(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.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) As a fan of the under-appreciated Good Kill, I feared that the similarly themed Eye in the Sky would feel stale and dull. How many movies about military drones and their ethical consequences do we need? But, as it turns out, Eye in the Sky runs almost entirely parallel to Good Kill (to the point where the two operators in the first film could become the protagonists of the other with very few modifications) and feels more successful at putting together a suspense thriller rather than a character drama. Helen Mirren stars as a British general at the centre of an operation that ends up reaching more and more people around the world. As western agents get closer to wanted terrorists in Kenya, efforts to confirm the target’s identity and minimize collateral damage become thornier and thornier, spanning the simultaneous actions of specialists scattered all over the planet. (At the film’s widest moment, I counted seven different groups of characters from Kenya to London—twice—to Hawaii to Las Vegas to China to Singapore) As a portrait of modern warfare, Eye in the Sky can become dizzying, and its suspense is real—especially when Barkhad Abdi’s on-the-ground agent tries to influence events near to proposed strike site. Meanwhile, Alan Rickman turns in a dignified last performance as a general who leaves humanity at the door of his briefing room. As suggested by the emphasis on drone warfare and global decision-making, Eye in the Sky is an unusual thriller, and director Gavin Hood manages to strike a good balance between drama, suspense, ethics and straight-up entertainment. Some of the technology is a few years away, but much of the film’s cerebral considerations are real and the result is a modern war movie that feels quite unlike any other—including Good Kill. Both are worth seeing, perhaps even in a single evening.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) Ryan Reynolds tends to play comic motormouths or action heroes, so it’s not surprising if part of Woman in Gold’s interest in seeing him in the strikingly different role of an earnest and nebbish lawyer who discovers his conscience while helping an elderly Jewish woman recover long-seized family belongings. That the belongings in question are Gustave Klimt painting confiscated by Nazis isn’t immaterial, and enable the film to play in various modes, from historical drama to art appreciation to legal drama to family history. The star of the film isn’t Reynolds, but rather Helen Mirren, revisiting painful family history when she becomes aware that she could reclaim part of her family legacy, abandoned when they fled Nazi Austria. Much of the film’s first half is entirely hers—Reynolds’ character only develops later on. While Woman in Gold feels too long, and derivative in the way it portrays the flashbacks to 1930s Austria, it does build quite an amazing true story and should appeal to an interesting variety of audiences. For Reynolds fans, it’s a reminder that he can act beyond his usual charm, and hold his own against a veteran such as Mirren.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) The original Red dared to combine aging action stars with quirky comedy and strong action sequences to deliver a film that wasn’t entirely successful, but remained distinctive enough to distinguish itself in a crowded field. This sequel is slightly improved by a better understanding of how to combine humor with action, and it can dispense with the tedious work of introducing its main characters. Bruce Willis plays his familiar world-weary tough-guy role, quipping when he’s not exasperated at being thrown once again out of retirement. Among the returning cast, Helen Mirren is as much fun as ever as a top assassin, while John Malkovich is a bit less crazy (but more sympathetic) this time around, even as Mary Louise Parker furthers her transition from adrenaline junkie to rookie operative. There’s a fascinating “throwback to the cold war era” atmosphere as the action goes well beyond the borders of the United States and to Europe, with Anthony Hopkins bringing new laughs as a crazed weapons designer and Catherine Zeta Jones earning a few chuckles of her own as a once-fatale assassin. While the CGI works gets a bit tiresome by the end of the final chase sequence, most of the other action scenes are good enough. Red 2 doesn’t work on a particularly high level, but it’s adequate and in some ways moves past the whole “retired action heroes” shtick into a post-Cold War plot that seems to grow organically out of the characters’ age. It works just fine as an unassuming action film, and even a little better as a sequel.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Given how little TV-as-TV I watch, I never expected to mark an entire Emmy category as “complete”, but in-between HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, Parade’s End, The Girl and now Phil Spector, I’m all caught-up with the 2013 “Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie” category even before it’s awarded. There’s certainly no finer reason to watch Phil Spector than to see good acting from Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, facing each other down as, respectively, a powerful music industry executive accused of murder and one of his defense lawyer. It’s based the true story of Spector’s first trial (although not really, as the opening disclaimer sort-of-clarifies), but it’s perhaps best appreciated as a standalone court drama, featuring a pair of highly unusual characters. Al Pacino is his usual intense self as Spector; he even gets a change to indulge in his signature rants late in the film. Meanwhile, Mirren is in a class of her own as a hypochondriac but steel-nerved lawyer with an uncanny ability to defend her client no matter the circumstances. (Phil Spector’s look at a high-priced defense, with war room and expert-driven strategies, is worth a look by itself.) The film may indulge in showing the most eccentric aspect of Spector’s personality, but it’s also somewhat sympathetic to him, creating reasonable doubt that he may not have actually committed the murder for which he was accused. Phil Spector remains a made-for-TV movie, but with David Mamet writing and directing for HBO, it features high-quality dialogue and decent production values: if nothing else, it’s a good way to enjoy good actors playing interesting people. Al Pacino as Phil Spector? That’s always worth watching.
