be pitied for having been asked to do more than she ever could. Still, she really doesn’t come across well here: out of her depth, overwhelmed, petty and of limited capabilities. The casting is exceptional: Julianne Moore excels in a nearly-perfect take on Palin, whereas Ed Harris has no problem establishing himself as a sympathetic McCain. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson turns in a clever performance as strategist Steve Schmidt, the nominal protagonist of the film. The film is generally well-directed by comedy director Jay Roach and scripted competently, but it does have to work within the constraints of real-world events: The dramatic arc here is slight (especially compared to Obama’s journey) and even understanding that this is a heavily dramatized version of events as they occurred isn’t much of a comfort. Game Change will appeal to those who remember the 2008 election well, but may not be all that compelling for others. Which is fine, really: Even political buffs deserve their slick Hollywood entertainment.
(In theaters, December 2007) It’s not high cinema, and it’s not even great genre entertainment, but National Treasure 2 manages to hit the same sweet spot than its predecessor in terms of contemporary adventure, historical lore, Nicolas Cage craziness and sarcastic quips. As this adventure trots around Washington, Paris, London and Montana, it’s hard to resist being swept up with this infectious brand of blockbuster slickness. There are a number of clunkers in the mix (Ed Harris sleepwalks through the film with a Southern accent; some of the early setup is laborious; Geek-boy isn’t as geeky, nor as amusing, as in the first film) and the action scenes don’t work as well as they should, but then there are a handful of scenes that redeem the entire thing: The “book of secrets” concept is rich in possibilities, the London car chase is fun and the series’ overall passion for history is a refreshing change of pace from the usual brand of mass-market anti-intellectualism. The biggest problem with the film is that it occasionally suggest how much better it could be with just a few tweaks: An action-minded director, a more memorable female lead and a screenwriter with more attention for coherence could have brought much more to the film. But while we’re waiting for National Treasure 3: Page 46, there’s still plenty to like here. It’s a perfect end-of-year chaser after so many self-important Oscar-bait motion pictures.
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2002) There is something awe-inspiring in the grandiose panache with which this movie flaunts itself. Continuity mistakes, logical flaws and nonsensical developments are swatted aside like irrelevant trivialities, allowing director Michael Bay full power to show incredible images on-screen. The camera moves, sweeps, pans, captures perfect moments and doesn’t give a damn about the words or the continuity. The Rock is as close as anyone has ever come to the ultimate action movie. I still find parts of it silly beyond words—but soon after I’m silenced by the boffo action sequences and the slick polish of the whole production. I love the characters (Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris are perfect), I love the direction, I love most of the one-liners and I love the explosions. Why should I complain about the rest? To see if you’re a real action-movie junkie, try watching only five minutes of the film. The first-generation DVD includes the film, and nothing else. But the movie is so good…