(On Cable TV, September 2018) It’s not that Beyond the Edge is a terrible film, but it will work much better if you have some indulgence to spare. There’s definitely a novelty in seeing a Russian action/fantasy film executed with the visual slickness and decent budgets we associate with Hollywood productions. Alas, this is undermined somewhat by the dubbing effect—the Anglosphere doesn’t have much expertise in movie dubbing (at least compared to the francophone world), and the vocal talent hired here aren’t always the most convincing, which compounds the somewhat amateurish acting skills also on display. (Except for Antonio Banderas — he’s out of his element, but he’s all right.) But those are minor issues compared to a script with fundamental issues: The pacing is off, the plot points are frequently obscured and it’s as if the screenwriter has little idea how to structure sequences so that they lead to dramatic payoffs—time and time again, Beyond the Edge is fuzzy on what’s going on or disappointing in the execution of its plotting. While the film uses a generous number of special effects and its own brand of fantastical mythology, they don’t cohere into a satisfying whole—the visuals are nice, but their integration is underwhelming. (The way the superpowers are depicted particularly seems like a wasted opportunity.) The plot itself is a blender mix of other better movies: While I don’t usually enjoy rattling off movie titles as references, think Ocean’s Eleven with X-Men with Inception and you’ll be on your way to the blend of influences here—albeit with the forewarning that it never gets close to these influences in terms of effectiveness. Still, I don’t feel as if I lost my time watching Beyond the Edge—as annoying as it can be in stringing its sequences together, there are a few stronger moments here, especially when writers-directors Aleksandr Boguslavskiy and Francesco Cinquemani can dispense with that complicated dialogue stuff and just let loose with the special effects or the cool directing tricks pulled from those influences. The end of the film is a bit better than its beginning (although that ending is far too abrupt), but a hypothetical Hollywood remake (note: this is not a request) would have a lot of work to do to fix those issues in order to make the entire thing flow better.
(In French, On TV, February 2018) Pedro Almodovar’s body of work (or at least the half-dozen films of his that I’ve seen) defy easy characterization: comedy, drama and thriller, all in the same films, all using refreshingly unfamiliar narrative structures … and seeing La piel que habito doesn’t help in clarifying things, as it blends mystery, horror and twisted romance in an occasionally-grotesque result. Knowing that it’s a twisted film, you can anticipate the worst once it becomes clear that the film is about a genius-level plastic surgeon, a captive woman and sombre disappearances in the back story. The film’s secrets are far wilder than most people would dare imagine. At that point, it becomes tricky to assess the film fairly: it’s certainly odd and well executed, but is it good? It’s certainly unpleasant, but was it worth watching? Almodovar fans will be best placed to answer these questions for themselves. In the meantime, there’s a good performance here from Antonio Banderas, some clever directing and a script that doesn’t spoon-feed some extreme material. It’s certainly not for weak stomachs—the blood alone is bad enough, but the themes are even worse.
(In French, On TV, July 2017) The good news are that Assassins is a crazy movie in the best sense of the term: It’s disconnected enough from reality to be enjoyable as a big basket of overdone action sequences and familiar genre elements. The not-so-good news is that it’s not really a good movie—much of the storyline is dull and for a movie involving the Wachowskis and Brian Helgeland, it fails to capitalize on its sizzle factor. Thanks to veteran director Richard Donner, there are some good sequences here and there: the taxicab blocked-by-a-bulletproof-window duel is ingenious in the way more of the movie should have been. Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas ham it up enough as competing assassins. But the best thing about Assassins may be Julianne Moore: For an actress who has such a firmly established persona of mature dignity, it’s a real treat to see her in a pre-stardom role that asks her to be trashy/techno in one sequence, then doe-eyed/cute for the rest of the film. Assassins is also the source of the delightful “Antonio Banderas’s Laptop Reaction”.gif, so there’s a tiny bit of internet meme history along the way. Assassins isn’t a major movie in any way and has already ended up as a footnote in other people’s careers, and it should be approached as such: Not as a movie expected to be good, but a grab bag of things that may be interesting.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) There are a few things I really like in Automata: As a Spanish production, it has a sensitivity and flavour of its own; the practical special effects are impressive; it’s good to see Antonio Banderas in a lead role again; and it is deeply steeped into the 2014–2015 wave of movies pondering the coming AI revolution. On the other hand, I’m not so enthusiastic about much of the rest. The world building is absurd; the pacing is off; the plot threads lead nowhere interesting; and the film fails to do much with its own invented rules. “Life finds a way” is a dull foundation on which to base an artificial-intelligence thriller these days, and Automata, at times, seems to be boldly rediscovering Science-Fiction notions that were old-hat in 1980s SF movies or 1960s written SF. The ending is a let-down, some of the plot development are gibberish and Banderas doesn’t even get a capable foil to play against. While I started watching Automata with the best intentions, the film itself gradually ate away at my reserves of goodwill until the best I could say was a variation on “well, it’s a good effort”. On the other hand—a robot science-fiction movie from Spain? How rare is that? Shouldn’t we be happy that it even exists?
