(On Cable TV, April 2019) Some movies are far more interesting in retrospect than during their initial release. Maybe they feature filmmakers and actors who became big later; maybe they anticipated or helped create a cinematic movement; maybe they reflect their time so well that they become period pieces. And maybe sometimes all three, like Kalifornia. The marquee appeal of the film is obvious in hindsight—David Duchovny as a journalist travelling across the United while visiting serial killer shrines, offering a ride to a young couple played by Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis who end up being serial killers themselves. While Lewis’s performance echoes the one in the following year’s Natural Born Killers, Pitt plays against type as a manifestation of pure id, uncouth and violent and absolutely fascinating to the protagonist. Kalifornia does feel very much of its time in content and presentation—the early 1990s were heavy on serial killers, and this film certainly tries for a meta-commentary on the trend. There’s probably a link between this film and the rise of the Tarantinoesque black comedy subgenre, built on a foundation of neo-noir plotting and stylish direction. The visual style here is very assured—director Dominic Sena makes his debut here, but he would later go on to direct two very stylish thrillers for Jerry Bruckheimer toward the end of the decade (and then two more rather ordinary films in 2009–2011, but that’s another review). Still, for all of the fancy camera moves and studied images appealing to pseudo-profundity, there isn’t a whole lot to the result beyond being yet another serial killer exploitation film—well shot but hollow. There’s no real understanding of the antagonist’s murderous motivation beyond simply being a cinematic psycho, and for all of the film’s superficial attempts at contemplation (such as the climax taking place on a deserted atomic test site), it doesn’t really lead to anything profound. The script fails to back up its own themes with anything beyond dull voiceover musings. Still, Kalifornia has aged better than many of its contemporaries—its enduring popularity is clearly linked to its lead actors, but it does remain a flavourful thriller with some visual style. It is more interesting than average … but not by much.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) The mid-nineties were a surprisingly good time for solid thrillers, and Sleepers works not because of its atypical revenge plot or unobtrusive direction but largely because it managed to bring together an impressive group of actors. In-between Kevin Bacon, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and the always-compelling Minnie Driver, it’s a nice mixture of generations and styles. It helps that the script is built solidly around an unusual conceit, with an ambitious lawyer doing his best to lose a case but make sure it’s widely publicized to take revenge upon childhood enemies. A blend of courtroom thriller and working-class drama, Sleepers may or may not be based on a true story, but it works well as fiction. Despite revolving around difficult subjects such as child abuse, Sleepers manages to be slightly comforting in how it ensures a victory of sorts for its characters, present a solid underdog story in an accessible fashion, and largely depends on familiar actors doing what they do best. Director Barry Levinson mostly stays out of the way of his actors, and the result is curiously easy to watch despite harsh sequences.
(On DVD, June 2017) Back in the nineties, if you wanted to win Oscars, there weren’t better strategies than going big in the way Legends of the Fall goes big. Take a western, throw in a war drama, then a prohibition subplot, then keep going so that the love complications span decades, involve numerous horrible deaths and settle into some kind of American-frontier bromides. (Plus, add as blatant a case of Chekhov’s gun as I can recall.) It seems cynical, but it does work: The film has uncommon scope and sweep even as it lines up a different subgenre every thirty minutes or so. It helps that it can depend on the reliable Anthony Hopkins as an opinionated patriarch (even though his later appearances in the film can cause unintentional hilarity) and cusp-of-stardom Brad Pitt in the bad-boy role … and Aiden Quinn as the son trying to be socially respectable. Opposite the men, Julia Ormond plays the object of three brothers’ affection, with Karine Lombard showing up briefly to provide a distraction. The stereotypes flock and accumulate in the film, but they sort-of-work, especially if you have a soft spot for American-frontier epics. Legends of the Fall may not be subtle, and it may not be innovative, but there’s something respectable in its blunt-force approach to a moderately respectable tear-jerker.
