(Video on-Demand, September 2016) Given how I’ve been screeching about the disappearance of medium-budget Hollywood thrillers, I should at least take a moment to acknowledge the very existence of Money Monster, which not only provides two A-list actors with an original script, but also returns to the kind of contemporary issues-driven film that has also disappeared from the timid studio slates. Money Monster is about corporate malfeasance in financial matters, and the uneasy relationship between industry and the media. It’s also a bit of a cry against the exploitation of workers, but that’s easy to forget as the film moves into a thriller narrative in which a downtrodden worker takes a celebrity financial commentator hostage while live on the air. Cue the efforts of the show’s producer to try the resolve the situation without bloodshed … and maybe piece together the piece of a financial scandal along the way. Directed with some energy by Jodie Foster, Money Monster also turns out to be a mid-list showcase for the kind of role that George Clooney (as a borderline-sleazy TV pundit who learns better) and Julia Roberts (as a competent show producer) can do purely on the strength of their persona. As the complications pile up, Money Monster remains engrossing throughout—although there’s a temporary lull when the action moves outside the studio. Perhaps more interestingly, it ends up satisfying a scratch for almost exactly that kind of perfectly serviceable thriller, dabbling in social issues while showcasing good actors. (If you were wondering about how Money Monster existed, bet something on Foster’s ability to attract A-listers.) It may not be a film that will remain at the top of the year-best rankings, but it’s good, it’s entertaining, it’s got morals at the right place and it’s the kind of film I’d like to see more often.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) I won’t actually claim to be a mature film critic, but there’s certainly been an evolution in my capacity to appreciate Coen Brothers movies even when they flat-out refuse any conventional appreciation. I didn’t set anything on fire at the end of A Serious Man, and while I think that No Country for Old Men is overrated (oops, there goes my credibility), I don’t deny that it has some fantastic moments. So it is with Hail Caesar!, which I expected to like a lot more based on its premise: After all, doesn’t the idea of a 1950s Hollywood studio fixer running around solving problems sound fantastic? Especially if that gives us the opportunity to re-create the kinds of movies (biblical epics, overwrought dramas, western comedies, musicals of both the sing-and-dance and aquatic variety) of the time? Seems like a target-rich foundation for a comedy, and Hail Caesar! does manage to hit a few targets along the way: Taken in five-minute scenes, there’s more than a few good moments in the film. Channing Tatum has a great dance number, George Clooney effortlessly plays a dim megastar, newcomer Alden Ehrenreich makes a great first impression (especially in doing lasso tricks). Unfortunately, those bits and pieces aren’t necessarily part of something bigger: The plot is haphazardly assembled, listlessly developed and more or less cast aside toward the end. Character moments don’t add up to dramatic arcs, and in-between too-short cameos and sudden/meaningless plot revelations, there’s a feeling that a lot of connective material has been left aside: This may have worked better as a miniseries than a film. In the meantime, we’re left with a few set pieces and a lot of wasted potential. As with most Coen movies, it’s worth looking at critical commentary piecing together the symbolic meaning of the film—there’s certainly a lot of material here revolving around systems of faith, including economic and spiritual ones. But at the most basic level, Hail Caesar! isn’t much of a success as a plot-driven film, and considering the amount of talent assembled for the occasion, we’re not wrong in expecting more.
(Second viewing, On TV, May 2016) Even twenty years later, From Dusk Till Dawn still holds up as a reference point. It’s one of the first titles in any “which movie changes genres midway through?” discussion, it still presents a fine collaboration between Quentin Tarantino (who also stars) and Robert Rodriguez, it showcases a prime-era Salma Hayek and it’s completely crazy when it counts. I thought I remembered quite a bit from a first viewing in the mid-nineties, but it turns out that I had forgotten a lot since then. There are more lulls than I remembered (it doesn’t help that the plot is straightforward), the special effects are a bit cheaper than in my mind and I had somehow managed to forget that iconic final shot. I had also forgotten how dark-haired George Clooney carries the picture through sheer charm and energy, and how insufferable Tarantino’s character is. The moment where the true nature of the film is revealed still carries a punch, and the film’s constant succession of gags from that moment on is still enjoyable, much like the dialogue carries quite a bit of the film. (I’m fond of “I don’t … believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw, is … vampires.”) There is a good rock-and-roll rhythm to the film that propels From Dusk Till Dawn forward even today, and I’m glad I got to revisit it with just enough memory blur to make it fun again.
