(On Cable TV, May 2018) Only maverick filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh could tackle Logan Lucky, going over such extremely familiar material (a heist movie à la Ocean’s Eleven) that another director might have been accused of copycatting. But, of course, Soderbergh never does things like others, and so Logan Lucky takes the large-scale heist down the social classes to NASCAR-obsessed West Virginia/North Carolina, with blue-collar protagonists motivated by larger economic forces. The exceptional casting (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, etc.) is fantastic, but the real draw here is the way the script is handled with blockbuster entertainment savvy by Soderbergh. The intricate heist plot multiplies one gambit after another, creating a dense tapestry of tricks, plans and improvised manoeuvers in which even dupes unaware of any heist have a role to play—and, hilariously enough, are rewarded for it. Taking ideas for an Ocean’s Fourteen film and recasting in redneck country makes for a refreshing change of pace and unusual heroes, as characters that would be treated as hillbillies in other films here get a chance to prove that they’re criminal masterminds. Then, of course, there’s the idea that the film is handled in pure escapism mode, reaching for comedy as often as it can. (The ridiculous prison riot, complete with Game of Thrones references, is particularly funny.) Logan Lucky is very successful, and counts as one of the year’s most delightful surprises.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) What’s going on at EON production these days? Casino Royale was a modern Bond classic followed by the disappointment that was Quantum of Solace, followed by another hit with Skyfall, and now another disappointment with Spectre. Oh, Spectre does have its moments: From the technically impressive (but somewhat meaningless) long tracking shot that opens the film to various moments that show that director Sam Mendes knows what he’s doing, this is a slick blockbuster production with matching results. Everything feels calculated for maximum cross-promotional marketing opportunities and the images on-screen are never less than perfect. Perversely, this glossy surface polish makes the basic bone-headed script problems of the film seem even more glaring. No matter the accomplishment of Spectre’s images, the biggest problems with the film remain story issues. I can’t say enough bad things about the dumb decision to make this fourth Daniel Craig entry try to call back to the previous instalments, especially if they’re going to attempt something as cheap as introducing a villain with family ties to Bond, and half-heartedly trying to make sense of the mush that was Quantum of Solace. It suddenly makes the Bond universe feel small and cramped, unrealistic and petty at once. Spectre also mishandles a post-Skyfall Bond by not giving him a standalone adventure in the classic sense. After the character reconstruction of the previous film, we should have gotten a full classic Bond, not another rebuilding instalment as Bond (once again) goes rogue and his agency is (once again) destroyed. Skyfall was a once-in-a-generation reset: the same trick used in successive films is getting thin—and it doesn’t help that it highlights similarities with the far more entertaining Mission Impossible: Rogue State. The various plotting strands are also confounding: Some secondary characters disappear almost as fast as they’re introduced (giving Monica Bellucci a bare two scenes as a Bond Girl is borderline-criminal), the film doesn’t seem to commit to its own sub-plots and the ending earns the stench of an expected sequel by locking up its antagonist. (And don’t get me started on Andrew Scott reprising his worst tics from the Sherlock series.) One thing is for sure: The Daniel Craig years have been very strange for the Bond franchise, zigzagging between exceptional and forgettable Bond movies. What’s perhaps more confounding with Spectre is how the Bond series, which should be timeless and rely on its own time-tested formula, is now aping the worst screenwriting trends of the moments. Feh. But on the bright side, the next instalment should be better if we go by the series’ on-off pattern.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) Beautiful, warm and yet curiously unmemorable, One Life is a collection of short nature documentaries strung together by the barest of excuses about wildlife finding a way to live despite difficult circumstances… which usually summarizes most nature documentaries. Daniel Craig’s smooth narration is serviceable enough, and the images are often simply spectacular, but trying to find something more to say about the film is an exercise in frustration: Few people do nature documentaries better than the BBC Earth people (recent advances in high-definition digital filmmaking mean that they now sport impeccable cinematography and unusually powerful sequences), and even the heavy anthropomorphism of the script isn’t enough to distract our attention. One Life is good stuff to watch by the entire family, but you may struggle to find much of distinction in it.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) The James Bond franchise needed to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in style, and Skyfall is just what critics ordered, especially after the disappointment that was Quantum of Solace on the heels of the invigorating Casino Royale reboot. A surprising, intimate celebration/deconstruction of the Bond mythos, Skyfall feels like the most richly thematic Bond yet, indulging into the British machismo of the character while making him fail at nearly every turn. It’s a film that makes a daring series of choices, by nearly killing off the character, graphically exposing his shortcomings, putting him in the service of the matriarchy, flipping the Bond structure as to put the obligatory winks at the beginning of the picture, and delving deeper into Bond’s back-story than ever before. It also features one of the oddest and most effective villains in recent Bond history, as Javier Bardem flamboyantly (yes, that’s the code word) plays an enemy with a straightforward yearning for vengeance. Director Sam Mendes wasn’t the most obvious choice to direct the film, but his handling of the film is immensely self-assured, delivering neat jolts of action alongside the most character-driven moments. It helps that Daniel Craig here solidifies his take as the most credible Bond since Connery, that Judi Dench can sustain a script heavy on her character, and that Naomie Harris fits perfectly in her role. The film’s cinematography is top-notch, and Skyfall is peppered with great moments from a climax-worthy opening action sequence to a one-shot neon-backlit fight to a masterful villain walk-in. Thematically, the film is rich, with real-world allusions crowding symbolism and dramatic ironies. There are too many issues with Skyfall to qualify it as an unimpeachable masterpiece: There’s a lull at the beginning of the third act, the villain’s plan is one of those convenient “everything has to be just so” house of cards, and the seriousness of the picture is the kind of reinterpretation you can only do once a generation. But Skyfall does complete the franchise re-invention process started by Casino Royale: by the time the credits roll, all the pieces (Q, M, Monneypenny, Bond back in service “with pleasure”) have been put in place for another series of installments, preferably ones that goes back to a less serious take on the character now that it has reset expectations.