(On Cable TV, February 2017) I expected much, much worse from My Sister’s Keeper. On paper, it reads as the kind of weepy manipulative Hollywood drama that got satirized out of existence decades ago: a mixture of cancer-afflicted kids, precocious protagonists and ineffectual adults manipulated into melodramatic actions. On-screen, though, it’s not quite as bad … even though its nature as a tearjerker remains intact. Part of it has to do with good actors and small moments where the script doesn’t quite go as expected. I quite liked Alec Baldwin’s lawyer character, for instance, and the ways in which an entire movie’s worth of motivations is suggested for Joan Cusak’s judge character. Professionally directed by Nick Cassavetes (no stranger to weepies) from Jodi Picoult’s eponymous novel (apparently changed to much better effect), My Sister’s Keeper also benefits from a great performance by Abigail Breslin in the lead role, and a borderline-unlikable Cameron Diaz as the mother antagonist. But perhaps less identifiably, the film does have a good moment-to-moment watchability that can often doom less well-executed attempts on similar material. It remains a straight character drama, but one put together with some skill. And that makes all the difference between something that sounds terrible, and something that’s engaging.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) What would this film do without the intense likability of its five leads? Well, the script is good enough that it probably could have stood up without the chipmunk smile of Ryan Reynolds at his most likable, Abigail Breslin as his daughter and the trio of Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks as the three mysterious women who may or may not be the daughter’s mother in the convoluted story he tells her. The narrative mystery structure at the heart of Definitely, Maybe helps a lot in making this romantic comedy feel fresher and less predictable than most; so does the look at political campaign work, and he decade-or-so of history that the film present, complete with jokey jabs at recent history. Reynolds is absolutely likable here, and his rapport by Breslin feels natural. Banks, Weisz and Fisher also do good work in roles that aren’t necessarily all sugar and sweetness. Competently directed, acknowledging its clichés while benefiting from them, Definitely, Maybe is a better-than-average romantic comedy that may speak to anyone with a tangled romantic history, and remind everyone that some happy endings remain to be written.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) I wasn’t expecting much from this low-budget serial-killer thriller, and while The Call doesn’t quite escape the confines of its chosen genre, it does have one or two high-concept moments that make its first hour worthwhile. The chosen focus on 911 responders is novel, and the way the script uses the limits of the caller/responder link to set up a lengthy car chase sequence is the kind of stuff fit to rejoice even the most jaded thriller fan. Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin are both initially sympathetic as (respectively) the responder and kidnapped caller, while director Brad Anderson seems to be able to wring the most out of his low production budget. The highlight of The Call has to be the titular call, a lengthy sequence in the middle of the film where the kidnapped victim, stuck in the trunk of a car, dials 911 and tries to piece together clues as to where she is, where she is headed and who her kidnapper may be. It’s a sequence with twists and turns and clever little moment and sadly it ends well before the film does. Inevitably (for so are Hollywood thriller written), the character played by the lead actress has to inject herself in the action, go investigate on the ground, find clues that trained investigators have missed, go into a lair without calling for backup, and execute vigilante justice with a heavy side-order of sadism. The Call would be a far better film without its trite and unpleasant last act –too bad that the screenwriter couldn’t recognize that the script’s best assets would be undermined by a conventional end sequence. But so it goes with the Hollywood theory of converging premises: No matter how original the set-up, it usually ends up with a female hero facing down a serial killer in a basement.