(On Cable TV, April 2016) There must be a temptation among certain filmmakers, tasked in presenting an arduous odyssey on-screen, to want to make viewers suffer as much as their protagonists did. At least that’s the conclusion I come to after making it to the end of Unbroken, an extraordinary tale of survival stretched over an equally extraordinary 140 minutes. Philip Zimbardo’s story is, indeed amazing: The son of a poor Italian immigrant, he made it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, only to be shot down above the Pacific during World War II, survive weeks on a small raft, held in a Japanese POW camp … and live until 97. This is dramatic, compelling material: but why does it feel so dull on-screen? Part of it has to do with Unbroken’s self-important ponderousness: nearly every moment of the film screams “Academy Award contender!”, leaving little to breathe if it’s not supporting the character’s terrible story of survival. The tepid pacing, with numerous endless flashbacks, doesn’t help. Neither does, frankly, the outdated depiction of the Japanese as purely evil. Some elements fare better: Jack O’Connell is credible in the lead role, and some of the cinematography is impressive. There is a good movie waiting to emerge from the result, but it would have taken a few merciless cuts to the script and a willingness to abandon the prestige-film mould. You can understand why Angelina Jolie would be attracted to the project as a director: on paper, Unbroken feels like a front-line contender for the award season—alas, the result is a bit too mouldy to impress beyond its good-natured appeal as a true story.
(In French, On TV, June 2015) In some ways, The Bone Collector plays like a collection of crime clichés that drive me insane: The evil serial killer setting up extensive traps and clues, the disabled detective figuring everything from the comfort of his apartment, the standard-issue plot structure in which one-two-three murders set up the final confrontation between hero and villain. There are few surprises here, and yet I was surprised to find myself enjoying the film’s slickness, Denzel Washington’s performance as the quadriplegic detective, Angelina Jolie’s turn as the action-heroine policewoman, New York as a backdrop and, frankly, the unapologetic crime-thriller energy of the entire film. Director Phillip Noyce has done his job: The Bone Collector may be filled with clichés, but they happen to be clichés I hadn’t seen in a while and may have been missing just a little bit. Part of me was annoyed at the film’s far-fetched plot mechanics, while a larger part sort-of-enjoyed the same ride again. There may be some truth to the old saw that “they don’t make them like that anymore” given how big-budget nineties-style crime thriller (without fantastic elements) seem to have vanished from the modern Cineplex: If that’s the case, then there are still older examples of the form to fall back up, and fifteen years later, even The Bone Collector can start to look good.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) I really should like Changeling. It is, after all, an unusually fact-based film about historical Los Angeles, social injustice and sordid crime. It’s written by J. Michael Straczynski (who has earned a permanent residency in my brain after writing most of Babylon-5), directed by Clint Eastwood and features both Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich in pivotal roles. It starts slowly as a single-mother dramatic mystery, then gradually gets bigger and bigger until it sweeps the entire California judicial system. The historical re-creation of 1930(ish) Los Angeles is fascinating, and even the small details of the film are worth a few wonders. Alas, it feels interminable, and it tackles a subject, child endangerment, that I find unbearable these days. Sticking close to the historical facts, Changeling is also forbidden from a conventionally satisfying conclusion: at best, it finds hope in a delusion and stops before the inevitable darkness comes back. At times, watching the film felt like a singularly dull self-imposed ordeal, especially once it makes its way past the two-hour duration. I’m certainly not saying that the film is bad –I am saying, however, that Changeling feels heavy and fit for a particular kind of viewer in a particular kind of mood.
(Video on Demand, November 2014) There have been many, many film transforming classical fairy tales into fully-fledged fantasy epics lately, and it’s in that context that Maleficent scores higher-than-average satisfaction as a modern retelling of Disney’s animated “Sleeping Beauty” through the antagonist’s eyes. Of course, this is a rehabilitation rather than a subversion: This Maleficent is traumatized by past wrongs, outclassed by a greater evil and proves herself worthy of admiration through a lengthy rehabilitation period during which she does much good. So it goes, with added feminist parables to make it even more interesting to today’s audiences. Not much of the story is a surprise once the rehabilitation aspect becomes clear, but it’s executed competently, and Angelina Jolie gets a terrific role befitting her A-list celebrity as the titular character. What’s more interesting is how pretty Maleficent is: papered almost wall-to-wall with computer-assisted imagery, this is an often-gorgeous fantasy film in which we get more than the ugly monsters and clashing armies so often seen from other fantasy epics. (We do get the clashing-armies shot, but at the beginning of the film, and so liberated move on to something else.) While the film is often by-the-numbers, it does have a bit of charm and interest. Still, be warned: With the body violation subtext running so deeply into the villain-turned heroine’s motivation, this really isn’t a movie for little girls. For adults, though, Maleficent is something more unusual, and far more interesting than another of those “fairy-tale turned into fantasy epic” movies we’ve seen so often lately.
