(On Cable TV, March 2018) I approached The Book of Henry with overly lowered expectations—the critical drubbing of the film had led me to believe an unmitigated disaster, but the end result is merely dull and ludicrous. This being said, I admit to having watched the film in distracted circumstances (i.e.; reading news), meaning that if I had watched this in theatres with my undivided attention, chances are that I would have ended up hating the film with a passion. It really doesn’t start very well, as the film introduces wunderkind genius Henry and how he (at eleven) is the head of a household featuring a younger brother and a scattered mom. Henry is an engineering genius, an endless fount of trivia, an expert at theoretical psychology and a financial whiz. Nothing phases Henry except for a terminal cancer and the realization that the next-door neighbour is being abused by her step-father, an influential policeman. These things brought together logically (hmmm…) lead to Naomi Watts running around with a high-powered sniper rifle in the third act of the film. But there I go, making The Book of Henry more interesting than it is. Most movies ask for a bit of credulity in order to tell their stories, but The Book of Henry demands far too much credulity without even making cursory attempts at justifying it. The result thus becomes fit for laughter. Still, this isn’t even a bad film—it’s just a dumb one, executed with slick Hollywood professionalism but flawed at the onset. Hollywood has a lot of trouble dealing with smart characters, and super-precocious Henry is only the latest of them—at least the story has the sense to point out that Henry’s ultimately not infallible, but given that this comes in the final minutes of a film in which Henry is always right, it does feel like too little too late. It certainly doesn’t help disperse the overall atmosphere of The Book of Henry as a misguided idea that should not have been made. If industry rumors are correct, director Colin Trevorrow is already paying for it.
(On DVD, January 2017) I had convinced myself that I was going to get a talky dull historical drama with The Painted Veil, which explains why its long and dull first act wasn’t much of a surprise. Another estranged couple in colonial times, playing dirty tricks on one another in an effort to win an ongoing argument against a lush south-Asian backdrop. That’s what I was expecting. What I wasn’t expecting was for the movie to become steadily more engrossing from the moment that the couple sets foot in the small village where most of the story will take place. There’ a great “I’d rather infect myself than spend more time with you” scene that’s remarkably funny, but it’s also the spark that rekindled my interest in the film. Things get more dramatic as disease spreads around the village and political problems rise up just as our lead couple learns to love themselves again. Ed Norton and Naomi Watts are both quite good in the lead roles (with Norton having the harder job of making his character impossible and then softening up), with noteworthy supporting presences by Toby Jones and Liev Schreiber. The cinematography is suitably exotic, and there’s a sobering use of “À la Claire Fontaine” in the soundtrack for those who understand French. The Painted Veil amounts to better film that I was expecting—a reasonably entertaining historical drama at a time when I was bracing myself for a dull one.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) There are disaster movies made to be entertainingly exhilarating, and there are other designed to make the audience experience going through an ordeal themselves. So it is that watching The Impossible feels like going through a natural catastrophe. Dramatizing the life story of a British family that survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, The Impossible spares no effort in graphically showing the devastation unleashed by the natural disaster. Watching some of the sequences of the film, it’s hard to believe that director J.A. Bayona has found a way to stage this amount of mayhem without destroying an entire country. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as a couple who find themselves (and their three boys) separated from each other, forced to survive and find each other despite all odds. (Watts gets the most thankless role, including a gory moment in which the extent of her leg injuries are revealed.) It’s a harrowing film –the tsunami sequences are brutal, but they’re the only fun part in a film that graphically portrays an incredible amount of suffering and destruction. The end of the film, as heart-warming as it is, comes as a welcome return to comfortable reality for viewers. The Impossible is impressive, but it’s certainly not a pleasant experience, and anyone looking for easy entertainment may want to push this one further back in the queue of upcoming viewing.
