(In French, On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m not sure what I expected from Beginners, but I got a lot more than I thought. The story of a man dealing with the death of his father as he’s trying to decide whether to pursue a romantic relationship of his own, Beginners is considerably funnier than you’d think considering the subject matter. As our protagonist pieces together his life, the life of his father, and what happened since his father came out as a gay man, the film is remarkably free-form and entertaining in taking us inside the character’s head. This is not a big film, but director Mike Mills’s execution is almost maximalist at times—non-chronological, expressionistic, surprisingly humorous and able to wrap up this slice-of-life narrative with a satisfying finish. Mélanie Laurent is quirky and cute as a free-spirited love interest but this is not her film: Ewan McGregor gets a strong dramatic role here, although he’s sometimes overshadowed by Christopher Plummer’s sheer presence. Beginners wraps up nicely as a film that sits between genres—not a comedy, not a drama, but something that clearly understands what it’s trying to do.
(On DVD, September 2018) For science fiction fans who like the genre for its take on fact-based extrapolations, anticipation of the future or explorations of the possibilities of science, it can be a bit hard to make a space in the SF tent for the unusually robust sub-gene of time-travel romance, in which the mechanics and possibilities of time-travel take a distant back seat to star-crossed romance. Rachel MacAdams has a trilogy of such films in her filmography, but the genre is considerably older than twenty-first century views can expect, and one of the references in that steam is 1980’s Somewhere in Time. The time-travel mechanism is incredibly flimsy—just wish really hard!—although to the film’s credit this becomes a climactic plot point. But the justification is not the point—the point is to allow a young playwright the opportunity to go back a few decades in time to meet and romance an actress. The wish fulfillment is baked into the plot, as is the unrepentant nostalgia presented as unabashed good by the film. It’s a specific kind of film, and I suppose that it does have its audience. Christopher Reeves is noteworthy as the romantic protagonist, ably supported by Jane Seymour with Christopher Plummer playing the heavy as only he can. Somewhere in Time pulls no stops on its way to a timeless tragic romance, so know what to expect. It’s not bad, but aspects of it will strike a few hardened cynics—I plead guilty—as irremediably silly.
(On Cable TV, August 2018) Some movies become famous because of the actors that are in it, but All the Money in the World is a rare reverse example, famous for who’s not in it. Namely Kevin Spacey, whose sexual misconduct became widely publicized in the short span of time after his important supporting role in the film as J. Paul Getty was shot but before the film was released. Rather than shrug their shoulders and release the film as-is, the producers, along with veteran director Ridley Scott, decided to take another riskier path: Recast the Getty role with Christopher Plummer and reshoot all the scenes involving the character. This isn’t quite as insane as it sounds, considering that the character is mostly confined to mansion rooms in one of the film’s subplots. And it worked: Not only was Scott able to replace one significant actor in a ridiculously short amount of time while the film was nearing its release date, but you really can’t tell in the finished product: It’s as if Plummer had been there the entire time, and his performance is rock-solid enough that he ended up nominated for an Oscar. In comparison to the production drama, the story in All the Money in the World seems almost pedestrian, portraying the kidnapping of the grandson of one of the richest men in the world back in the 1970s. There’s an intriguing re-creation of mid-seventies Italy, dark machinations by an incredibly rich man not inclined to negotiate with kidnappers, and some funny business between the kidnapped man’s mom (Michelle Williams, better than usual) and the specialist hired to get him back (Mark Wahlberg, rather ordinary). The drama is solid even though the film itself feels sombre, ponderous and overlong in the middle. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the finished result is a demonstration of the way excessive wealth alters the world around it, twisting human relationships, corrupting individuals (the Getty patriarch is really not a nice person) and inviting predators to make their moves. Alas, not quite enough time is spent on this idea, as the film flirts with romance and spends a lot of time kidnapped by its own subplots. (It doesn’t help that the film has numerous deviations from the historical record.) It’s not a bad movie, but it could have benefited from a lighter and shorter touch. But then again there’s Plummer delivering yet another great performance.
(On TV, December 2017) “There are a lot more Nazis here than I thought” applied to a surprising number of political headlines in 2017, but it’s still a valid commentary on The Sound of Music. While everyone remembers Julie Andrews skipping through the Alps, first-time viewers of the movie may be surprised at the number of Nazis in the film and how prominently they figure in the film’s third act. This being said, much of the film’s first half (and at nearly three hours, it’s a very, very long film…) is indeed about Judy Andrews and singing in the Alps. (Weeks later, I’m still unaccountably humming “Do [e], a deer, a female deer…”) I’m hit-and-miss on musicals, my biggest gripe being that the pacing on musicals grinds to a half during songs. The Sound of Music is a near-perfect example of that issue: The film moves glacially even during spoken segments, and whenever the music starts, well, you can take a break. This being said, it’s not a bad film—Andrews is quite good, and so is Christopher Plummer in the lead male role. The dramatic component becomes more urgent in the film’s Nazi-infested second half, reflecting (some of) the von Trapp family’s real-life story as they escaped Austria to sing in allied countries. It’s a generally good time, although I can best imagine repeated viewings of this film as background noise.
(In theaters, May 2011) It’s not a good sign when you can feel the film’s final act locking itself into position, think “Already?”, look at your watch and find out that the film’s barely past the 65-minutes mark. There may not be all that much to say about Priest, but at least it has the decency to wrap things up in less than 90 minutes. Anything more would have been wasted, mind you: Even though the film seem very loosely adapted from a presumably richer Korean graphic novel series, there just isn’t a whole lot of plot here to gnaw upon: Setup, two dramatic confrontation and we’re already on to the third act. At least there’s a bit of eye-candy to contemplate during that time: The techno-grunge atmosphere is a bit tired, but it’s reinvigorated with the somewhat less usual industrial-western feel of the film’s middle section. Paul Bettany also gets a good role as priest with quasi-supernatural ass-kicking powers: After seeing him in so many dramatic roles (including Charles Darwin in Creation), it’s entertaining to see him re-team with Legion’s director Scott Stewart for action-movie credentials. Otherwise, well, Maggie Q is fine as another renegade Priest, Karl Urban chews scenery like he enjoys it and Christopher Plummer earns a pay-check as the face of the shallow-but-oppressive Church. But it’s all flash and pretty visuals here: no depth, little originality and even less substance. That doesn’t make it a bad film as much as it makes it a very forgettable one. The future for Priest is clear: an unceremonious DVD release, and then onward to cultural oblivion.