(On TV, April 2015) Given the success of “Puss” in the Shrek films, this spin-off prequel was as inevitable as it was likely to be disappointing. Not all supporting comic characters have enough presence to sustain a full-length movie, and so Puss in Boots is largely forgettable despite Antonio Banderas’ vocals and the efforts of the Dreamworks Animation team. Part of the familiarity is the once-again approach in poaching modern storylines from fairy-tales: Here, there’s not much Puss in Boots and a lot of Humpty-Dumpty and Jack and the Beanstalk as the protagonist gets embroiled in a heist plot. (Thankfully, the links to the Shrek movies are very, very thin –not even the settings match.) It works sporadically, just well enough to earn continued attention throughout. Much of the rest is straight from the contemporary animated-movie framework: escalating action sequences, recognizable voice cast, spirited gags and conventional storytelling. Plus a big helping of cat-related jokes. But then again, originality doesn’t really pay in developing family-friendly animated films, especially if they don’t aspire (like Pixar often does) to thematic greatness. Thankfully, Puss in Boots is light on pop-culture references, stands up on its own as a non-Shrek movie and pairing off Banderas once again with Selma Hayek, even if only vocally, seems like the right thing to do. There may not be much to love in Puss in Boots, but there is enough to like.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) If you feel that there’s been a dearth of desert-adventure films out there, then take heart in Day of the Falcon’s existence and enjoy a trip to 1930s Arabia for an old-fashioned epic. Tahar Rahim stars as Prince Auda, a bookworm son who eventually learns to lead an army and uphold progressive values at a time when the West is taking an interest in the oil reserves under the sand. A co-production involving four countries, Day of the Falcon has a decent budget and a refreshingly earnest viewpoint toward traditional values in the face of western imperialism. Directed with competence by veteran French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, the film can be enjoyed for its epic scope, interesting visuals and sympathetic characters. It’s hardly perfect: there are a few pacing issues, and as much as I like Mark Strong and Antonio Banderas, casting them as warring emirs feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity for ethnicity-appropriate actors. (The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Freida Pinto, except that she’s sultry enough to make anyone believe that the hero would wage all-out war simply in order to come back home to her.) Historical parallels with the early days of Saudi Arabia are interesting (albeit not to be taken at face value) and so is the obvious commentary on the dominance of the oil industry in the region. Parallels with Lawrence of Arabia are obvious, especially considering that the film offers a few desert-war sequences not commonly seen elsewhere in movies. The stilted dialogues and acting definitely take a back seat to sweep of the film’s adventure. For a film that probably flew under the radar of most north-American moviegoers, Day of the Falcon definitely qualifies as an underappreciated gem.
(In theaters, October 2005) I really do love the original Mark Of Zorro, but my patience was tested by this wholly unnecessary sequel: While it’s cool to see Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones once more in the roles that made them famous, this sequel seems to have forgotten the sense of fun that made the first one so enjoyable. Here, Zorro struggles through divorce and alcoholism while we whistle a country tune and wonder when are we going to be done with the boring part? Alas, things get moving quite late in the film, with maybe twenty minutes of physics-defying action left in the story. Meh; I was entertained, but certainly not thrilled.
(In theaters, July 1998) At first glance, there’s nothing very exciting about the concept of Zorro: A masked guy (yawn), swordfighting (yawn) evil Spaniards (yawn) in 19th century California (yawn). And yet, The Mask Of Zorro fills a need you didn’t think you had: To see one good swashbuckling movie about a stylish caped crusader. Antonio Banderas brings authentic looks, charisma and comic timing to the title character. Sultry Catherine Zeta-Jones burns the screen. The stunts are great, the swordfighting isn’t butchered by quick edits, the script is okay and the sheer style of Zorro isn’t overshadowed by the unobtrusive direction. One of this summer’s most satisfying blockbusters. Great fun for everyone.
(Second viewing, On DVD, September 1999) Fortunately, this marriage of old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure with modern pacing still holds up amazingly well to a second viewing. This is obviously a by-the-number action script, but the whole atmosphere lifts the film up above your run-of-the-mill film. A trio of extremely capable actor (Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and the breakaway presence of the luscious Catherine Zeta-Jones) and some quasi-classical scenes complete the work. The DVD doesn’t add much besides an unremarkable making-of featurette.