(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, December 2016) As I’m exploring Woody Allen’s filmography, there’s a certain pleasure in seeing him back on-screen after a lengthy pause. To Rome with Love is an interwoven anthology film of four different stories playing against its roman backdrop, from Alec Baldwin’s recollections of a love triangle made alive to Roberto Benigni’s strange brush with fame to Allen discovering an unlikely signing talent to a couple of visiting newlyweds experiencing life in the capital. Like most ensemble stories, its interest rises and falls unpredictably, but the overall effect is strong, with enough romance, humour and weirdness to keep things interesting. Of the stories, I was most struck by Alec Baldwin’s resigned-but-wise reactions to the developing love triangle in-between Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page—it’s funny and a bit wistful at once, with plot and commentary joyously crashing in one another. The newlywed’s adventures are also funny, although occasionally too close to humiliation comedy for my taste. Allen’s segment is enhanced by a typical Allen performance as a nattering shmuck—the outlandish situation he creates is just the icing on the cake. Finally, there’s the unexplainable weirdness of an ordinary man (Benigni) brought to sudden fame and dropped just as rapidly—a metaphor for our social media age, perhaps, but still worthwhile on its own. To Rome with Love probably won’t endure as one of Allen’s classics—it’s too scatter-shot, too willing to make audiences laugh without deeper themes—but it’s a relatively good time at the hands of a comedy veteran, and perhaps his funniest film in a while. As an entry in his “European capitals” phase, it’s slight but decent.
(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I’ve been re-watching a lot of pre-1997 movies lately, mostly films that I saw before starting to put capsule reviews on this web site. Much of the time, it’s an imposed event: the films haven’t aged well, fall short of what I remember, or don’t benefit from the power of discovery. And then there are exceptions like Beetlejuice, who ends up being just as good, if not better, than what I remembered. Beetlejuice is peak Tim Burton after all, blending gentle horror and black comedy in a mixture that remains largely unique even today. Alec Baldwin is fun as a good-hearted character (especially after his persona solidified in cad roles) while Geena Davis is spectacular as his wife. Winona Rider is remarkable as a goth teen, but it’s Michael Keaton who remains the film’s biggest asset, delivering an unbridled performance as Beetlejuice that remains, even today, a bit of an oddity in a far more restrained filmography. The special effects are still terrific, and their pre-CGI jerkiness adds to the film’s charm. Beetlejuice still works well largely because it’s so off-beat, doing and considering things that would be polished away in today’s far more controlled environment. The two musical numbers are a delight, and the macabre gags still feel faintly daring. It’s a film that certainly doesn’t overdo its welcome and scarcely more than 90 minutes, and it’s still a lot of fun as a comedic Halloween choice. See it if you haven’t, see it again if it’s been awhile—chances are that you will be surprised at how well it holds up.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) I watched this film with some reluctance: While Julianne Moore got stellar reviews for her role in this film, seeing a sympathetic character gradually disappear under the progression of Alzheimer’s disease isn’t exactly a cheerful topic for light moviegoing. As Still Alice inevitably walks toward a merciless conclusion, I wondered how it would manage to end gracefully without delving too deep into despair. It’s not an easy movie to watch: From the first moments, Moore’s character is established as someone with everything to lose from early dementia: She’s an intellectual, a mother, a woman who’s lived life fully and has earned her comfort. But when he’s diagnosed with a rare case of early-onset Alzheimer’s, everything gradually slips away, and even her considerable intelligence only hastens the drop-off when it comes. To be fair, Still Alice doesn’t dwell too long in cheap sentimentalism: it lets things play without drawing them out, and is capable of terrifying moments (such as when Alice meticulously prepares a self-destruction plan, to be triggered at a certain level of functional degeneration). Moore is indeed spectacular in the lead role, with surprisingly touching assistance from Alec Baldwin (not playing a complete cad, for once) and Kirsten Stewart (making the most out of her limited range). It amounts to an affecting portrait of a mind in free-fall, and the conclusion ends at what’s probably the last graceful moment of Alice’s life, letting the cruel business of physical death as a foregone conclusion. Still Alice feels even more poignant in learning that Richard Glatzer, the co-director of the film, had advanced ALS during its production, and died months after its release. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected, even though I could shake off the emptiness it created for a while.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) It’s a minor miracle that the Mission: Impossible series is still going strong after five instalments, but after the near-death-by-ridiculousness of the second movie, the series has managed to hit upon a winning formula that still keeps it going nearly twenty years later. The formula is getting a bit repetitive (can we stand another of those “Ethan Hunt must operate without official support!” plot point?) but nearly everyone understands that plotting in this series is really about getting from one action set-piece to the next, and in this regard Rogue Nation is as good as any other instalment in the series. Tom Cruise’s ridiculously effective charisma helps, and so does the work of the series’ usual supporting players, but this time around the film can count upon a fully fleshed action heroine played by Rebecca Ferguson (too bad she won’t show up for the next instalment, as is custom), straightforward action direction by Christopher McQuarrie, and a pretty enjoyable supporting performance by Alec Baldwin, making the most out of a villainous persona. Good action set pieces include a complex opera house sequence and a frantic car chase in which the pursuer isn’t completely back from the dead. On the flip side, the computer break-in sequence is piled-up nonsense that borrows a bit too much from the first movie, and the final act of the film doesn’t have a strong action sequence as a send-off. The fantasy version of the espionage craft displayed by the series also cuts both ways, either as an escapist bonus, or as a regrettable absurdity when a bit more plotting realism would help anchor the delirious action sequences. This being said, Rogue Nation has the benefit of meticulously planned sequences and a controlled tone throughout—making it stand a bit above most of the other spy movies of 2015’s anno furtivus—yes, even better than Spectre, with which it shared a striking number of plot points. What’s left to do but anticipate the next instalment?
