(On Cable TV, December 2017) Any half-witted observer can see China barrelling its way to become the twenty-first century’s dominant hyperpower (helped along by the United States’ ongoing abdication of the role), and one supposes that this will eventually change movies from an American-dominated art form to a Chinese-dominated one. After financing many American movies, China is now producing its own blockbusters, borrowing a few western actors for marquee purposes. So it is that The Great Wall is the latest of those Chinese blockbusters. On the surface, it has certainly mastered the formula: Here is a spectacular adventure set against alien antagonists, celebrating Chinese achievements (i.e.: The Great Wall) and heroism. This kind of filmmaking is well in-line with many recent Chinese blockbusters, and the accumulated technical skill collected along the way is shown in a film that’s decently paced, features a number of fine set pieces and is visually competent. What’s more problematic are the film’s wasted opportunities and the inclusion of western actors as protagonists. While I don’t think the film whitewashes anything (if anything, the western characters have clear reasons for being there and acting the way they do, and are shown as generally less capable and definitely less honourable than their Chinese counterparts), it’s a curious case of a film made in China but using western actors in the lead roles—Chinese cinema is mature enough that shouldn’t have to rely on such crutches to gain entry to non-Chinese markets. This being said, theatrical distributors don’t listen to reviewers—they see Matt Damon and book the movie or not. Less happily, there’s a sense that the movie doesn’t quite know what to do with the actors at its disposal—despite being able to depend on Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Defoe, the film gives them perfunctory roles that don’t really showcase what they can do. Pascal does carry himself well for a relative newcomer to movies, but Defoe seems to disappear behind a dull role. Still, I don’t regret seeing The Great Wall at all—it’s a perfectly acceptable time-waster when wrapping up Christmas gifts, and it does have a handful of sequence worth putting down the wrapping paper. Politically, I suppose I should see the rise of China with a wary eye … but as a reviewer, I’m more tempted to see what else will come out of this new player on the blockbuster field.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) on the one hand, I’m not a big fan of obviously manipulative feel-good movies. On the other hand, I won’t deny that I like feeling good and can be lenient toward films that aim to make viewers happy. So it is that with We Bought a Zoo, we have the story of a widower purchasing a zoo, caring for animals and reconciling with his kids and getting over the tragic death of his wife. That’s it. Nothing else. Fortunately, that’s more than enough. Once you throw in the zoo animals, the decent performances by Matt Damon and Scarlett Johannsen, as well as the assorted cast of characters, the film becomes more than bearable enough. A heavier, older, quieter Damon makes for a solid protagonist, but a good part of the film’s charm goes to the underdog nature of a man picking up zoo-keeping from scratch. Speaking to animals is part of the challenge, but speaking to other people is just as important. Despite the blatant melodrama of writer/director Cameron Crowe’s script (the leitmotif “20 seconds of insane courage” aren’t even mentioned until the third act.), We Bought a Zoo is not a bad movie. Sometimes, we can accept manipulation if the end result is to our liking.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2017) Clint Eastwood isn’t a director associated with the supernatural, but with Hereafter he takes on a multi-strand story about communicating with the dead. Featuring an ensemble cast, this is a movie that goes around the world, asking questions and them wrapping up abruptly. There are quite a few things to like about it—the performances from actors such as Matt Damon as a blue-collar worker with an unwanted gift; Cecile de France as a woman whose life changes after a near-death experience; and the McLaren brothers as kids surviving a terrible childhood. Bryce Dallas Howard also shows up in a short but striking role. The way those stories, in four different countries, come to climax is satisfying, but the small-scale ending of the film is almost surprising, leaving plenty of questions unanswered. The opening sequence, depicting a tsunami in graphic detail, is unusually far more intense than the ending. It’s intriguing, satisfying in small moments, but not exceptionally fulfilling in total. The sum of the good moments doesn’t quite add up to a grand film and the result feels curiously muted. Too bad; at least it delivers small doses of interest.
