(In French, On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m not sure what I expected from Beginners, but I got a lot more than I thought. The story of a man dealing with the death of his father as he’s trying to decide whether to pursue a romantic relationship of his own, Beginners is considerably funnier than you’d think considering the subject matter. As our protagonist pieces together his life, the life of his father, and what happened since his father came out as a gay man, the film is remarkably free-form and entertaining in taking us inside the character’s head. This is not a big film, but director Mike Mills’s execution is almost maximalist at times—non-chronological, expressionistic, surprisingly humorous and able to wrap up this slice-of-life narrative with a satisfying finish. Mélanie Laurent is quirky and cute as a free-spirited love interest but this is not her film: Ewan McGregor gets a strong dramatic role here, although he’s sometimes overshadowed by Christopher Plummer’s sheer presence. Beginners wraps up nicely as a film that sits between genres—not a comedy, not a drama, but something that clearly understands what it’s trying to do.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) I didn’t have very high expectations for T2 Trainspotting. While I liked the first movie, it’s not one of my favourites. The idea of revisiting the same characters twenty years later didn’t seem all that appealing, and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to go back to drug-addled Edinburgh for two hours. But, as the mantra goes, trust Danny Boyle. Boyle’s worst movies are more interesting than most directors’ best, and if he was interested in going back twenty years later, then why not? As it turns out, it doesn’t take a long time for T2 Trainspotting to announce its themes and grab our attention. Twenty years later, our characters have grown older but not necessarily better. They still struggle, albeit now with the added pressures of middle-age weighing on them. Some of them are miraculously still alive. All four main actors are back in their roles, although Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller get the most challenging assignments in taking on two characters with many issues to resolve. But the film’s best asset is indeed in going back twenty years later to the same places, knowing that it can’t recapture the magic of the original, knowing that life gets less forgiving the more you age, and contemplating youthful excess with something approaching burgeoning wisdom, or at least melancholy. T2 Trainspotting doesn’t forget to have a bit of fun through comic set-pieces, character reunions and action sequences, but it’s at its best when it’s looking around itself and wondering how its characters made it through twenty years. It’s self-aware in ways that most long-delayed sequels should be, acknowledging the passage of time and using it as a central thematic engine. It’s surprisingly enjoyable, but also surprisingly engaging.
(Netflix Streaming, June 2016) I wasn’t expecting much from Australian thriller Son of a Gun, but it does get steadily better as it goes on. Featuring Ewan MacGregor and Alicia Viklander, this film starts as a prison thriller, but gradually becomes more interesting as the characters get out of prison, execute their Big Heist and then have to live with the aftermath. Brenton Thwaites has the central role as a young man who is transformed by prison, becomes the confidante of a veteran criminal and tries to forge his own happy conclusion from between far more powerful villains. While the limits of the film’s budget are obvious, the script gets more interesting as it goes along, and the film’s west-Australia setting makes for an interesting change of pace. There isn’t much more to say about Son of a Gun—at best, it’s a quiet surprise for those who aren’t expecting much more.