(Video On-Demand, March 2017) As someone with supposedly professional movie criticism credentials, I loathe to dislike a movie because of an unhappy ending, but here I am now thinking about Allied and what sticks in my craw is the ending. Much of it has to do with expectations set up much earlier in the movie. Allied does begin, after all, with a first act in which two likable heroes meet in WW2 Casablanca, fall in love and kill some Nazis in a guns-blazing action sequence. It’s fun and games and doesn’t really represent the rest of the film, which goes back to England for some rainy gloomy counter-espionage drama. It gets less and less triumphant as it goes on, while Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are perhaps too successful in creating sympathy for their characters—by the time we see there is no issue for both of them, it’s too late. Otherwise, director Robert Zemeckis is up to his usual technically demanding standards in presenting a World-War 2 drama with flair and theatrics—there’s a love-in-a-sandstorm sequence that’s both effective and over-the-top, a decent recreation of covert work tension and fancy camera moves. While the film exploits WW2 spy tropes for drama, it remains grounded in some reality. (Well, other than Brad Pitt speaking French—while he’s supposed to be a Franco-Ontarian like myself, his French sounds exactly like an Englishman reciting European French phonetically—and no amount of in-script joshing about it can compensate.) A shame about the downbeat ending, then, because otherwise Allied is semi-successful at what it tried to do. Although, what can I say—I’m a guy. Spies, guns and car chases work better than tragic romance.
(On TV, June 2016) Watching Thelma & Louise twenty-five years after its release, I expected the experience to be less … upsetting than it was. After all; Thelma & Louise is recognized as a feminist classic, I’m pro-feminism; it’s a quarter-century later, social attitudes have changed … why should this be anything but a safe period piece? But it’s not. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis star as two women out for a weekend away from their spouses, but find themselves driven to a crime spree through a set of circumstances—and despicable men. Thelma & Louise remains an infuriating film even today largely due to the realization that it’s still an exceptional film. Films with two strong female leads are still rare, and film to be written from such an explicitly female perspective are even rarer—especially in Hollywood. Ridley Scott may have directed the film with his typical visual flair, but most of its impact squarely depends on a script written by Callie Khouri, channelling female frustrations and anxieties in reluctant wish fulfillment. Pretty much all the male characters are out to do harm to our leads: It’s not just Christopher McDonald’s unrepentant abusive husband or Brad Pitt’s captivating first turn as an opportunistic thief: It’s also Harvey Keitel as an investigator, sympathetic to our protagonist but tasked to enforce the dominant male narrative that has designated the protagonists as dangerous criminals. Thelma & Louise still pushes buttons a quarter-century later, and forces audiences to realize how little progress has been made along the way. Perhaps worse is the realization that the kind of film that is Thelma & Louise, muscular mid-budget standalone thrillers with some social relevance, have been almost evacuated from the Hollywood scene, replaced by fantasy narratives designed to sell latter instalments. I’m upset all right, and I can’t think of higher praise for the film.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) I tried getting into this film. I really did. But as it turns out, there’s no real way to get me to care about an IRA terrorist presented semi-sympathetically as he lands in New York to procure missiles and lodges at a NYPD cop’s place. I mean: what’s up with that? While The Devil’s Own does at least offer the chance to see (younger) Harrison Ford up against (much younger) Brad Pitt, the film itself is dullness stretched into infinity. It doesn’t help that the climax is weak, and the two or three interesting action scenes (a household shootout; a police car escape) seem disconnected from the rest of the film. Now, I will admit that I more or less stopped paying attention midway through, so when I say that the last half seems more and more incoherent, I may not exactly be speaking from a position of absolute knowledge. Still, the damage has been done by then (the beginning isn’t necessarily more cohesive either) and the rest of the film didn’t manage to bring me back in. I’ve been binging so many good-to-great late-nineties thrillers lately that I was getting worried that I had only missed the better ones. The Devil’s Own reassures me that, no, I had managed to miss a few of the worse ones as well.
(On DVD, December 2015) I did not really expect to like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Westerns don’t grab me, and the film’s running time, as well as its reputation for being an art-house-friendly character study, didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. Some lovely shots aside, the first hour or two of the film doesn’t exactly work at dispelling that reluctance: The film drags on and on, with elliptical scenes that don’t really care about effectively moving the story forward with a minimum of fuss. The emphasis, at least early on, is on the complex relationship between a folk hero and an admiring young man; it’s about striking cinematography of western landscapes; it’s about deconstructing the myth of Jesse James, bit by bit. This being said, the film becomes quite a bit more interesting after the titular “assassination”: rather than cutting quickly to credits, the film details the hell-on-earth that Robert Ford created for himself, endlessly reliving the shooting through hundreds of theater recreations, being reviled for taking down a popular man and being unable to escape his notoriousness until his bitter end. It’s not quite the triumph that viewers may expect, and if it completely blurs the lines of what a satisfying third act is supposed to be, it was the section of the film that held my interest most closely. Brad Pitt is quite good as James, and so is Casey Affleck in a role not meant to be liked or admired. (Meanwhile a pre-stardom Jeremy Renner shows up, as well as political legend James Carville in an unexpected cameo.) Director Andrew Dominik still has much to learn about concision (His follow-up Killing Them Softly wasn’t entirely an improvement), but he’s obviously hitting the targets he’s aiming for, and as a result The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn’t quite as dull as a two-hours-and-a-half character study may suggest.
