(On Cable TV, February 2017) Movies about parenthood aren’t rare, but few of them can use situations and characters as rich as Captain Fantastic to make their points. As the movie begins, our protagonist is the father to six children, and they’re not home-schooled as much as they’re on a strict regimen designed to hone their physical and intellectual skills to perfection. Living deep in the woods, this is a family that is aggressively self-reliant, chasing down game for meat and using the evenings for impromptu music, political conversations and literary exploration. But where is the mom? Well, it turns out that the mother has committed suicide while hospitalized, and that event forces the family to rejoin civilization, even if temporarily. That’s when tensions rise, and some of the kids realize how poorly socialized they have been: Living by themselves in the wild is far less difficult than terrifying encounters with their peers. As idealism crashes into pragmatism, what will the family choose to do? Boasting a witty script, beautiful northwestern scenery and a terrific performance by Viggo Mortensen, writer/director Matt Ross delivers a comic drama that pokes at what it means to raise kids, and which values are most useful. The crash between idealism and pragmatism is cleverly explored and the movie gradually grows stronger, which wasn’t a given considering the high concept with which it starts. Captain Fantastic is clearly in the familiar mold of the indie comedies of the last few years (it’s practically branded as a Sundance film) but it earns its emotional beats honestly, and leaves plenty of thought-provoking material for parents.
(In French, On TV, January 2017) I’m not much of a horse guy, and Hidalgo is clearly designed to be a movie about a man and his horse. As a late-nineteenth-century cowboy head over to the Middle East to compete in a desert race, this is an adventure story in which the various women encountered by our protagonist don’t ever measure up to his affection for his own horse. It’s not a short film—once you factor in the lengthy prologue, various desert adventures, lengthy pans of the arid scenery, theme-juggling and various character-building moments, Hidalgo clocks at almost two hours and a half. (For a film about a long-distance desert race, the race itself often takes a back seat to other more pressing matters.) Fortunately, there is something good at the heart of it all. Thanks to director Joe Johnston, the action sequences are capably put together and the adventure eventually gets a good sense of forward rhythm. Thanks to Viggo Mortensen, the protagonist earns our respect and pinto mustang Hidalgo himself makes quite an impression. Meanwhile, Louise Lombard and Zuleikha Robinson bring a welcome female presence to what could have been a mostly male story. In an effort to deliver a movie that has as much stuff as possible, Hidalgo also brews a complex mixture of thematic concerns, from a stranger-in-a-strange land narrative to a man-and-his-horse romance to more prosaic survival and rescue segments. As rousing desert adventures go (judiciously ignoring claims of it being “based on a true story”), Hidalgo is often better than most, even though some judicious cutting could have improved things for audiences who aren’t quite as much into horses and deserts as the filmmakers.
(In theatres, December 2009) There’s been a lot of post-apocalyptic films lately, and hopefully The Road will signal that we can go back to something else, because it’s hard to imagine a realistic take on the end of the world that could be greyer, sadder and more relentlessly desperate than this one. There’s no glamour, fun or adventure in this film set about a decade after an unseen, unspecified but all-encompassing catastrophe: The rare survivors are grimy and constantly forced to fight cannibals on their way. As an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name, it’s pretty faithful: Charlize Theron has a far bigger role in the film’s trailer than in the entire book, but the rest is pretty dead-on. This means that rather than reading 241 bleak pages trying to find new ways to describe “gray doom”, you get to see 112 very long minutes of the same. While The Road is a success in that it does manage to hit most of its objectives, it will take a special kind of viewer to appreciate it. The rest are likely to spend their time looking at their watches and wondering when it will finally end (and if the characters can’t die a bit sooner for it to happen.) I suppose that film scholars will have a lot to say about the film’s nuanced take on fatherhood, man’s inhumanity to man, the nature of hope and the way decaying character is seldom self-perceived, but first you have to endure the post-apocalyptic gloom. Viggo Mortensen fans will be pleased; so will those looking for buildings unexplainably still burning ten years after everything goes gray. As for the rest, well, 2012 is also available. Now that is a catastrophic choice.