(On Cable TV, October 2018) After decades of stellar character roles, it seems fitting that Gary Oldman would win his first Oscar for playing none other than Winston Churchill in a biographical film. Focused on the crucial months during which England found itself alone (well, alone with its globe-spanning empire) against the Nazis, Darkest Hour becomes a political thriller in which Churchill had to manoeuvre between the population and the Nazi-appeasing politicians. It’s fact-based without being entirely factual (that wonderful scene about Churchill riding the underground—never happened) yet made with such restraint that we’re led to imbue more credibility to the film than we should. There’s another word for it, of course, and that mythmaking: a deliberate attempt to further shape Churchill’s stature as the English bulldog, providing further Britannia Triumphant material. (There’s been a surprising number of those lately, from King Arthur to the newest iterations of James Bond focused on home territory—I’m thinking there’s a link with Brexit, but I’m not sure what it is yet.) Director Joe Wright seems in his element here, with a high-stakes historical drama and plenty of opportunities for respectable filmmaking. It’s not a bad movie despite the uncomfortable feeling of being manipulated through a very selective vision of history. To be fair, Oldman is very good, and Darkest Hour does manage to inject a lot of drama into historical events. It could have been worse, and if it did get Oldman a much-deserved body-of-work Oscar, then why not?
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) The good news, I suppose, is that the Young Adult Science Fiction field has grown tired of endless dystopias and now seems ready to take on other clichés. Things like star-crossed romance between a Martian-born teenager and his earthling pen pal. Considering the focus here on teenage protagonists and the romantic pretext to the film, it’s really no surprise to see that The Space Between Us doesn’t hold up as serious Science Fiction: the mistakes start early and get increasingly implausible with time, and even the knowledge that we’re not supposed to worry about those in a film made for romance aren’t enough to bring us back into the story. Then there’s the severely formulaic and forgettable nature of the film’s plot, including its buddy robots, dumb plot-driven choices, fish-out-of-water comic bits and lovers on the run. It’s all not just familiar, but done without much grace nor wit. It ends with a conclusion that you could have guessed after seeing the poster. Good supporting actors (Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino, for instance) can’t save the film from terminal boredom. Granted, I’m more than twice the age of the target audience for The Space Between Us … but still: would it be too much to ask for a minimum of competence even for younger audiences?
(In French, Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I know I’ve seen Léon at least once twenty-some years ago, but I didn’t remember much more than one or two images for it. Count that as a good thing, because it allowed me to rediscover Léon in most of its glory. It’s not a triumph of plotting, but of execution: writer/director Luc Besson’s a flawed filmmaker, but in Léon has managed to play to his strengths such as action, atmosphere and iconic characters, while minimizing most of his weaknesses like stupid dialogues and tiring anti-establishmentarianism. Well, most of his weaknesses, because if you go down the rabbit hole of the movie’s deleted scenes picturing a romantic relationship between the two lead characters and then match that to Besson’s own personal romantic history you will be screaming, “No, Luc Besson, no!” faster than you’d expect. But moving on: Léon distills a strong but uncomplicated story to a few action set pieces and clever character moments. It’s almost uncluttered (save from some oddities such as the shooting-the-president comic sequence), focuses on its better moments and showcases three great actors: Natalie Portman in her screen debut, Jean Reno in what’s perhaps still his best-known role (luckily, he dubs his own voice in the French version), and Gary Oldman in another great role in a long and varied filmography. The action beats are impeccable, and the atmosphere of a bustling but slightly rotten New York City is fantastic. Léon holds up all right, especially considering how often the teenage-assassin idea has been redone since then.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) My expectations were pleasantly exceeded by this Dracula’s grandiose and overdone take of Bram Stoker’s classic. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the film’s blend of pre-digital special effects, unabashed naughtiness, over-the-top direction (thanks to Francis Ford Coppola), melodramatic acting and scenery-chewing restlessness made it feel remarkably fresh even twenty-five years later. Adapting the epistolary Stoker novel will always be difficult, but Dracula gives it a spirited go, with a blend of various techniques to evoke the letters of the original, operatic visuals, dramatic dialogue and go-for-broke modernity. The special effects are made even better by the lack of a digital safety net, but Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins provide all of the film’s spectacle via consciously overdone acting. The film has far more sex appeal than I’d expected, laying bare the Victorian metaphors and double entendres that were in the novel, and making good use of Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost. (Plus, hey: an early role for Monica Bellucci.) The sour note here remains Keanu Reeves, earnest but sleepwalking though a role that demanded far more energy. Still, this Dracula is a lot of fun in its own devilish way, and it’s this eagerness to be as flamboyant as possible that makes the film still well worth seeing a quarter of a century later.