(On DVD, July 2015) It’s rare to squarely point at length as a film’s main point of failure; usually, if the film is good then a few lulls won’t damage it; conversely, if a film is bad it will feel long even at 85 minutes. But Meet Joe Black is something else: A film with pretty good moments, marred by interminable subplots and, thanks to director Marti Brest, a shooting style that never makes a point in five seconds if thirty will do. A very young-looking Brad Pitt starts as Death incarnate, taking a holiday among humans to understand how we act like we do. Opposite him, Anthony Hopkins plays a Hollywood rarity: a wealthy man with some innate decency, a genuinely good guy who nonetheless escape caricature. Finally, Claire Forlani has never looked better than she does here as the daughter of the wealthy man, seduced by Death’s innocence. (Which leads to a pretty funny scene in which our businessman comes to realize that Death, nominally there to get him, has ended up sleeping with his daughter.) The film does have an understated poignancy, as death and his target negotiate the terms of our businessman’s death over a few days, timing it to ensure a small triumph. And while the film does have a few unintentionally hilarious moments (That shot of Pitt’s character being hit by two cars plays beautifully as a looped gif), it’s generally earnest in its musings. But, as stated previously, the film is fatally wounded by its pacing. There simply isn’t enough plot to justify the three-hours (!) running length –in fact, the pacing issues are glaringly obvious on an individual scene level as there is no snappiness to the editing and sequences always run longer than you’d expect. Lop off an hour (from the script, not in the editing room) and you’d have a far more potent film. As it is, though, Meet Joe Black will repeatedly put anyone to sleep.
(On Cable TV, July 2015) It seems amazing that an adventure film spanning several years, multiple countries, splendid mountain vistas and political upheavals would turn out to be so… boring. A noticeably younger-looking Brad Pitt stars as a mountain adventurer stuck in Nepal during and after World War Two, eventually becoming an advisor to a young Dalai Llama. Given the Himalayan setting, the scenery is spectacular, with a few mountaineering sequences to making this slightly less dull. The problems with Seven Years in Tibet are common to a surprising number of adventure movies: It just feels interminable. While doesn’t fall into the trap of loosely-structured episodes (even resorting to an artificial father-son bit of drama not found in the original book to provide increasing tension), this is a seriously long film that doesn’t go anywhere for a long while. To the film’s credit, director Jean-Jacques Annaud does present a sympathetic representation of Nepal at a crucial time, and Lhakpa Tsamchoe is a rare example of a Tibetan actress being featured in a big movie. In-between Pitt and the mountain scenery, Seven Years in Tibet does have a few things going for it. But it could and should have been just a bit more interesting considering its subject matter.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) It’s difficult to watch Fury without thinking that war movies always glorify combat even when they firmly take the position that “War is Hell”: Truffault’s assertion that there are no anti-war movies suggests that even the least heroic war films still portray the adrenaline of combat in ways that could be construed as exciting. Fury certainly tries to straddle the line: As a warts-and-all examination of the life of an American tank crew in the closing days of World War 2, it’s alternately merciless, heroic, brutal, exhilarating, miserable and mesmerizing. The Americans aren’t portrayed in a flattering light (the film’s most uncomfortable sequence is a simple conversation around a dinner table, as we are not sure that Something Terrible will happen to the German mother-and-daughter pair hosting the conquering soldiers.) Only a handful of combat sequences pepper the film, and I suppose that I’m showing my colors as a war-mongering moviegoer when I complain that I would have liked to see a few more. Much of the film is spent with the small band of soldiers fighting inside their tank “Fury”, and their interactions as a new soldier replaces one killed in battle. Brad Pitt is nothing short of mesmerizing as a hardened veteran, leading his team through terrible experiences, sometimes pushing their faces into the ensuing ugliness. Much like his previous End of Watch, writer/director David Ayer aims for realism, and the result is often hard to stomach. Still, Fury doesn’t really want to be an anti-war film: The action sequences