(On Cable TV, July 2018) There are a couple of interesting things in Papillon, not the least of them being a narrative structure that never quite goes where you think it does. Adapted from a true story, the film spends much of its first half obsessing about its protagonist’s escape from a tropical prison … only to keep going and going and going well after that escape fails and then another succeeds. We follow the main character through a few decades as he lives various adventures on his way to recapture freedom and yet more evasions. Steve McQueen makes for a likable action protagonist, with Dustin Hoffman acting as an interesting intellectual foil to his character. Filmed in lush Caribbean locations, Papillon does have exotic scenery and unpredictability on its side, although the overall impact may not be as strong as expected. Surprisingly oneiric at times, which more hallucinations than you’d expect. It does feel long, trying and unpleasant—something not diminished by the film’s taking place in a prison or on fleeing through desperate environments. I would have liked to like it more, but felt surprisingly uninvolved by everything.
(On TV, April 2018) The problem with being a generation’s defining statement is that it may not be as compelling to other generations. Contemporary accounts of The Graduate clearly show that it struck a nerve with the baby-boomer generation then coming of age alongside the film’s protagonist. But watching it today doesn’t carry the same message. While Dustin Hoffman ably embodies that generation’s desire to rebel against their parents, his particular struggles seem to belong to the late sixties. Strangely enough, it wouldn’t take much to retell The Graduate today—the big social plot threads are still more or less relevant and technology hasn’t changed much along the way. It doesn’t feel as dated as some of its contemporaries, yet the film simply doesn’t feel all that striking. You can easily imagine a low-budget dramedy telling more or less the same story, but there’s no way that such a film would become the monster hit that it was back then, at a time when “New Hollywood” cinema was waking up from its post-Hays Code stupor. Does it still work today? Well, yes, in its own offbeat way. The film’s first half is surprisingly funny for a film with a reputation as a romantic drama, although the second half really brings the laughs to a stop. It’s remarkably amusing to see firsthand what pop culture has been parodying or sampling for fifty years—you can find echoes of The Graduate in everything from Wayne’s World 2 to George Michael’s “Too Funky.” Hoffman shows his unusual gifts as an actor, while Anne Bancroft is unforgettable as Mrs. Robinson. Simon & Garfunkel provide the score, which is one of the things that most clearly date the film. Still, it’s worth a middling look today—but maybe not for itself as much as for the impact it had.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) In my ongoing understanding of Hollywood history, I’m not sure I’m all that keen on the decade-or-so that led from the end of the Hays Code to the beginning of the new blockbuster populism. The bleak years between those two eras were dark, grim, unsparing and they still carry along their own particular brand of ickiness. So it is that Midnight Cowboy gives us John Voigt as a young Texan would-be hustler freshly transplanted in New York City, and Dustin Hoffman as a conman friend of convenience that falls critically ill along the way. It takes place in late-sixties New York, sometimes in rich penthouses but usually in squatted apartments, dirty streets and disreputable bars. Our dull-witted hero gets his illusion shattered, and even a final escape to Florida proves fatal for one character. For modern viewers, envelope-pushing films such as Midnight Cowboy (which did win an Oscar and thus remains part of the canon even today) present a challenge: While the film brought something new to cinema, helped launched the careers of Voigt and Hoffman and normalized serious hard-hitting drama about the American underclass. Nowadays, such things are far more common, and Midnight Cowboy looks a bit dull compared to what has followed. It doesn’t help that such films are, by their very nature, almost impossible to enjoy in a conventional sense. You take in the drama, reflect on it but never have to see the film again. It has the good fortune of being competently made, though, and that goes a long way in ensuring that it remains watchable, if only as a period piece. But it is bleaker than bleak, and it could have been remade almost verbatim as an early-eighties AIDS story. But of course, and this may be one of Midnight Cowboy’s selling point still—modern studios would never develop such a film: too bleak, not enough superheroes, no chances at a franchise or shared universe. Hollywood may have evolved but it may not have advanced.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) The mid-nineties were a surprisingly good time for solid thrillers, and Sleepers works not because of its atypical revenge plot or unobtrusive direction but largely because it managed to bring together an impressive group of actors. In-between Kevin Bacon, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and the always-compelling Minnie Driver, it’s a nice mixture of generations and styles. It helps that the script is built solidly around an unusual conceit, with an ambitious lawyer doing his best to lose a case but make sure it’s widely publicized to take revenge upon childhood enemies. A blend of courtroom thriller and working-class drama, Sleepers may or may not be based on a true story, but it works well as fiction. Despite revolving around difficult subjects such as child abuse, Sleepers manages to be slightly comforting in how it ensures a victory of sorts for its characters, present a solid underdog story in an accessible fashion, and largely depends on familiar actors doing what they do best. Director Barry Levinson mostly stays out of the way of his actors, and the result is curiously easy to watch despite harsh sequences.