(In French, On TV, December 2018) I can certainly understand Little Women’s timeless appeal—as a story detailing the struggles of the four March girls following the American Civil War, it’s got no fewer than five plum female roles, including four for young actresses. The 1930s version practically made a star out of Katharine Hepburn, and this 1994 version features a terrific cast, in-between Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis and Claire Danes as the girls, with Susan Sarandon as the mother. But wait, it gets even better! Gabriel Byrne, Eric Stoltz and Christian Bale are also featured as some of the suitors of the March girls. Meanwhile, the story has just enough melodrama with war casualties, fatal illnesses, romantic entanglements and literary progression. Director Gillian Armstrong manages to adapt and propel the story in a way that avoids some of the hawkishness of earlier version, and create a convincing portrait of a family sticking through challenging times. I do like the 1930s version, but this Little Women may be even more accessible and lighter on cheap sentiment.
(Third viewing, On TV, August 2017) Hmmm … how is it that no review of The Usual Suspects shows up on this web site? I recall seeing the film in the late nineties (at my grandma’s place, on regular TV, probably in French) and loving it. I also recall seeing it much later and still liking it a lot. And yet there are no reviews in my files. Bah, this gives me another chance to formally extol the film’s virtues. The Usual Suspects gets a lot of attention for a surprising ending, but it’s a movie that works just as well when you can anticipate the big twist. In between Christopher McQuarrie’s script and Bryan Singer’s direction, it’s made well enough that it has an unusually effective moment-to-moment immersive quality: you just want to see what will happen next, or bask in great dialogue, capable direction and terrific actors. Nearly everyone in the cast brings their best to their roles, from Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-winning role to Gabriel Byrne’s solid presence, Benicio del Toro’s oddball diction and great turns for Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin and Chazz Palminteri. The set pieces are well done, and for a movie that hinges on deception, there is far more truth to it than I remembered from previous viewings. A minor classic in the crime thriller vein, The Usual Suspects combines engrossing viewing with a deceptively dense story. It qualifies as one of the must-see movies of its genre.
(On TV, August 2017) I think that Miller’s Crossing is the last film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography that I hadn’t yet seen, and it’s quite a treat. A self-conscious take on Prohibition-era noir movies, it plays gleefully with the elements of the genre in a dense and complex feat of plotting. A young Gabriel Byrne stars as a criminal advisor who ends up trying to manipulate multiple factions when a mob war shakes the city and his own relationships. The characters rarely stop talking, and much of the rapid-fire dialogue is highly entertaining (although you may need subtitles given the pacing and accents—the closed captioning had trouble keeping up!) Albert Finney is also remarkable as a crime boss, but perhaps the most striking performance comes from Marcia Gay Hayden, whose sexy femme fatale character here is completely at odds with her contemporary persona as a matronly shrew (e.g.; The Mist). Otherwise, it’s tommy guns, crooked cops, beatdowns, faked deaths and double-crossing fun galore in a warm bath of genre elements. I suspect that Miller’s Crossing is more fun the more you know and like noir films, but even casual fans of the genre will find a lot to like here. I have, over the past few months, had an unfortunate tendency to multitask while watching (some) movies, but Miller’s Crossing hooked me back in the moment I tried to take my attention elsewhere. Now that’s viewing pleasure.
(On TV, October 2015) Some films age worse than others, and Stigmata certainly is one of them. Granted, it wasn’t a good movie in 1999 and it’s still not a good movie now, but there’s a frantic nature to Stigmata’s direction and editing that smacks of late-nineties style, right after Avid consoles made the process easier but before everyone calmed down enough to make responsible use of it. It also blurs with quasi-contemporary Catholicism-horror film End of Days (both of them even feature Gabriel Byrne, and he looks lost in both), a comparison that does the film not favor when it’s so unremarkable. Here, the mythology is a hodgepodge of heretic Catholicism, good-old demonic possession, bad horror clichés and moody direction that exasperates more than it efficiently tells a story. The film goes crazy with rapid-fire editing and loud music the moment something supernatural happens, and the result isn’t to make us pay more attention (or even scare us) as much as it’s to make us wish for it to end more quickly. I’m not sure if the dull script or director Rupert Wainwright’s work (or good-old classic studio interference) is most to blame for the uninspiring result. Patricia Arquette does turn in a respectable performance with a strong physical component, but the rest of Stigmata can’t do it justice. Ultimately, some movies are better off forgotten.