(In French, On TV, July 2017) It turns out that there’s more to Sophie’s Choice than the titular choice made famous by thirty-five years of pop culture: In addition to the Nazi concentration camp drama, there’s a 1947 Brooklyn twisted love triangle featuring a nice-guy writer, damaged Sophie and a volatile schizophrenic. Alas, for audiences without patience, there isn’t much more to Sophie’s Choice than that—at nearly two hours and a half, the movie tests viewers used to a faster pace. It does help that Meryl Streep’s performance is a tour de force, and that she’s able to hit the various emotions asked of the role. (Having watched the film in French, I didn’t get the vocal part of her performance, but the almost ridiculously accented translation suggests that there was a lot of it.) Meanwhile, Kevin Kline (in a debut performance that has little to do with his latter screen persona) is surprisingly disturbing as a character capable of the worst. To contemporary audiences, Sophie’s Choice suffers in two ways: The pacing is far too slow for such a familiar story, and it all leads to a choice that has been spoiled in various ways since 1982. The second isn’t that big of a problem—good movies don’t hinge on twist endings or big revelations—but the first one definitely is: at times, I was struck by the thought that much of the film’s plot would be a sub-plot in a more ambitious film or TV series. See Sophie’s Choice for Streep’s Academy Award-winning performance, but otherwise steel yourself for a dull watch.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Nearly forty years later, there are things about divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer that have aged poorly, but the film itself does still carry a good chunk of its original impact. While single dads are more commonplace nowadays, the pain of divorce proceedings remains portrayed with heart-wrenching effect. Dustin Hoffman is good as an advertising executive suddenly asked to be a single dad after his wife leaves abruptly—the sequence in which he seeks a job on Christmas Eve remains a highlight of the film. Meryl Streep doesn’t have the most sympathetic of roles as the disappearing wife, but she’s amazing in her own ways. The script does appear to cheat in its final moments (and it does come really close to misogyny in portraying Streep’s character—fortunately, she gets a monologue to explain herself), adding even more drama to the entire film. The portrayal of late-seventies New York City is fascinating in itself, and much of the film still plays effectively even today. What doesn’t quite play so well is the reactionary content—while there’s a conscious attempt here to tips the scales and argue in favour of fatherhood, it seems really blunt by today’s standards. Kramer vs. Kramer hasn’t become a more sympathetic movie along the way, though, so viewers may want to steel themselves for an unpleasant experience.
(On TV, May 2017) No, no, no, I will not have anyone rehabilitate, humanize or soften Margaret Thatcher. I won’t excuse the hardline regressive policies that set such a bad example in the eighties. But such is the bet placed by The Iron Lady, a biographical picture that uses Thatcher’s dementia-afflicted last few years as a springboard through which to fast-forward through her career, battling sexism and lesser minds along the way. To be fair, The Iron Lady isn’t always boring as it frames Thatcher’s career as flashbacks through an afflicting episode of dementia. Nor is Meryl Streep anything less than spectacular as Thatcher. Jim Broadbent is also quite amusing as an imaginary character who probably knows he’s imaginary. (Alas, this last sentence may cause more curiosity in the film than I’d like.) There’s also something quietly interesting in showing an “iron lady” as a frail old woman whose mind is fast slipping away. But even then, The Iron Lady can be a trying viewing experience for two big reasons. The first being that an episodic collection of scenes hitting the high points of a life doesn’t necessarily amount to a coherent narrative—the second being that for all of the daring in showing Thatcher as a doddering old woman, the film is firmly sympathetic to its subject, eliding or minimizing the lengthy list of valid complaints against her and her time in power. Margaret is always right, everyone else is a fool—and her resignation is forced by small intellects rather than a reflection that she’d gone on too long and too far. So there you go: The Iron Lady as a mirror of viewers’ feeling about a divisive historical character. The film itself is too flat to change anyone’s mind on the topic.