(Netflix Streaming, December 2015) There’s some logic in seeing David Mamet tackling a wilderness-survival story. Given Mamet’s career-long obsessions with masculinity and how men deal with each other, it’s ready to see the attraction in pitting a few men against nature in far-away Alaska, especially when two of the men are competing for the same woman. Still, there’s a bit of a gulf between concept and execution, and if The Edge does well most of the time (especially in presenting a terrifying bear attack), there are a few issues with the result that keep it from being as good as it could be. While Anthony Hopkins is interesting as a billionaire-bookworm-turning-super-survivalist (including a few choice macho one-liners), the very nature of his character seems a bit too close to wish-fulfillment. (For that matter, the bear seems a bit too wilfully evil as well.) Alec Balwdwin’s up to his usual borderline-slimy level, though. Still, the scenery isn’t bad, and there are enough little twists and turns here and there to keep things interesting. The Edge has stood up the test of time decently as well.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) I’ve been watching and enjoying so many late-nineties thrillers lately that I had begun to worry that I was losing my critical impartiality regarding the sub-genre. Fortunately, here is Mercury Rising to remind me of what a bad movie of the form could be. From a rather pedestrian premise (autistic kid solves problem that means that he’s cracked a top-secret encryption scheme; rogue elements of the government try to kill him; disgraced policeman steps in to protect him), Mercury Rising is primarily a failure of execution. Bruce Willis shows little energy in his role (echoing a lack of interest in most of the movies he’s taken on since 2010), while Alec Baldwin cackles as the villain. The plot is borderline nonsensical, the action scenes are rote and whatever emotional resonance the film tries to wring out of its elements rings false. The ending sequence is particularly bad, unconvincingly built from disparate soundstage elements. Mercury Rising is formula-built, which wouldn’t so bad if it was competently executed. But it isn’t, and despite Baldwin’s enjoyable turn as the antagonist, there isn’t much here to stay entertained.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) Doesn’t Alec Baldwin make a splendid shmuck? That kind of performance seems to be the main justification for It’s Complicated, an otherwise amiable film to the point of not being of much interest. Director Nancy Meyer once again turns her attention to Rich White People’s problems (as in; hiring an architecture firm to supervise the construction of a kitchen addition) before resigning herself to showing some conflict. It sort-of-works if that’s the kind of film you’re looking for, or if you simply want to enjoy the film on superficial acting performances, lifestyle aspiration or simply the idea of people having very small problems. To its credit, It’s Complicated has a bit of sense in its conclusion, and can depend on Meryl Streep to sleep-walk through an unchallenging role, while Steve Martin is blander than expected in a stealth romantic hero role (he does get a split-second “wild and crazy guy” moment, though.) and Alec Baldwin is almost delightfully slimy. Jon Krazinski also gets one or two good moments, but otherwise It’s Complicated is a film on auto pilot, almost too nice to be interesting.
(On-demand video, November 2012) I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals and as such I’m pretty happy with Rock of Ages, which grabs eighties-rock songs and re-shapes them into a straightforward musical about finding love and success in 1987 Hollywood. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta do well as the dull young couple anchoring the story, but the rest of the cast shines. Alec Baldwin is hilarious as an aging rock-will-never-die club owner, Paul Giamatti is perfect as a slimy impresario and Catherine Zeta-Jones is amusing as a socialite with a revealing past. Still, they’re not the best of what Rock of Ages has to offer: Russell Brand steals his scenes with lines that sound tailor-made for his personae but even he takes a step back whenever Tom Cruise chews the scenery as rock god Stacee Jaxx. Cruise-as-Jaxx transposes and perverts his movie-star status into a related realm, and if Cruise seems more accomplished than unleashed as a self-destructing icon, it’s still a great performance in a pivotal role. Music-wise, Rock of Ages will have you humming “I Wanna Rock”, “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” (among others) for days, even though the movie’s soundtrack may not compare to the original versions of the songs. I’m told that the movie’s plot is considerably happier and simpler than the original musical, (although it keeps the vexing two-act structure leading to a mid-movie lull) but director Adam Shankman’s adaptation is also able to weave song medleys around characters doing their own things separately –at best, it’s an exhilarating example of the creative freedom offered by well-produced cinema. While Rock of Ages may be a fluffy fantasy loosely connected to the anthem-rock era, it’s bouncy and fun and just as entertaining as it wants to be. But I did say that I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals.