(In French, On TV, January 2015) Big-budget high-concept mimetic dramas are getting scarce on the ground at an a time where spectacle reigns at the box-office, but throw enough big names at a project and you may find a few surprises. This Spielberg-directed film stars Tom Hanks as a tourist who finds himself stranded within New York’s JFK airport after a coup back home. Laboriously trying to make sense of an unfamiliar environment, he eventually manages to learn English, earn a decent salary as a construction worker, romance a high-flying stewardess and accomplish his original goals. It may sound simple, but much of the film’s pleasure is in seeing it unfold in quasi-procedural detail. Tom Hanks is remarkable as the stranded tourist, learning how to adapt to his situation as best as he can. The supporting players are often good (Catherine Zeta-Jones plays The Girl with a nice touch of unpredictability, with a surprising conclusion to her arc) although some plotlines involving Stanley Tucci as an antagonist feel more caricatured than they deserve. Spielberg at the helm means that we get solid direction, with occasional flourishes such as the vertiginous pull-back shot that shows how crazy-large the terminal set was. I watched the film in French, which took away a bit of the film’s linguistic element but introduced a bilingual bonus when Zoe Saldana’s character comments that she goes to Star Trek conventions cosplaying as Uhura. (Saldana would go one to play Uhura in the 2009 film; in the original English version of The Terminal, she says that she cosplays as Yeoman Rand) The film’s ending does feel a bit downbeat, but not all that much: in the end, we still get an amazing robinsonade in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) The original Red dared to combine aging action stars with quirky comedy and strong action sequences to deliver a film that wasn’t entirely successful, but remained distinctive enough to distinguish itself in a crowded field. This sequel is slightly improved by a better understanding of how to combine humor with action, and it can dispense with the tedious work of introducing its main characters. Bruce Willis plays his familiar world-weary tough-guy role, quipping when he’s not exasperated at being thrown once again out of retirement. Among the returning cast, Helen Mirren is as much fun as ever as a top assassin, while John Malkovich is a bit less crazy (but more sympathetic) this time around, even as Mary Louise Parker furthers her transition from adrenaline junkie to rookie operative. There’s a fascinating “throwback to the cold war era” atmosphere as the action goes well beyond the borders of the United States and to Europe, with Anthony Hopkins bringing new laughs as a crazed weapons designer and Catherine Zeta Jones earning a few chuckles of her own as a once-fatale assassin. While the CGI works gets a bit tiresome by the end of the final chase sequence, most of the other action scenes are good enough. Red 2 doesn’t work on a particularly high level, but it’s adequate and in some ways moves past the whole “retired action heroes” shtick into a post-Cold War plot that seems to grow organically out of the characters’ age. It works just fine as an unassuming action film, and even a little better as a sequel.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) A corrupt politician. An ex-policeman detective with a dark past. An election. Mega development projects. Allegations of infidelity. Murder. Standard stuff when it comes to municipal political thrillers, and perhaps the most disappointing thing about Broken City is how it simply plays along with familiar tropes, delivering them with some competence but never quite going the extra mile for something more interesting than a straightforward script brought to life with capable actors. Mark Wahlberg is his usual blue-collar protagonist self as said ex-policeman with a dark past, whereas Russell Crowe is deliciously slimy as a mayor without scruples. They’re surrounded by good character actors (Barry Pepper, Jeffrey Wright and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who seems to have taken on a lot of smaller roles recently) but all have to contend with a script that goes through the usual motions and sometimes not even doing that (such as with the end-of-relationship subplot). There’s a bit of an interesting character choice at the very end, but otherwise Broken City is the kind of standard fare that you see and soon forget. This isn’t to say that it’s bad –just that it’s without big surprises, and seems content to deliver on basic assumptions. The New York that the characters inhabit may have been more believable at a period piece rather than the somewhat cleaner image the city now has. Still: While Broken City may be unremarkable, it has enough narrative momentum to keep things interesting… which isn’t half-bad when compared to many similar films.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) Director Steven Soderbergh often has very different goals in mind than what the average moviegoer would prefer, but occasionally his artistic impulses align with his target audience and the result can be spectacular. Side Effects may exhibit much of Soderbergh’s usual tics, but it also features his technical proficiency and his ability to play with audience expectations. Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t start out promisingly: As a troubled young woman murders her husband and everyone suspects that her medications are to blame, it’s easy to feel let down by yet another basic anti-pharma diatribe; surely Soderbergh wouldn’t steep to something so basic? But then Side Effects becomes a much more unpredictable film, and we understand why the project attracted the director. It ends up being a fine psychological thriller, shot with Soderbergh’s typical drab pseudo-realism but in increasingly compelling fashion. The film switches protagonists midway through, Rooney Mara’s mopey performance receding in order to favour Jude Law’s increasingly tortured psychologist. (Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones has another small but effective supporting role –she’s been doing a lot of those lately.) A clever script, coupled with capable direction, makes for an effective thriller. Side Effects is easily one of the strongest films of 2013 so far, and it’s a remarkable testimony to Soderbergh’s skills once he sets out to deliver a crowd-pleaser.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) For an actress I didn’t even know at the beginning of the month, I’m suddenly quite impressed by Rebecca Hall’s screen presence and the range she shows from the “hero scientist” of Iron Man 3 to the “ice-cold English noble” of Parade’s End to the “trailer-park chic” of her role in Lay the Favorite. [July 2013: Although the “non-nonsense pragmatist” of The Awakening and Vicky Cristina Barcelona suggest that Lay the Favorite is a bit of an outlier.] Her performance is one of the few things that transform the somewhat ordinary script for Lay the Favorite to something worth remembering the day after. A gambling comedy set in the sports-bookie world of Las Vegas, it at least has the merit of exploring a new subculture and doing so with just enough style to be interesting. Much of the plotting is purely serviceable, with the expected story beats all carefully lined up in a row. But it’s light-hearted enough to be unobjectionable and one suspects that the light breezy tone has a lot to do with how it landed notables such as a smiling Bruce Willis in the lead, usually-reprehensible Vince Vaughn as an antagonist of sorts, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in another of her increasingly-frequent strong supporting roles. Still, the film really belongs to Hall, and she makes the most of her role, even elevating the somewhat slight film built around it. Despite weak romances, tonal inconsistencies and a dull ending, she’s the reason why Lay the Favorite remains watchable throughout and leaves a generally favorable impression even despite its familiarity and lack of substance.
(On-demand video, November 2012) I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals and as such I’m pretty happy with Rock of Ages, which grabs eighties-rock songs and re-shapes them into a straightforward musical about finding love and success in 1987 Hollywood. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta do well as the dull young couple anchoring the story, but the rest of the cast shines. Alec Baldwin is hilarious as an aging rock-will-never-die club owner, Paul Giamatti is perfect as a slimy impresario and Catherine Zeta-Jones is amusing as a socialite with a revealing past. Still, they’re not the best of what Rock of Ages has to offer: Russell Brand steals his scenes with lines that sound tailor-made for his personae but even he takes a step back whenever Tom Cruise chews the scenery as rock god Stacee Jaxx. Cruise-as-Jaxx transposes and perverts his movie-star status into a related realm, and if Cruise seems more accomplished than unleashed as a self-destructing icon, it’s still a great performance in a pivotal role. Music-wise, Rock of Ages will have you humming “I Wanna Rock”, “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” (among others) for days, even though the movie’s soundtrack may not compare to the original versions of the songs. I’m told that the movie’s plot is considerably happier and simpler than the original musical, (although it keeps the vexing two-act structure leading to a mid-movie lull) but director Adam Shankman’s adaptation is also able to weave song medleys around characters doing their own things separately –at best, it’s an exhilarating example of the creative freedom offered by well-produced cinema. While Rock of Ages may be a fluffy fantasy loosely connected to the anthem-rock era, it’s bouncy and fun and just as entertaining as it wants to be. But I did say that I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals.
(On DVD, May 2011) A number of Hollywood cookie-cutter romantic films work on two levels: First, the plot engine is based on tried-and-true formula, with few surprises to offer. Then there’s the wrapping in which the story takes place, which can focus on just about any area of human endeavour. So it is that No Reservations is far more interesting when it describes the world of restaurant chefs and the personality quirks that come with a certain kind of hard-driven cooking professional than in the familiar story it’s trying to tell. The dramatic and romantic entanglements are routine, but the glossy look behind the scenes of a kitchen is interesting, and the film doesn’t skimp on the small scenes that aim straight for the foodie audience. Which is just as well, because a lot of the film’s plotting is made of short narrative loops suddenly resolved (whenever it remembers to advance the plot forward rather than show some fine cooking). The main romantic conflict is late in coming and is over before we even realise it exists. But for those who like food, No Reservations isn’t without interest: pure Hollywood gloss can serve some purpose when it’s focused on something delicious. At least the actors do well: As a quasi-neurotic French cuisine perfectionist, Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing a somewhat different character than usual in one of her rare 2005-2011 roles, while Aaron Eckhart is pure charm as a quasi-slacker Italian cuisine chef. It doesn’t amount to much of a movie, but it’s pleasant enough as a Hollywood take on the romance of cooking. The DVD’s sole special feature is a TV special on the film that contains interesting material, but repeats itself often enough to grate and distract from the content.