(Video on Demand, March 2013) More than thirty years after Alfred Hitchcock’s death, the influence of the director over the thriller genre still reigns supreme, so it makes sense that a biography would seek to present the man to a contemporary audience. Taking the making of Psycho as its narrative hook, Hitchcock stars a heavily made-up Anthony Hopkins as the celebrated director, stuffing a romantic comedy and a study of Hitchcock’s entire career and quirks into a handily convenient narrative. If you’re wondering about the fidelity of the film to real events or even its literary inspiration (Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho), you may as well avoid digging too deep: Hitchcock is a heavily-fictionalized take loosely inspired by real events, but the film’s romantic theme is nowhere to be found in the book (where Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, barely gets a role and Danny Huston’s Whitfield Cook is not even mentioned), and nearly every scene contains material that only makes sense if you’re aware of Hitchchock’s legacy. It does feel a bit artificial and pat, exactly as if the screenwriters were cramming everything worth saying about the director into a comic film covering a small part of his life, and including a modern take on spousal collaborations just to provide a romantic arc to the film. But such are the conveniences of dramatized biographies, after all: the point isn’t in faithfully presenting reality as much as it is to provide an entertaining capsule summary of a complex person. In this regard, Hitchcock fares better: The script feels as if every detail is in its place, the humor is used effectively (“That’s why they call me ‘The Master of Suspense’”) and its structure is clearly meant to leave viewers elated at the success of Psycho, Hitchcock and his renewed sense of matrimonial partnership. There are a few clever sequences here and there, whether it’s Hitchcock listening to his audience’s reaction, or the way the mechanics of filmmaking are brought to life. Not everything works –the interludes in which Hitchcock converses with his fantasy of a murderer are distracting and suggest a fantastical quality to the film that it did not need. Still, as filmmaking homages go, this is straight-up Hollywood: The actors are all doing good work (Other than Hopkins-as-Hitchcock, Hellen Mirren is remarkable as Alma Reville), the cinematography is clean and everything wraps up neatly. Who cares, then, if Hitchcock takes frequent liberties with historical events?
(On cable TV, January 2012) Safely devoid of surprises, this romantic comedy about a slacker billionaire having to grow up is a vehicle for Russell Brand’s comic personae more than anything else. It’s a risky bet, as the spoiled man-child shtick can quickly grow wearisome and then irritating. Nonetheless, this Arthur remake manages to walk along that line and remain on the side of viewers’ affections: Never mind that Jennifer Gardner is more interesting here as the romantic antagonist than in many of her previous movies: It’s Brand and Helen Mirren as her nanny that steal the show, with occasional assist from Luis Guzman and a gruff Nick Nolte. The plot beats are intensely predictable, which makes the small details of the story seem more important. The dialogues are surprisingly good, with a good understanding of conversation-as-argument and a bigger vocabulary than most romantic comedies. Still, if those strengths do save Arthur from being nothing more than a typically average remake of a much-better film, they don’t do much more to strengthen the film. At best, we end up with a watchable but inconsequential film that will gradually sink in memory even as the 1981 original will endure.
(In theaters, September 2011) Fall is the season of the serious thriller, and it’s hard to get more serious than the drama-heavy The Debt, an English-language remake of an Israeli film that looks at the price of vengeance. Here, the story hops between 1960s Berlin and the 1990s as three characters, then and now, deal with a botched mission in trying to bring back a war criminal to justice. It doesn’t take a long time to figure out that the story of the 1960s as told by the 90s characters has a few serious gaps; it takes longer to understand that its conclusion is a lie and that the consequences of that lie are still very much in play thirty years later. Directed without much levity, The Debt is good for a few suspense sequences, a look at a fallible Mossad and a structure that plays out over thirty years. Helen Mirren makes for a capable senior secret agent, whereas Jessica Chastain ably plays her, thirty years earlier. Otherwise, the film is unobjectionable: Solidly directed, competently acted and professionally executed, it’s a serious thriller that works better than most other suspense movies in theater. Sadly, it doesn’t quite shine –for all of its potential in setting a story across two time periods, it sometimes feel as if The Debt is timid in bringing all of its threads together, or playing off the ironic possibilities of its bifurcated structure. It’s not much of a criticism, but then again it’s hard to express exactly what’s missing when one feels that something is missing. It may be better to rejoice in the return of the serious thriller after an empty summer.
(In theaters, November 2010) By now, the action/comedy genre is so familiar that everyone should cheer whenever a quirky off-beat project tries to do something differently. While originality isn’t always an advantage (Knight and Day showed that quirkiness can’t replace solid screenwriting), films like Red can tweak the usual formula and make it feel just a bit fresher than usual. The story is familiar (a renegade secret agent tries to find out who wants him dead, accompanied by a reluctant love interest), but the details aren’t as overused: The agent is retired, his allies are old and paranoid, his enemies are deep within the government and his would-be girlfriend initially has to be tied, drugged and dragged along before she comes to appreciate the action-comedy lifestyle. Red flies around the United States, literally showing postcards along the way –which may give you an idea of its particular sense of humour. Bruce Willis may be the Red’s headliner, but the real appeal of the film is through Mary Louise Parker’s wide-eyed evolution from house-bound kitten to adrenaline junkie. Helen Mirren is delightful as an aging assassin, while John Malkovich has a typical turn as a deeply paranoid retiree. Action highlights include a shootout in New Orleans and the use of heavy artillery in a Chicago hotel parking lot. Much of the plot is routine, but the film is a lot more enjoyable during the comedic moments between the characters. Fans of the original comic book may want to forget all about the source material, because Red is quirky and light-hearted whereas Warren Ellis’ story was sombre and nihilistic. While Red often goes spinning too fast in all sorts of directions to be truly effective, the result isn’t too bad as long as you don’t expect the sort of straight-ahead action-with-quips blockbuster: Red is handled with another kind of sensibility, and if the result is often a bit too off-beat to be fully enjoyable, it delivers what is expected with a little bonus that no one asked for.