(On Cable TV, January 2019) Anyone who starts a steady movie-watching program should be careful about scheduling and the danger of oversaturation. Watching too much of the same thing, especially if it’s not your proverbial cup of tea, is a recipe for disliking (or at least not caring for) some perfectly decent films. Or at least that’s the way I feel about The Remains of the Day, a smart, well-executed film that nonetheless feels like the same thing as countless other films. Clearly a Merchant Ivory production, it focuses on the stiff-lipped inner turmoil of a super-competent housekeeper as he struggles with what he wants compared to what is expected to him. It’s a very British drama, nearly to the point of parody as it studies the end of the servitude era and presents its protagonist as the last of his breed, to his own detriment as it condemns him to stay alone and detached. Adapted from a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, it does have interludes about the fascist tendencies of the British aristocracy, heavy romantic drama, convincing period details (such as ironing a newspaper). Still, I didn’t feel much love for the result, and I suspect that this isn’t due as much to the qualities of the film itself, but having seen too many similar stiff-upper-lip British downstairs drama films in a short period of time, with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson playing more or less their own archetypical personas. I suspect that revisiting The Remains of the Day (which, to be fair, is slow-paced and almost requires an undergraduate degree in early-twentieth-century English history to follow) later on would end up in a more favourable assessment.
(In French, On TV, January 2019) As I’ve mentioned before, I do have one significant failing as a reviewer for some movies: As a Francophone, Shakespearian English (especially when heard rather than read) breaks my brain. Short bursts of it are fine, but I usually can’t maintain my focus very long on classical English, and it eventually exhausts me. This is why you’re unlikely to find very detailed or meaningful reviews of Shakespearian adaptations unless they update the language or offer a strong visual element to go with the dialogue. Or so I thought before doing something very unusual and watching a French-dubbed version of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. (When it comes to dubs, I’m an original-version purist.) Suddenly, the language is simply delicious to listen to; the lines are funnier, and I can enjoy it to the end. Of course, it helps that the play, and its filmed adaptation, ranks among the frothiest and funniest of the Bard’s plays. It takes place in a gorgeous Italian estate, where Emma Thompson is cute, a young Kate Beckinsale is cute—in fact, everyone is cute. It’s amusing to see actors such as Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves go for classical comedy, and that makes it even funnier in turn. The cinematography is good, the directing is clearly focused on the actors, and the soliloquies—even in dubbed French—are very well done. I’m not enough of a scholar to determine if the French dialogues are original to this adaptation or rely on an older canonical translation (and this is not the kind of information easily obtained), but I suspect that they are original to this dub and they sound good. If I sound unusually enthusiastic about Much Ado about Nothing, it’s largely because it challenges my presumption that Shakespeare is hermetic. I had a good time watching it, and that exceeded all of my expectations.
(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.