(In French, On Cable TV, September 2018) Coming in toward the end of the Vietnam quagmire, 1970 was a strange year for war movies. On the one hand, you have the blockbuster example of Patton, with its portrayal of a grander-than-life soldier’s soldier against the noble backdrop of World War II and sweeping tank battles. Then there is the satirical trio of Kelly’s Heroes, MASH and Catch-22, all of which took a jaundiced satirical look at war, taking potshots at the very ideals that earlier movies such as The Longest Day would have promoted a few years earlier. (Even Patton isn’t immune to the critical re-evaluation, as Patton himself is portrayed as exceptionally flawed and prisoner of his own nature.) Catch-22 betrays its literary origins through elaborate dialogue sequences often taking over the cinematic qualities of its sequences—most spectacularly during a sequence in which some inane dialogue takes place over the crash landing of a plane behind the characters. This being said, there’s an admirable commitment to historical recreations in Catch-22—the film put together a bomber air base just for shooting, and the results are some impressive sequences with real military hardware and none of that fluffy CGI stuff. An all-star cast is enough to keep things interesting—from Alan Arkin’s too-sane protagonist to Orson Welles turning up as a military commander. Much of the film has a compelling twisted logic to it, pointing out the limits of military thinking in exceptional situations. While the result could have been tighter, more focused and perhaps just a bit less talky, it still amounts to a compelling anti-war statement.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) If Going in Style feels familiar from the first few moments, it’s not just your imagination: there’s been a glut of “old guys going wild” movies in the past half-decade, and they often feature the same actors. Alan Arkin can play old crusties like the best of them, and he almost reprises his The Stand-Up Guys character here to good effect. Morgan Freeman also reprises another character (from Last Vegas), while Michael Caine regrettably doesn’t go full Harry Brown as a pensioner seeking revenge. This is all very familiar stuff, going back to the idea that Hollywood, having maintained those great actor personas for decades, would rather reprise them (with laughter) than dare anything new. Still, under Zach Braff’s direction, Going in Style may be generic stuff but it’s well-made generic stuff. Even knowing where it’s going, the film plays at a pleasant rhythm, the expected set-pieces all falling into place in a comforting rhythm. The actors know what they’re doing, the audience know what they’re doing, and the critique of the excesses of modern American society is carefully kept to a merest whisper as so not to give anyone any ideas. Going in Style is as average as any other Hollywood release these days, but it gets back most of its points on actor appeal and rhythm of execution.
(On DVD, October 2016) I don’t necessarily watch films based on casting, but Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin are enough to make anyone interested in Sunshine Cleaning. The premise itself does have a bit of a kick to it, as two down-on-their-luck sisters decide to go in business as crime scene cleanup specialists. Alas, casting and premise probably oversell the true nature of the film, an unglamorous and grounded (bordering on depressing) drama about dysfunctional people trying to keep it together. Don’t expect laughs by the barrel, don’t expect Adams or Blunt to vamp it up and don’t expect a triumphant ending. Albuquerque shows up without artifice, the story generally takes place in working-class settings in-between strip malls and noisy family restaurants. While this down-to-earthiness may disappoint a number of potential fans, Sunshine Cleaning does achieve most of the marks it sets for itself as a sentimental drama. Adams and Blunt get to stretch acting skills that often get forgotten in their broader movies, and Arkin is a delight even if his role doesn’t stray from his post Little Miss Sunshine persona. It may not amount to the glossy blockbuster comedy that the film could have become with a few tweaks, but Sunshine Cleaning works and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) Grudge Match isn’t an unofficial remake of Rocky Balboa, but is sure does feel like it at times, as a retired boxer played by Sylvester Stallone takes up the gloves once again to face an old rival. But while Rocky 6 tried hard to keep up the serious underdog tone of its series, Grudge Match thankfully seems willing to let the natural comedy in its premise run free. Or so it seems for a while, it bits and pieces –because far too often, Grudge Match lets go of its comic premise and muddles down in emotional sequences that take away from its strengths. It doesn’t help that the film is deeply conventional – it’s not so bad when the characters are exchanging barbs or indulging in easy physical comedy, but when Grudge Match gets serious, it also gets dull. Still, there is considerable entertainment in seeing Robert de Niro take up old glories (although this does nothing to calm critics claiming that his twenty-first century output so far has been almost entirely riffing on his previous career), and Stallone arguably plays a better take on his Rocky Balboa character. Alan Arkin once again plays crusty-old-guy better than anyone else, much as Kevin Hart can somehow remain a non-obnoxious motor-mouth. It’s also good to see Kim Basinger again in a substantial role. The laughs rescue the film from rote emotional familiarity –there is, in particular, a single-shot silent gag involving a bridge, jogger, a scooter and careful composition. Still, Grudge Match is pretty good entertainment, especially for anyone in the mood for a solid way to pass the evening.
