(On TV, June 2017) Often, the most difficult movies to review are the average ones. Nanny McPhee is, in many ways, a thoroughly average children’s film: It features a strong titular character, a group of kids in need of some guidance, gross-out gags, a food fight, an intensely schematic structure, plot developments seen well in advance, and a colourful imagination on display. But what makes Nanny McPhee good for kids are also what makes it dull for adult audiences: besides some performances (including Emma Thompson as the writer/star of the movie, and the ever-dependable Colin Firth as an overwhelmed dad) and production design, there really isn’t much here to grab interest. At least it works well enough for its intended audience. Otherwise, is there anything more to say?
(On Cable TV, May 2017) I really liked the first Bridget Jones’s Diary, but as someone who believes that romantic comedies should never have sequels, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason didn’t impress as much, and I’m even less enthusiastic about Bridget Jones’s Baby. This third film of the series has additional issues in that it takes place much, much later—so late, in fact, that what was adorably goofball behaviour by Bridget Jones in her twenties now seems a bit sad and unbecoming to someone in her forties. The youthful charm of the character has worn extremely thin and reviving a romantic triangle (involving uncertain paternity, no less) in that context seems more desperate than amusing. Those objections duly noted (and acknowledging that Zellweger, in growing older, seems to have become far more generic an actress), Bridget Jones’s Baby remains a mildly enjoyable piece of romantic comedy. The plot cheats are egregious, the humiliation comedy gets old, the ultimate issue is rarely in doubt. But parts of it are fun, the script is intermittently self-aware, Colin Firth is dependably good, Ed Sheeran shows up in a cute cameo and Zellweger can still pull at masculine protective heartstrings. On the other hand, let’s not pretend that this third entry in the series does anything but coast on the merits of its predecessors, and is likely destined to “third movie in the series bundle” status within a few years, never to be sold as anything but part of the DVD set. I’d ask the series to stop now before Bridget Jones’s Toddler, but I’m really not confident that anyone will listen.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) Even by the standards of Oscar-baiting historical docu-fiction, Genius seems tame and detached. It’s a problem that can’t be blamed on the actors—Colin Firth is good as legendary editor Max Perkins, while Jude Law is suitably unhinged as Tom Wolfe. Nicole Kidman is more disappointing as Wolfe’s one-time wife, but it’s not much of a role—and she gets to point a gun at the protagonist in the film’s most incongruous scene. The plot loosely talks about the working collaboration and tortuous friendship between Perkins and Wolfe over a period of a decade (two years go by in a blink during a montage) as they argue about Wolfe’s novels and the writer’s mercurial personality eventually leads him to paranoia. All well and good; as someone who’s fond of movies about writers; I particularly appreciated the editing humour and portrait of books as works to be rewritten rather than completed once THE END is first typed. Still, I could help but find the film long and meandering. Viewers may struggle to remain interested, and the film doesn’t help by taking occasional lengthy breaks in plotting. While well shot, with a convincing recreation of 1920s New York, Genius is a disappointment considering its source material. I’m glad it exists (what are the odds of seeing another major movie featuring a book editor as a hero?), but it could and should have been better.
(On TV, November 2016) If I was in a jocular mood, I’d probably use Girl with a Pearl Earring as an excuse for a rant on the sorry state of Hollywood creativity: Not only are they adapting novels, TV Shows, videogames, now they’re even adapting paintings, for goodness’ sake! But it’s hard to be in anything but a coma after watching the film, which delves deep into the minutia of a 17th century Dutch household as it imagines the circumstances leading to Vermeer’s eponymous painting. Scarlett Johansson stars as the eponymous girl, while Colin Firth gets a smile or two as the long-haired romantic incarnation of the painter. Much of the rest is either domestic infighting, or a half-hearted romantic triangle. There are, to be sure, a few things worth mentioning about the film: The cinematography plays with the colour scheme of the film to reflect various Vermeer paintings, and Johansson does bear a passing resemblance to the painting itself. But much of it feels dull and far too long. I suspect that part of my lack of appreciation for the film has to do with the film’s presentation: For some reason, the version I watched on TV (on a channel that usually does its best despite commercial breaks) had muddy colors, bad compression artifacts and (most unexplainably) a 4:3 aspect ratio for a film shot in 2.35:1. Still, no amount of presentation will fix the interminable pacing of the story, so I don’t expect to revisit Girl with a Pearl Earring anytime soon.
