(On DVD, September 2016) Director Sofia Coppola’s films have been hit-and-miss as far as I’m concerned, and The Virgin Suicides won’t settle anything in either direction. I’m certainly not the target audience for a film trying to make sense of the suicide of five sisters, often seen from the perspective of the male teenagers who almost worship them. It’s a film that delves into nostalgia (as narrated from a perspective years later, looking back on the seventies), plays in nuances, doesn’t offer a definitive conclusion and likes to spend time with its characters without necessarily advancing the plot. Dramatic ironies abound—such as when the boys plan a rescue and find out that their help is irrelevant. The subject matter makes it a sad movie, but its execution is perhaps not always as sad as you’d suppose it from the premise. Kirsten Dunst is very good as the oldest sister, while Kathleen Turner and James Woods also make an impression as the parents; perhaps inevitably, most other performers recede in the background of an ensemble cast. The Virgin Suicides certainly offers a change of pace from strongly plot-driven film, so it takes a leisurely frame of mind to appreciate the film in its subtleties. As with other Sofia Coppola movies, I can’t help thinking that there is something in there that I can’t reach.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Director Roland Emmerich is a consummate entertainer, and showing White House Down alongside Olympus Has Fallen, the other great White-House-siege film of 2013, only serves to list why he’s so good at what he does: Good balance between action and humor, clean editing, just-enough character development and a willingness to go insane at appropriate moments… along with self-acknowledgement of outlandish material. The numerous points of comparison between both films only serve to highlight what White House Down does best: Channing Tatum is credible enough as the accidental hero (he’s got confidence without swagger, making him relatable), Jamie Foxx is just fine as a “47th president” clearly modeled after the 44th one, the “threat matrix” idea for the antagonist is ingeniously-executed, the action sequences are vivid without being gory, and the film manages to navigate a tricky line between national symbolism and overblown jingoism. White House Down‘s crowd-pleasing dynamism means that the film as a whole feels like one big competently-executed formula and that’s just fine: the film is easy to watch and enjoy, the only sour note coming late in the conclusion as another wholly-unnecessary antagonist is revealed with a Scooby-Doo-level lack of subtlety. The film is possibly never better than when it acknowledges its own presidential-lawn car chase absurdity with a well-placed “Well, that’s not something you see every day.” –although the “just like in Independence Day” quote comes close. Good turns by numerous supporting players (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, James Woods and a remarkable Jason Clarke whose character is best imagined as being exactly “that guy” from Zero Dark Thirty) add just enough to make the film even more enjoyable. While White House Down comes with the usual action-blockbuster caveats (formula all the way, and don’t think too much about it), it’s a remarkably successful example of what it tries to do, and it’s hard to give a better recommendation for this kind of film.
(On cable TV, March 2012) The media landscape has changed so much in thirty years that there was a real risk that Videodrome, in tackling the TV anxieties of the early eighties, would feel fatally outdated three decades later. In some ways, that’s true: at a time where gory execution video-clips are never farther than a Google search away, the premise of satellite channel piracy uncovering a snuff TV show doesn’t quite have the same power to make audiences shiver. The average moviegoer now has effortless access to a vastly more complicated media diet in which can be blended the worst perversions: Videodrome really scratches the surface of the horrors out there as we realize that we now all have access to the same. But there’s a lot more to Videodrome than a treatise on the dangers of satellite TV and a charming throwback to early-eighties techno-jargon: As the body horror of the film’s second half kicks in, director David Cronenberg (who, a long time ago, still made horror movies) truly uncaps the techno-surrealism that still makes the film worth a look. Videodrome still deserves its cult status as an unnerving piece of bizarre horror, perhaps even more so now that cathode-ray tubes are receding in the past. The visuals, as imperfect as they were in a pre-CGI age, still have a sting and the shattering of the protagonist’s reality is good for a few kernels of terror. What really doesn’t work all that well is the last act of the film, which disarms the film’s increasing sense of paranoia and ends up burying itself in pointlessness. Videodrome, even today, is more interesting for its potential rather than its execution. Oh well; at least James Woods is captivating as the protagonist, and Toronto gets a pretty good turn in the background. A stronger third act would have been a good way to wrap up the film, but as a cult classic, it probably doesn’t need any improvement.