(Video on Demand, October 2015) I may have been expecting too much of Tomorrowland. Seeing Brad Bird’s name as a director may have led to inflated expectations. (Although those should have bene tempered by seeing Damon Lindelof as one of the writers). Still, seeing the results, I’m not entirely convinced that high expectations are the only problem: For a film that consciously tries to promote a better future than the post-apocalyptic clichés we see so often these days, Tomorrowland can feel naïve, elitist and half-witted. (Contemplate the quote “…what would happen, if all the geniuses, the artists, the scientists, the smartest, most creative people in the world decided to actually change it? (…) They’d need a place free from politics and bureaucracy, distractions, greed – a secret place where they could build whatever they were crazy enough to imagine.” and tell me what could go wrong with this idea.) What’s more, it barely exists within its own story: The standout sequence of the film, an uninterrupted two-minute glimpse at a better tomorrow, is revealed to be an advertisement, and the climax is barely more than another fight next to an evil radio transmitter. There are, admittedly, some great moments on the way to the dull conclusion: A few wonderfully kinetic action sequences filled with tactile details; a steampunk detour in Paris; a cranky performance by George Clooney. But the script feels unfinished, episodic, filled with dumb ideas that don’t even sustain a first look. (Have I told you about the aging man with a crush on an under-age robot? Because, yes, that’s in here.) The elitist leanings of the film’s philosophy are annoying to anyone who even has a coherent idea of how the world works, and even worse –it feels like the kind of dumb elitism that gifted teenagers usually outgrow in college. Even for those who are enthusiastically supportive of the “envision a better tomorrow” idea at the core of Tomorrowland, the film itself becomes its own worst advocate, and none of Bird’s directing flourishes can help a deeply flawed script. And while you may think that “arguing about a film’s philosophical stance’” makes for a better critical experience than dismissing yet another unimaginative blockbuster, the frustration I’m feeling is in no way pleasant or satisfying.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) As much as I like the topic of The Monuments Men, as much as I find its actors likable, as much as I appreciate the attempt to deliver an old-school WW2 drama that eschews action theatrics in favor of more subtle motivations (all the way to “does saving art justify personal sacrifice?”), I don’t think that this film is as good as it could have been. It’s hard, of course, to condense a real-world story as big as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program into a short entertaining piece of Hollywood cinema, but The Monuments Men often takes shortcuts that ring false, and remains sedate when it should be a bit more energetic. This is writer/director/star George Clooney’s movie, and so a bit of the blame should go to him: his genial, middle-of-the-road approach to the material ends up feeling unfocused and dull. The script has no choice than to go to episodic scenes, but many of them simply lead nowhere and don’t build upon each other. The comedy clashes against the drama rather than support it, and it’s hard to say whether this should have been better as a snappy 90-minutes thriller or as a longer TV miniseries. The Monuments Men does build some narrative tension late in the proceedings, but much of its first half is one-thing-after-another episodes with stock characters and familiar situations. But while the film may not best attain its own noble ambitions, there’s something quaintly charming, even comforting about the way it is put together: Big-name movie stars, classical direction, clean cinematography and straightforward plotting. The film wears its idealistic convictions right where everyone can see them, and makes little attempt to humanize its enemies. (The best scene even climaxes with a sarcastic “Heil Hitler!”) And then there are the actors, from Clooney indulging into his familiar old-school movie star charisma, to Matt Damon once again being a good sport (trust me: his French in the film truly is atrocious, but not in ways that can be blamed on Montréal), Bill Murray warping time and space through sheer coolness, and a lengthy list of known names all playing along. The Monuments Men ends up in that vexing netherworld where it can be both disappointing yet entertaining at the same time, a comfort film that feels a bit too long and disjointed for its own sake.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) I watch a curiously low number of straight-up dramas, usually out of an unfair suspicion that they are not as interesting as my usual genre movies. But then there are films such as The Descendants, absorbing from the get-go and witty enough to keep my attention until the end. Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel (a literary origin that can be felt in the complex back-stories for most characters) by veteran screenwriter/director Alexander Payne, The Descendants works partially because it never quite does the expected thing, and partly because it can count on an exceptional, world-weary performance by George Clooney. Expectations are quickly subverted, as the opening monologue discusses the disillusionment of day-to-day life in Hawaii and then moves on with a surprising lack of sentimentality in discussing the burden of a man dealing with the terminal coma of his wife. (It’s a measure of how unconventional The Descendants can be when the brain-dead wife gets verbally harangued on her deathbed by grieving family members no less than three times.) When the quasi-widower discovers the unfaithfulness of his nearly-ex-wife, it’s up to him and his daughters to deal with the situation. Blend in an extended subplot about land stewardship, and you’ve got the makings of an interesting script no matter the execution. But Payne’s touch suitably lets Clooney own the lead character, and display a wide range of emotions that more than reaffirm his abilities as an actor. Shailene Woodley has a career-launching role as a teenage girl who ends up far less rebellious than initially portrayed, while Robert Forster has a small but remarkable role as a punch-happy older man. (Judy Greer also makes a striking appearance as a cheated-upon wife who’s a great deal less forgiving than she initially appears.) Often unexpectedly funny, The Descendants offers a slice of life for characters thrown in a difficult situation, eventually reaching an accommodation with their new circumstances. By the time the film ends, we’re reasonably certain that they will be all right… which is for the best given how much we’ve learn to like those characters.
