(On TV, August 2016) At first glance, a summary of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape sounds like a word salad, perhaps written by a foreigner whose understanding of Middle America is shaped by Hollywood clichés: Here’s a twentysomething man from a family where the father committed suicide, the mother is morbidly obese, the youngest son is autistic and the daughters are obsessed with pop trivia. Our small-town protagonist has an affair with an older married woman, sees his job as a grocery clerk threatened by the arrival of a big-box store and gazes wistfully at the people passing through… Not exactly promising stuff, isn’t it? But as it turns out, there’s a lot more than a plot synopsis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the most noteworthy of them being the handful of astonishing actors brought together for the occasion. Johnny Depp stars as the brooding over-solicited protagonist, but he’s upstaged by an impossibly young Leonardo DiCaprio as his developmentally challenged brother, a performance so convincing that it’s a relief to know that it’s not real. Elsewhere in the movie, the ever-beautiful Mary Steenburgen shows up as an adulterous wife, John C. Reilly is a hoot as a mildly dumb handyman, and Juliette Lewis makes an impression as a girl passing through town. Director Lasse Hallström assembles a perfectly watchable film from it all, a slice of weird Americana that’s occasionally grotesque, but engaging from beginning to end.
(On TV, May 2015) The 1998 Three Musketeer follow-up The Man in the Iron Mask is still worth a look for a variety of reasons. The first may be seeing the Three Musketeers at an older age, continuing the oft-portrayed legend at a time where they are disillusioned, ready to pass the torch to another generation and maybe even rebel against the King. The historical re-creation is lovely –but don’t watch it for a historical lesson, though. The plot, adapted from a literary source, is also a bit more surprising than the usual Hollywood historical film. Then there are the actors, now almost inconceivably younger: Leonardo Di Caprio has an interesting dual role, while Gabriel Byrne, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Gérard Depardieu make for great musketeers. While The Man in the Iron Mask starts slowly and could have use a little more buckling of the swashes, it has an acceptable amount of adventure, twists and character development. I’m fond of the line “I’m a genius, not an engineer” (better in French: “Je suis un génie, pas un ingénieur”) and I liked spending some time in that period of history. I wasn’t expecting much from the film, though, and being happy about the result doesn’t mean that I’m enthusiastic about it.
(On TV, March 2015) I would be far more impressed with this movie had I not seen Mad Men’s entire run: Tales of fifties suburban desperation can only be told so many ways, after all, and while Revolutionary Road truly goes to the limit in arguing about the way the conventional American ideals of a suburban house, a good job and two-point-five kids destroy free spirits, the film does feel like a big plate of reheated leftovers. (At this point, I’d be far more interested in movies arguing about the advantages of conventional suburban living than the good-old tortured-artist take on how many people are being just boring.) This being said, I may not warm up to the film’s depressing subject matter, but can’t help but appreciate the good acting performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, Sam Mendes’ precise direction, or a script finely attuned to small nuances. It’s an exceptionally well-made film –too bad it’s successful at something I don’t enjoy at all.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) Presenting the grandiose life story of a criminal isn’t new grounds for veteran director Martin Scorsese, and that may explain why he has chosen to pile so much excess in a film that could (but probably shouldn’t) have been told far more economically. Centered around Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort’s short-lived (but lucrative) career in the waning days of the twentieth century, The Wolf of Wall Street does make an attempt at the usual tragic structure of such films: The introduction to a life of crime, the excessive fun and games of the high-flying protagonist, the enemy forces closing in, and the final disgrace as the protagonist loses everything. But the proportions are different of the norm: The introduction is frantic, the downfall takes less than two minutes and the rest of the film is pure excess piled upon pure excess: Drugs, sex, nudity, profanity all jostle for screen-time in this three-hour paean to the utter corruption made possible by a multi-million-dollars annual salary and an enabling environment without restraints. Leonardo DiCarpio is simply magnificent as the protagonist: Smart, driven, charismatic, absolutely corrupt and unable to stop himself. He directly addresses the audience as the revelry is unleashed around him, reassuring us that this is all illegal and that we wouldn’t understand all of the details. Not that we need to: At a time where Wall Street excesses are well-known and even celebrated, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t need to waste its time giving us a moral lesson: It would rather give us a full-throttle ride through decadence without false reassurances that sociopathic behavior always gets what it’s due. It makes for a lousy Sunday-school example, but an absolute marvel of a film: The Wolf of Wall Street is rarely less than hypnotically compelling, the work of a director working at his best. Many actors get their chance to shine here besides DiCaprio: Jonah Hill gets a ton of laughs (especially during a Qualuude-fueled scene with DiCaprio that already ranks as a classic bit of physical humor), Matthew McConaughey continues his white-hot acting streak in a pair of film-stealing scenes, while Margot Robbie gets a plum role that requires as much sex-appeal as honest acting talent. It amounts to a terrific thrill-ride of a film, slick in all the right ways and unusually respectful of its adult audience. Frankly, I’d rather see this film a second time than have a first look at many other films in my playlist.