(Video On-Demand, September 2017) The reviews for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword were harsh enough that I didn’t expect to enjoy the film, but it doesn’t turn out to be quite as bad as anticipated. As an attempt to take the Arthurian legend and fuse it with modern fantasy filmmaking, it’s actually rather good. It helps that director Guy Richie’s style is in full display here: while some sequences are almost incomprehensible (sometimes due to information being undisclosed until much later), other moments have almost genius-level editing blending cause and effect, narration and irony in one energetic package. There are a lot of special effects along the way, Jude Law effectively mugging for the camera as a villain (which he should do more often), and an honest attempt at revitalizing Arthurian myth. It’s certainly not all good. Charlie Hunnam remains a strikingly ineffective lead despite being better here than in many other movies. There are a few dull moments. The anachronisms are blatant despite taking place in an avowed fantasy film. And yet, and yet… King Arthur: Legend of the Sword does have its share of strong moments, and it’s almost regrettable that its commercial failure film means that none of its planned sequels will even be brought to screen. As an origin story, it would have promised much for later exploits of the Knights of the Round Table. As it is, though, it’s a better-than-average fantasy film, with almost-stirring echoes of British myth-making for us colonials. I very much prefer this maximalist approach to the Arthurian legend than 2004’s gritty yet completely dull King Arthur, which made the legend so realistic that it completely lost interest.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) Even by the standards of Oscar-baiting historical docu-fiction, Genius seems tame and detached. It’s a problem that can’t be blamed on the actors—Colin Firth is good as legendary editor Max Perkins, while Jude Law is suitably unhinged as Tom Wolfe. Nicole Kidman is more disappointing as Wolfe’s one-time wife, but it’s not much of a role—and she gets to point a gun at the protagonist in the film’s most incongruous scene. The plot loosely talks about the working collaboration and tortuous friendship between Perkins and Wolfe over a period of a decade (two years go by in a blink during a montage) as they argue about Wolfe’s novels and the writer’s mercurial personality eventually leads him to paranoia. All well and good; as someone who’s fond of movies about writers; I particularly appreciated the editing humour and portrait of books as works to be rewritten rather than completed once THE END is first typed. Still, I could help but find the film long and meandering. Viewers may struggle to remain interested, and the film doesn’t help by taking occasional lengthy breaks in plotting. While well shot, with a convincing recreation of 1920s New York, Genius is a disappointment considering its source material. I’m glad it exists (what are the odds of seeing another major movie featuring a book editor as a hero?), but it could and should have been better.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) I have an inordinate fascination for underwater movies (the fact that there are not many of them helps), and this low-budget effort seemed different enough to be intriguing. Uncharacteristically not taking place in any military context, Black Sea is about commercial submarine operators, suddenly hired to go retrieve a sunken Nazi treasure. There are some corporate shenanigans, but they’re secondary to the tensions between the Russian and English crews aboard a quasi-disaffected Russian submarine. Still, for all of the promising hooks and the solid presence of Jude Law as the protagonist, Black Sea is surprisingly dull. It plods along with ugly cinematography, by-the-numbers scripting, a downbeat ending and a slack pace. It never quite manages to transform all of its assets into a compelling film, and feels much longer than it is by sheer lack of excitement. I wish that there would be more to write about Black Sea, but almost all of it boils down to “boring, boring, boring”. This being said, take note: This is exactly the kind of gritty, atmospheric, middle-of-the-road film that is highly susceptible to mood. Chances are good that you may like it more.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) Brash, loud, articulate, arrogant and convinced that the world owes him a favour, Dom Hemingway is a great addition to the British crime canon, and Jude Law turns in a splendid performance by incarnating him. The film’s story isn’t much more than a simple ex-con seeks revenge romp, but –from the very first moments- it’s Law’s charisma as Hemingway that carry Dom Hemingway. The direction keeps up with its protagonist’s flights of eloquence and brash actions, resulting in a film that moves fast, hits hard and harkens back to some of the most dynamic British crime films of the past fifteen years. Dom Hemingway doesn’t always succeed (Emilia Clark is a notable low-point for the film, sucking energy out of it even as her character is supposed to be an emotional linchpin for Hemingway’s redemption.) but it gamely tries, and there are plenty of good scenes along the way. Great lines of dialogue don’t always mask the routine nature of the story, but the quotable content can’t be dismissed and writer/director Richard Shepard clearly knows and enjoys what he’s putting together. Still, discussion of the film starts and ends with Jude Law, who clearly relishes the opportunity to let go of his pretty-boy persona and take on a darker role with gusto. Dom Hemingway sparks to life whenever he sinks his teeth in the character, and the result feel invigorating.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) Director Steven Soderbergh often has very different goals in mind than what the average moviegoer would prefer, but occasionally his artistic impulses align with his target audience and the result can be spectacular. Side Effects may exhibit much of Soderbergh’s usual tics, but it also features his technical proficiency and his ability to play with audience expectations. Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t start out promisingly: As a troubled young woman murders her husband and everyone suspects that her medications are to blame, it’s easy to feel let down by yet another basic anti-pharma diatribe; surely Soderbergh wouldn’t steep to something so basic? But then Side Effects becomes a much more unpredictable film, and we understand why the project attracted the director. It ends up being a fine psychological thriller, shot with Soderbergh’s typical drab pseudo-realism but in increasingly compelling fashion. The film switches protagonists midway through, Rooney Mara’s mopey performance receding in order to favour Jude Law’s increasingly tortured psychologist. (Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones has another small but effective supporting role –she’s been doing a lot of those lately.) A clever script, coupled with capable direction, makes for an effective thriller. Side Effects is easily one of the strongest films of 2013 so far, and it’s a remarkable testimony to Soderbergh’s skills once he sets out to deliver a crowd-pleaser.