(On TV, April 2017) I’m usually pretty good about compartmentalizing an artist and an artist’s work—something that has occasionally caused me a few retroactive pangs of guilt, especially in considering Roman Polanski’s work. Most of the time, those little bits of disapproval aren’t enough to affect me: I’ve got my list of good Woody Allen movies despite being aghast at his personal life. But for all of Manhattan’s reputation as one of Allen’s best, I understandably had a really hard time separating the movie (in which he gets romantically involved with a high-school girl) from Allen’s personal life (in which he got romantically involved with not one, but at least two high-school-age girls). As much as I tried getting into the rhythm and sensibilities of Manhattan, the film itself couldn’t stop getting me from thinking, “No, Woody Allen, no!” every time Allen and Mariel Hemingway (who, for all of the problematic aspects of her character, is terrific in the role) snuggled on-screen. So if I sound less than enthusiastic about Manhattan, keep thinking, “42-year-old guy writing a role in which he’s dating a 17-year-old girl”). Fortunately, there are other things to talk about in talking about Manhattan. The black-and-while cinematography is exceptional, some of the one-liners are very funny, the portrait of complicated romances is stronger than the usual pap that passes for romantic comedies, Diane Keaton is fantastic and the portrait of intellectual New Yorkers has a strong credibility to it. Oh, and Meryl Streep shows up for a handful of devastating scenes. Still, I was never completely convinced by Manhattan’s humour or its romance(s). Much as I appreciate the achievements of the film, I can’t quite bring myself to like it. You can credit Woody Allen for both reactions.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) A big-budget dramatic romance set in Africa, featuring two megastars and a credible historical recreation without the tiniest bit of genre elements? No, they don’t make them like this anymore. Out of Africa is more than thirty years old and it often feels even older, what with its languid pacing, lush location shooting, and its young-looking Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Director Sydney Pollack clearly understand the film he’s trying to make, and the African locations are impressive in their own right. Streep is terrific in an Oscar-winning performance, Redford tempers his natural charm with a not-entirely admirable character and the complex story is a cut above the formulaic notion of “romance” that has dominated the genre over the past decades. (It helps that it adapted from a book.) While I’m not sure it’s possible to be enthusiastic about Out of Africa nowadays, it’s not that hard to understand why it swept the Academy Awards that year: This is big-budget respectable filmmaking in the classical mould. A modern version would be about 20 minutes shorter, but then again a modern version would be rewritten (for better or worse) by Nicholas Spark, make extensive use of CGI, probably feature a biplane/car chase and co-star Vanessa Hudgens and Channing Tatum (again, for better or worse). Perhaps it’s best if they don’t make them like this anymore.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I rarely think that movies are worth seeing solely for acting talent, but Doubt is an obvious exception, even more so now than when it was released. Meryl Streep is a national treasure, of course, and Viola Davis has always been a solid performer, but now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone and that Amy Adams has become a megastar, Doubt looks dangerously top-heavy with an incredibly strong cast. As befits a play brought to the screen (director John Patrick Shanley adapting his own award-winning work), the performers are the key to a dialogue-heavy drama. Every four of the leads got Oscar nominations, even Davis for a mere two scenes. Dealing with troubling allegations of abuses and what happens when beliefs (in God, in goodness, in guilt) clash together, Doubt is a drama in the purest sense, uncluttered by physicality or artifices—it could be a radio play if it tried. Visually, the film blandly re-creates a 1960s Catholic school, but the point is elsewhere. It’s certainly not an action film, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a thriller when it reaches fever pitch and truly sparks with dramatic conflict. The last line is merciless in offering no comfort, moral support or resolution. This is not a film that ends as much as it lingers.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) Comedy from drama is tough, but drama from comedy is even tougher. Someone deluded about the fact that she’s singing badly is prime comic material when it’s about a fictional character, but it can feel like punching down if the subject is a real person. Hence Florence Foster Jenkins’ modest success in discussing its titular character, a 1920s New York socialite who convinced herself of her singing abilities (up to an album and a concert at Carnegie Hall) despite, well, not being very good at it. How do you approach a subject like that? By going past the jokes and taking a look at the character. Our viewpoint character here isn’t Jenkins as much as her husband in an unusual marriage, seeing her delusions in a more objective frame of mind. Florence Foster Jenkins manages to be funny without being cruel to its lead character, and while Meryl Streep brings her usual gravitas to the role, the script deftly finds a balance between the comedy in her actions and the drama of understanding what moves her. Hugh Grant is suitably sympathetic as her husband, and nicely shows how well he’s aging into more interesting roles beyond the foppish goof persona he maintained for most of his career. In other smaller roles, Simon Helberg is surprisingly good as a pianist thrown into the madness, while Nina Arianda steals two scenes as a socialite who can’t help but say what’s on her mind. The depiction of a slice of 1920s New York society also has its appeal. While the result isn’t much more than the usual Oscar-baiting biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins has the advantage of being funnier, quirkier and even perhaps more resonant because of it.