(On Cable TV, July 2017) As someone who doesn’t mind romantic movies but is easily bored with them, I’m reminded by Water for Elephants that the key to an interesting romance is largely made out of its setting. In this case, setting a relatively standard love triangle in the middle of a 1930s travelling circus feels like an instant shot of interest—watching the minutiae of a circus is fascinating to the point when it’s easy to tolerate the familiar romantic plot. None of the three main actors impress by going out of persona—Reese Witherspoon is her usual forgettable self, while Christoph Waltz genially chews scenery and Robert Pattinson continues to prove that he’s better than his Twilight character but not that far removed from it. Still, the star here is the travelling circus and its sub-culture, the details of setting up the big top every day and the challenges of trying to run a circus in depression-era America. It’s a great setting and you can lose yourself in the way the movie shows those details … before being brought to earth with the familiar love triangle featuring a good guy, a damsel in distress and an abusive husband. It wraps up satisfyingly, though, and that more than makes up for the familiar path trodden along the way. Production values are surprisingly good, and there’s a wealth of supporting characters who get a shining moment or two. I was surprised by Water for Elephants—I expected something duller and middle-of-the-road, but that was based on reading a plot summary—the actual film is far more generous than expected in its period details and richness of setting. I’ll take it.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Count me as slightly surprised by this two-fisted adventure film. Most reviewers haven’t been kind to The Legend of Tarzan, and their lowering of my expectations surely played into the film’s favour. Once past the prologue and some tiresome rehashing of the classic Tarzan myth, The Legend of Tarzan gets its own identity as an anti-colonialist sequel to the original Burrough. As Tarzan returns to Africa to fight against slavers, the film becomes the straight-up adventure that it should be. Alexander Skarsgård (and his CGI double) is pretty good as the titular hero, Margot Robbie is fine (but no more) as a damsel able to fight her way out of distress, Samuel L. Jackson is dependably enjoyable as an action sidekick and Christoph Waltz is also up to his usual standards as a slimy antagonist. Director David Yates uses his experience helming visual-effects-heavy projects to deliver a swooping, dynamic series of action sequences grounded in the real world: the film reaches its apex by the time Tarzan flies through the jungle. The script isn’t too bad—despite some uninspiring lines, the anti-colonial themes are ambitious and nicely serve the character despite some white-saviour qualms. The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t amount to a remarkable movie, but it does make up most of a decent blockbuster entertainment film. It’s quite a bit better than some of the harshest reviews may suggest, and works just fine at what it wants to be.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) At first, it may be curious to see director Tim Burton, best known for visually inventive film, tackle a “simple” biographical film about an artist. But that assessment ignores two things: first, how Burton is a dedicated real-life fan of Margaret Keane (to the point of having commissioned at least one painting from her); but also how the story of Keane, long denied credits for paintings due to her husband claiming that he was the true artist, would resonate so deeply with fellow visual-artist Burton. So it is that despite the low-spectacle visuals of a realistic biography (albeit featuring an unexpected use of visual effects in a short oneiric scene), you can feel Burton engage with his subject and, in doing so, deliver one of his best films in years. This being said, this isn’t necessarily a masterpiece: De-glammed Amy Adams is very good as Keane, but Christopher Waltz’s manic interpretation of her monstrously egomaniac husband often veers too close to cheap caricature thanks to a narrative firmly beholden to Margaret Keane’s point of view. Despite the rightfulness of this viewpoint, the film seems to make too many cheap jabs and dilute its own effectiveness in doing so. Still, the story works and so does the film in general. The change of pace does Burton good, even though it may mean that Big Eyes doesn’t get half the attention that his other more genre-driven films do.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) I actually had big hopes for this film. Director Terry Gilliam is a true iconoclast, and his filmography contains a number of classics. But then again, his filmography is also filled with less-successful material and lengthy pauses between projects. Alas, The Zero Theorem doesn’t qualify as a success: While thematically ambitious and as visually intriguing as most of his other projects, this science-fiction film unfolds without rigor, letting its excesses run wild while not ensuring that the basic demands of the plot are met. There are moment of wit (including a gigantic sign telling park visitors what not to do in great detail) and intriguing characters: Christoph Waltz is good in a nearly-unrecognizable role, whereas Mélanie Thierry makes for an unconventional romantic interest; Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton are unexpectedly fun in small roles. Still, The Zero Theorem’s existentialist musings quickly devolve into pure incomprehensible yadda-yadda, choosing pretention over substance. The story has tone issues that the film’s manic design only makes worse, while the conclusion doesn’t do much to bring all of the separate plot threads into a satisfying conclusion. It’s a film best appreciated (and then again, not that much) by cinephiles and Gilliam completists rather than general audiences who will watch it and shrug: The Zero Theorem ends by disproving itself.
