(In French, in theatres, March 2018) Considering that I’m reading Beatrix Potter’s stories to my daughter these days, I should be outraged that the screen adaptation of her Peter Rabbit tales pretty much makes a mockery of the original. Peter Rabbit features a petulant mischief-maker, all the animal characters have radically different personalities from the book, the tone has gone from pastoral whimsies to modern slapstick, and Potter herself is portrayed as an artist with a kooky side. Much of the plot has become a romantic triangle between Potter, a clumsy suitor and Peter Rabbit. The film has been put through the homogenization process that makes the result feel a lot like your usual live action talking-animal kids movie à la Beverly Hills Chihuahua or The Smurfs. And yet, and yet … it may be my residual liking for writer/director Will Gluck’s first few movies and overall sense of humour, but I found Peter Rabbit surprisingly easy to like. I’m not that fond of the film’s lowest-denominator approach to physical humour (some of the gags are just dumb, and other cross the line into things I rather would have cut), but it’s a high-energy film, and once you distance yourself from the Potter mythos, it’s just about slightly better than comparable kids’ films. It all converges to an expectedly sweet conclusion, and many of the peripheral characters have one or two good scenes. The special effects are as good as we can expect from state-of-the-art Sony Pictures Animation, and the pacing of the film is such that it flies by. No, I may not consider Peter Rabbit a true respectful Potter adaptation … but I like it all the same, despite the warts and the dumb stuff.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Will Gluck earned a spot on my list of interesting directors after Easy A and a good chunk of Friends with Benefits: He seems at ease with fast-paced films about young characters but doesn’t necessarily talk down to his audience. Annie isn’t in the same league as Easy A, but it’s a competent kid’s film with an appealing heroine a good narrative rhythm. Given that much of it is a straight-up musical, that’s no small achievement. The story, now decades old, should be familiar: An orphan is temporarily adopted by a billionaire, who then discovers the true meaning of affection and—aw, who cares: We’re here for “It’s the hard-knock life” and “Tomorrow”. Quvenzhané Wallis turns in a very good performance as the titular Annie –quietening those who may have thought that her breakthrough role in Beasts of the Southern Wild was a feral one-shot fluke, she sings, dances and makes for a perfectly likable protagonist. Jamie Foxx also does well as a new-economy Daddy Warbucks (he makes cell phones), while Cameron Diaz adds another unsubtle bad-girl role to her repertoire. The music numbers often fizz and pop (although some of them aren’t as energetic, and the last one can be distracting as background detail-spotters can watch the shadows on the fence-posts to figure out how long it took to shoot.), while the comedy bubbles up naturally. Some of the dramatic beats are over-played, but there’s some nice cinematography at play here, especially in presenting a glorious one-percenter fantasy view of New York. I’m not as wedded to previous versions of Annie as some may be, and I have a surprisingly high tolerance for movie characters bursting in song and dance, so your mileage will probably vary.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) There really isn’t anything new to this romantic comedy, but it’s a small triumph of capable execution. From the whip-taut dialogue of the opening sequence to its cheerful ending, Friends with Benefits is a clever self-aware take on the romantic-comedy formula. The fast-paced dialogue makes up a lot of the film’s appeal, but there’s a lot to be said about the hipness of the film’s assumptions as coupled to the solidity of its morals. It’s a bright and cheerful comedy, funny except when it becomes convinced that it has to be serious for a while. Justin Timberlake adds to his growing repertoire of thankless roles, whereas Mila Kunis is an able sparring partner. (Woody Harrelson’s performance is also a small delight.) Friends with Benefits‘ witty script and solid dialogue (as well as brief appearances by Patricia Clarkson and Emma Stone) reminded me of Easy-A, which is all too reasonable given that both films come from writer/director Will Gluck. As much as it would be easy to criticize the schematic nature of the film’s romantic angle, its heavy dose of unreality or the carefully delimited nature of the film’s irreverence (those satin bed-sheets surely get arranged strategically, don’t they?), there’s still a lot of sheer movie-watching pleasure in watching a slick rom-com gorgeously shot. New York looks beautiful in this film, and Gluck’s direction has a nice flow helped along by some fluid camerawork. It amount to a much-better-than-average romantic comedy, one that doesn’t push any boundaries but entertains charmingly.
(In theaters, September 2010) I have a big soft spot for clever bubbly teen comedies, and those aren’t as frequent as you may think. Never mind how long it’s been since Clueless, Bring it On or Mean Girls: Easy A is now here to make us believe again in the power of a good script, decent direction and capable actors having fun in redeeming a high-school setting. Paying explicit homage both to classic works of literature and to John Hugues’ work, Easy A’s starts out with a witty and literate script, but it’s the actors that really bring it to life: Emma Stone is immediately compelling as the picture’s lead character, a sassy/cynical/smart teenage girl who takes on lying about carnal trysts as a path to social success. Around her, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci shine as an endearing mature couple who can’t stop trading sarcastic barbs: the rapid-fire delivery of their lines is one of the film’s sustained pleasures, and it show how confident Easy A can be in unloading its polysyllabic dialogue. There’s a lot of really funny material in here that doesn’t call attention to itself, and that will reward viewers with enough attention to keep up. Director Will Gluck showcases the script with zippy direction, but his technique wisely keeps the focus on the actors. While the film has a bit of a third-act problem in trying to bring everything together (the real-life answer would be “nobody will care as soon as you graduate”), the rich writing more than makes up for whatever longer moments can be found on the way to its conclusion. This is one teen film that everyone has a decent chance to enjoy.