(On TV, February 2016) I have never played golf and I’m sure it’s a nice excuse to go for a walk, but the lengths through which The Legend of Bagger Vance goes to add a layer of mysticism to hitting a gold ball would be impressive if they weren’t faintly ridiculous. A very young Matt Damon stars as a golf prodigy damaged by his WWI experiences and recapturing his groove during a crucial tournament. Will Smith shows up as the exemplar of the so-called “Magical Negro” trope but makes it an endearing role through folksy sayings and unaffected demeanour. Charlize Theron has a decent role as a woman trying to save her father’s gold club from closing down and at least looks the part of a southern aristocrat down to the garter belt and stockings. Other than that, and notwithstanding the magical titular character, The Legend of Bagger Vance is very much a standard underdog sports drama, ending with just enough success to feel like a victory. It does feature of lot of material in which golf becomes a proxy for genteel life philosophy. Director Robert Redford is going for a quiet period film and does manage to feature some lush scenery along the way. But the result, for some reason, seems aimed squarely at those middle-aged (and older) men trying to rationalize their love of the game to whoever will listen. No wonder I caught the movie as it was playing on the Golf Channel!
(Video on Demand, December 2016) This was a nearly useless movie in more than one way. After running the shakycam trilogy to its natural conclusion, The Bourne Legacy came and went without making much of an impact, its frantic chase sequences unable to paper over a lack of ideas. Much of the same will also be said about Jason Bourne and Matt Damon’s return to the franchise. Despite intriguing concepts reflecting the modern world in a thriller (in which riots in Greece, drone surveillance and cell phone hacking are considered to be normal), the film doesn’t do much but repeat ideas previously explored in earlier entries, and does so with the nigh-unbearable quick-cutting spastic camera style that is Paul Greengrass’ biggest problem. (There was, a few weeks before the film’s release, a making-of clip showing a camera and stunt cars smoothly weaving through traffic on the Las Vegas Strip. Cruelly, this sequence has been chopped to mush in the finished film.) For a movie as smart as it thinks it is, Jason Bourne can occasionally be tone-deaf: There’s a sequence early in the film where a businessman gets a round of applause from journalists for stating “our products will never spy on you”, whereas in the real world the reaction would be raised eyebrows followed by frantic attempts to disprove him. I’m also nonplussed by the dumb decision to kill off a long-running supporting character for what is apparently no good reason. And so it is with Jason Bourne: things happen for no good reason, except printing money from a series that most people remember. At this time, it looks as if the film was a modest financial success, virtually ensuring that we’ll get another equally useless new instalment in two or three years.
(On TV, March 2016) The touch of the Farrely brothers is obvious in Stuck on You, another of their comedies in which disability is seen sympathetically, North-eastern United States represents and comedy springs from uncomfortable situations. To wit: Stuck on You is about conjoined twins linked at the hip, and how they try to achieve one of them’s success as a Hollywood actor. As a physical comedy, Stuck on You milks a lot of laughs from suggesting the practical reality of its characters (one of them donning black clothes as the other perform a one-man show, the other wearing a teddy bear suit in bed when the other meets a romantic prospect), then goes for gentle Hollywood satire when a truly awful TV show becomes a rating darling. Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear are rather good in thankless roles, while Cher gets a few laughs in a relatively unflattering role. (Eva Mendes and Meryl Streep also show up successfully in small roles) Stuck on You is a film of small moments rather than overall storytelling: the plot is familiar, the beats are predictable and what sets it apart is some degree of success in delivering the small laughs that populate the larger but blander framework. In retrospect, it’s almost amazing that Stuck on You manages to last more than ninety minutes without quite wearying what could have been a one-note premise. Interestingly enough, the film manages to avoid most gross-out gags, which may be surprising given some of the Farrelly Brothers’ filmography. But they would have been out of place in a film that generally plays things sweetly and without meanspiritedness. Better than it could have been, Stuck on You isn’t particularly sophisticated entertainment, but it holds its own against most odds.