(Video On-demand, March 2013) Director Joe Wright has always shown tendencies toward stylistic show-boating, and the first half-hour of Anna Karenina is crammed with directorial flourishes as the film moves in-between interior sets and a larger theatrical stage. As a way to freshly present an oft-told story (Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted to the big screen at least 12 times until now), it’s not a bad choice –except that there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the device, and it seems to be half-abandoned as the film progresses. While viewers who like a bit of cinematic flourish may be pleased by the way Wright plays along with conventions, it does obscure the story and turns the film into something it’s not meant to be. It also obscures the good work done by the actors, including Keira Knightley in the titular role and Jude Law as her despairing husband. (Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s mustache steals the show for none-so-positive reasons.) The costumes are sumptuous and the visuals occasionally evoke a nicely idealized view of 19th century Russian aristocracy, but the self-conscious artificiality of the film’s presentation work at undercutting the impact of those. As a take on familiar material, this 2012 version of Anna Karenina isn’t ugly to look at… but it’s quite a bit abstract when it starts messing with the way movies are presented, and that may not necessarily work at a romantic drama’s advantage.
(In theaters, December 2011) It goes without saying that sequels often aim to replicate the elements that made the success of their predecessor, and add something more. In this light, this follow-up to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes is an unqualified success, and maybe even a more enjoyable film than its predecessor. Front and center, of course, is Robert Downey Jr.’s fast-witted take on the title character, complete with instant-strategy monologues and slashy repartee with Jude Law’s dependable Watson. More importantly, though, Game of Shadows ups the ante by providing an antagonist that is strong enough to present a challenge to Holmes: Jared Harris’ Moriarty lives up to its literary namesake, and makes for a formidable opponent. It all leads to a climactic chess game that plays off a few of the series’ signature motifs. (Literary fans will see Reichenbach Falls appear and nod at where the film is going.) Casting Stephen Fry as Mycroft is a bit of a coup, while it’s nice to see Noomi Rapace’s high cheekbones get a bit of Hollywood gloss after her role as “The Girl” of the Millennium trilogy. Director Guy Richie once again provides an action-adventure take on the basic premise, along with light steampunk esthetics and slow-motion action sequences. (A blue-tinted run through a forest provides a quasi-impressionistic sequence of almost-still images.) While the end result doesn’t transcend the Hollywood holiday blockbuster genre, it’s a well-executed example of the form, keenly aware of its audience’s demands and almost eager to satisfy them.
(In theatres, March 2010) In a generous mood, I would probably praise Repo Men for its satiric vision of a future where synthetic organ transplants are common and expensive enough to warrant repo men going around repossessing deadbeats, leaving them, well, dead on the floor. I would congratulate Jude Law, Liev Schreiber and Forrest Whittaker for thankless roles playing unsympathetic characters and Alice Braga for something like a breakthrough role. I would say something clever about the film’s forthright carnographic nature. I may even have something affable to say about Eric Garcia, who sort-of-adapted his own novel for the screen (the story, as described in the book’s afterword, is far more complicated) and wrote one of the most bitterly depressing movie ending in recent memory. Heck, I would point out the numerous undisguised references to Toronto (where the movie was shot): the inverted TTC sign, the Eaton center complete with Indigo bookstore, the streetcars, even the traffic lights and suburban streets. But I am not in a generous mood, because Repo Men is an unpleasant and defective attempt at a satirical action SF film that fails at most of what it attempts. The characters are unlikable, their actions are despicable, the chuckles are faint and the Saw-inspired gory violence isn’t warranted by anything looking like thematic depth. It is a literally viscerally repulsive film, and even trying to play along the grim sardonic humour gets increasingly difficult to swallow during self-congratulatory action sequences. Once the film’s none-too-serious credentials are established, it’s hard to care –and that includes a wannabe-romantic sequence in which internal organs are exposed and fondled. The ending wants to be witty, but it just feels absurd before it is revealed to be cheaply cynical. The Science Fictional elements don’t even fit together and the result is a big bloody bore. Instead, just give me another shot of Repo: The Genetic Opera!: at least that film knew how to balance arch seriousness with a sense of camp. The irony is that Garcia’s novel is actually quite a bit better than the film –don’t let the adaptation scare you from a novel that does what the film wanted to do in a far more palatable fashion.
(In theatres, December 2009) It had to happen sooner or later: a retelling of Sherlock Holmes (suspiciously absent from the big screen since 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes) in the mode of the action thriller. No, it’s not even trying to be an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories: This Sherlock Holmes knows how to fight, has abandoned deerstalker hat restraint for debonair nonchalance and enjoys the company of a hot ex-girlfriend. Pre-made for slash fiction writers, explosion connoisseurs and steampunk enthusiasts, Sherlock Holmes has little to say about its character, and a lot about modern blockbuster filmmaking. It generally works, despite Scooby-doo plotting and inconsistent use of dramatic devices. At least we’re spared an origin story, as the story picks up well into Holmes’ career. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be channelling Tony Stark with an irresistibly arrogant portrait of a super-genius (it works because he’s charmingly roguish rather than super-nerdy) while Jude Law does his job as the level-headed foil. Rachel McAdams, for some reason, always look better in historical movies (must be costumes), while Mark Strong turns in another performance as the bad guy. Director Guy Richie reigns in some of his usual tricks but manages to deliver a satisfying action film. Only the sound seems a bit soft (the mumbling doesn’t help): viewers without an ear for soft English accents may want to wait for DVD subtitles or sit closer to the screen. The CGI-enhanced portrait of 1880s London is suitably grimy, mechanical and interesting. Sherlock Holmes may be a travesty of the original stories and a by-the-number mainstream thriller, but it’s pretty good as such. Bring on the sequel, and let’s see Holmes square off against Moriarty.