(On Cable TV, January 2019) Like many, I’m not overly happy with the recent tradition of relaunching franchises with gender-flipped casts—it smacks of opportunism, and a cheap way to revive franchises that have otherwise run their courses. But even grouchy me had a hard time resisting the charm of Ocean’s Eight, which resurrects the modern Ocean’s comedic heist franchise with a mostly female cast. Headlined by Anne Hathaway (going back to a sympathetic character after a too-long detour playing out-of-persona unlikable characters), the ensemble cast tears into the usual heist plot mechanics with gusto, with everybody getting a choice moment or two. Plot-wise, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, although it should be noted that rather than head for banks or casinos like their male colleagues, the women of Ocean’s Eight head for jewelry at a high-end fashion event … because why not. This enjoyable follow-up has a snappy rhythm thanks to director Gary Ross, and even the post-heist material doesn’t drag on too much despite wallowing in useless complications. (But it wouldn’t be a heist movie if they went for a simple approach.) The ensemble cast is at the top of their game, what with Sandra Bullock going head-to-head with Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter throwing in a bawdy French dialogue wordplay that is not adequately translated in the subtitles, as well as younger actresses such as Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and Awkwafina having good moments. It’s not meant to be profound or sophisticated beyond surface appearance, but Ocean’s Eight is a fun heist movie, and I quite liked it.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) In many ways, Truth is a tough movie to watch. Whereas other movies will eulogize journalists as fearless truth seekers whose work helps change the world, this 2015 film uses the 2004 Killian documents controversy to deliver a story uniquely suited to 2017’s sadly post-truth era. It’s about journalists doing their best to report explosive documents on a presidential candidate … and then being unable to defend themselves against accusations of biased reporting. Based on journalist Mary Mapes’s memoir of the events, Truth is a stomach-churning docudrama about the nitty-gritty of reporting in a politically charged environment and how truth itself can be elusive despite everyone’s best efforts. Led by the always-excellent Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as a convincing Dan Rather, Truth takes us behind the scenes of TV investigative journalism in all of its quirks in marrying reporting with TV presentations. Alongside them, Topher Grace delivers one of his most animated performances, while Bruce Greenwood, Elizabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid have valuable input in smaller roles. It’s often absorbing viewing, but don’t expect an All the President’s Men triumphant finale here as much of the film’s second half is spent dealing with allegations of partisanship, and the ending offers little certitude in who was right. As 2017 unfolds alongside a misleading chorus of “fake news” allegations, Truth takes on a particularly bittersweet quality for anyone who’d like sanity and reason to come back to the mainstream discourse—it feels like an exposé of the primitive tactics that have since then been weaponized to a virulent degree. But then again, movies don’t owe anyone any comfort.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) This is not a conventional movie, being composed of several black-and-white vignettes in which two (occasionally three) characters argue over caffeine and smokes. The first two segments were shot as short films years before the others, and it shows as latter instalments become more textured and creative. Director Jim Jarmusch is obviously going for something experimental here, and the result will be far more interesting to those with a fondness for art-house cinema. Coffee and Cigarettes features an impressive group of thespians, with particular acknowledgements for Cate Blanchett’s double performance, Alfred Molina trying to get through to Steve Cooghan and Bill Murray for his innate Bill Murrayness. (Strangely enough, two of the film’s most striking actresses, Joie Lee and Renée French, haven’t done many other roles.) As intriguing as the central concept may sound, Coffee and Cigarettes doesn’t quite achieve its potential. The low-grade hostility between its characters is wearying, everything stays too mild-mannered and the philosophical tangents are profoundly uninteresting. (Although I’ll make an exception for “I know how a Tesla coil works!”) Fortunately, the film doesn’t have to be watched straight through: it’s easy (and even fun) to take it in a piece per day every day for a bit more than a week. There isn’t much to link the segments together, and this way you avoid the “that again!” feeling from watching too many similar short films.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Let me tell you how little I cared about Carol: After renting it via video on-demand, I fell asleep midway through and didn’t come back to it before its 48-hour availability period expired. Six months later, I happened to catch its second half on Cable TV just to say I’d seen it to the end. To be fair, it’s a good film. Competently directed by Todd Haynes, it convincingly re-creates wintry 1950s New York in presenting the then-scandalous love affair between a high-class wife and a humble shopgirl/photographer. Strikingly enough, Carol manages to avoid the aren’t-we-better-now back-patting, or the tragic-forbidden-romance angle in which so many historical same-sex romances run aground. Even though it features stars such as the always-exceptional Cate Blanchett and It Girl Rooney Mara, it doesn’t shy away from explicit love scenes. As such, it’s a quiet triumph. Still, movie viewers with shorter attention spans will fiddle a long time while the film glacially moves through its story, rarely surprising or exciting. While there’s a bit of a thriller-ish subplot later on, Carol otherwise behaves almost exactly as it would have had it been put together in the 1950s. It would, of course, have been far more scandalous then, but that’s sort of the point of the film. I don’t think Carol will mind all that much if it leaves me cold: other reviewers have liked it a lot more than I did, and that’s good enough—it’s a big movie universe, and there’s a place for everything.