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) How can a film with a big twist be so predictable? Dream House first appears to be a formula-heavy haunted-house thriller with a family in peril and dark secrets underneath the floorboards. Then it turns into something much stranger, as the supernatural takes a back seat to the delusional and we’re left with a far less interesting murder mystery from a cracked perspective. The biggest problem with such plot twists is that if they don’t work, if they leave the viewers saying “Really?”, then the whole film has imploded on itself, with little left to say. Dream House compounds that issue by making all sorts of little mistakes: While it doesn’t try to end on its end-of-second-act twist, the film is left spinning its wheels for a long time after confessing, making a mockery of the film’s now-barely-comprehensible first half. Also disappointing is the way Dream House dangles a supernatural horror story in front of our noses only to yank it back to “just a crazy person!” and a dull movie-psycho ending. It’s surprising to see actors such as Daniel Craig (as effective as ever), Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts (both wasted in dull roles) in fare best suited for direct-to-video mediocrity. The film does look good, and a few moments could have been more interesting had they been in the service of a better film. It’s said that director Jim Sheridan made a mess out of a substantially different script, but the result is unarguable: As is stands, Dream House is a big wasted opportunity, a series of potentially promising tangents that, eventually, go nowhere.
(In theaters, December 2011) Trying to review this film on its own is impossible given how recently I have read the Stieg Larsson book and seen the Swedish film adaptation. It also doesn’t help that the American version seems so intent on faithfully adapting the book and taking its cues from the previous film: There’s no denying that the American version is good, but it’s so similar that the tendency is to focus on the areas of difference. (Amazingly enough, through, the American version is 100% as Swedish as it’s ever been, taking place in Sweden with Swedish characters to the point of having the actors play with slight Swedish accents.) Budget certainly makes a difference: Where the Swedish version had a scene at Millennium magazine with half a dozen staffers, the American version has the feel of a working magazine office. Where the Swedish version held its outdoors scenes to a minimum, the American version indulges in scene-setting. But don’t assume that all the edges have been filed away in an attempt to be audience-friendly: There is a least as much crude violence here, and perhaps a bit more nudity. The bleak coda of the book has been kept over the Swedish film’s more hopeful finale, even as an expensive side-trip during the Swedish conclusion has been pared back for the American one. Director David Fincher is a smart filmmaker, but even his talent and experience doesn’t seem to add all that much to this adaptation when compared to the Swedish one. At least, there’s no arguing about the main casting is correct: Daniel Craig makes for a good Mikael Blomvkist, whereas Mara Rooney is almost as good as Noomi Rapace as Lizbeth Salander. While the end result has a few flaws in pacing, most of them can be attributed to the book itself rather than any special flaw in the adaptation (which does dispense with some extraneous material, such as the carnal relationship between Blomvkist and one of the Vengers) The main question about the film isn’t as much “Is it good?” as “Why does it exist?” The Swedish version was good, but the American version isn’t that much better to justify having a director like David Fincher work-for-hire on it. At some point; why bother? Still, it may be best to focus on the idea that, for once, the American version is just as respectable as its foreign counterpart. Small comfort, but we might as well take what we get.
(In theaters, July 2011) There’s no real reason to dislike the western/Science Fiction hybrid Cowboys & Aliens, but no real reason to love it either. It plays surprisingly straight, what with Daniel Craig and Harrison out-gruffing each other on the way to rid the Earth of an alien menace. The SF elements are weak (Mining gold? Really? Did they miss all the asteroids on their way here?), the action sequence lack a certain oomph and the film seems happy just delivering the goods in more or less the same way the audience expects. Given that even competence is sometimes missing from Hollywood blockbuster, the acknowledgement that Cowboys & Aliens does deliver on its promises should be seen as a compliment. (If nothing else, you do get both Cowboys and Aliens. Happy?) The problem is that there’s little more to director Jon Favreau’s film. After a thorny first act, everything reverts to unthreatening adventure with a perfunctory finale and the self-simplification of the script is particularly harmful to its SF elements: There’s little rhyme or reason to the aliens’ capabilities except for dramatic effect, and at the point it becomes harder for the viewer to actually form expectations or build any kind of suspense if narrative rabbits are going to be taken out of various orifices. Interestingly enough, some of the better works comes from supporting actors: Sam Rockwell is once again unrecognizable in an atypical role far from his better-known characters; Adam Beach is earnest and sympathetic; whereas Olivia Wilde manages to carry an element of ethereal difference to her character beyond simply looking pretty. Oh, Cowboys & Aliens plays well and satisfies base expectations. There’s just a nagging feeling that the film could have been just a little bit more…