(Third viewing, On TV, August 2017) Hmmm … how is it that no review of The Usual Suspects shows up on this web site? I recall seeing the film in the late nineties (at my grandma’s place, on regular TV, probably in French) and loving it. I also recall seeing it much later and still liking it a lot. And yet there are no reviews in my files. Bah, this gives me another chance to formally extol the film’s virtues. The Usual Suspects gets a lot of attention for a surprising ending, but it’s a movie that works just as well when you can anticipate the big twist. In between Christopher McQuarrie’s script and Bryan Singer’s direction, it’s made well enough that it has an unusually effective moment-to-moment immersive quality: you just want to see what will happen next, or bask in great dialogue, capable direction and terrific actors. Nearly everyone in the cast brings their best to their roles, from Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-winning role to Gabriel Byrne’s solid presence, Benicio del Toro’s oddball diction and great turns for Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin and Chazz Palminteri. The set pieces are well done, and for a movie that hinges on deception, there is far more truth to it than I remembered from previous viewings. A minor classic in the crime thriller vein, The Usual Suspects combines engrossing viewing with a deceptively dense story. It qualifies as one of the must-see movies of its genre.
(In French, On TV, December 2016) Stephen King’s Different Seasons novella collection was originally meant as a way to publishing four non-supernatural stories that King couldn’t sell, but it has ended up being the source material for three of King’s best movie adaptations. After Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption, here is Apt Pupil, which tells the dark story of a budding fascist teenager discovering an ex-Nazi living in his city. Things get worse when the two start jockeying for power over one another, eventually getting locked into a mutual destruction pact. Contrasting the sunny California setting with the darkest secrets within, director Bryan Singer doesn’t try to be subtle and the result is a fair thriller that allows a good actor’s duel between Brad Renfro and Ian McKellen, who’s particularly good here. The suspense set-pieces are well handled, and the film ends on a far more unnerving note than you’d expect … despite one or two big coincidences precipitating the third act. A solid thriller, Apt Pupil hasn’t aged a lot since 1998 despite ex-Nazis dying in droves since then.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) I have always been cautiously positive about the X-Men film series, largely because (especially at first, when there weren’t that many good comic-book movies around) it has always put themes and characters front-and-centre, thus earning extra respectability as comic-book movies with something deeper to say. Lately, the shift to historical periods with First Class was good for style, but with Apocalypse, it looks as if the X-Men series has reached a point of diminishing returns. The themes of alienation and discrimination are more than well-worn by now, and it seems as if the series struggles to find anything more to say about it. It certainly doesn’t help that the film goes back to a hackneyed villain-wants-to-destroy-everything premise: This is exactly the kind of city-destroying stuff that has been done ad nauseam in other superhero movies, and the generic antagonist (a complete waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents) doesn’t help. Other issues annoy: the teenage angst of the X-Men is getting old, and so is the fan service to trying to cram as many characters as possible, especially Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Jennifer Lawrence’s increasingly useless Mystique. There are, to be fair, a few lovely sequences here—the Quicksilver sequence is, just as the preceding film, a joy to watch. Olivia Munn looks good despite being in a handful of scenes. It’s hard to dislike James MacEvoy as Charles Xavier or Nicholas Hoult as Beast. But Apocalypse seems far more generic than its predecessor, and suffers even more from a close comparison to Deadpool’s self-aware sarcastic exuberance. The period setting isn’t used effectively, and the film has some lengthy scenes that play out like all similar scenes in other similar movies. Even under director Bryan Singer’s helm, the result is flat, dull, mediocre and a dead end as far as the series is concerned. The next instalment (because we know there will be another instalment) better shake things up, otherwise it’s going to tailspin into the kind of movies that viewers won’t bother to see.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The past ten years have seen a mini-boom of sort in fairy tales and fantasy books converted to the screen through the same screenwriting formula, all eventually leading to the climactic shock of two armies running into each other. Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, Jack and the Beanstalk: nothing is safe from the Hollywood fantasy paradigm. In Jack the Giant Slayer, two fairytales become an action fantasy epic about kingdoms going at war, a peasant winning over a princess and assorted shenanigans to take over the throne. While the results can be interesting in bits and pieces (the depiction of a giant beanstalk has a can’t-be-missed patina of realism), it usually boils down to a familiar and ultimately boring template. While director Bryan Singer is a seasoned professional who knows what he’s doing, there simply isn’t much to the script. Nicholas Hoult does a bit better as the titular hero, although it’s easy to wonder what could have compelled Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci to take on such minor and thankless roles. It’s not an unpleasant film to watch… but the biggest problem with Jack the Giant Slayer is that it’s dull and almost instantly forgettable. Save for a highly pretentious final scene that somehow feels the need to link with the present, it’s a film that’s too middle-of-the-road to be noticeable. The perfect example of how quickly pop-culture can dispose of movies that have involved years of work by hundreds of talented craftsmen.
(In theaters, July 2000) When all will have been said and done, the biggest measure of X-Men‘s success is how it didn’t disappoint the legions of fans and hordes of non-fans that went to see it. It’s incredibly hard to make a film about iconic figures, but X-Men manages to pull it off. The script wisely focuses on only a few characters, grounds the fanciful comic elements in reality (such as the black leather uniforms rather than yellow spandex) and plays around the ever-popular theme of discrimination, almost bringing some actual thought in the process. Director Bryan Singer does a decent job on most of the film, but his action scenes clearly show his lack of experience with special effects and action editing: They feel disjointed, don’t flow nearly as well as they should and rarely use wide-angle shots that would firmly establish the action flow in viewers’ mind. Nevertheless, the film is enjoyable, features a breakout performance by Hugh Jackman (as fanboy favourite Wolverine) and delivers value for the money. Not a bad performance for a summer blockbuster.