(On Cable TV, July 2016) This is not a conventional movie, being composed of several black-and-white vignettes in which two (occasionally three) characters argue over caffeine and smokes. The first two segments were shot as short films years before the others, and it shows as latter instalments become more textured and creative. Director Jim Jarmusch is obviously going for something experimental here, and the result will be far more interesting to those with a fondness for art-house cinema. Coffee and Cigarettes features an impressive group of thespians, with particular acknowledgements for Cate Blanchett’s double performance, Alfred Molina trying to get through to Steve Cooghan and Bill Murray for his innate Bill Murrayness. (Strangely enough, two of the film’s most striking actresses, Joie Lee and Renée French, haven’t done many other roles.) As intriguing as the central concept may sound, Coffee and Cigarettes doesn’t quite achieve its potential. The low-grade hostility between its characters is wearying, everything stays too mild-mannered and the philosophical tangents are profoundly uninteresting. (Although I’ll make an exception for “I know how a Tesla coil works!”) Fortunately, the film doesn’t have to be watched straight through: it’s easy (and even fun) to take it in a piece per day every day for a bit more than a week. There isn’t much to link the segments together, and this way you avoid the “that again!” feeling from watching too many similar short films.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) It doesn’t reflect well on me, but I’ve long believed that Carey Mulligan is one of the most profoundly uninteresting thespian working at the moment. I don’t find her likable, attractive or impressive—most of her roles could have been played just as well by other actresses, and she doesn’t seem to have any innate distinction to her on-screen persona. But here comes An Education to make me question that long-held loathing: Mulligan is the clear protagonist of the movie, and she more than manages to be interesting, likable, attractive (a flattering haircut helps) and impressive as a young woman undergoing real-life schooling in 1960s England. Going from grade-A student to dropout under the influence of a conman, Mulligan portrays the withering innocence and mounting maturity of her character, and hold her own against capable actors such as Peter Sarsgaard (as the charming antagonist) and Alfred Molina (as a father who cares a lot). It’s not a complicated story, nor much of an original one, but it works well at what it tries to do, and ends up considerably more captivating than it looks on paper. An Education is a small surprise, not the least of them being Mulligan’s unexpectedly compelling performance.
(In theatres, May 2010) It’s hip to dismiss Hollywood summer blockbusters, but there’s nothing quite like the feel of a good well-made escapist fantasy. Forget about the video game origins of the film, or the loose historical allusions in the title: this first Prince of Persia movie works best as an action adventure fantasy, any kind of verisimilitude joyfully sacrificed on the altar of entertainment. Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer obviously aim to replicate the atmosphere of the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and while it’s not perfect, it works generally well at taking us from one action/effects set-piece to another. Jake Gyllenhaal makes for a credible action hero while Genna Arterton is almost impossibly sassy/cute in the film’s only noteworthy female role, but it’s Alfred Molina who ends up the film’s standout oddball character as a quasi-modern parody of a libertarian. Not that he’s the only charmingly anachronistic element in a plot that is based on a middle-eastern invasion motivated by false reports of weapons of mass destruction. But never mind the politics when the film mixes swashbuckling adventure, an Arabian fantasy setting and an intriguing fantasy plot device. You can see the end of the story coming from the film’s first twenty minutes (which is probably a good thing, given its reset-button nature), but it’s the telling that’s the charm here. Not that it’s a complete success like its piratical predecessor: Prince of Persia sometimes feel a bit too long, sorely misses more female characters, could have used another dialogue re-write, has no cultural legitimacy (See “Persia, Prince of”) and often feels driven by incredible contrivances. But, you know, I’m already looking forward to the sequel. After all, I’ve just seen Robin Hood: I’ve had my inoculation shot against excessive realism.
(In theaters, July 2004) Maybe I’m getting too old for this stuff; I wasn’t a particularly enthusiastic fan of the original Spider-Man (too dull, too ordinary) and if the second one is distinctly better, I’m still not all that convinced. Oh, certainly, I just love parts of this sequel: the operating room sequence is pure Evil Dead Raimi, the action sequences are directed with impressive fluidity and the villain is a lot of fun. Even the over-arching story makes sense and at least tries to reach above the usual superhero crap. But it’s not through dull romance and mortgage concerns that I try to escape reality, and so Spider-Man 2 just isn’t as much fun when it’s dragged-down to harsh reality, especially when it starts forgetting that there’s a super-villain running around. Worse is the heavy-handed direction and the on-the-nose dialogue, which makes sure to highlight every single emotional nuance to make sure that even the dumbest teen in the audience doesn’t miss a thing. By the time the crotchety old lady delivers her speech about the importance of heroes, it’s hard to tell if the filmmakers are laughing at the audience. Oh well; at least JK Simmons is excellent as J. Jonas Jameson and Alfred Molina gets to show that fat middle-aged men can be super-villains too! (Talk about an untapped segment for wish-fulfilment) Blockbuster-wise, it could have been worse. But it could have been better too, and it does no one any favour when the film’s aim reaches so obviously for the broadest common denominator.