(On Blu-ray, November 2016) I think I expected just a bit more from The Gift than I got. Which isn’t necessarily a knock against the film: Written and directed by Joel Edgerton (who also holds a pivotal role in the film), The Gift is an understated psychological thriller than eventually deals with some very primal emotions on its way to a devastating conclusion. It’s a powerful anti-bullying statement (you never know what your victims will become … or how much you’ll have to lose to their revenge), an uncomfortable suspense film and an unsettling drama as well. It plays games with our perception of the characters, not to mention exploiting Jason Bateman’s screen persona very effectively. (Bateman has often played the everyday hero, but many of his performances have had a streak of meanness to them, and The Gift plays up that looming menace exceptionally well.) Edgerton himself plays his character well, even when he’s written himself as an ineffectual loser. Sadly, Rebecca Hall doesn’t have much to do here—her persona as a brainy sophisticated woman is custom-made to make her one of my favourite actresses, but doesn’t always find appropriate scripts. But the biggest issue against The Gift may also be one of its best assets: a relatively slow forward rhythm that leaves plenty of time for uneasiness, dread and boredom. It’s a finely controlled film, but it’s also a bit long and often underwhelming along the way … even though the conclusion does pack a punch. It will work best with audiences who don’t necessarily expect a thrill a minute, and who enjoy the often uncomfortable situations that it presents.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) It may or may not be a trend, but I’ve now seen three post-9/11 British thrillers about terrorism in the past 18 months (Dirty War, Cleanskin and now Closed Circuit), and they all eventually end up concluding that their secret services are to be feared just as much as the terrorists. The setup, in Closed Circuit‘s case, promises a bit less than full-blown paranoia: As the case against a terrorist heats up, two lawyers are asked to take the suspects’ defense, one operating publically while the other one defends the client in secret court. The suicide of a previous lawyer assigned to the case weighs heavily in the picture. When both lawyers (previously romantically involved, in a twist that initially promises much) discover increasingly troubling details about their client, they too become the target. The first half of Closed Circuit has a good escalation of thrills as our lawyer protagonists discover far more than expected about their client and his connections to the British Secret Services. But it all tips over to a fairly standard conspiracy/chase thriller that, in the end, doesn’t do much than shrug and deliver a weakly comforting epilogue. It’s all well and good to point at the British establishment and argue that they are all-powerful, but that’s not much of a conclusion –I expected a bit more. Still, Closed Circuit does have a few assets. Eric Bana makes for a fine protagonist, while Rebecca Hall once again plays brainy heroines like no others. Jim Broadbent is unexpectedly menacing as a political force warning our heroes against overstepping unspoken boundaries, while Ciaran Hinds once again ends up as a powerful character who can’t be trusted. (Julia Stiles is also in the film, but almost as a cameo. Anne-Marie Duff is far more memorable with even fewer appearances.) The direction is competent (with an expected visual motif of surveillance cameras), the focus on legal proceedings is fascinating in its own way and the first two-third of the script are built solidly. It’s a shame that after such a promising and unusual beginning, the conclusion disintegrates to so much generic pap that we’ve seen countless times before. At least the British pessimism is enough to keep it distinct from what a typical American thriller would have gone for.
(Video on Demand, July 2014) Even as science fiction concepts make their way to the mainstream, I remain more and more convinced that there is a fundamental difference between the mindset that gravitates toward cord SF and the rest of the population. And here’s Transcendance to make the case, as it plays with heady concepts while reassuring audiences that technology is inherently evil. Sort-of updating the moral virtual panic of The Lawnmover Man for a new generation, Transcendence once again shows an uploaded mind turning evil: SF as an excuse for horror, and a film in which characters gravely say “we fear what we don’t understand”… before doing exactly that. The technical errors abound in this film, which is almost a relief given the silliness of the entire script (“hey, let’s set up a consciousness upload laboratory in an abandoned high-school gym”). There’s a lot to dislike in the structure of the film that spoils much of the ending early on, while the rest of the script doesn’t quite seem to understand where it’s going besides an apocalyptic conclusion. (The ending can sustain a multiplicity of interpretations, the most charitable being that our two lead characters are still working quietly at changing the world.) Director Wally Pfister has a good eye for ponderous images, but he’s really not as sure-footed during the action sequences, which play out as fairly silly on-screen. Johnny Depp once again plays Johnny Depp, but the film’s tight-lipped seriousness undercuts the eccentricity that is his biggest strengths as an actor. Meanwhile, as much as I like Rebecca Hall (to the point of watching nearly everything she’s been doing lately), she is definitely underused in this film, her usual brainy character being neutered into nothing much more than the damsel-in-distress. There’s also something strange about Morgan Freeman being in the film, but in a nearly-useless role. Other flaws abound, from the herky-jerky nature of technological innovation to risible terrorist antagonists to a climax that looks amazingly cheap considering the scope of the film so far. Transcendence is the kind of maddening film that holds a strong set of ideas, but can’t be bothered to actually do anything interesting with them… or take the leap forward that technological innovations can actually be, you know, beneficial without anyone turning into a creepy omniscient god-monster. I suspect that being a fairly knowledgeable SF reader is tainting my impression of Transcendence in ways that may not occur to the average moviegoer, but such is the baggage that I bring to the film.