(On Cable TV, August 2017) It’s hard to accurately gauge whether an actor is smart from their screen performances alone. The best ones can play characters completely unlike themselves and we’d never know. But I have a growing suspicion that you can tell a lot about an actor by the roles they choose to play. Now, I won’t make any accusations about Will Smith (whom I still rather like a lot), but looking at a filmography that includes Seven Pounds and After Earth and now Collateral Beauty, I have to ask—is he even reading those scripts? Replace After Earth by the more respectable The Pursuit of Happiness and you would have an instant trilogy of manipulative faux-inspiring dramas that are so melodramatic as to court unintentional hilarity. So it is that Collateral Beauty is so ill-conceived from the start (something about a grieving man writing to Death, Time and Love, and then scheming co-workers hiring actors to play Death, Time and Love) that the first half hour plays as a farce despite itself, ridiculous while insisting otherwise. Things really don’t improve much during the last act of the film, in which two bigger revelations are dropped upon the audience, unfortunately earning nothing more than two big collective shrugs. Collateral Beauty is convinced that it has something profound and poignant to say, but it has forgotten to check whether audiences agree. I suspect that reactions will vary widely—as for myself, I’ve seen too many of those movies to be impressed. Now, I won’t make too much of Smith’s talents for script-picking considering that the cast also includes reliable performers such as Hellen Mirren, Edward Norton, Michael Peña and (to a lesser extent) Kiera Knightley. They may all have gone insane, but then again maybe I’m out to lunch on this particular film. Either way, I can only report that the result feels like a falsely profound tearjerker attempt. The premise seems so flawed that I’m not sure anything could have been done to rescue the result from unintended laughter. The twists won’t matter so much when it’s established early on that the movie stems from an inane place.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Playing like the demented fever dream of a horny teenager discovering sex, swearing and atheist philosophy at once, Sausage Party definitely isn’t your average animated movie. Conceived by Seth Rogen, this movie takes a look at sentient supermarket food as they gradually realize that being chosen and put in the cart means that a horrible death awaits them. As a mad adult take on talking-objects movies, Sausage Party further amps the dose by going for all-out gross humour, featuring a near-constant debit of foul language, sexual references that skirt the NC-17 rating (and would definitely exceed it had it featured real humans) and violent matter. (Being eaten is, well, not for the faint of heart.) It’s almost amazing that respected notables such as Ed Norton and Salma Hayek would be game to voice the result, but there they are. The animation is of noticeably lower quality than the current state-of-the-art (there have been unpleasant reports about the working conditions in the studio that produced the film) but few will mind when the script takes such a centre stage. To its credit, Sausage Party does work: Beyond all the crude jokes and wearying accumulation of swearwords, the concept is clever, some jokes land well (I really liked the “Gum” character) and the ending goes for another conceptual breakthrough that sends off the film on a high note. For all of its juvenile energy, there is something vaguely audacious and subversive about Sausage Party—a form/function mash-up between a kind of movie typically aimed at kids to talk about adult matters of indoctrination and belief. DO NOT, I REPEAT DO NOT let younger kids see this film. Heck, don’t even let easily offended adults see it either. Still, in a predictable studio system that churns out big-budget formulas every week, there’s something endearingly anarchic and rebellious about Sausage Party that makes it stand out even in a crowded field. Much like a too-smart teenager trying out shock humour before settling down to more mature pursuits.
(On DVD, January 2017) I had convinced myself that I was going to get a talky dull historical drama with The Painted Veil, which explains why its long and dull first act wasn’t much of a surprise. Another estranged couple in colonial times, playing dirty tricks on one another in an effort to win an ongoing argument against a lush south-Asian backdrop. That’s what I was expecting. What I wasn’t expecting was for the movie to become steadily more engrossing from the moment that the couple sets foot in the small village where most of the story will take place. There’ a great “I’d rather infect myself than spend more time with you” scene that’s remarkably funny, but it’s also the spark that rekindled my interest in the film. Things get more dramatic as disease spreads around the village and political problems rise up just as our lead couple learns to love themselves again. Ed Norton and Naomi Watts are both quite good in the lead roles (with Norton having the harder job of making his character impossible and then softening up), with noteworthy supporting presences by Toby Jones and Liev Schreiber. The cinematography is suitably exotic, and there’s a sobering use of “À la Claire Fontaine” in the soundtrack for those who understand French. The Painted Veil amounts to better film that I was expecting—a reasonably entertaining historical drama at a time when I was bracing myself for a dull one.