(On Cable TV, December 2018) I take no real pleasure out of reporting that The Yards is much duller than I hoped for. Movie reviewers, contrarily to some perceptions, usually hope for the best—otherwise, why bother? At the same time, I’m favourably inclined to tales of protagonists fighting against corruption, stories where characters try to get themselves out of the criminal life, and semi-realistic dramas at an age where we’re saturated with superhero blockbusters. Then there’s the respectable real-life factor of the movie being based on events having involved writer/director James Grey’s father. But The Yards is not how to do it. Taking place in lower-class Queens, The Yards is about an ex-con stuck in-between small-time businessmen, institutionalized corruption, blue-collar labour and complex family drama. The result is not meant to feel good: Everything’s dark and dreary, characters get killed accidentally, lifelong friendships are destroyed and there’s little hope for the protagonist in the middle of those powerful corrupt forces. Boasting of a great cast but directed with little distinction, The Yards often doesn’t quite know what to do with its leads Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron, not to mention living legends such as James Caan, Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway in supporting roles. The result is procedurally wearying, a description that can be applied surprisingly well to many of Gray’s later works. The Yards may have echoes of On the Waterfront somewhere in its working-class corruption DNA, but that’s not enough to make it feel alive.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) We’re at the tail end of eighties nostalgia now, but I won’t complain if it brings us as finely crafted action movies as Atomic Blonde. Set against the inevitable fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this is a deliciously retro piece of work that nonetheless embodies 2010s attitude and filmmaking prowess, with Charlize Theron once again burnishing solid action credentials as an English spy trying to stabilize a dangerous situation where no one can be trusted. She is intensely credible as a capable heroine, holding up against waves of assailants: Atomic Blonde’s centrepiece sequence is an impossibly long sequence in which she fights her way out of a building against countless assailants, a virtuoso demonstration of what’s now possible with personal trainers, audacious directors, seamless CGI and clever techniques. This sequence is made even better by how it leaves visible marks and bruises on the heroine, dramatically reinforcing the realism of the sequence even in a generally fantastic film. (David Leitch directs, solidifying his resume after John Wick.) Other actors also impress, from an increasingly credible James McAvoy as an action star, to Sofia Boutella playing a very unusual “soft” role going against her established screen persona. (We’re really sorry to see her go.) John Goodman and Toby Jones help complete the triple-crossing framing device that fully plays out Cold War mythology tropes. A terrific new wave soundtrack helps complete the package, adding much to the film for those who even dimly remember the late eighties. Aside from its intrinsic qualities, Atomic Blonde is also a further salvo in how the eighties are being digested into mythology, ready to be re-used as second-generation pop-culture elements. Even if you don’t care about that, Atomic Blonde is a solid action movie fit to make any cinephile giggle with joy at how well it works.
(On TV, February 2016) I have never played golf and I’m sure it’s a nice excuse to go for a walk, but the lengths through which The Legend of Bagger Vance goes to add a layer of mysticism to hitting a gold ball would be impressive if they weren’t faintly ridiculous. A very young Matt Damon stars as a golf prodigy damaged by his WWI experiences and recapturing his groove during a crucial tournament. Will Smith shows up as the exemplar of the so-called “Magical Negro” trope but makes it an endearing role through folksy sayings and unaffected demeanour. Charlize Theron has a decent role as a woman trying to save her father’s gold club from closing down and at least looks the part of a southern aristocrat down to the garter belt and stockings. Other than that, and notwithstanding the magical titular character, The Legend of Bagger Vance is very much a standard underdog sports drama, ending with just enough success to feel like a victory. It does feature of lot of material in which golf becomes a proxy for genteel life philosophy. Director Robert Redford is going for a quiet period film and does manage to feature some lush scenery along the way. But the result, for some reason, seems aimed squarely at those middle-aged (and older) men trying to rationalize their love of the game to whoever will listen. No wonder I caught the movie as it was playing on the Golf Channel!
(On DVD, September 2016) Charlize Theron got considerable acclaim for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, and more than ten years later it’s still easy to see why. Straddling the line between sympathy and revulsion for its subject, this is a film that takes us to the bottom of American society, alongside people so rejected by the system that they become prey for predators barely above them. After being abused, rejected, thrown out and exploited, one woman snaps and kills a man who clearly intended to brutalize her. Having tasted revenge, her next few kills are far more deliberate. A rare true-life example of a female serial killer, Wuornos’ case (as portrayed in this film) becomes a cautionary tale about people with nothing to lose, and how badly the system can fail them. It’s certainly not meant to excuse what she did, as even Wuornos’ lover can’t possibly condone her actions and runs away. This is in no way a pleasant, uplifting or comforting film. But Monster’s anchor is truly Theron’s performance, about as unglamorous as she can be with extra pounds, prosthetic teeth, terrible complexion and bad posture: Theron walked away with a few awards for this one (including an Oscar), and it’s hard to disagree. The film itself is fine, but with Theron in the lead role it becomes remarkable.
