(On Cable TV, February 2018) Is it possible for a film to be so good as to become invisible? The 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility has, in adapting Jane Austen’s novel so well, become part of the fabric of pop culture. It launched an Austen revival that continues even today, it solidified the career of its director Ang Lee, netted Emma Thompson an Oscar-winning reputation as an actress and screenwriter and became a strong calling card for other actors such as Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry. It cleverly alters the plot and themes of the original novel for modern sensibilities, and delivers everything with an appropriate atmosphere of period detail. In short, it succeeds at being what it wanted to be. Alas, I was surprisingly bored through it all, and I suspect that much of the problem lies in the film’s own success. Since 1995, there have been an explosion of Austen-inspired material, and many of my favourite ones have remixed the material in ever-stranger ways, from Los Angeles-set From Prada to Nada, to Canadian-Indian musical Bride and Prejudice, to the unlikely mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies … and the list goes on. Going back to the unadulterated source material at a time when it has become such an inspiration isn’t necessarily dull … but it does feel overly familiar. I will also note that Sense and Sensibility is the film of film uniquely affected by mood—it doesn’t make much an effort to draw audiences in (the beginning is notably in media res), but rather relies on pre-existing sympathies and goodwill. If it so happens that you’re distracted or otherwise less than receptive … this may also be an issue. So: Good movie, muted impact—by creating an incredible legacy for itself, Sense and Sensibility may have dulled its own reception twenty years later.
(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, November 2013) Disney’s become astonishingly self-referential over the past few years, riffing off its history in ways that would have seemed almost parodic not too long ago. After such films as Enchanted, Maleficient, Into the Woods, or live-action Cinderella, this is more than the reflection of an increasingly degenerate pop-culture implosion: it’s a deliberate corporate strategy, meant to groom another generation of fans as much as re-gain an older one. The stature of Disney is made bigger with the promotion of its own history, and it’s in that spirit that Saving Mr Banks goes all the way back to the fifties to offer not only a romanced look at the making of Mary Poppins, but also a myth-defining portrayal of Walt Disney by none other than Tom Hanks himself. Giving him repartee is Emma Thompson as the magnificently acerbic P.L. Travers, author of the original Mary Poppins story and definitely reluctant to let anyone adapt it to the screen. Interspaced in-between the gradual seduction of Travers are flashbacks to her childhood in Australia, dealing with a self-destructive father (another interesting secondary role for Colin Farrell). Even if not a single frame of Mary Poppins is shown on-screen, some passing familiarity with the film is best in order to catch some of the jokes and allusions. A gentle character study, Saving Mr. Banks is at its best in detailing Travers’ perpetual scowl, and Disney’s constant sunniness, along with the behind-the-scenes look at Mary Poppins’ pre-production. It’s unfortunately not as interesting in its seemingly endless flashbacks, as essential as they can be in defining Travers’ character. Still, the result has its moments and it works even if you’re not really in the mood for some deliberate Disney myth-making.
(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.