(On TV, December 2015) In trying to explain the mess that is A Life Less Ordinary, I’m tempted to say that one doesn’t become a daring visionary director without making a few mistakes along the way, and so Danny Boyle didn’t become Danny Boyle without making a few less-successful films on his way to Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. A Life Less Ordinary could have been a frantic star-crossed crime romance between an arrogant heiress and an oppressed blue-collar worker, but the script felt that it was necessary to frame this romance in a fantasy involving angels tasked in making two very different people fall in love. You can see here the various frantic methods that Boyle often uses to shake things up, even though they’re not always successful. Depicting heaven as a police station where everything is in white? Great visuals, all the way down to the white stockings. Spending an interminable time with characters signing Beyond the Sea in a redneck karaoke bar? Oh, shoot me now. Ewan MacGregor isn’t much more than simply OK in the lead role, while Cameron Diaz gets an early borderline-unlikable role to play –far more interesting are Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter as angels on a mission, even though the particulars of their plot-line are increasingly ridiculous. A Life Less Ordinary is a film less ordinary, and it suffers from its own quirkiness, trying to blend romance with fantasy with bloody violence. The tonal shifts are severe and the whole thing becomes some something to be appreciated more than to be experienced: I suspect that I would have liked the film more had I seen it fifteen years ago. I also suspect that the film suffered from comparisons to Boyle’s earlier Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Not, it’s not as good as those two. On the other hand, it does have a considerable amount of (misguided) energy, which isn’t too bad. If nothing else, it can still claim, more than a decade and a half later, that there still isn’t anything quite like it.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) The second half of Jim Carrey’s career has been marked by its fair share of easy roles, either riffing off his established persona or taking on a bland everyman role that anyone else could have played. But if I Love You Phillip Morris may not have had the visibility of some of his other projects, it’s a joyously amoral comedy that sees Carrey stretch a bit and take on the kind of role that still feels faintly daring even years later. Playing a gay ex-cop turned con man who falls in love with another inmate (Ewan MacGregor, also quite good and willing to extend his already inclusive persona) and then stops at nothing (big-time embezzlement, wilful convictions, cell-block favors, fake death) to be reunited with his love and live comfortably, Carrey is able to parlay his manic sweetness into a lot of sympathy for an anti-hero capable to lying his way to the top but ultimately brought down to earth by True Love. The script is witty, the direction is energetic and the result is simply a lot of fun despite some rather dark themes brought up along the way. Criminally under-seen but certainly worth a look, I Love You Phillip Morris may do much to improve your perception of Jim Carrey, especially in the latter body of work.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The past ten years have seen a mini-boom of sort in fairy tales and fantasy books converted to the screen through the same screenwriting formula, all eventually leading to the climactic shock of two armies running into each other. Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, Jack and the Beanstalk: nothing is safe from the Hollywood fantasy paradigm. In Jack the Giant Slayer, two fairytales become an action fantasy epic about kingdoms going at war, a peasant winning over a princess and assorted shenanigans to take over the throne. While the results can be interesting in bits and pieces (the depiction of a giant beanstalk has a can’t-be-missed patina of realism), it usually boils down to a familiar and ultimately boring template. While director Bryan Singer is a seasoned professional who knows what he’s doing, there simply isn’t much to the script. Nicholas Hoult does a bit better as the titular hero, although it’s easy to wonder what could have compelled Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci to take on such minor and thankless roles. It’s not an unpleasant film to watch… but the biggest problem with Jack the Giant Slayer is that it’s dull and almost instantly forgettable. Save for a highly pretentious final scene that somehow feels the need to link with the present, it’s a film that’s too middle-of-the-road to be noticeable. The perfect example of how quickly pop-culture can dispose of movies that have involved years of work by hundreds of talented craftsmen.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) There are disaster movies made to be entertainingly exhilarating, and there are other designed to make the audience experience going through an ordeal themselves. So it is that watching The Impossible feels like going through a natural catastrophe. Dramatizing the life story of a British family that survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, The Impossible spares no effort in graphically showing the devastation unleashed by the natural disaster. Watching some of the sequences of the film, it’s hard to believe that director J.A. Bayona has found a way to stage this amount of mayhem without destroying an entire country. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as a couple who find themselves (and their three boys) separated from each other, forced to survive and find each other despite all odds. (Watts gets the most thankless role, including a gory moment in which the extent of her leg injuries are revealed.) It’s a harrowing film –the tsunami sequences are brutal, but they’re the only fun part in a film that graphically portrays an incredible amount of suffering and destruction. The end of the film, as heart-warming as it is, comes as a welcome return to comfortable reality for viewers. The Impossible is impressive, but it’s certainly not a pleasant experience, and anyone looking for easy entertainment may want to push this one further back in the queue of upcoming viewing.