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, October 2016) I saw The Deer Hunter decades ago, but couldn’t remember much other than the Russian roulette sequences. Watching it again reminded me why. As much as there’s a lot to like in the story of blue-collar workers being irremediably damaged by their Vietnam experience, the film is just too long and meandering to be as effective as it could be. The interminable wedding sequence springs to mind as the worst culprit here (boo, director Michael Cimino, boo) although there’s enough fluff elsewhere in the film to make the running time balloon even higher. At least the film is blessed with a few terrific performance, the best being a very young Robert de Niro as a quiet hunter, an equally young Christopher Walken as the one who goes crazy, and Meryl Streep as the object of their affection. Great sequences also fill the movie, but the connective material between them kills much of the film’s urgency, and takes away from the relatively straightforward plotting. The Deer Hunter’s then-daring portrait of soldiers as real people without glorifying war heroics doesn’t come across as clearly now, given the steps taken to humanize warriors in later movies. A classic for a good reason, The Deer Hunter is not a bad piece of work—although its emotional impact is bound to vary widely.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) I only saw Ricki and the Flash because of “Meryl Streep as an aging rocker” and after watching the film, I can confirm that “Meryl Streep as an aging rocker” is pretty much the only reason you need. Here, Streep plays an older woman who has sacrificed everything (including a marriage and three children) to music. Her nights playing at a local bar may still be glamorous, but her days as a cashier aren’t. Things start to change when she finds herself drawn to reconciliation after her daughter goes through a suicidal depression. Much family comedy/drama ensues, with Kevin Kline playing back-up as her ex-husband. While Ricki and the Flash is written by Diablo Cody, there’s little here to wow anyone: Much of the film seems tepid, chugging along to a halfway-celebratory conclusion. There are some pacing issues, most notably in the last half-hour where the film slows rather than pick up to a conclusion. Streep remains the film’s best asset throughout, picking up a guitar and credibly signing in-between an unusually sympathetic of a woman who may or may not have screwed up her life. At least she can still sing and carry a tune, which is what the curiously pat ending stops at. Ricki and the Flash is obviously aimed at a particular public, meaning that anyone who falls out of it is likely to find it a bit lengthy and flat. Streep’s pretty good, though, if that hasn’t been said enough already.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) Doesn’t Alec Baldwin make a splendid shmuck? That kind of performance seems to be the main justification for It’s Complicated, an otherwise amiable film to the point of not being of much interest. Director Nancy Meyer once again turns her attention to Rich White People’s problems (as in; hiring an architecture firm to supervise the construction of a kitchen addition) before resigning herself to showing some conflict. It sort-of-works if that’s the kind of film you’re looking for, or if you simply want to enjoy the film on superficial acting performances, lifestyle aspiration or simply the idea of people having very small problems. To its credit, It’s Complicated has a bit of sense in its conclusion, and can depend on Meryl Streep to sleep-walk through an unchallenging role, while Steve Martin is blander than expected in a stealth romantic hero role (he does get a split-second “wild and crazy guy” moment, though.) and Alec Baldwin is almost delightfully slimy. Jon Krazinski also gets one or two good moments, but otherwise It’s Complicated is a film on auto pilot, almost too nice to be interesting.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) I honestly thought I’d enjoy Into the Woods a lot more than I did. Having a pre-schooler running around the house means watching a lot of Disney films, so the thought of a musical parodying classic fairy-tales has a certain appeal to it if only as a change of pace. To be fair, Into the Woods does have its good moments. Princes dueling for attention while signing dramatically; Anna Kendrick with a singing role; Meryl Streep playing a demented witch; clever twists and turns of plot –especially in the first section of the film. But then comes the second section of the film, which seems determined to frustrate even viewers hungry for parody – the tone turns far darker, the musical number get less interesting, heroes are revealed to be villains and the film sort of degenerates into a mush of unsatisfying endings. Cue my flagging appreciation. And that’s not mentioning the various missteps along the way, not the least of them being Johnny Depp showing up as a lecherous big bad wolf. But much of the so-called flaws of the film are intentional, and so is its intention to frustrate those looking for more conventional fare. The bigger surprise here is to realize that Into the Woods is a Disney production tweaking the nose of fairy tales closely associate with Disney itself. I suppose that, given Disney’s recent willingness to remake even its animated classics into live-action films, that an affectionate tweak on those same classics wouldn’t be out of place.