(On TV, August 2013) I’m not sure how I went so long without seeing this oddball take on post-apocalyptic science-fiction, but I can say that while the film is uneven, it’s striking enough. Lori Petty stars as the titular Tank Girl, an irrepressible punk-inspired heroine battling against an evil monopoly with designs on all remaining water in the world. It’s not meant to be realistic: adapted from a comic book series, Tank Girl keeps, even today, a manic energy exemplified by energetic editing, unusual scene transition, caricatures in lieu of characters and a one-liner-spouting heroine that never has a moment of self-doubt. That last never-say-die attitude eventually grates, as it’s hard to tell braggadocio from brain damage. Still, Tank Girl (a rare SF film directed by a woman, in this case Rachel Talalay) has its share of odd and unique moments, whether it’s a sudden musical number, a heavy-metal-riffed tank-customization sequence or terrible kangaroo-human makeup. Petti can be curiously sexy at times (when she’s not being annoying –no mean feat), but from a contemporary perspective the most interesting performances belong to Malcolm McDowell as an over-the-top villain, Naomi Watts as unglamorous “Jet Girl” and what appears to be a self-loathing Ice-T in a role best left undiscussed. The films gets more strident and less interesting the longer it goes on, so this is one of those where if you feel the need to stop, it’s probably best that you do so immediately. Still, Tank Girl remains worthy of a look for fans of cult cinema.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) How can a film with a big twist be so predictable? Dream House first appears to be a formula-heavy haunted-house thriller with a family in peril and dark secrets underneath the floorboards. Then it turns into something much stranger, as the supernatural takes a back seat to the delusional and we’re left with a far less interesting murder mystery from a cracked perspective. The biggest problem with such plot twists is that if they don’t work, if they leave the viewers saying “Really?”, then the whole film has imploded on itself, with little left to say. Dream House compounds that issue by making all sorts of little mistakes: While it doesn’t try to end on its end-of-second-act twist, the film is left spinning its wheels for a long time after confessing, making a mockery of the film’s now-barely-comprehensible first half. Also disappointing is the way Dream House dangles a supernatural horror story in front of our noses only to yank it back to “just a crazy person!” and a dull movie-psycho ending. It’s surprising to see actors such as Daniel Craig (as effective as ever), Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts (both wasted in dull roles) in fare best suited for direct-to-video mediocrity. The film does look good, and a few moments could have been more interesting had they been in the service of a better film. It’s said that director Jim Sheridan made a mess out of a substantially different script, but the result is unarguable: As is stands, Dream House is a big wasted opportunity, a series of potentially promising tangents that, eventually, go nowhere.
(In theaters, December 2010) One of the most unfortunate consequences of the neo-conservative fumbling in Iraq is that, for years to come, they will have to endure I-told-you-so reminders from liberals who were dead-set against the invasion in the first place. So it is that Fair Game is a politically engaged re-telling of the events surrounding the White House’s public outing of CIA Valerie Plame in retaliation for her husband’s public dissent on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The story will be most familiar to those who have paid attention during the Bush administration, but the film does a fair job at contextualizing the issues in a way that should be accessible to those for whom this is a new story. Righteously angry and not shy about letting some of this anger show, Fair Game is fodder for left-wing moviegoers in much the same way that Green Zone was. (Extra trivia point for those who remember that Fair Game director Doug Liman directed the first Jason Bourne movie, after which the series was taken over by Green Zone’s Paul Greengrass.) Shot docufiction-style with a camera that jerks around even in conversation scenes when it doesn’t need to, Fair Game is most fascinating when it offers a deglamourized portrait of real-world intelligence and the way partisan politics bandwagons can destroy people’s lives. As for the rest, well, the film needs to be taken with a grain of salt, given the usual Hollywood dramatizations to make it all feel more interesting. Sean Penn continues to prove that he’s becoming a more interesting actor with time, but it’s Naomi Watts who shines as Plame, a rare multi-faceted female character balancing work and family life. While praise for the film is likely to cut along partisan lines, Fair Game itself is a fine piece of work, suspenseful while reasonably realistic. It’s a deft dramatization of complex events, and despite a bit of a late-film lull, it achieves what it wants to do.