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Nearly forty years later, there are things about divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer that have aged poorly, but the film itself does still carry a good chunk of its original impact. While single dads are more commonplace nowadays, the pain of divorce proceedings remains portrayed with heart-wrenching effect. Dustin Hoffman is good as an advertising executive suddenly asked to be a single dad after his wife leaves abruptly—the sequence in which he seeks a job on Christmas Eve remains a highlight of the film. Meryl Streep doesn’t have the most sympathetic of roles as the disappearing wife, but she’s amazing in her own ways. The script does appear to cheat in its final moments (and it does come really close to misogyny in portraying Streep’s character—fortunately, she gets a monologue to explain herself), adding even more drama to the entire film. The portrayal of late-seventies New York City is fascinating in itself, and much of the film still plays effectively even today. What doesn’t quite play so well is the reactionary content—while there’s a conscious attempt here to tips the scales and argue in favour of fatherhood, it seems really blunt by today’s standards. Kramer vs. Kramer hasn’t become a more sympathetic movie along the way, though, so viewers may want to steel themselves for an unpleasant experience.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) I remember two or three jokes from my first viewing of Hook more than twenty years ago, but not a whole lot more. I have noted a certain polarization of opinion about the film—a lot of regular people like it, while critics don’t. I watched the film in regular-person mode, and wasn’t displeased from the experience: Despite claims of this being a sequel to the original Pan, Hook is very much a retelling … so closely so that it gives rise to some vexing issues (as in: “why bother?”) There is a very late-eighties quality to the way the action is staged in Neverland, prisoner of limited soundstage sets and the special effects technology of the time. As a take on the Peter Pan mythos, it’s decent without being exceptional or revolutionary—it’s still miles better than the 2016 Pan, although not quite as successful as 2003’s Peter Pan. Julia Roberts isn’t bad as Tinkerbell, although her unrequited romance is good for a few raised eyebrows. Robin Williams is OK as Peter, but it’s hard to avoid thinking that another actor may have been better-suited for the role. Meanwhile, Dustin Hoffman seems as if he’s having a lot of fun in the titular role. While Steven Spielberg directs, there is little here to reflect his legendary touch. It does strike me that Hook fits almost perfectly with the latest Disney craze of remaking its classic animated movies as live action. Perhaps contemporary opinion about the film will be more forgiving than the critical roasting it got at the time. Until that reconsecration, the result is perfectly watchable and squarely in the middle of the various takes on Peter Pan.
(Second Viewing, On TV, December 2016) Movies that age well usually manage to have timeless themes while being set at a precise time and place. So it is that Rain Man still manages to be endearing, largely because it tackles a difficult subject honestly while definitely remains a product of the mid-eighties. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman truly star as the mismatched brothers at the heart of the story: The film would be a much lesser piece of work without Cruise’s yuppie chic and Hoffman’s now-iconic mannerisms. The transformation of the film into a road movie is good for a few chuckles, but it also literalizes a long journey of self-discovery for the lead character. Obvious stuff, but capably executed. Where Rain Man doesn’t work so well any more is in its uniqueness and its treatment of autism: At a time when TV shows are dominated by high-functioning autists being presented as superheroes (and I say this as a confirmed fan of both Sherlock and Elementary), the grab bag of idiot savant mannerisms being presented as typical markers of autists is disingenuous—most severely autistic people are nowhere near as charismatic or skillful as Hoffman’s character … but that’s Hollywood for you. Thirty years later, Rain Man remains a joy to watch, and a striking film in part due to its willingness to give the most reasonable ending to everyone involved.
(Video on Demand, December 2015) Adapting Patrick Süskind’s extraordinary novel Perfume is not impossible (as this film proves), but it’s daunting enough. Part of it, of course, has to do with the central conceit of a story in which smell (with its associated vocabulary and emotional impact) plays such a strong role – how to portray that on-screen? But if there was a filmmaker for the job, then Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas fame) would be it. In his hands, a potentially silly film becomes curiously accessible, despite an oft-unbearable beginning (complete with baby endangerment) and a final mass-orgy sequence (you read that correctly) that could have gone terribly wrong in the wrong hands. This Perfume, though, ends up being reasonably good; certainly beautiful and thought-provoking at times. Ben Whishaw makes an impression as the lead character, a young man gifted with superhuman olfactory senses who resorts to murder in order to perfect the ultimate perfume. Dustin Hoffman shows up for a few pivotal scenes, but this is really Whishaw’s film. Perfume’s most noteworthy characteristic, aside from a daring screenplay, is its splendid cinematography, honed to quasi-perfection as it goes from the dirty markets of Paris to the beautiful countryside of southern Europe. The emphasis on scent jargon and trade secrets is fascinating, and the gradual discoveries of the lead character are narrated effectively (by John Hurt, no less). Warm and harsh at the same time, Perfume is a singular film experience, the kind fit to make jaded moviegoers say “wow, that was pretty good!” It may not, however, be everything to everyone.