(In Theaters, October 2013) I’m going to take a break from reasoned movie criticism and indulge myself in a few freefall back-flips about Gravity: This is a movie I’ve been waiting a long time to see, at least ever since I wanted to be an astronaut while growing up. Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film takes us in orbit for 90 minutes, and I loved every moment of it, jaw hanging open in astonishment for much of that time. The narrative setup couldn’t be simpler (accident in space; astronaut wants to go home), but the execution is almost perfect: Seen in 3D, Gravity is the definition of an immersive experience. From the impressive 17-minutes-long opening take, this is a film that attempts something ambitious and manages a delicate balance between showing something new while trusting its audience to follow along without excessive dumbing-down. It’s not scientifically impeccable (the orbital mechanics are simplified, the plot armor a bit thick at time) but most of the compromises are conscious ones made in good faith so that the story can work on a more emotional level. Sandra Bullock is spectacular as the quasi-civilian thrust in an impossible situation, while George Clooney is his usual charming self as an old-school “Right Stuff” veteran doing his best to keep the situation under control. But it’s writer/director Cuarón who earns most of the praise here, because Gravity is an insane gamble that works: A technically-complex film that features grand thrills, thematic depths, beautiful visuals and new ways of telling a story on-screen. There are a few remarkable moments in this film, from seamlessly going to-and-from subjective perspective, soundless mayhem, zero-gravity fire and strong emotions conveyed without histrionics. It’s both a science-fiction film (despite the lack of speculative elements, it’s a classic “Analog story”) and a memorable thriller, and it arrives in theaters as an invigorating antidote to the kind of cookie-cutter moviemaking that big studios seem all too eager to present. It’s worth seeing in 3D, and it’s worth seeing in theaters: how many other films can claim the same? Assured of a top-ten spot on my year’s end list, and most likely headed straight to the top spot, Gravity isn’t just a great movie: it’s one that makes it worth feeling excited about movies again.
(In theaters, October 2011) As with many backroom political thrillers, The Ides of March tells the story of how a young political wunderkind loses his illusions while working for a star candidate. If you’ve read Joe Klein/Anonymous’s Primary Colors or seen 1996’s City Hall, you have a rough idea of how this works. But familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as the similitudes taper off toward the end, and the result is a convincing look at the way American politics can work. Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of a genius-level political operative makes for a sympathetic hero, and he more than holds his own against such notables as George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. (It’s one of the film’s interesting choices to use a star Clooney as a superstar candidate, character-actor darlings Hoffman and Giamatti as seasoned professionals and Gosling as an up-and-comer –a good example of Hollywood typecasting working as casting.) Perhaps the best thing about The Ides of March is its pitch-perfect portrayal of the political process at the primary stage –the ground-level organizing, the dirty tricks, the high-level negotiations in dismal settings. Director Clooney does a fine job as portraying the grey nature of mid-March winter in Cincinnati, and the film quickly becomes a must-see for American political junkies, who won’t cringe too much at the film’s faithfulness to reality as we know it. It almost goes without saying that, despite being loosely based on a play loosely based on the Howard Dean campaign, The Ides of March is best interpreted as a what-if rather than an allegory of anything that really happened recently: despite the political in-jokes, if best to appreciate the actors working as character rather than caricatures. It’s unclear whether the film will have much of a wide appeal beyond left-leaning politicos: like many political thrillers, it ends at a funeral, but unlike many it doesn’t feature a single raised gun, conspiracy or assassination attempt. It’s this nominal adherence to a plausible version of reality (with a side-order of capable performances) that makes The Ides of March works well despite familiar ideas and a low-key presentation. Sometimes, you don’t need car chases and explosions to have a thrilling time.
(In theatres, September 2010) Art-house character drama and audience-baiting hit-man thriller collide unhappily in this glacially-paced adaptation of Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman. (The re-titling of the adaptation as The American is hilarious in itself, as the book’s narrator pays painstaking attention to not revealing his precise nationality.) While the book is a study of a character who happens to be a recluse gunsmith for assassins, with little in terms of action or thrills, the film rearranges, changes or adds elements in order to pump up the suspense (even flipping the book’s character to suggest that he is primarily an assassin with a sideline in gunsmithing), a manoeuvre that doesn’t manage to overcome the loose plotting, lengthy silences and static shots of Anton Corbijn’s direction. The American feels like a very European film thanks to its contemplative mood and frequent female nudity, but it’s lessened by attempts to momentarily turn it into a genre picture when it’s most comfortable at a slower pace. George Clooney is good and slightly atypical as the lead character, but it’s Violante Placido who’s the film’s revelation in a somewhat friendlier role. The American is far better as a placid character piece than a limp action thriller: Either adjust expectations accordingly, or skip the film entirely.