(On TV, August 2015) Amanda Bynes may now be best-known as a cautionary tale about the hazards of undiagnosed mental health issues, but she had a few good years as a gifted comedy actress, and What a Girl Wants is a good showcase for what she was capable of doing. The preposterous premise has Bynes as the daughter of an earthy American mother and a respectable member of the British establishment. When she, as a young cool American girl, tries to reconnect with her estranged father in the middle of his political ascension, various wacky hijinks ensue. What a Girl Wants is, obviously, aimed at the tweenager set: most of the comic set-pieces involve British aristocrats gawking speechless at the antics of our unrefined protagonist. As I grow older, I find that I have less and less tolerance for the unexamined assumption that high-class refinement is inherently stultifying, that it always needs shaking up by younger-cooler-brasher protagonists: manners exist for a reason, and wouldn’t it be fun to see a film argue in favor of that at some point… (Oh, hey, Kingsmen.) But that’s not What a Girl Wants is built to do, so it may be more helpful to focus on the success of Bynes’ antics, the fact that Colin First couldn’t possibly be any Colin-Firthier than he is here as an idealized father figure, and enjoy the various comic set-pieces in the spirit in which they were executed. Predictable but executed competently, What a Girl Wants delivers what it was aiming for, and should please most of its intended audience… delivering what they want.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Kingsman was billed as “Kick-Ass for the spy movie” and that did nothing to put me in a good mood given how I disliked Kick-Ass’ mixture of cheap cynicism, crudeness and hypocrisy. It felt aimed at a far younger audience, and I feared that Kingsman would more or less go that same way. But while Kingsman does have its own crude excesses in presenting its chav-becomes-suave plotline (oy, that final joke), it’s also gleefully fun and honestly enamoured with the material it emulates: It’s instructive to compare the film with 2002’s “hipper Bond” xXx and how eloquent Kingsman can be in promoting the classical gentlemen-spy archetype. (Try not to quote “Manners maketh man” the next time you proudly pick up a good umbrella.) Director Matthew Vaughn knows what kind of film he’s building, and the result is far more satisfying than his own previous Kick-Ass. It certainly helps that the film can rely on Colin Firth as the ultimate gentleman spy. Firth, not previously known for anything resembling an action role, here gets two splendid action sequences –they may be heavily enhanced by blurry special effects, but he looks and acts the part well enough to convince. The simulated-single-shot church scene is regrettably ultra-violent, but it’s also an anthology piece for a very specific kind of action mayhem. Taron Egerton is remarkable as the lead protagonist, but the film is also filled with interesting supporting performances by Samuel L. Jackson (having fun at the expense of the usual villainous clichés), Sofia Boutella as an enabled enforcer and Mark Strong in a welcome non-antagonist role. The editing and direction flows quickly and wittily, with a great soundtrack support and enough winks and nods to other movies to make it even more interesting. A self-assured comedy with just enough action beats to make it a respectable spy thriller, Kingsman feels fresh and fun.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) I have a bit of a fondness for films in which exotic afflictions are used for thrilling effect. (See; Faces in the Crowd; Memento) Before I Go to Sleep starts by describing the plight of a woman who loses her memory every night, only remembering events from long-ago. Every morning, she reads notes to orient herself; every morning, her husband reassures her; every morning, she discovers who she was. But, of course, some clues accumulate suggesting that what she is told to remember isn’t what really happened to her… and the thrills begin. Who is her husband? Does she have a son? Is the doctor she’s seeing without her husband’s knowledge there to help or hurt her? So many questions to be answered during a delirious third act! Nicole Kidman isn’t bad as the protagonist and Mark Strong is his usual menacing self, but it’s Colin Firth who turns in the most remarkable performance with a somewhat unusual turn for him. Rowan Joffé’s direction has a few stylish moments and if the story is wild enough to compensate for odd turns of logic, the film does suffer from a bit of a middle-third lull and some late-movie clichés. Still, given that Before I Go to Sleep had a fairly low profile in North America, it’s most likely going to be a pleasant surprise for fans of the two lead actors, and offer a reasonably competent late-night thriller for audiences with low expectations.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) The single biggest boon of trawling the schedule of specialized cable movie channels is discovering small unassuming gems that, for some reason, never made it big with popular audiences. So this brings us to Gambit, a Coen-brothers-scripted heist comedy featuring hugely enjoyable actors such as Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci. The plot, adapted from a sixties film, concerns a disaffected art expert (Firth, both solid and hapless) trying to con his haughty employer out of millions in exchange for a fake painting. When a Texas cowgirl (Diaz, hilariously unpretentious) is brought in to certify the authenticity of the fake, things get quite a bit off the initial plan. While Gambit won’t win any awards, it’s a joy to watch largely due to a lighthearted script, some great comic set-pieces and a few actors doing what they know best. The first ten minutes are hugely enjoyable; the rest is a bit more sedate but by no means unpleasant. At a time where multiscreen cinema is all about spectacle, the natural resting place for those mid-budget comic caper movies is going to be found in alternate distribution channels. So start looking at those cable TV listings closely –you may find unjustly-overlooked films like this one.
