(Video on Demand, June 2016) Thrillers don’t need a lot to plot to work, but there’s an acceptable minimum of twists and turns that have to be met and Return to Sender never manages to have more than two plot beats in mind. Rosamund Pike stars as a likable nurse violently assaulted in her own home. As you may expect, the rest of the film is very much about vengeance, even though the film may try to hide that fact. Much of the last act of the film is obvious and linear, without the slightest twist to keep things interesting. It doesn’t help that the film moves at a languid pace, easily allowing viewers to piece together what’s going to happen before it actually happens. As a result, Return to Sender is a remarkably dull film even for a dark vengeance thriller. The film’s low budget and pedestrian directing doesn’t help. Despite those significant flaws, it’s easy to see why Pike took the role; the film is centred around her, and there are eerie parallels between her character here and in Gone Girl, bordering on typecasting. She easily remains the best thing about Return to Sender, running circles around the other actors (well, except Nick Nolte as her father) Pike completists (not something to be ashamed of) may want to take a look at the film, especially now that it’s on Netflix. Everyone else, though, may have better things to watch.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) While I like director David Fincher’s first movies more than his last few ones (Seven, The Game and Fight Club are classics; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake less so), the world at large seems to disagree, his stature having grown steadily since the beginning of his career. With Gone Girl, though, it looks as if I’m re-joining the critical consensus: It’s a terrific thriller, unsentimental and merciless with a lot of depth along the way. It starts innocently enough, as a man reports the suspicious disappearance of his wife. As the plot unspools, twists appear. Many twists, eventually leaving characters as aghast as viewers. Saying more would be a disservice, except to praise both Ben Affleck and especially Rosamund Pike for performances that play off their existing persona (in Affleck’s case) or their lack of it (in Pike’s case). Fincher directs the film with quasi-alien precision, which feels just about right when Gone Girl reveals itself to be an acid commentary on marriage. A genre-aware script by Gillian Flynn (based on her own novel) makes Gone Girl a terrific thriller, but nearly everyone involved in the film bring their best work: In smaller roles, Tyler Perry delivers a memorable turn as a mesmerizing defense lawyer, while Carrie Coon transforms a small confidante role into something far more interesting. Still, it’s director Fincher who remains the star of the show, effectively presenting his set-pieces with a lot of technical polish. Gone Girl may not be a pleasant film, but it’s almost impossible to stop watching from its intriguing opening to its nightmarish conclusion. It’s just not (really not) a date movie.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Given the quasi-classic status that Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz enjoy in my own personal ranking, I was waiting for The World’s End with loaded expectations: As the concluding entry in the so-called Cornetto trilogy, would it be as funny, as tightly-written, as visually innovative and as purely enjoyable as its two predecessors? Well, while it may not be as hilarious as Shaun of the Dead, nor as satisfying as Hot Fuzz, The World’s End definitely holds its own as a great piece of genre moviemaking. A boozy nostalgic comedy that eventually evolves into something far more outrageous (with a daring ending that crams another film’s worth of content in the last five minutes), The World’s End is perhaps most impressive for the interplay between structure and surface, as written signs comment upon the action, as the story is outlined in-text as a flashback before re-occurring during the film, or for the various (sometimes less-than-pleasant) questions raised by the ending. There is a lot of depth here, and some of it may not be entirely apparent at a first viewing. Still, The World’s End is no mere puzzle box: it works well on a surface level, whether it’s the actors reunited for the occasion (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost interchanging their hero/cad roles, obviously, but also Martin Freeman, the lovely Rosamund Pike, and a glorified cameo by Pierce Brosnan), the impressive fight choreography, the ironic dialogue and Wright’s usual attempt to push film grammar in new directions. While a first viewing leaves a bit unsettled, The World’s End steadily grows in stature as you reflect on it –another characteristic it shares with its predecessors. Mission accomplished for Wright/Pegg/Frost, then, as the wait begins for their next films.
(In theatres, January 2011) As much as I like supporting Canadian Content (and there’s nothing more CanCon than an adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s last novel, filmed and set in Montréal), there’s something just subtly off about Barney’s Version. It’s an accumulation of small annoyances that damage the film, from a scatter-shot episodic narrative to flat performances to overly sentimental moments. I’ll be the first to note that presenting forty years of a man’s life on-screen isn’t the simplest screenwriting challenge: As an adaptation of a dense and thick novel, you can perceptibly feel the loose threads running over everywhere and be frustrated at the amount of extra detail missing from the screen. That’ll explain the way the film doesn’t quite seem to hang together. While Barney’s Version revolves around Paul Giamatti’s exceptional lead performance and Dustin Hoffman’s unrecognizable turn as his father, actors surrounding them are far less credible. Most of the female characters seem played either without subtlety (I once thought I could watch Minnie Driver all day, but her one-note shrill performance tested that assumption) or without affect (Rosamund Pike, sedated throughout): even assuming that the film is from Barney’s subjective perspective isn’t enough to excuse it. Humorous in the details and tragic in the whole, Barney’s Version runs off in all kinds of directions, and it’s not in its nature to finish neatly with a big finale. It’s best, then, to appreciate its small quirky moments, its Montréal atmosphere and the occasional Denys Arcand cameo. It is, as is the case with so many middle-of-the-road Canadian dramas, amiable but unremarkable. Barney’s Version is good enough to make Canadian audiences feel better about seeing it, but it’s not worth much commentary otherwise.