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) The idea of septuagenarian Woody Allen writing/directing a romantic comedy starring a pair of young women may feel strange, but looking at the result in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, you have to give Allen all the acclaim he deserves. The film features two Americans holidaying in Barcelona: Rebecca Hall as the sensible one with a clear idea of her future and Scarlett Johansson as the flighty one in search of direction. The fun begins when they both fall (at different times) for the same man, and the repercussions that this has over both women’s self-esteem and sense of identity. That, perhaps, is where Allen’s maturity comes into play: by the end of the film, few questions have been settled satisfactorily, even though everyone seems to know a bit more about themselves. As such, don’t expect a conventional crowd-pleaser, even though Vicky Cristina Barcelona is light-hearted enough to qualify as a comedy. Good actors easily make up for whatever non-ending the film may have: While Johansson is decent as the titular Cristina, it’s Rebecca Hall who’s the film’s revelation as the brainier and more conflicted Vicky. Javier Bardem is scarily good as the tall, dark, handsome stranger that shatters the heroines’ world, while Penelope Cruz is almost as striking as the one force of chaos that upsets Bardem’s character. While the film doesn’t have enough of a conclusion to fully satisfy, it’s easy to get swept in this unconventional romantic comedy, and to appreciate the sights that Barcelona has to offer.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) The British filmmakers behind The Awakening seem determined to uphold national stereotypes, as this quiet horror film manages to be successful in ways that bombastic American horror movies can’t quite manage. The film start extremely well, as a professional skeptic in Post-WW1 Britain is asked to investigate mysterious happenings at a boarding school with a troubled history. Much of the first half of the film is an effective demonstration of the power of good scripting, quiet scares, strong character work and effective atmosphere. Rebecca Hall squarely carries The Awakening on her shoulders as the lead protagonist, a proto-feminist debunker who would love nothing more than to find proof of the supernatural. Things take a left turn midway through, as the initial mystery is seemingly solved: suddenly, the protagonist realizes something else is in play, and the film shifts gears, realizing the potential of the film’s title and sending us in ever-unlikelier territory. It all leads to a subtle ending that can be interpreted in two ways, to the pleasure or frustration of everyone. Still, despite a somewhat weaker third act that depends on the quasi-magical powers of unsuspected amnesia, The Awakening is a successful horror film. Rebecca Hall’s strong screen presence is complemented by other capable actors such as Dominic West and Imelda Staunton to improve the already-convincing atmosphere of the film. It’s refreshingly free of gore, and given how it works in slightly different ways than most horror films, it’s worth tracking down for ghost-story fans.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) For an actress I didn’t even know at the beginning of the month, I’m suddenly quite impressed by Rebecca Hall’s screen presence and the range she shows from the “hero scientist” of Iron Man 3 to the “ice-cold English noble” of Parade’s End to the “trailer-park chic” of her role in Lay the Favorite. [July 2013: Although the “non-nonsense pragmatist” of The Awakening and Vicky Cristina Barcelona suggest that Lay the Favorite is a bit of an outlier.] Her performance is one of the few things that transform the somewhat ordinary script for Lay the Favorite to something worth remembering the day after. A gambling comedy set in the sports-bookie world of Las Vegas, it at least has the merit of exploring a new subculture and doing so with just enough style to be interesting. Much of the plotting is purely serviceable, with the expected story beats all carefully lined up in a row. But it’s light-hearted enough to be unobjectionable and one suspects that the light breezy tone has a lot to do with how it landed notables such as a smiling Bruce Willis in the lead, usually-reprehensible Vince Vaughn as an antagonist of sorts, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in another of her increasingly-frequent strong supporting roles. Still, the film really belongs to Hall, and she makes the most of her role, even elevating the somewhat slight film built around it. Despite weak romances, tonal inconsistencies and a dull ending, she’s the reason why Lay the Favorite remains watchable throughout and leaves a generally favorable impression even despite its familiarity and lack of substance.