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a certified Moulin Rouge fan, I had been waiting a while for Baz Luhrmann to return to the same overblown wide-screen film style. Fortunately, the wait is over: The first half of his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is crammed with visual excess, lush 3D cinematography, frantic energy and flashy camera work. As a way to portray the excesses of the Roaring Twenties (along with a not-so-anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack), it works splendidly and I can see myself gleefully revisiting that part of the film before long. The film reaches an apex of sorts as it magnificently introduces the titular Gatsby (a perfectly-cast Leonardo DiCaprio) with fireworks and a wink. Toby Maguire makes for a good everyday-man audience stand-in through this madness and the film eventually calms down during its increasingly somber second half as the true themes of the story play out and reach their tragic conclusion. Luhrmann is the real star of The Great Gatsby, but the actors he brings on board all have their chance to shine. I’m not a fan of Casey Mulligan, but she couldn’t have been better that she is here as a flapper; Joel Edgerton also does well as he goes toe-to-toe with DiCaprio. As an adaptation, the film faithfully keeps the plot, overplays the symbolism, dispenses with a few subtleties, adds a framing device that’s not entirely useless and provides enough of a thematic slant on the material to keep fans of the book arguing in depth about intended meaning. On a surface level, The Great Gatsby is well worth-watching for its visual sheen (especially its first 30 minutes): this is an indulgent, no-budget-limits style of filmmaking that I enjoy tremendously, and as a way to present a classic curriculum novel, it’s invigorating.
(In theaters, July 2010) It’s tough to review Christopher Nolan’s Inception without sounding like a gushing fanboy, but here goes: One of the finest SF movies in years (even so soon after Avatar and District 9), Inception cashes Nolan’s Dark Knight chips and goes on to deliver a masterful cinematic experience that combines big-budget entertainment, thematic depth, weighty characters and splendid action sequences. Good enough for you? While it’s not a perfect film (lengthy snow sequence, insufficient exploitation of dream logic, some weak actors/roles), Inception wipes the floor with other big-budget action films thanks to unusually ambitious goals, pitch-perfect sequences, savvy storytelling and multiple levels of understanding. It’s a measure of how successful it is that much of it appears simple, even obvious. But when the film starts with “it’s a dream within a dream” and works its way to five (maybe six) levels of overlapping reality without losing its audience, it’s hard not to be impressed. Ever since Memento (with high points at The Prestige and The Dark Knight), Nolan has proved himself to be an unusually skilled writer/director with a gift for infusing popular entertainment with weighty thematic consideration. So it is that Inception effortlessly touches upon dream logic, moviemaking shortcuts, personal grief, human mythmaking, memetic madness and subconscious sabotage without seeming to break a sweat, all the while delivering a heist film according to the well-worn conventions of the subgenre. Watching the film is like falling into a pleasant trance, emerging from the experience a lot like the characters coming back to reality. Subtle and not-so-subtle touches add to the experience, such as a deliriously effective shifting-gravity fight sequence, an iconic sequence in which Paris serves as an exposition background, and a frame-perfect last shot that will please both those who want a definitive ending and those who don’t. Brainier viewers will be pleased to watch a film that finally dares viewers to keep up. Science Fiction fans will be particularly satisfied to see a film that uses SF devices for their emotional power while delivering some good old-fashioned sense-of-wonder at interlocking realities. While the actors are a bit hit-and-miss (I’m still not convinced by Leonardo DiCaprio, nor by Ellen Page’s mushy-mouthed lack of affect, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as the picture’s lead action hero), the real star is Nolan as screenwriter and director, because Inception is beautifully controlled from beginning to end, combining the precision of The Prestige with the non-linear storytelling of Memento and the action rhythm of The Dark Knight. Inception is, in a carefully chosen word, amazing, and a shoo-in for year’s end top-10 lists. Expect to see it more than once.