(On-demand video, July 2012) As the Cold War recedes from popular consciousness, it’s slowly taking on a nice historical patina. Judging from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the color palette of that patina is going to be made of dull browns with the occasional flash of garish orange foam. Well-adapted from John le Carré’s classic novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole within the British spy establishment, it faithfully sticks to the author’s portrayal of English spies as dull grey bureaucrats fighting for the realm from little drab offices. It’s a refreshing antidote to the overblown portrayal of spies as action heroes, but it does require a willingness from viewers to adjust their entertainment expectations. This is a slow film, and it doesn’t have much in terms of conventional thrills: The biggest suspense sequences of the film (sneaking documents from the archives, waiting for the mole to show up) are moments that would have been glossed-over in an action film. So it’s no surprise if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works best as an atmospheric period piece, featuring two handfuls of capable actors and a mature view of the reality of the intelligence game that is far closer to reality than most other films. Information here is far more important than bullets. Gary Oldman is mesmerizing as George Smiley, a spy who does his best work by interviewing people and then thinking really hard about what he has learned. The surrounding cast is very strong, from Mark Strong’s atypical performance as a wounded ex-spy to Colin Firth’s unrepentant seducer to Toby Jones’s slimy ladder-climber. The adaptation from the novel is skillful, as it seems to completely re-structure the chronology of the story while keeping much of the plot points intact. The result may not be up to everyone’s favored speed, but it’s a skillful film, and one that does wonder in terms of pure atmosphere. It works much like the novel does, as a counter-point to espionage fantasies.
(In theatres, January 2011) Combining physical-handicap drama with palace intrigue may not be the most obvious kind of mash-up, but there’s a first time for anything, and it’s the kind of stuff that upscale audiences and Academy voters just enjoy without reservations. The King’s Speech really starts with the abdication of Edward VIII and wraps up the royal succession drama in a standard story of a man overcoming his handicap… the man in question being the next king, George VI, who suffers from a stutter that’s practically debilitating at a time where radio technology allows leaders to speak directly to the masses. Wrapped up in a heavy dose of British interwar period values, The King’s Speech feels like a slightly-updated Merchant Ivory feature stuck in a physical-handicap narrative template: Slight, with a certain dose of ponderous self-importance. Predictable, sure, but fascinating to watch in large part due to the talent of the actors: Geoffrey Rush is fine as the therapist with all the answers, but it’s Colin Firth who really makes an impression with his portrait of a capable man stuck within a stammering shell that limits what he can do. The deviations from the historical record are a matter of dramatic structure: the film wraps up so neatly that it defies common sense. The direction underscores a number of themes (for instance, in framing characters against empty walls), but it feels odd and sometimes incoherent in the way it goes from locked camera to a flying one. But no matter: for fans of period drama, this is about as good as it gets. One man overcoming his personal issues, plus a bit of royal drama? Seems like a perfect match. Expect Oscar nominations.
(In theatres, February 2010) I can see how this film would pack an emotional wallop for people in particular circumstances. The story of a widower in terminal stage of grief, A Single Man moves with great deliberation as it follows one man’s last day. As he closes off parts of his life, we see him slowly complete his isolation. Tremendously affecting stuff, except for the part where I don’t really understand the character’s plight or care for the way it’s portrayed. Even featuring more slow-motion shots than any John Woo movie, A Single Man has trouble making it the 100-minutes mark and it feels about twice as long despite a surprising amount of wit and sly humour. A study in controlled cinematography, fifties set design, closeted passion (including a color saturation motif that gets stale more quickly than it is used) and deliberate direction, it’s not as if A Single Man isn’t successful in what it achieves: it’s just that its objectives are very different from what many moviegoers will be looking for. Colin Firth, at least, is magnificent as the haunted lead character: I saw the film because of his Oscar nomination, and the least I can say is that it’s deserved. As for the rest, well, I’ll let other people judge of its effectiveness.