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) It’s a good time to be a hard-Science Fiction fan. After decades of repeating that there were no hard-SF movies (save for maybe parts of 2001 and Contact), here are Gravity, Interstellar and now The Martian in successive years to prove us wrong. The Martian has the added benefit of being perhaps the warmest and the purest hard-SF of the three, blending a likable character with reams of effortless exposition about the technical details of being stuck alone on Mars, years away from any potential rescue. Much of the story plays like an endless series of problem-solving mini-dramas, which is closely aligned with the basic ethos of hard-SF. Matt Damon is very, very good in the title role, alone on-screen for a chunk of the story, separated from the rest of the cast. But director Ridley Scott is the one who excels here, delivering his most purely enjoyable film in a long while, making the most out of a terrific script by Drew Goddard that faithfully adapts Andy Weir’s page-turning novel. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Manuel Pena make great impressions in smaller roles, while the special effects work is dazzling. A note should be made of the film’s use of pop music, from cheap shots at disco (leading to an apt spot for “Staying Alive” during the end credits), to a spellbinding montage set to David Bowie’s Starman. Such touches help humanize a script that easily could have been far too dry (in the manner of so many hard-SF novels written by scientists) to attract popular acclaim. Fortunately, The Martian seems to have hit the right chords: It was a massive commercial and critical success, paving the way for similar movies. The drought of hard-SF on-screen may have lasted decades, but chances are that it’s down for good.
(On TV, July 2015) Early-career John Grisham was often accused of writing the same story over and over again, but it’s a good story, and The Rainmaker boils it down to perhaps its simplest essence: A young Southern lawyer, basely out of law school, takes on the Establishment and wins –although the ending proves to be bittersweet. There isn’t much more to it, and there doesn’t need to be once the atmosphere and details are filled-in. A much younger Matt Damon plays the protagonist with a good deal of naiveté and steely resolve, with Danny DeVito turning in a rather good performance as his much more devious sidekick, and Jon Voigt is deliciously slimy as a seasoned lawyer with all the resources at his disposal. Otherwise, this is a film that uses a basic story as a framework for moments, giving us a credible insight in the life of a young lawyer working way above his head. The Rainmaker may not be the best movie adapted from Grisham’s work (I’m still partial to Runaway Jury) but it’s almost certainly the purest representation of what Grisham has spent a long time doing on the page.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) I’m not sure why I’ve waited fifteen years before seeing The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’m not fond of stories in which the protagonist is a serial murderer, but there’s a bit more to this film than simply rooting for an anti-hero. Part of the attraction now, of course, is seeing five actors at the beginning of their career, from Jude Law’s magnetic presence to Matt Damon’s versatile lead performance, to Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow in young ingénue roles, to an early good turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The other big asset of the film, of course, is the period detail. An impersonation thriller taking place amongst Americans living in late-1950s Italy, The Talented Mr. Ripley can be, at its best, an immersion in a romanticized time and place. It only becomes darker and more thrilling after a (too) leisurely prologue, then drags on a touch too long as it places its protagonist in ever-more desperate circumstances, all the way to a heartbreaking final act of violence. Slickly directed by Anthony Minghella from a now-classic novel by Patricia Highsmith, it’s a thriller that plays with questions of identity, aspirations, repression and the nature of affection. It’s lovely and ugly, with good tension and complex plot engines. The Talented Mr. Ripley has aged gracefully, and remains just as good today as it must have been sixteen years ago.