(Video on-demand, April 2013) Over the past year, I have willingly forgone an almost-exclusive diet of theater films in favour of extensive sampling from premium cable channels, with the pernicious result that I am seeing a far wider variety in the quality of the films I watch. From made-for-TV stinkers to big-budget critical darlings, I now watch everything and my expectations are now lower (ie: more realistic) than they used to be. These personal considerations are prologue to one stone-cold fact: When such a great film as Django Unchained makes its way inside my brain after so many undistinguished movies, the sheer cinephile pleasure of it seems increased. I’ve long admired nearly everything directed by Quentin Tarantino: his love of moviemaking is so infectious that every single film he makes is a treat for jaded movie fans, his script are unlike anyone else’s, his direction makes the familiar feel fresh and the depth of his films is such that you can spend a long time discussing them. As a gleefully revisionist historical revenge fantasy, Django Unchained feels like a natural follow-up to Inglourious Basterds: It exploits the strengths of exploitation cinema to deliver a fully satisfying entertainment experience, putting power back in the hands of the oppressed and allowing for a graphic depiction of wrongs being righted. It makes full use of a talented cast in order to provide unique moments of cinema. Jamie Foxx is sheer charisma as Django, while Christoph Waltz completely owns his role. Leonardo diCarpio turns in a rare but effective villainous presence, while Kerry Washington singlehandedly raises the emotional stakes of the film. It takes its time in order to build single-scene suspense of a sort seldom seen in more average films. But the exploitation/entertainment label that is so easily affixed to Django Unchained can mask something far more interesting: in fully showing the viciousness of slavery required for vengeance to be so effective, Django Unchained goes farther than most similarly-themed movies in graphically condemning this ugly chapter of American history. It takes an exploitation film like this one to go where more serious films won’t dare, and this one is gleefully unrepentant in allowing the downtrodden to punish their exploiters. When you combine such crowd-pleasing intentions with top-notch filmmaking skill, the result is irresistible and quickly climbs up year’s-best listings. Django Unchained is, warts and slavery and self-indulgence included, a sumptuous cinematic feast and a splendid piece of entertainment. Don’t dare miss it.
(In theaters, November 2011) Since Alexandre Dumas’ Les Trois Mousquetaires endures as a perennial adventure novel, it makes sense that every generation would seek to adapt it to its own liking. In 2011, this means an action-adventure film heavily influenced by steampunk tropes, blending cheerfully anachronistic machines with swordfights and derring-do. It won’t work if you’re predisposed against big dumb action B-movies. But if you do enjoy big dumb action B-movies, then this is a fine example of the form. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is a competent visual stylist, and his instinct for action sequence is better than most of his contemporaries. Holding back the quick-cutting out of concern for audiences watching this film shot in 3D, Anderson gives a good kinetic kick to The Three Musketeers and does justice to the fast-paced script. (Which is surprisingly faithful to the plot beats of the original novel, action movie theatrics being considered.) A number of capable actors hold their own in iconic role, whether it’s Anderson-favourite Milla Jovovich as Milady de Winter, Matthew Macfadyen as the deep-voiced Athos, and Christoph Waltz as the Cardinal Richelieu the film deserved. A number of well-executed action beat enliven the picture, all the way to the swashbuckling finale in which two lighter-than-air warships battle it out over Paris. Classic French literature has seldom felt so dynamic; there’s a definite Resident Evil tone to the film, all the way down to an epilogue that sets up the next installment. I’m game for any sequel, but keep in mind that I’m an indulgent viewer when it comes to action pictures. And before anyone asks, I am atoning for this good review of The Three Musketeers by finally reading the Dumas book.
(In theaters, August 2009) Quentin Tarantino is, if nothing else, a film-lover, and that’s why his movies are always worth seeing by those who feel let down by the rest of American cinema: There’s always something interesting in what he does. This doesn’t mean that his material is always successful… but that too is part of the fun. Few would expect Inglourious Basterds to be such a surprising film, for instance: The film promised by the premise and the trailer (American Jewish soldiers go killing Nazis in occupied France) is replaced by a talky drama that manages to make World War Two hinge on a movie showing. Characters die when one doesn’t expect them to, and even the fabric of history isn’t immune to the twists. One can quibble with the film’s casual regard for historical fact, but on the other hand it’s hard to dismiss a film that dares push a revenge fantasy to its logical extreme. It’s easy to say that Inglourious Basterds is too long at two hours and a half, but at the same time the dialogue seems so tight that it’s difficult to say exactly where snippets should be cut: the deliberate atmosphere of the film is such that when character engage in a round of game-playing, we can rest assured that we’re going to see the entire thing play out. Oh well; fans of Tarantino’s usual violence will be reassured that the bloody incidents are few, but explicit in all of their head-scalping, skull-batting, forehead-slicing gore. The result is both satisfying and unfulfilling: While the film we have seen is a good chunk of cinematic goodness (and the performance of Christoph Waltz as the Nazi antagonist is simply magnificent), it wouldn’t have hurt to actually see the film promised by Brad Pitt’s superb southern cadences. But, hey, my feeling is that Inglourious Basterds is going to be even better once the fully-loaded DVD edition comes out. Which, considering Tarantino’s glacial pacing when it comes to special-edition DVD, may not be anytime soon.