(On Cable TV, June 2018) I’ve been gorging on classic movies lately, so it’s even more of a shock than usual to take in one of the dumbest and most repulsive Adam Sandler movies yet. That’s My Boy is unusual in the Sandler oeuvre in that it’s clearly R-rated (Sandler is, temperamentally and intellectually, more closely aligned with the PG-13 rating) and it really doesn’t waste any time in establishing that fact: Once a film starts with statutory rape played for laughs, you have to wonder if it has anywhere lower to go. Alas, it does: incest, granny-lusting and priest-punching are only some of the not-so-delightful surprises that the film still has in store. Most of it plays limply despite the film’s incessant bombardment of curse words and shock images: Like most teenagers discovering the R-rating, Sandler seems convinced that everything is funnier with four-letter words and if he’s not entirely wrong (I did catch myself laughing once or twice) he does overdo it. It’s a mixed blessing to see gifted actors such as Susan Sarandon, James Caan and arguably Andy Samberg being dragged into the mess—although Ciara is cute as a peripheral love interest who shows up in two scenes. Still, much of the film is bottom-grade raunchy comedy, too crude to be interesting and too trite to be surprising. I usually see those films in order to know what I’m talking about when I’m dismissing comedians such as Sandler, but at the moment, That’s My Boy is having an unexpected impact: Making me like the classic Hays Code comedies I’m watching even more.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2018) Some movies stay with you and some movies leave without much of a fuss, and writing this capsule review a few weeks after seeing Dead Man Walking, I’m having trouble remembering anything specific about the film. This may or may not tell you more about the film than myself. After all, the film was a modest hit upon release, sparking discussions about faith, revenge and the death penalty. It’s executed soberly, and director Tim Robbins gives a wide berth to star Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon to show what they can do as actors. It touches upon a highly dramatic subject, what with a nun trying to help a death row prisoner atone for his sordid actions. It even leads to the kind of life-and-death climax that ought to leave an impression. Alas, my attention checked out early, perhaps motivated by the realization that I had seen this kind of Oscar-baiting movie countless times before, perhaps encouraged by the certitude that I would not see anything here outside of the usual Hollywood mould for issues drama. Once the premise is clear, so is its execution and conclusion. The film runs through expected paces, and the chosen tone of the story limits what it will do on its way to a foregone conclusion. I certainly do not expect anyone else to react the same way as a jaded cinephile such as myself would do—in fact, I would applaud strong reactions to the film by others. I can only report about what I think of the film, or how quickly it has evaporated in my mind.
(In French, On TV, October 2017) There is, without question, a lot of fun to be had watching The Witches of Eastwick on a basic level, as three likable women are seduced by the devil incarnate, only to take revenge. Jack Nicholson playing the Devil is as perfect a piece of casting as you can imagine, and there’s no denying the combined sex-appeal of Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon as the titular coven. The film does have a good go at satirizing various relationship conventions (What do Women Want? Indeed) before predictably moving toward a female empowerment finale. But therein lies the rub: There was no other way to finish the film, and it kind of goes wrong in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. I would feel far better if a woman had written the screenplay, because the male gaze (and male privilege) shown here is problematic. I’m not sure that all three women being ga-ga over babies of a dubious father makes sense. (It makes even less sense to consider that one of the female characters already has half a dozen children that practically never show up during the movie—where are they and why isn’t she spending time with them???) In some way, The Witches of Eastwick is an artifact of a time that is hopefully past—a dumb producer’s (i.e.: Jon Peters) brute-force vision of something that should be far more delicately handled. The Witches of Eastwick is funny and sexy, but it’s a guilty fun and an even guiltier sexiness. It doesn’t help that the script seems patched-up at times. The cherry pit-vomiting sequences are just gross and take away from the generally amiable remainder of the picture. (Then again, this is directed by George Miller, who’s made a career to strange tonal shifts) But this was 1987 and we’re now thirty years later—I’d be game for a less problematic remake, but I’m not sure who could step up to Nicholson’s performance.
