(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I’m late to Amistad, but watching it explains a lot of Steven Spielberg’s latter filmography, most obviously Lincoln. (Although I suspect that I’ll understand even more once I see The Color Purple). While I could blather on about Amistad’s excessive length and slow pacing, that would be missing the point of a film that dares to show how civilized arguments can make better humans out of everyone. This movie believes in the rule of law, but doesn’t shy away from showing distressing scenes of slavery and torture. (Amistad illuminates Lincoln’s distant treatment of slavery by the explanation that Spielberg already showed the worst in his earlier film, and wasn’t keen on graphically revisiting the issue.) It’s a period drama but a handsomely executed one, featuring actors that were either at the height of their powers (Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman) or on the verge of stardom (Matthew McConaughy, and Djimon Hounsou in a terrific performance). There are plenty of other things to like: Amistad lets subtitles play a role in the way viewers feel the story unfolding, credibly shines a light in pockets of American history that people would like to forget, ends on eloquence (albeit with an explosive coda) and appeals to our better natures. I wouldn’t necessarily call it gripping or essential, but it’s easily compelling and worthwhile … and has survived admirably well the almost-twenty years since its release.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) There is absolutely nothing new in Baggage Claim, a good-natured but familiar romantic comedy in which a flight attendant frantically sets out to find a husband in thirty days by re-examining her past boyfriends. The conclusion is obvious barely thirty minutes in the film (to the point where the remaining plot elements either feel forced or obvious) and all that remains is enjoying the actors’ performances. Which, frankly, isn’t a bad thing: Paula Patton finally gets a good starring comic role (after what felt like a long series of supporting roles in action movies) and she plays the comedy as broadly as she can, with infectiously charming results. There is also a lot to like in the series of would-be suitors jostling for screen time, from Derek Luke’s boy-next-door charm to Taye Diggs’ power-broker strength to Djimon Hounsou’s effortless smoothness. (Seriously; is that guy even capable of being anything less than totally suave?) While the film’s romantic messages (“Be yourself”, etc.) and airport-set climax were old decades ago, this familiarity works at lowering expectations to the point where the film feels likable even despite having nothing new to say. Romantic Comedies have the built-in advantage of innocuous failure modes: even at their blandest, they’re more forgettable than actively irritating. So it is that Baggage Claim may have flaws, but it’s competently-executed enough to settle for mild entertainment. The actors get to show what they can do, no one will be offended by the results and I can name plenty of films that don’t even meet those two criteria.
(In theaters, February 2009) I wasn’t expecting much from this teen action thriller: Psychic powers are a bit lame in the SF field, and the first few minutes are so clumsy that it’s a wonder when the film does improve later on. But thanks to a few good characters, plot twists and clever sequences, Push manages to end up on an up note. No, the plot doesn’t make sense when you consider the knowledge that a non-precog character should or should not have had when writing a certain set of letters. But it hardly matters when the film rushes straight-ahead into the suspense and action sequences. It could have been considerably better, mind you: The direction is harsh and chaotic, the script is a bit too bloodthirsty and the art direction sees the Hong Kong location as an excuse to be as garish as it can be. But the same Hong Kong location makes up for spectacular backdrops, exotic location and an interesting Asian cast. In some ways, this is this year’s Jumper, what with young psychic people fighting against shadowy organizations in exotic locales. But in other ways it’s quite a bit better as long as you get past the film’s various annoyances and flawed direction. The ending blatantly leads to a follow-up: maybe, if there’s a sequel, it will be a bit better.
(Second Viewing, on DVD, May 2011) I think I like the movie a bit more upon a re-view: The script has moments of invention, Paul McGuigan’s direction is energetic, the actors bring something extra to the film (with special mentions of Dakota Fanning, Chris Evans and Djimon Hounsou’s work) and Hong Kong makes for a great location. Too bad the DVD isn’t anything special: The commentary (featuring McGuigan, Fanning and Evans) is about shooting experiences and them trying to understand the script. Of the handful of deleted scenes, one one actually brings something new. Finally, the only special feature is an obnoxious “Science behind the fiction” piece that relies on a single biased talking head to try to make viewers believe in psi powers. It’s disappointing when perfectly good unpretentious SF is ruined by those who take it too seriously.