(Netflix Streaming, February 2017) Clint Eastwood isn’t a director associated with the supernatural, but with Hereafter he takes on a multi-strand story about communicating with the dead. Featuring an ensemble cast, this is a movie that goes around the world, asking questions and them wrapping up abruptly. There are quite a few things to like about it—the performances from actors such as Matt Damon as a blue-collar worker with an unwanted gift; Cecile de France as a woman whose life changes after a near-death experience; and the McLaren brothers as kids surviving a terrible childhood. Bryce Dallas Howard also shows up in a short but striking role. The way those stories, in four different countries, come to climax is satisfying, but the small-scale ending of the film is almost surprising, leaving plenty of questions unanswered. The opening sequence, depicting a tsunami in graphic detail, is unusually far more intense than the ending. It’s intriguing, satisfying in small moments, but not exceptionally fulfilling in total. The sum of the good moments doesn’t quite add up to a grand film and the result feels curiously muted. Too bad; at least it delivers small doses of interest.
(In French, In Theatres, August 2016) As the father of a preschooler, I’ve been watching a lot of kids’ movies lately, and this 2016 remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon is notable for its refreshing sense of decency, restraint and timelessness. It’s not a particularly complicated story, and that helps set the tone for an unhurried film in which an orphaned boy, living in the forest under protection of a dragon, gradually reintegrates human society. A number of clever design decisions reinforce the film’s intent. Voluntarily set in small-town America, this is a film that avoids too-clear markers of time, and could have been set at nearly any time during the last forty years. The dragon is made fuzzy-green, intensely huggable like a big cat rather than scaly and frightening. The cinematography is all in soft tones, back-lit trees, hazy sunlight and desaturated colours. (Alas, those choices often clash with the film’s 3D projection and make it harder to watch than necessary—Pete’s Dragon may be best seen flat at home.) Robert Redford shows up as a likable old man with stories to tell, whereas Bryce Dallas Howard is just as sympathetic as the mother figure of the film and Oakes Fegley earns notice as the boy in the middle of the story. Director David Lowery’s deliberate pace makes it easier to underscore the film’s themes about family and growing up, as well as big emotional payoffs for most characters. (Even the dragon!) A family film in the classic, almost forgotten sense of the term, Pete’s Dragon is charming and well-made at once, ensuring that it will earn at least a modest success in years to come.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) There’s a small stroke of genius in the way The Help takes a big social issue such as culturally-ingrained racism and looks at it from a very domestic perspective. Isn’t it a very real human tragedy to think that poor black mothers spent more time raising privileged white children than their own kids, helping perpetuate the established order? Doesn’t it drive the point home more effectively than broad social demonstrations? Isn’t Bryce Dallas Howard simply repulsive as the evil-in-a-sundress homemaker who considers “the help” as nothing more than disposable property? The Help is noteworthy in that it’s a female-driven film that managed to break the box-office: a welcome change of pace from the usual bang-bang entertainment that drives summer blockbuster crowds. A large part of this success has to be attributed to the way the film genially approaches its subject: Nearly all of the lead cast is female, and makes no apologies in the way it presents itself as a southern dramatic comedy of manners. While the film may earn a few knocks for presenting racism from a white perspective (as in: “Here’s the white girl to help those poor black people tell their story of woe”), there’s no doubt that outspoken matrons Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis earn the spotlight away from southern belles Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain. While younger male viewers may not appreciate the kind of storytelling that The Help is built on, it’s easy to see that the film is effective at what it does, and that the emotional weight of the film goes beyond its older and wiser target audience. As a result, The Help manages some serious cross-over impact, charming even audiences outside its marketing category. It’s sweet without being too cloying, and it’s got a few memorable stories in its bag of folk tales. It’s surprisingly effective at discussing the emotional side of child-rearing, and wrings some real emotion from its premise. The soundtrack is occasionally terrific, and the sense of southern culture (tempered by the real recognition of its racist enablement) is spectacular. It’s well worth a look, even for viewers who may not feel as if they material calls to them.
(In theaters, July 2010) The problem with Eclipse is that while it’s just good enough to avoid much of its predecessors’ most unintentionally hilarious moments, it’s not good enough to make it a compelling film experience if you’re not already part of Twilight’s target audiences. Much of it stems from the thinness of its plotting, especially when compared to the languid pacing of its execution: By the fifteenth minute of the film, we know that vampires are coming to attack and that poor confused Bella isn’t any more decisive than before. And that’s where things remain stuck for the next hour, the script seemingly happy to remind us of both plotlines until it’s time to wrap it up. To director David Slade’s credit, the short fights between teen vampires and fluffy werewolves actually feel interesting. Alas, there’s isn’t much else to enjoy elsewhere in Eclipse: even the hilariously awful dialogue of the first two films seems a bit better-behaved here. There is still, fortunately, a bit of romantic universality in seeing Bella struggle between two pretenders who really want to kill each other. The acting isn’t much better, though, and the casting may be a bit worse: It’s not just for French-Canadian pride that I regret Rachelle Lefevre’s replacement by Bryce Dallas Howard as Victoria (Go, Team Victoria!): Howard doesn’t quite have the feral intensity required for the role and a number of the latter scenes feel like she’s meowing a lioness part. Ah well. In terms of genre-bending, Eclipse continues the series’ tradition of being romance under dark fantasy masks: Forget this film’s value to the horror crowd since there’s nothing original to see here in genre terms, even though a scene featuring a snowstorm, a freezing human, a frigid vampire and a warm werewolf is good for a cute chuckle. (It’s one of the only chuckles in a film that’s as dour as the rest of its series so far.) But, at the risk of repeating myself, I’m so far away from Twilight’s audience that the only thing left to do is admit that this film isn’t for me. That it doesn’t manage to go beyond its own fans isn’t much of a problem as far as box-office receipts are concerned… but those films will age quickly once its audience grows just a bit older. No film immortality in store, here.