(On TV, February 2015) I really don’t have a soft spot for Meet the Parents, which relies far too much on humiliation comedy for my tastes. I only saw the sequel because it was on my to-do list, not out of any particular desire. The good news, I suppose, is that I don’t dislike Meet the Fockers as much as its prequel. The not-so-good news are that I can’t really create any enthusiasm for the film: it is exactly what it wants to be: a mainstream comedy with occasional outbursts of fake outrageousness, featuring big-name stars in relatively undemanding roles. Ben Stiller is duller than usual as the hapless straight-man-bumbler of the series, while Robert de Niro does himself not favours by riffing off once again on much better past performances. This being said, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand are relatively sympathetic as the “other” set of parents and a few of the jokes land correctly, especially those revolving around the enormous RV that serves as one of the film’s set-pieces. It all leads to a conclusion where misunderstandings and complications are all untangled, albeit not without truth-serum interrogation and a car chase. For the end results, though, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to have brought together Hoffman and de Niro together for such inconsequential pap. Ah well; at least it’s somehow not quite as distasteful as the first film in the series.
(On DVD, January 2012) Much like I missed seeing author-centric Wonder Boys at the time of its release, it took me years to come along to Stranger than Fiction, a film in which an everyday man suddenly starts hearing narration about his life… informing him that he’s about to die. The wait was worth it, as Stranger than Fiction features Will Ferrell’s best role to date and a resonant message about life’s most important trivialities. The script allows itself a bit of fun with literary theory, satirizes the pathologies of authors and leads to a satisfying conclusion. Ferrell is effectively restrained in this atypical performance and, at the exception of a few shouted Ferellisms, comes across as far more sympathetic than his usual man-child persona. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal is unspeakably cute as the love interest; Dustin Hoffman turns in a charming performance as a literary theoretician called to the rescue and Emma Thompson is pitch-perfect as a neurotic author. Quirky, oddball and remarkably smarter than most other comedies (the “flours” joke is awesome), Stranger than Fiction asks interesting questions and suggests compelling answers. The script’s only flaw is a concept that’s almost richer than what the script can deliver: I could have used more scenes from the author’s point of view, or a more sustained interest in the wristwatch. But what made it on-screen is good enough. Of course; I’ve written enough fiction to be a particularly good audience for that kind of story. Non-writer’s opinions may vary… although not by much.
(In theatres, January 2011) As much as I like supporting Canadian Content (and there’s nothing more CanCon than an adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s last novel, filmed and set in Montréal), there’s something just subtly off about Barney’s Version. It’s an accumulation of small annoyances that damage the film, from a scatter-shot episodic narrative to flat performances to overly sentimental moments. I’ll be the first to note that presenting forty years of a man’s life on-screen isn’t the simplest screenwriting challenge: As an adaptation of a dense and thick novel, you can perceptibly feel the loose threads running over everywhere and be frustrated at the amount of extra detail missing from the screen. That’ll explain the way the film doesn’t quite seem to hang together. While Barney’s Version revolves around Paul Giamatti’s exceptional lead performance and Dustin Hoffman’s unrecognizable turn as his father, actors surrounding them are far less credible. Most of the female characters seem played either without subtlety (I once thought I could watch Minnie Driver all day, but her one-note shrill performance tested that assumption) or without affect (Rosamund Pike, sedated throughout): even assuming that the film is from Barney’s subjective perspective isn’t enough to excuse it. Humorous in the details and tragic in the whole, Barney’s Version runs off in all kinds of directions, and it’s not in its nature to finish neatly with a big finale. It’s best, then, to appreciate its small quirky moments, its Montréal atmosphere and the occasional Denys Arcand cameo. It is, as is the case with so many middle-of-the-road Canadian dramas, amiable but unremarkable. Barney’s Version is good enough to make Canadian audiences feel better about seeing it, but it’s not worth much commentary otherwise.
(In theaters, April 2003) Ah yes. The con film that begins with the narrator describing his own death. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is all going to turn out nicely, but the twists and turns are the name of the game and if Confidence isn’t particularly revolutionary, it plays well enough. I’ve been, inexplicably, a mild fan of Ed Burns for a while and he certainly knows how to play as the lead man in a gang of con artists on a rampage in Los Angeles. One operation goes too well, they find out they just double-crossed a powerful crime lord and suddenly, they must atone for their miscalculation by performing another con. Double-crosses, counter-crosses, infini-crosses follow. Fans of Rachel Weisz will not be disappointed, as she demonstrates an uncanny capability at playing a scheming seductress. The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good, with the usual props to Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Andy Garcia. The direction moves with a certain style and the screenplay efficiently propels the story forward. The ending is a bit of a mess; I’m not even sure if it makes any sense at all. But in a con film, these senseless twists are the norm, and they are easily forgiven as long as it ends in a satisfactory fashion. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a happier ending than the one featured here, and this happy impression is the one to keep.
(On DVD, September 2010) Years later, this film may play even more smoothly than it first did: I had forgotten much about the smooth scene transitions, clever dialogues and exceptional ensemble cast. Director James Foley knows what he’s doing, and his Los Angeles is drenched in unusual color accents. As a con film, it’s hardly revolutionary… but it promises a good time and it fulfills its part of the bargain handily.