(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.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp made a splash in 2009 with his debut feature District 9, an exceptional blend of kinetic thrills and thematic wit. Elysium may not benefit from the same element of surprise, but it certainly operates in the same vein: Drawing a clear line between impoverished Earth and privileged space station Elysium, the film tackles social issues in an explicit SF setting with gritty aesthetics and impressive action sequences. Matt Damon is quite credible as a lower-class working man who is forced to become a hero through desperate circumstances while Jodie Foster is perfectly ice-cold as the orbital protector, but it’s Sharlto Copley who steals scenes as a crazed mercenary. The film’s other unassailable highlight are the action sequences, shot a bit too close, but with a documentary-style dynamism that works pretty well. In-between clever visual design and various bits of post-cyberpunk plotting, there’s enough here to keep true Science Fiction fans happy. Unfortunately, Elysium has enough small problems that it seems somewhat less than solid as a whole. The intention to discuss issues of class, wealth and privilege is laudable (there’s even a historical reference to the mercenary class taking over the rich elites when the barbarians come knocking), but it’s ham-fisted and riddled with inexplicable bits of world building. Never mind the open-sky design of Elysium or the software-based plot to overthrow the station’s social order: the lack of a shown middle-class to keep the poor in line is historically strange (it can’t be explained solely by robotics), and it would have been nice to see a bit more nuance beyond the Manichean Earth-is-poor-Elysium-is-rich world-building. The ending makes little logistical sense, and even less political sense –it med-beds are so effective, wouldn’t it be an effective instrument of social control to install them downside? The problem with Elysium may not be that it’s as nonsensical as most Hollywood SF blockbusters, but that it’s so thematically and visually ambitious that it invites greater scrutiny, and that its world-building isn’t able to sustain more than surface-level contemplation. (As an aside, I expect that as Hollywood Science-Fiction gets better and smarter -pushed along by, yes, people such as Blomkamp and movies such as Elysium-, the contrast between its stated sophistication and brute-force Hollywood-style plotting will be more and more apparent.) Elysium is, all things considered, pretty good at what it tries to do. But it’s missing the extra little bit of credibility that would have vaulted it from merely good to potentially great.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) In the hands of HBO and Steven Soderbergh, made-for-TV movies clearly aren’t what they used to be: Here, with Behind the Candelabra, we get nothing less than two top-notch actors delivering a love story set against the flamboyant backdrop of Liberace’s career. Michael Douglas is a surprisingly good Liberace (embracing the skill and the generosity but also the pathos of the man), while Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, the (much) younger man who was his lover between 1977 and 1981. (If the film has a flaw, it’s that Matt Damon is considerably older than Thorson was at the time –this softens much of the tension that an accurate portrayal of the story would have given.) The doomed love story may be predictable, but it’s well-executed to make it dramatically interesting. The two main actors are also fearless in their performances, openly embracing (and demonstrating) the romantic relationship between their characters, but there are plenty of scene-stealing cameos elsewhere in the film, whether it’s Dan Ackroyd playing a mousy manager, or Rob Lowe’s plastic-faced surgeon/dealer. From a directing standpoint, Soderbergh delivers his usual brand of audience-riling iconoclasm, making the most out of his budget and crafting a film that’s more engaging than many of his last few colder efforts. But the star of the show, frankly, are the set dressers, makeup artists and costume designers that bring to life the famed excess of Liberace’s work and personal life. The camera moves through a lavish re-creation of Liberace’s homes, dwells on his spectacular stage outfits and convincingly recreates his performances. It’s -to take up a theme of the film- a grand show, and it’s easy to just enjoy the film for its moments of comedy and pure surface sheen. There’s more to Behind the Candelabra, of course: a reflection of that type of content that TV (well, HBO) audience are willing to embrace, a bit of a late screed against the unfairness of repressing one’s sexuality, a look at the way the rich and powerful can sculpt other people… this is a Soderbergh film, after all, and there’s a bit more behind the surface. So it is that we’ve come to this: A pretty good film, with big-name stars and impeccable technical credentials, delivered by TV. Given that I’m an HBO subscriber, I can only applaud this.