(In theaters, December 2009) Hollywood is so often geared to kids, teens and family that film made for an adult audience are now rare enough to be remarkable. So it is that this tale of a professional downsizer confronting professional distress and personal attachment is perhaps more enjoyable for its change of pace than for what it actually delivers. George Clooney is splendid as a protagonist who comes to reconsider a lifetime of non-attachment, and he has the good fortune of playing against two actresses, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, who do just as well in their own roles: The best scene of the film is a simple three-way conversation in a hotel lobby. The script itself (which bears only a passing similarity to Walter Kirn’s original novel) seems to be exactly in tune with the times, in-between massive layoffs and widespread hatred of commercial airlines. Many of the film’s individual moments are oddly amusing, the peek at the life on an ultra-frequent-traveler is interesting and there are clear echoes of Juno in the off-kilter structure of writer/director Jason Reitman’s script. (Not to mention much of Thank you for Smoking in its cynical premise.) But there also seems to be an upper limit to Up in the Air’s effectiveness, and the lacklustre third act has something to do with it: After a lengthy detour in Wisconsin, the script more or less goes back to business but studiously avoids wrapping up its threads. Writer/director Jason Reitman would rather drag things on long enough to diffuse the impact of a more definitive ending, then ends up apparently one of two scenes too early. Sure, the point is informed character non-growth –which is gutsy enough at a time where “protagonist learns a lesson” is ingrained in Screenwriting 101. But the ending also deflates some of the film’s prevailing charm… leaving viewers, well, up in the air. Sometimes, even achieving one’s objective is criticism enough.
(In theatres, December 2009) I have trouble dealing with We Anderson’s oddball sensibilities, and wasn’t feeling all that confident that I would like Fantastic Mr. Fox, especially given the unappealing design aesthetics of the stop-motion mode used in the film. And, for a few moments at the beginning of the film, it doesn’t look good: The humour seems based more on incongruity and discomfort than anything else, and the film looks just as ugly as in the trailer. But not much more than fifteen minutes in the film, something happens and the film gradually grows more and more interesting. The stop-motion aspect recedes (when it comes back, it’s to wonder at the way it’s being used to show us something), the characters fill up, the humour broadens and the real story begins. What follows contains a lot of innovation, comedic riffs that feel both fresh and familiar, a small-scale epic battle of wits and a fantastic voice performance by George Clooney. It ends up, fairly easily, being my favourite Anderson films yet, with a dash of hope that he will learn something from the experience. But even if he decides to go back to more annoying projects, Fantastic Mr. Fox will remain a small wonder: Witty, hip, deadpan and a bit subversive (there’s a sustained gag about the word “cuss” replacing another word that took me far too long to notice.) If there’s an issue with the film, it’s an impression that it’s being a bit too self-indulgent for its own good, that it could have been just a touch more accessible. But that may just be my residual wariness about Anderson’s films. One thing’s for sure: This is one animated film that will be most appreciated by adults than their kids.
(In theatres, November 2009) As someone who read and enjoyed Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book shortly after its initial publication, I’m perhaps a tougher audience for a film “inspired by” The Men Who Stare at Goats. It’s certainly not easy to adapt: an exploration of the often-strange ideas (including psi powers) that the US Army investigated, Ronson’s work straddles a thin line between goofiness and weightier moments. To its credit, the film does manage to do justice to a number of moments and ideas: the militarization of peaceful ideals, the way “non-lethal” torture can be dismissed as a joke, the twisted logic that leads to paranormal research, and so on… Even the book’s most disturbing moment (“…it almost looks as if he’s laughing”) gets a nod. (There’s also one spectacularly unfunny moment caused by the sheer improbable juxtaposition of the film’s release a day after the worst home-base shootout in US military history.) The film’s structure also manages to weave a coherent history taking place over three decades (at one time nestling a flashback within a flashback) and almost act as an imagined sequel to Ronson’s book, which often stops with characters being “reactivated” for mysterious purposes. Various odd scenes and progressive concepts also make The Men Who State at Goats richer in ideas than most satirical comedies: It ranks with The Hunting Party and Lord of War as a member of the growing geo-sardonic genre. But what’s less impressive is the way a very traditional buddy-movie structure (with a heavy dash of “mid-life crisis” and “kids playing tricks on bumbling authority”) has been imposed on the material, leading the film to less and less believable moments. Ewan McGregor and George Clooney do great things with their roles (much of the Jedi jokes are much funnier when spoken by “Obi-Wan” McGregor, and Clooney has no perceptible shame in an often-unglamorous role) but the film itself goes from the fascinating to the cliché at high speed, and the result feels like a let-down, especially during the second half. But such are most adaptations, of course.