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) There’s been a recent glut of Young Adult Science Fiction movies adaptations lately, and while The Giver is of a slightly-older nineties-novel vintage than Divergent, The Hunger Games and its ilk, it has so many points of similarity that it courts generic repetitiveness. Here again, we have a young person with singular talents discovering The Truth behind their too-perfect post-post-apocalyptic society, then rising up against the established order in order to upset the status quo. Same story, same basic credibility problems, same obvious attempts to manipulate teenage audiences. Not gaining points for originality, The Giver at least gets a few in terms of execution: there’s something cheap but interesting in the way the black-and-white of the film’s first few moments gradually lets color in, and director Philip Noyce is enough of a veteran to have a steady hand in presenting the action. Still, that’s not quite enough to rescue The Giver from occasional ennui. It’s not meant to be particularly smart. Given the mediocre nature of its premise, it’s surprising to see an actress like Meryl Streep in a matriarch role, playing alongside Jeff Bridges (and Katie Holmes, and Taylor Swift in an unexpected small role). Still, The Giver has the somewhat unusual daring to feature a baby in peril for a long while, and that baby upstages Streep every chance it gets –The Giver goes heavy on life-affirming clichés, but The Baby In Peril may raise the stakes a bit too high compared to the rest of the film. Still, for all of its affirmed averageness, The Giver manages to score one or two good lines, plays with ideas without committing to them, and concludes on the kind of life-affirming notions that can mollify even the most bored reviewer.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) Obvious aimed at older audiences, this gently-paced comedy is about an older couple seeking to re-connect after decades of increasing neglect and disaffection. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones (as the estranged couple) alongside Steve Carrell (as their therapist) lend star-power to a premise that could have gone just as naturally in a straight-to-TV film. As a comedy, it’s low-laughs, high-heart stuff, as the couple repeatedly stumbles while trying to reconnect. The look at mature relationships is unusual enough to be interesting (consider the film as a companion piece to This is 40) but this is in no way a wacky-hijinks comedy, and in fact it may be funny only because it ends on a happy note –much of the film could go either way. There are few surprises in the script, which means that much of the film’s appeal rests squarely on Streep and Jones’ shoulders. Fortunately, they’re veteran actors for a reason, and their sweetly vulnerable portrayal of an old couple is almost worth the time it takes to watch the film if you’re a fan of either actor. Both end up playing far lesser-powered versions of their usual screen personas, and the result has a hum-drum domesticity that is almost surprising. Jones’ character is so broadly defined as to court caricature at times, but he still makes it work; meanwhile, Streep conclusively demonstrates the potential sex-appeal of a sixty-something woman. Many younger viewers won’t have the patience, interest span or life-experiences required to sit comfortably through the film, and that’s fine: Hope Springs may work best as a film targeted to older audiences. It may not be an overly memorable film, but it’s not bad, and it has a few welcome reminders that romance can be rekindled.
(In-flight, November 2009) Nora Ephron’s films are generally amiable and unobjectionable, but after a short absence from the big-screen, it’s good to see her move slightly-away from romantic comedies to tackle a film about cooking, blogging and female empowerment. The twin true stories of Julia Child (who, in the fifties, popularized French cuisine in America) and Julie Powell (who, nearly fifty years later, took on the project to cook her way through Child’s first book in a year and blog about the experience), Julie & Julia is perhaps most enjoyable as the journey of two foodies. It’s practically impossible to sit through the film and not be shamed into becoming a better cook. Food remains the film’s love interest even as various romantic subplots are weaved in the narrative. The film’s biggest problem is that its two true stories don’t necessarily intersect with grace (although there are a few nice transitions) and that the conclusion feels a bit flat: There are no big dramatic finales built into the true events that inspired Julie & Julia, and some of the most intriguing elements of the story (such as Child’s lack of affection for Julie’s blog) are not necessarily explored. More happily, it’s striking that the best depiction of a blogger so far in mainstream American cinema (what motivates them, the challenges they face, the thrills of being read) has been in a fluffy food romance. Who would have thought? Otherwise, there’s little to dislike in Julie & Julia: maybe a sense of material not being fully exploited, but the funny moments, another great performance by Meryl Streep and food-friendly atmosphere usually compensate for those.
(On DVD, sometime mid-2009) I’m not that familiar with the original stage jukebox musical, but even I know that it’s a frothy romantic comedy built around a number of ABBA songs. As such, the film adaptation Mamma Mia! does service to the concept: It’s lighthearted, romantic, and features a series of numbers based on ABBA songs. As three older men converge on a Greek island where an ex-flame and her daughter live, it’s the film’s smallest mystery to find out who is the girl’s father. Much of the time is spend singing and dancing, helped along by the inescapable (and somewhat delightful) fact that ABBA’s music has inserted itself deeply into modern pop culture. The result may be kitsch, but it’s familiar and comfortable kitsch without a mean bone and with an inordinate desire to please. It is, in other words, almost impossible to dislike. The actors involved aren’t all good singers, but it’s part of the film’s charm to see Pierce Brosnan croon, even hoarsely, to Meryl Streep. Amanda Seyfried is cute as a Muppet as the daughter with a mystery father, and the fantastic Greek scenery adds a lot to the film’s sunny atmosphere. Mamma Mia! isn’t high art, but sometimes campy pop is more than good enough.