are thrilling, many of the usual war movie clichés are presented again (albeit with a grimy patina) and the actions of the soldiers, reprehensible as they may be, are presented with a weird homage to the veteran experience. (as in; “had you been there, you would have done the same”) It may this tension between how to portray war that limits Fury from being as fully realized as it could be, either as a war action thriller or as a definitive statement on war’s toll. It’s too terrible to be fully entertaining, and too entertaining to be fully terrible. Still, Fury works well in five-minute increments, and some of the scenes and images are memorable. The subject matter is unusual enough to be fascinating on its own, but the execution on a strictly visual level is incredible. As for the muddled theme, well –sometimes, a film is worth seeing for its contradictions.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) While Killing Them Softly has the admirable ambition of using a crime story to tackle much-bigger social and economic themes, it looks as if, along the way, it has forgotten to entertain viewers on a minute-to-minute basis. Adapted from a seventies crime novel but updated to be set in the middle of fall 2008’s presidential/economic crisis, it’s a film that attempts to make parallels between low-level mob desperation and wider social problems. As such, it’s got a lot more ambition than most other crime thrillers out there. It all culminates into a tough but compelling final scene, in which America is unmasked as a business far more than a community, and in which getting paid is the ultimate arbitrator of fairness. Stylistically, Killing Them Softly has a few strong moments, perhaps the most being a slow-motion bullet execution. Alas; it’s so kinetically entertaining as to be atonal with the rest of the film, which takes forever to makes simple points and delights into long extended conversations in-between bursts of violence. Still, Brad Pitt is pretty good as a mob enforcer trying to keep his hands clean (it’s another reminder that he can act, and is willing to do so in low-budgeted features once in a while), while James Gandolfini has a one-scene role as a hit-man made ineffective by his own indulgences. Richard Jenkins also has an intriguing role as a corporate-minded mob middle-man in-between men of violence. Otherwise, though, Killing Them Softly‘s tepid rhythm kills most of its interest: Despite writer/director Andrew Dominik’s skills and lofty intent, the film feels too dull to benefit from its qualities.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Historically, zombie films were popular because they allowed filmmakers to do big horror on a small budget: Find yourself a secluded location, a few shambling extras and you had yourself a movie. Now, thanks to the current craze for all thing zombies, a studio can end up spending nearly 200 million dollars to produce a large-scale globe-spanning zombie thriller. With this budget comes the freedom to do things that haven’t been seen over and over again: a wide-screen takeover of an American downtown; a wider-screen zombie fighting sequence set in a middle-eastern city, and zombies taking over an airplane. Add to that a rapid opening and two unsettling visual motifs (raining zombies, and people being thrown to the ground by a CGI zombie jumping from the left edge of the screen) and the result is a zombie film that warrants viewing despite the genre’s overexposure. The quasi-legendary production problem encountered by the film (including star Brad Pitt reportedly not speaking with director Marc Foster and a third act that was completely re-written as the film was shooting, leading to the cutting of an entire large-scale action sequence) are still visible in the more restrained third act, but the result hangs together relatively well, even despite a spectacularly dumb “vaccine” plot running throughout. Brad Pitt is fine as the hero jack-of-all-trades; he escapes unscathed from the film’s more serious issues. World War Z (which, perhaps thankfully, has little to do with Max Brooks’s epochal source novel) is best seen as a collection of four big set-pieces rather than a coherent whole. While one may regret the film’s wasted opportunities to tie those exceptional action sequences to more serious geopolitical themes, as was the case with the original novel, World War Z still manages to fulfill the most basic expectations of viewers, and should be hailed for that. While we all wait for a tenth-anniversary Blu-Ray edition that will unlock the deleted sequences and detail the film’s production problems, unsatisfied viewers will probably want to go read Brooks’ novel for more context and substance.
