(On TV, March 2015) I’m actually paying a compliment to Blue Valentine when I say that I don’t ever want to see that movie again. As a romantic drama describing the beginning and the end of a relationship in excruciating detail, it more than fulfills its objectives. That it’s successful and heart-wrenching, however, doesn’t mean that it’s in any way pleasant or entertaining to watch. As a big montage jumping back in forth between the best and the worst moments of a relationship, Blue Valentine doesn’t miss an occasion to push and pull at the viewer, juxtaposing songs and dialogue lines to ironic effect and wallowing in massive emotional whiplash. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance clearly know what he’s doing, and the result is a raw and troubling film without heroes or winners. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are both exceptional in roles far removed from many of their other glossy performances (Gosling, especially, gets far from his idealised character in The Notebook, or his glossy-cool portrayal in Drive.) Alas, Blue Valentine revels in the kind of art-house aesthetics that reliably exasperate me: shaky-cam images (even when there are no reasons to shake the camera), too-close shots, gritty unpolished images, improvised dialogue… it’s a painful film to watch in more ways that the obvious subject matter. While Blue Valentine’s achievement is undeniable, so is a powerful drive to never have to go through it again.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Here we go again: beloved kid’s fantasy series transformed into an overblown 3D Hollywood special-effects spectacle with a bit of snark. If the criticism sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been the playbook for just about everything since The Lord of the Rings made so much money. Here, The Wizard of Oz gets a prequel and while the results are familiar, they’re not as bad as they could have been. James Franco may or may not have been the best choice as a con-magician forced to be a hero (with Franco, it’s hard to tell sincerity from laid-back detachment), but director Sam Raimi is certainly in his element in showcasing a bright and colorful Oz in all of its 3D glory. Oz the Great and Powerful is not as derivative as it may first appear: Despite its kinship to L. Frank Baum’s work and the classic 1939 film, it feels relatively new and doesn’t try to ape the first film in its finer details. Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis all do fine work as the three main witches, although it’s Kunis who gets the most interesting material and best make-up work. The visual spectacle is worth a look, and if the film’s so-contemporary hip detachment is its own disservice (because much of Oz should be viewed with pure unadulterated glee), there’s enough here to make the film interesting to adults. The result may not be particularly challenging, but it works well enough, and the de-emphasis placed on straight-up combat in favour of tricks and deception is a welcome change of pace from the usual epic fantasy template.
(On-demand, August 2012) Unaccountably, I had never seen Species until now, nearly seventeen years later. For some reason, I had filed away this title as a throwaway B-grade monster movie, not worth the trouble to seek out. But the future is now, and the film is only a few buttons away from on-demand viewing! While Species is, in fact, a B-grade monster movie, it’s a slickly-made one, with a few good ideas and some noteworthy elements. Take your pick of the various names featured in the credits: H.R. Giger’s nightmarish creature design (leading to a few “have I really seen this?” moments), a scene-setting performance by young Michelle Williams as a young alien on the run, Michael Madsen’s cocky turn as a special operative, Forrest Whittaker’s good take on a bad “empath” role, Ben Kingsley as a government operative, or Natasha Henstridge’s asset-baring first big-screen performance. In Science-Fiction terms, Species is borderline incoherent nonsense, but it springs from a fairly clever conceit of remote alien invasion via radio-signal DNA sequencing. (Other written-SF stories have tackled the idea, but it’s still relatively original for Movie-SF.) There are also a few nice things to say about the themes of the film, which combine a few rough ideas about predation and reproduction with more standard horror-film tropes. Plot-wise, the film remains a monster chase, but the team of monster-hunters is shown effectively, and the rhythm doesn’t really falter until the last act’s fairly standard subterranean heroics. Species’ dynamic night-time chase sequences show that the film had a decent budget, making the B-movie exploitation elements seem all the more noteworthy. While some of the film is still stuck in the mid-nineties, it hasn’t aged all that badly and rewards casual viewing even today.
(On-demand video, March 2012) There’s a place for everything in the universe of movie-making, including a movie-about-a-movie featuring a thespian, a star and a young man who learns better. Based on the true story of a young British man who once became Marilyn Monroe’s assistant during the shooting of a movie, My Week with Marilyn is a look at a flawed icon, a comedy about 1960s British film-making and a coming-of-age drama in which people get their heart broken “a little”. While much of the film’s noteworthiness is based on Michelle Williams’ convincing portrayal of Marilyn Monroe at the height of her stardom, the film is just as interesting as it presents the adventures of an aspiring filmmaker hired as a production assistant. Movie-making isn’t necessarily romantic, and My Week with Marilyn is perhaps at its funniest when it shows figures such as Laurence Olivier dealing with the stresses of directing a fluffy comedy production. The second half of the film evolves into a quasi-romance between Monroe and our boy protagonist, showing Monroe’s flaws and not neglecting the inexperience of the viewpoint character. The film doesn’t have to fight hard to keep viewers’ attention, and the period detail is convincing even though it’s Monroe’s personality that brings the entire story together. Not particularly deep, but intriguing enough: It’s easy to see why My Week with Marilyn earned some critical attention, and that it did so without sacrificing any of its ability to please audiences.
(In theaters, April 2008) The only thing worse than a bad film is a pretentious bad film that assumes that its audience has never seen another thriller in their lives. What starts out as an intriguing erotic drama featuring an exclusive club for professionals looking for unattached sexual relations turns out to be yet another coincidence-laden blackmail drama. The disappointing deception leaves a bad taste, especially when the film starts going through well-worn plot “twists” in a self-important ponderous fashion that can quickly sour anyone’s good intentions. Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams are capable actors that can do much better, but even their contribution can’t match screenwriter Mark Bomback’s trite script and director Marcel Langenegger’s leaden touch. The film is never worse than at the beginning of its overextended third act, when it dawdles for almost ten minutes while waiting for a not-dead character to come back in the story, spinning its wheels even as everyone with half a brain knows what’s going on. By the end of the film, I was muttering the litany of “I hate you. I hate youuu…” that I keep in reserve for specially flawed films that make me loathe the filmmakers, the cinematographic art form and the universe in general. Once past Maggie Q’s smoldering appearance, there’s nothing entertaining left about Deception, and a whole lot of drawn-out torture in the hands of people who shouldn’t be allowed near a film script ever again. This is not even straight-to-video fodder: this is straight-to-video trash that’s convinced of its chances for the Oscar.