(On DVD, March 2011) Don’t go near this film unless you’re ready for a concentrated dose of seething rage. A thorough and intelligent exploration of the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job steers clear of MichaelMoorish grandstanding and keeps an even tone throughout, but it’s this reasonable delivery that allows viewers to be outraged on their own cognition. Directed with surprisingly high visual ambitions for a talking-head documentary (the opening credits alone, featuring aerial photography of New York, are very impressive), Inside Job works hard at making a complex subject accessible, and succeeds through the usual mixture of info-graphics, interviews, voice-over narration (from Matt Damon) and a tightly-constructed script. Following No End in Sight, Ferguson confirms how adept he is at presenting public-policy issues in an accessible format. Keep up with the dense accumulation of facts, and you will learn something about the way the financial industry has managed to escape regulation and avoid any effective policing of its actions… with consequences for the rest of us. Spanning the globe, Inside Job draws clear connections between the obnoxious cowboy mentality of the financial class and the repeated crises that they engineer through shared greed. It’s also clear that the US political system has been systematically corrupted by its influence –especially when other government prove more adept at responding to the situation. Unfortunately, Ferguson isn’t able to offer much in terms of comfort: the picture comes closest to accountability when, challenged by a defensive Glenn Hubbard to “Give it your best shot”, it brings down a damning accumulation of conflict-of-interest charges against an academic seduced by money and political power. It’s only a small illustration of the collusion between finance, government and academia (Even disgraced ex-prosecutor Elliot Spitzer has a poignantly ironic moment in reflecting on how the personal flaws of finance workers haven’t been used to get them to turn state’s evidence), and viewers shouldn’t feel surprised if they feel as if something has to be done in order to avoid another crisis. The DVD contains engaging supplemental material, describing how to make an ambitious global documentary on a small budget, and what goes into tightening hours and hours of footage in a finished product. This is one documentary DVD that has the intellectual heft of a good book: don’t miss it.
(In theaters, March 2010) At first, this umpteenth adaption of Philip K. Dick’s work seems to be following the usual template: Grab an idea from the Dick short story cupboard and expand it in a middle-of-the-road science-fiction film. The premise seems shaky at first, with too many unanswered questions and plot holes to be wholly convincing: There’s a stretch between the way the film convincingly presents modern politics and the hazy nature of its deviation from reality. Matt Damon is fine, but the film itself seems wobbly. Things then get quite a bit better during the second half, as the film’s overall fable-like atmosphere becomes more comfortable, as some of the haziness disappears, and as the film starts playing off the elements of its setup. Damon makes for a sympathetic hero and the film keeps its wilder reality-bending sequences for a third-act climactic chase sequence all around New York landmarks. At the same time, the temporal jumps in the plotting allow for some heavier meditations on the nature of fate, choices, happenstance and predestination. While the result still isn’t as seamless as one could wish for, The Adjustment Bureau ends up being a reasonably effective Science Fiction film, one that surprisingly cares more about romance and drama than death and violence (in terms of violence, the film only features two car accidents, none of them fatal and the second of them handled with a great deal of compassion for the wounded victim). Writer/director George Nolfi manages to bring a lot to Dick’s sketchy short story, and while the result doesn’t achieve its full potential, it’s good enough not to embarrass anyone, especially not its audience. It’s not a disservice to anyone to lump it with the slew of other good low-key science-fiction films (also; Never Let Me Go) that recently appeared on-screen.
(In theaters, December 2010) The Coen Brothers never do anything in a straightforward fashion, and so it is that if their homage to the classic True Grit may be as dirty and unforgiving as we imagine the West to have been, it’s also surprisingly entertaining and even, yes, amusing. The repartee between rivals Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon is one of the film’s finest points, and the film often acknowledges the absurdity of its own premise. But for all of its tension-defusing laughs, the film isn’t a comedy: the drama plays without ironic distancing, the characters aren’t completely softened for Hollywood effect, and the finale doesn’t pull any stops in punishing characters for going so deep in the wild. While Bridges is magnificent as the one-eyed marshal “Rooster” that becomes the film’s true hero, it’s Hailee Steinfeld who makes the strongest impression as the 14-year-old heroine of the film capable of mouthing the Coens’ typically dense dialogue. This leads us to the film’s main weakness in theaters: The often thick accents duelling on-screen. Home-video viewers will have the advantage of captions: movie theatre viewers will have to tough it out on their own. At a time where filmed Westerns are most often anachronistic genre recreations, it’s a bit surprising to find True Grit to be such a true-pedigree Western, spiced but not overwhelmed by comedy. It’s an old-fashioned film worth watching and savouring.