(On Cable TV, January 2013) At first glance, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has a lot going for it: An ensemble of high-powered comic actors, a rich premise that opposes old-school stage magic with new-style street magic, a return to glitzy Las Vegas and a can’t-miss redemptive arc for the protagonist. What we get is quite a bit less straightforward. From the laboured beginning all the way through an overlong third act, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone can’t quite find either a consistent tone or a sustained rhythm. Scenes run too long (even when the directing bets on the old “repeat it long enough and it will start being funny again” fallacy), the tone keeps going back and forth between attempted sincerity and zany antics and there’s a distinct sense that the film just isn’t trying hard enough to make good use of the tools at its disposal. Steve Carrell may have a likable hangdog charm, but the film takes a lot of time to dispense with the initial arrogance of his character, and then goes through the exasperating romance with a co-star half his age. Fortunately, the cast is usually better than the material. An occasionally-unrecognizable Jim Carrey steals most of his scenes as a street magician with a poor sense of self-preservation (while his scenes are generally the funniest of the film, they’re also the most out-of-place, contributing to the tonal problems), while Alan Arkin makes the most out of a plum grouchy-old-mentor role. Olivia Wilde, Steve Buscemi and James Gandolfini bring added depth to perfunctory-written supporting characters, but even they seem a bit bored with the material. As with the similarly-themed Now You See Me, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone makes the mistake of using CGI to accomplish magic tricks, undermining its basic credibility in the process. Alas, it doesn’t have the breakneck pacing of Now You See Me, and the result feels decidedly average. It’s not that the film doesn’t have its moments (there’s a really good bedtime magician patter scene, and the film always becomes funnier once Arkin or Carrey are on-screen), but it feels as if it’s not trying hard enough the rest of the time. While it’s funny and entertaining enough to warrant a look, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone doesn’t earn much more than a final shrug. There is, simply put, too little magic in the final result.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) This Iranian-hostage thriller annoyed me for several reasons: Never mind the last few lines that so generously allow Canada to take credit for a CIA operation, or the selective political context, or the way that a Hollywood production self-importantly suggests that Hollywood can be important on the geopolitical stage (no wonder it won the Oscar…): the way real-life facts are tortured until they end up with the kind of breathless thriller in which a departing plane is followed by jeeps filled with would-be killers is enough to make your eyes roll waaay back. Shamelessly rearranging history to suit the purposes of crowd-friendly entertainment, Argo practically demonstrates how bad Hollywood can be in distorting reality. But the real surprise is that despite all of those flaws… the film is actually quite enjoyable. Director Ben Affleck manages a third solid film in as many attempts, even through Argo is a bit more ambitious in its historical setting than the Bostonian crime dramas of either Gone Baby Gone or The Town. The rhythm of the film is steadily engrossing, and the Hollywood interludes (featuring a splendid Alan Arkin) bring a bit of levity to a premise that naturally lends itself to a somber tone. Argo arguably becomes more interesting as it deviates further and further away from reality, as the CIA agent goes rogue in refusing an order to abort the operation, as the fake film-crew takes unjustifiable risks, as the Iranian security forces get closer and closer to the fleeing fugitives. By the time the jeeps are chasing the departing plane on the airport tarmac, it’s practically an unintentional comedy. It’s hard to deny that Argo is splendidly entertaining, and that’s a significant edge over the not-dissimilar Zero Dark Thirty. Still, as a Canadian I feel a duty to tut-tut this film over its historical inaccuracies. You should still see it for its craft… but follow it up with a documentary such as Our Man in Tehran for a more thorough overview of the real events.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) Getting old isn’t easy, and that goes for actors as much as for criminals. Stand Up Guys has the merit of addressing both by featuring Al Pacino and Christopher Walken as a pair of aging gangsters trying to figure out the rest of their lives during one particularly event-worthy night. Pacino’s character is freshly out of prison, while Walken’s character has orders to kill him before the night is over. What happens next is a blend of good screenwriting, decent directing and capable veteran actors: Stand Up Guys becomes a breezy way to pass an hour and a half, coupled with a few things to say about aging and how people can break free from their past. Some of the humor is extremely easy (much of the bordello scenes read like wish-fulfillment for older men) but some of the rest feels on-target as a reflection of older-tired characters that can’t wait for the end to come. After a slow start, Stand Up Guys improves midway through as Alan Alda joins the proceedings for a few faster minutes. While the episodic structure of the film can’t patch over a few unfortunate narrative choices (such as the avenging sequence), the ending is strong enough to satisfy in a somewhat-predictable fashion. Fans of Pacino and Walken will get plenty to like, although Walken’s conflicted arc is more compelling than Pacino outright bombast. While this isn’t a classic-in-the-making, it’s not a waste of time either, and it joins a small “aging superstar thriller” sub-genre alongside now-franchises such as Red and The Expendables.