(In French, Video-On-Demand, September 2006) It’s easy to feel cynical about Disney’s newest mania in remaking their animation classics in live-action form: it reeks of mindless exploitation, of post-creative consumerism and bankrupt innovation. But it’s always best to see the result before kvetching, and Cinderella makes the disarming choice to revisit the original but keep its heartfelt core. So it is that there’s barely a hint of snark or revisionism here, and the film consciously seeks to re-tell the same story while hitting the same points along the way. This version of Cinderella, for instance, wisely provide a lot more background on the happy childhood of its heroine, making it even more affecting when she’s relegated to the status of menial labour. It expands subplots, adds character depth, tones down the musical numbers, doesn’t completely anthropomorphise its animal relief and messes just enough with the glass slipper climax to keep things interesting for viewers who (ahem) have toddler-watched the original fifty times in the past 18 months. Cate Blanchett is deliciously evil at the wicked stepmother, but Lily James holds her own as the titular Cinderella. Then there’s the amazing production design of the film, presenting a sumptuous fairy tale to the screen: There are images here fit to wow anyone, from the Swarovski glass slipper to the golden Pumpkin carriage to amazing castle flybys. Nearly every frame is a painting (to borrow a phrase) and the beautiful result deserves to be watched. As a result, the two Cinderella films each get to keep their own identity, which is as good as one can hope for in a remake. Not only good on its own, Cinderella manages not to desecrate anything in its wake. Kids will enjoy it (although one notes that it aims at a slightly older audience than the original), but so will their parent.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) I’m not sure why I’ve waited fifteen years before seeing The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’m not fond of stories in which the protagonist is a serial murderer, but there’s a bit more to this film than simply rooting for an anti-hero. Part of the attraction now, of course, is seeing five actors at the beginning of their career, from Jude Law’s magnetic presence to Matt Damon’s versatile lead performance, to Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow in young ingénue roles, to an early good turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The other big asset of the film, of course, is the period detail. An impersonation thriller taking place amongst Americans living in late-1950s Italy, The Talented Mr. Ripley can be, at its best, an immersion in a romanticized time and place. It only becomes darker and more thrilling after a (too) leisurely prologue, then drags on a touch too long as it places its protagonist in ever-more desperate circumstances, all the way to a heartbreaking final act of violence. Slickly directed by Anthony Minghella from a now-classic novel by Patricia Highsmith, it’s a thriller that plays with questions of identity, aspirations, repression and the nature of affection. It’s lovely and ugly, with good tension and complex plot engines. The Talented Mr. Ripley has aged gracefully, and remains just as good today as it must have been sixteen years ago.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) If the mark of a great actor is making us sympathize with character we would otherwise find exasperating, then Cate Blanchett truly deserves honors for her performance in Blue Jasmine. The story of a woman struggling with life after the end of her lavish marriage to a convicted Wall Street fraudster, Blue Jasmine is a character study more than anything else; Blanchett faithfully reflects the multiple contradictory facets of the scripted protagonist and the result can be as affecting as they are maddening. Setting Blue Jasmine in San Francisco after a long series of films taking place in Europe, Allen doesn’t do much with the city, but keeps the focus on the idiosyncrasies of his lead character, and the interactions she has with the ones surrounding her. Despite glimmers of redemption, it doesn’t end well, or even as anyone would hope: By the time the film ends, it’s a mercy that we’re not shown more, because there is no happy ending possible. And yet, despite the lead character’s self-destroying flaws, Blanchett keeps our sympathy throughout. Allen’s self-effacing direction helps, and the able supporting cast knows their place. While Blue Jasmine‘s lack of a conclusion leaves without satisfaction, the journey has its moments.
(In theatres, May 2010) The chequered development process that led from a script called Nottingham to this stone-faced “historical” take on Robin Hood may explain a lot about the deadened result, but as viewers we can only see what’s on-screen and wonder what went wrong. The first bad idea is the pretence of a “historical” look at a legend: It didn’t work in the dour and grimy King Arthur, and it’s not any more pleasant here. (To compare and contrast, the similarly-themed The Last Legion wasn’t very good either, but it had the good idea of being a lot more fun). This isn’t director Ridley Scott’s first foray in pseudo-realistic historical action, and Robin Hood is just as dirt-dominated as similar sequences in Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven: you can practically feel the plague coming just by watching the film. But the realism is just surface deep: By the end of the story, in which Robin Hood saves Maid Marian from unexplainable danger during a D-day like French invasion off the cliffs of Dover and then practically writes the Magna Carta from notes left by his lost-lost father, well, we’ve left realism buried somewhere in the copious dirt. (It won’t take a military strategist to find something suspiciously wrong about an invasion force picking a narrow stretch of beach right in front of impassable cliffs as a landing area.) While Russell Crowe is fine as Robin Hood and Cate Blanchett can do no wrong as Maid Marian, the film too often feels like a school assignment sucking all the fun out of reasonably entertaining source material. After watching this joyless take on Robin Hood, I felt a sudden need to go and re-watch Costner’s now-old-enough-to-be-classic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves all over again.