(On TV, June 2016) Watching Thelma & Louise twenty-five years after its release, I expected the experience to be less … upsetting than it was. After all; Thelma & Louise is recognized as a feminist classic, I’m pro-feminism; it’s a quarter-century later, social attitudes have changed … why should this be anything but a safe period piece? But it’s not. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis star as two women out for a weekend away from their spouses, but find themselves driven to a crime spree through a set of circumstances—and despicable men. Thelma & Louise remains an infuriating film even today largely due to the realization that it’s still an exceptional film. Films with two strong female leads are still rare, and film to be written from such an explicitly female perspective are even rarer—especially in Hollywood. Ridley Scott may have directed the film with his typical visual flair, but most of its impact squarely depends on a script written by Callie Khouri, channelling female frustrations and anxieties in reluctant wish fulfillment. Pretty much all the male characters are out to do harm to our leads: It’s not just Christopher McDonald’s unrepentant abusive husband or Brad Pitt’s captivating first turn as an opportunistic thief: It’s also Harvey Keitel as an investigator, sympathetic to our protagonist but tasked to enforce the dominant male narrative that has designated the protagonists as dangerous criminals. Thelma & Louise still pushes buttons a quarter-century later, and forces audiences to realize how little progress has been made along the way. Perhaps worse is the realization that the kind of film that is Thelma & Louise, muscular mid-budget standalone thrillers with some social relevance, have been almost evacuated from the Hollywood scene, replaced by fantasy narratives designed to sell latter instalments. I’m upset all right, and I can’t think of higher praise for the film.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) Prepare your hankies, because Stepmom is determined to make you cry as hard as you can. The narrative threads are set up early, as the younger second wife of a sympathetic but featureless man (Ed Harris) can’t quite get the respect she wants from her stepchildren. Real mom is best mom, and so Susan Sarandon puts Julia Roberts in her place a few times to establish the narrative tension right before her cancer diagnosis is revealed. The rest is by-the-number sentimental filmmaking by director Chris Columbus, made fitfully interesting by a few hilariously unrealistic looks at fashion photography and adequate performances. Harris, Sarandon and Roberts can’t disguise that this is a very specific kind of movie. Everything plays exactly like we expect, and the result defies any attempts at deeper analysis or even sustained interest. Stepmom will appeal to its target audience and leave large groups indifferent. It is well made, but it is not worth more than a moment’s attention.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) One wouldn’t expect a low-budget Canadian films starring a small-town police chief investigating a gruesome murder to evolve into a national crime mystery weighting important issues of faith and redemption. But thanks to some clever storytelling (and a solid source novel), that’s exactly what The Calling ends up doing out of not much more than a very low budget. Susan Sarandon anchors what is otherwise a recognizably Canadian cast (Donald Sutherland bonus!) as a burnt-out police chief grappling with a baffling murder. As clues accumulate, it becomes obvious that she’s after something more than a random killer, and even more than a simple serial killer. The film cleverly pretends to take place in three provinces and involve a national scope despite shooting in small-city Ontario. Drab, slow and Canadian winter-cold, The Calling nonetheless earns a bit of attention throughout, and manages to do a little bit more than expected with the standard clichés of serial killer low-budget cinema. The ending isn’t as strong as it should have been, but by the standards of low-budget Canadian films (and you know it’s going to play endlessly on Canadian TV due to the CanCon requirements…), it’s actually better than average.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) At a time when most Hollywood Science Fiction blockbusters seem to be exercises in over-the-top action and densely dazzling visuals with little left for heart and compassion, it’s good to find an antidote in the form of a low-key SF comedy. Here, five minutes in the future, an aging robber reluctantly forms a bond with his newly-imposed robotic assistant, to the extent of recruiting his new buddy for one last score. Filmed with a surprisingly low budget, Robot & Frank even dispenses with extensive special effects work by using a simple robot suit worn by dancer Rachael Ma: it’s a film about relationships and subtle ideas, not really about spectacular visuals. Frank Langella is essential to the film as the protagonist with a troubled past: he anchors the film in a believable reality and effectively acts as a foil to the entire cast as they all seem determined to do what’s best for him. Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon is lovely as an aging librarian who becomes the object of his affection, and Liv Tyler makes the most out of limited screen-time as a daughter who learns better. Much of the film is a slow burn, executed with calm and confidence. It does builds up to an effective moral dilemma, though, and its exploration of memory (the tragedy of losing it, but also the curse of remembering everything) is as subtle as any film about aging could hope to feature. While some late-film twists and revelations fail to convince, much of Robot & Frank remains charming in its own quiet way. One of the best things about the mainstreaming of Science Fiction and the greater availability of filmmaking tools is that SF movies can now reflect a variety of viewpoints. The blockbusters are here to stay, thankfully, but it’s good to know that there’s something else out there.