(In theaters, December 2010) In retrospect, The Tourist doesn’t look like the kind of film that’s difficult to mess up: Take two hugely popular stars, a picturesque location, and a premise that allows for both a bit of comedy and some action. Easy! Yet much of The Tourist plays as an introduction for a movie that never ends up on-screen… and the conclusion seems deliberately engineered to vex anyone still looking for some coherence. Part of the issue is that the film occasionally presents itself as a thriller when it’s not much more than a romantic comedy and its attempts to play up the thrills are misplaced through a depiction of incompetent police operations, tepid action sequences and half-hearted justifications for the cops and criminals acting as plot drivers. As a romantic comedy, The Tourist can at least depend on the presence of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, even though only Jolie seems perfectly adapted to her role as an elegant woman with secrets: Depp, on the other hand, seems uncomfortable playing a supposedly normal man thrust in the middle of so many shenanigans. His specialty as an actor is the oddball character, not the kind of bland romantic lead that The Tourist wants him to play. What doesn’t help is the unremarkable dialogue: despite the star power of the two leads with Venice in the background, the entire film is barely worth a shrug. Perhaps worse than the result is the almost-there quality of the film it should have been. Fans of Depp and/or Jolie may find enough of their favourite to be happy with the results, but anyone wanting something more than celebrity tourism may want to look elsewhere first.
(In theaters, July 2010) There is something both successful and not quite satisfying in this Cold War espionage thriller throwback. The straightforward revival of Russians sleeper agents as antagonists in Salt is amusing (even more so given recent news items seemingly custom-made to market the movie), whereas the good old suspense mechanics of assassinations and chases are competently handled. After The Recruit and Law Abiding Citizen, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer is quickly becoming a reference for thrillers with just enough twists to be interesting, whereas director Phillip Noyce is good but not great as an action director. (Sadly, the post-Bourne editing is often too frantic to be effective: There’s one over-the-shoulder shot of the heroine jumping down from one vehicle to another that would have been gripping as a one-shot, but is stupidly cut in two by a meaningless insert.) As for the actors, the three lead characters seem ready to play according to type: Angelina Jolie as the capable action heroine no matter the hairstyle, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the stand-up guy you can depend on, and Liev Schreiber as the one you can’t completely trust. In terms of pacing, Salt’s forward rhythm is undermined by unexplainable lapses: What should have been a full-speed-ahead action spectacular is slowed down by moody pauses and too-lengthy flashbacks that approach parody at times. Preposterous plot problems can be forgiven in the name of pure thrills, which is fortunate given how the cheats become bigger and bigger as the film moves in its final act. When it works, Salt is pure summer entertainment, going back to solid stunts rather than an overuse of CGI. It’s fun rather than ambitious, solid rather than innovative, and just insane enough to make something palatable from Cold War plot elements we thought dead and buried. Expect a sequel.
(In theaters, November 2007) Hollywood can make dumb mincemeat out of everything, and classical English literature is no exception. High School teachers everywhere will be devastated to see one of their favourite form of Olde Englishe torture defanged forever by an adaptation that reaches for low comedy, high action and cheap 3D effects. That last item, incidentally, is why the movie is best seen on an IMAX 3D screen: Director Robert Zemeckis is so naively obsessed by the technology that he crammed his film with arrowheads, spires and people being flung at the (virtual) camera, all of which look silly on a regular 2D screen. But they’re far from being the silliest element of a film that borrows from Austin Powers in order to present a naked hero fighting a monster. Yet little of this is as annoying as the not-quite-there quality of the CGI actors, which suffers from the Uncanny Valley cliché as they stutter without grace from one mo-capped pose to another. Pieces of the second Grendel battle are so jerky that they look like a deliberate homage to Harryhausen stop-motion claymation. But if we’re going to list all of the bone-headed ideas of this film, we’re going to be here a while: What about Angelina Jolie’s kinda-naked scene, complete with high-heeled feet and Transylvanian accent? Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the film is the way John August and Neil Gaiman’s script ends up feeling silly, clumsy and forced: Their intended mythical gravitas ends up swept under the carpet of a generic fantasy film with 3D effects. The only enjoyable part of the film comes late, as the elderly Beowulf fights off one of the finest dragons yet seen on-screen: the action beats are numerous, well-designed and completely thrilling. But then the 3D effects kick in again, and the film flops on a series of meaningful glares that leave us uncertain as to whether the film was supposed to be a comedy or not. In any case, it’s miscalculations upon miscalculations for a film that has more value as a technical showpiece than an actual plotted story.