(On-demand video, March 2012) I’m not a good audience for non-narrative films that boldly seek art-house cinema credentials, but even I have nice things to say about The Tree of Life. Non-linear, certainly non-conventional, arguably nonsensical, it wraps up a chronicle of life in 1950s Texas in broader questions about our place in the universe. It may challenge viewers who prefer every narrative arc nearly wrapped up in a bow, but it certainly rewards those who are willing to let the film wash over them without grasping at explanations. (Just accept that this is a 1950s nostalgia film with modern skyscrapers, dinosaurs, a meteor impact, a depiction of Tipler’s Omega Point, and children running into a DDT spray.) Brad Pitt portrays an unusual role as an overbearing father of three boys, holding up the “ways of nature” over his wife’s “ways of grace”, but the real star here is writer/director Terrence Malick’s elliptical film-making and the astonishing quality of the footage he’s been able to include in the film. The mind may rebel at trying to piece together every shot of the film, but there’s something beautiful to see every five minutes, and the atmosphere created by the minutiae of life as experienced by the characters is all-encompassing. It’s hard not to be moved by certain moments, or let the film’s hints at meaning lead us to flights of fancy. This, in other words, is a film to savor for mood and meditation far more than narration and entertainment –you’ve been warned.
(In theaters, October 2011) Something isn’t quite right with this Moneyball, but it took me a reading through the original book to finally understand why. As a sports drama in which underdogs defeat their opponents through cleverness and unorthodox thinking, it does manage to boil down a complex and dry subject into a narrative that most people (including those without much baseball knowledge) will be able to follow and enjoy. Brad Pitt is surprisingly good as the Oakland Athletics’s general manager Billy Beane trying to make the most out of the small budget he’s given –hiring oddball players and constantly running the numbers game is one way that the story plays out in the good old underdog sports drama narrative. But sometimes, it does too neat a job: While Michael Lewis’ book makes it clear that the sabermetrisation of pro baseball was (and continues to be) a lengthy process in which the 2002 season was just another step, the film condenses decades of thinking into a single year, and heavily dramatizes the events in such a way that they lose their intended meaning. Sabermetrics is about squeezing a few percentage points here and there, enough so that statistically, you end up with better results at the end of the year. So what’s Moneyball’s most triumphant sequence? The complete statistical anomaly of winning twenty games in a row (and that last one on a heroic shot), something that actually undermines the argument made by the picture. Once that twentieth game is won, the film has nowhere to go: while the team makes it to the finals, they lose their season. Other teams would take ideas similar to Beane’s and run with them. The elements that make Lewis’ Moneyball an interesting book aren’t necessarily those that make for a sports drama and the film occasionally suffers from the contradiction. Still, it’s churlish to criticise the film for fairly esoteric reasons: On most aspects, Moneyball is a solid sports drama with enough comic relief to make it work, and it’s hard to overestimate the work that has gone in transforming the non-fiction original book into something that feels like a classic baseball movie. The container, however, may be part of the problem.
(In theaters, August 2009) Quentin Tarantino is, if nothing else, a film-lover, and that’s why his movies are always worth seeing by those who feel let down by the rest of American cinema: There’s always something interesting in what he does. This doesn’t mean that his material is always successful… but that too is part of the fun. Few would expect Inglourious Basterds to be such a surprising film, for instance: The film promised by the premise and the trailer (American Jewish soldiers go killing Nazis in occupied France) is replaced by a talky drama that manages to make World War Two hinge on a movie showing. Characters die when one doesn’t expect them to, and even the fabric of history isn’t immune to the twists. One can quibble with the film’s casual regard for historical fact, but on the other hand it’s hard to dismiss a film that dares push a revenge fantasy to its logical extreme. It’s easy to say that Inglourious Basterds is too long at two hours and a half, but at the same time the dialogue seems so tight that it’s difficult to say exactly where snippets should be cut: the deliberate atmosphere of the film is such that when character engage in a round of game-playing, we can rest assured that we’re going to see the entire thing play out. Oh well; fans of Tarantino’s usual violence will be reassured that the bloody incidents are few, but explicit in all of their head-scalping, skull-batting, forehead-slicing gore. The result is both satisfying and unfulfilling: While the film we have seen is a good chunk of cinematic goodness (and the performance of Christoph Waltz as the Nazi antagonist is simply magnificent), it wouldn’t have hurt to actually see the film promised by Brad Pitt’s superb southern cadences. But, hey, my feeling is that Inglourious Basterds is going to be even better once the fully-loaded DVD edition comes out. Which, considering Tarantino’s glacial pacing when it comes to special-edition DVD, may not be anytime soon.