(In theatres, March 2010) Roman Polanski may be a runaway convicted pedophile, but he sure knows how to direct a movie. Faithfully adapted by Robert Harris from his own unusually accessible novel, The Ghost Writer starts with an intriguing premise and then accelerates into a full-blown political thriller. As a ghostwriter asked to help a former British Prime Minister finish his memoirs after the untimely death of his predecessor, Ewan McGregor is sympathetic enough to hold our interest. Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan is convincing as the conniving politician. The fascinating aspects of ghost-writing are strong enough to allow us to settle in the film’s increasingly frantic pacing. Once our protagonist starts finding clues about his subject’s past, palace intrigue develops and modern accusations come to besiege their quiet beachfront house. Added interest can be found in The Ghost Writer’s not-so-subtle political allusions to Tony Blair’s administration. The film’s plot is nearly identical to the book, but it’s really Polanski’s deft touch with suspense that ties up the film in a neat bow. A number of showy sequences present familiar developments in refreshing fashion, and the deliberate pacing keeps things neither too slow nor too fast. Some plot kinks are best explained in the book (which is also a bit more aggressive in political themes), but overall The Ghost Writer is a well-made thriller for adults, bringing back memories of classic seventies movie paranoia. You can say what you want about Polanski, but the result up on the screen is unarguable.
(In theatres, November 2009) As someone who read and enjoyed Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book shortly after its initial publication, I’m perhaps a tougher audience for a film “inspired by” The Men Who Stare at Goats. It’s certainly not easy to adapt: an exploration of the often-strange ideas (including psi powers) that the US Army investigated, Ronson’s work straddles a thin line between goofiness and weightier moments. To its credit, the film does manage to do justice to a number of moments and ideas: the militarization of peaceful ideals, the way “non-lethal” torture can be dismissed as a joke, the twisted logic that leads to paranormal research, and so on… Even the book’s most disturbing moment (“…it almost looks as if he’s laughing”) gets a nod. (There’s also one spectacularly unfunny moment caused by the sheer improbable juxtaposition of the film’s release a day after the worst home-base shootout in US military history.) The film’s structure also manages to weave a coherent history taking place over three decades (at one time nestling a flashback within a flashback) and almost act as an imagined sequel to Ronson’s book, which often stops with characters being “reactivated” for mysterious purposes. Various odd scenes and progressive concepts also make The Men Who State at Goats richer in ideas than most satirical comedies: It ranks with The Hunting Party and Lord of War as a member of the growing geo-sardonic genre. But what’s less impressive is the way a very traditional buddy-movie structure (with a heavy dash of “mid-life crisis” and “kids playing tricks on bumbling authority”) has been imposed on the material, leading the film to less and less believable moments. Ewan McGregor and George Clooney do great things with their roles (much of the Jedi jokes are much funnier when spoken by “Obi-Wan” McGregor, and Clooney has no perceptible shame in an often-unglamorous role) but the film itself goes from the fascinating to the cliché at high speed, and the result feels like a let-down, especially during the second half. But such are most adaptations, of course.
(In theaters, April 2008) The only thing worse than a bad film is a pretentious bad film that assumes that its audience has never seen another thriller in their lives. What starts out as an intriguing erotic drama featuring an exclusive club for professionals looking for unattached sexual relations turns out to be yet another coincidence-laden blackmail drama. The disappointing deception leaves a bad taste, especially when the film starts going through well-worn plot “twists” in a self-important ponderous fashion that can quickly sour anyone’s good intentions. Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams are capable actors that can do much better, but even their contribution can’t match screenwriter Mark Bomback’s trite script and director Marcel Langenegger’s leaden touch. The film is never worse than at the beginning of its overextended third act, when it dawdles for almost ten minutes while waiting for a not-dead character to come back in the story, spinning its wheels even as everyone with half a brain knows what’s going on. By the end of the film, I was muttering the litany of “I hate you. I hate youuu…” that I keep in reserve for specially flawed films that make me loathe the filmmakers, the cinematographic art form and the universe in general. Once past Maggie Q’s smoldering appearance, there’s nothing entertaining left about Deception, and a whole lot of drawn-out torture in the hands of people who shouldn’t be allowed near a film script ever again. This is not even straight-to-video fodder: this is straight-to-video trash that’s convinced of its chances for the Oscar.