(Video on Demand, September 2015) “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!” is the kind of thing that post-apocalyptic science-fiction action movie fans are wont to quote after watching Mad Max: Fury Road. Despite a lengthy gap between installments, a new star, rumors of a troubled production and generalized post-apocalyptic fatigue among moviegoers, this new Mad Max is a solid action film that dares distill its essence in a nearly all-encompassing chase sequence. The non-stop action is shot impressively, with veteran director George Miller proving that he’s still a master of the form. Better yet, the action-movie template actually features a lot of world-building (in the form of crazy details that hint at much more) and relatively progressive politics as women take active roles as agents of the plot. Fury Road cleverly weaves its storytelling in its action sequences, resulting in a film that only pauses deliberately to take its breath. Tom Hardy makes for a fairly good new Max, while Charlize Theron has a strong role as the rebellious Furiosa. Still, this is Miller’s film, and the way he crams more and more excess in his stripped-down film feels like a breath of fresh air: the film is colorful, has stunts that feel honestly dangerous (or painful!). There’s also a lot of thematic depth to the film’s relentless action, from the nature of cultism to the artificial illusion of patriarchy, to altruism as rebirth. While the chase can come across as a bit repetitive, Fury Road remains a solid action film, the likes of which we see too rarely. It’s good enough to make anyone’s day.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) There’s a lot of potential in the premise and cast assembled by Seth MacFarlane for A Million Ways to Die in the West. As a modern-thinking man somehow stuck in the very dangerous old west, MacFarlane himself has a bit of charm (albeit maybe not enough for the entire role), and being surrounded by Charlize Theron (in the funniest, most relaxed role she’s had in years), Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson isn’t a bad deal. At times, some of the comic set-pieces are indeed very funny (none more so than the sequence in which the title is explained), and some of the character work by actors such a Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman is pretty nice. Unfortunately, MacFarlane’s worst comic instincts often get the best of his better ones. Often crude, vulgar and tasteless, A Million Ways to Die in the West seems intent on wasting great visuals (it does look like a western) and tons of potential into dumb jokes that are more repellent than daring. It feels long, scattershot and doesn’t even have the superficial thematic depth that MacFarlane’s previous Ted did. Unfortunately, no amount of cameos, slight chuckles, ridiculous situations or blatant anachronisms can quite tie up the film’s lack of direction, inconsistent pacing and distasteful humor.
(On-demand, September 2012) Given the latest decade of post-Lord of the Rings fantasy films, re-imagining the Snow White fairytale as epic fantasy wasn’t such a conceptual leap. Here’s the evil queen, here are the rebels, here is Snow White as a symbol of the old order to be restored… not bad. Or rather; would have been not bad had someone with some skill had written the script, and someone vastly more talented been the lead protagonist. Because, even though I like Kristen Stewart in specific doses (Adventureland, anyone?), her range as a dour emotionless actress just isn’t wide enough to accommodate what she’s being asked to do here. Would it kill her to smile, laugh, squee or have fun once in a while? Not that the issues stop here, what with a medieval-ish land that clearly has pagan magic and a Christian prayer in it: It’s never too clear whether the universe of this film is supposed to be realist with a bit of magic or a fully-magical secondary universe. No matter, though, because plot contrivances really drive this story, along with misguided told-not-shown romance, dropped plot threads, blindingly-obvious foreshadowing and other problems. At least two people come out if this film with reputations intact: Charlize Theron as the evil queen with more humanity than the protagonist, and Chris Hemsworth as the gruff titular huntsman. Below the line, the people who worked on the film’s visual elements should also give themselves a pat on the back: there’s some nice work here, most notably in the scene-setting of the fairyland segments. Alas, it’s a moment that clashes with the grittiness of the rest of the film and feels largely useless as a plot element, something that extends to the seven dwarves of the Snow White legend. (In a further twist, a number of famous non-dwarves actors play the somewhat superfluous dwarves, something so staggeringly useless as to defy explanation.) For all of the visual impact of the film, Snow White and the Hunstman is almost completely empty of interest: the plot staggers and spurts ahead without forward momentum, and the result is boring. 2012 has seen two disappointing big-screen versions of the Snow White fairytale, but if I’d have to choose, I’d rather sit through Mirror, Mirror once again.
(In theatres, December 2009) There’s been a lot of post-apocalyptic films lately, and hopefully The Road will signal that we can go back to something else, because it’s hard to imagine a realistic take on the end of the world that could be greyer, sadder and more relentlessly desperate than this one. There’s no glamour, fun or adventure in this film set about a decade after an unseen, unspecified but all-encompassing catastrophe: The rare survivors are grimy and constantly forced to fight cannibals on their way. As an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name, it’s pretty faithful: Charlize Theron has a far bigger role in the film’s trailer than in the entire book, but the rest is pretty dead-on. This means that rather than reading 241 bleak pages trying to find new ways to describe “gray doom”, you get to see 112 very long minutes of the same. While The Road is a success in that it does manage to hit most of its objectives, it will take a special kind of viewer to appreciate it. The rest are likely to spend their time looking at their watches and wondering when it will finally end (and if the characters can’t die a bit sooner for it to happen.) I suppose that film scholars will have a lot to say about the film’s nuanced take on fatherhood, man’s inhumanity to man, the nature of hope and the way decaying character is seldom self-perceived, but first you have to endure the post-apocalyptic gloom. Viggo Mortensen fans will be pleased; so will those looking for buildings unexplainably still burning ten years after everything goes gray. As for the rest, well, 2012 is also available. Now that is a catastrophic choice.