(On Cable TV, April 2014) There is very little that new, inspiring or even interesting about Paranoia, a completely average thriller. One young man, stuck between warring superiors in a corporate espionage thriller: we’ve seen nearly all of the bits and pieces in other better movies before, and director Robert Luketic can’t do much to save the end result from terminal mediocrity. Liam Hemsworth is blander than bland as the pretty-face protagonist, but the surprise here is to see Gary Oldman being so… dull even as a shaved-head Harrison Ford gets to chew some scenery as one of the two villains. For a thriller, Paranoia is almost refreshingly devoid of violence: There’s some running around and one solid car-on-pedestrian hit, but the rest of the film plays out in very civilized threats of economic turmoil and career setbacks. What is mildly interesting about the film is the contemporary wrapping around the plot: The hero makes an inspiring opening speech about his generation being robbed of a future by the financial downturn (hey, what about the rest of the 99%, all ages included?), has money problems due to medical costs for his ailing father, and spends much of the movie blathering about smart-phone technology. All are signs of the time, often more fascinating in bad-to-average movies than in innovative ones. Still, that doesn’t’ necessarily make Paranoia any more than a passable, calmer-than-usual thriller fit to entertain only if there are no other more compelling alternatives.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) One of the small underrated pleasures of watching movies on specialized cable TV channels is the opportunity to discover small films that otherwise flew underneath everyone’s radar, especially when so much attention goes to theatrical releases. So it is that we get to Guns, Girls and Gambling, a low-budget crime comedy that doesn’t try to innovate, but still manages to earn its share of twisty comic pleasures. Featuring Christian Slater in a lead role good to remind everyone that he can actually be funny, this is one of those crime comedies heavily-narrated in non-linear fashion, and where seemingly-random bizarre occurrences in the first half are (almost) all explained by the twists of the film’s second half. It works as long as you’re willing to cut writer/director Michael Winnick a lot of narrative slack (and even then, you can’t really explain characters such as “The Blonde” assassin in anything resembling our reality.) It works if you want to play along, but it’s certainly rough around the edges: many of the recurring gags are a bit exasperating, and there’s a sense that another pass at the script would have cleaned up some of the less-funny material. Many of the last plot twists can be guessed ahead of time as the only sane way to explain what’s going on (If you’re thinking Lucky Number Slevin after the first half-hour, well, you’re not far off), and the violence gets a bit excessive for what is otherwise a fairly amiable comedic romp. Also disappointing is the film’s rather less-than-promised exploitation content: With a title like Guns, Girls and Gambling, I would have expected a lot more of all three, and definitely more Girls. Still, those with a tolerance for the film’s own brand of excess are likely to get a few laughs out of the film: It’s genuinely attempting to be funny, and a number of the cameos are successful: Gary Oldman as an Elvis impersonator is, by itself, enough to warrant a look at the film’ trailer. Winnick’s direction is both stylish and engaging, and some of the sugar-rush enthusiasm of the film’s early moments produces enough momentum to keep viewers past the repetitiousness of the second third and well into the revelations of the final act. For a film that seemingly came out of nowhere and onto DVD shelves and movie channel line-ups, Guns, Girls and Gambling is a decent find.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) As far as period crime-dramas go, Lawless offers a quasi-charming throwback to Prohibition-era booze bootleggers. Adapted from a docu-fictive novel written by descendants of the bootleggers (Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest Country in the World) Lawless obviously takes the side of the hero bootleggers as they face off against the real criminals and the corrupt self-righteous representatives of the law. This is a romanced view of criminal activity, and while Lawless attempts something more than the usual crime drama, it doesn’t have the heft or scope required to produce a memorable result. Still, what’s on-screen isn’t too bad, especially when Lawless takes a few moments to indulge in its rural-Virginia setting. It helps that the cast is so impressive: between brother-outlaws played by Tom Hardy and Shia Labeouf, an extended cameo by Gary Oldman, an evil turn from Guy Pearce and a love interest played by Jessica Chastain, Lawless has enough star-power to keep anyone interested. (Hardy’s portrayal of an almost-comically-gruff character is a standout, as is Pearce’s repellent antagonist.) Still, the film’s biggest asset is in its somewhat-sympathetic portrait of moonshine production. Our outlaw heroes aren’t sadistic or repellant: they use the minimal possible amount of violence as a tool to keep things tidy in the pursuit of an extra buck. Occasional moments of significant violence are almost expected for the genre, while lengthier lulls in the pacing sap away some of the film’s energy on the way to attempt a more ambitious kind of film. Lawless ends up falling between two chairs, never completely happy to stick to an entertaining crime drama, while never having quite what it takes to become a criminal epic for the ages. Lawless will have to settle for a good-enough film, probably more disposable than the filmmakers intended (what film isn’t?) but still reasonably entertaining in its own right.
(On-demand video, July 2012) As the Cold War recedes from popular consciousness, it’s slowly taking on a nice historical patina. Judging from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the color palette of that patina is going to be made of dull browns with the occasional flash of garish orange foam. Well-adapted from John le Carré’s classic novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole within the British spy establishment, it faithfully sticks to the author’s portrayal of English spies as dull grey bureaucrats fighting for the realm from little drab offices. It’s a refreshing antidote to the overblown portrayal of spies as action heroes, but it does require a willingness from viewers to adjust their entertainment expectations. This is a slow film, and it doesn’t have much in terms of conventional thrills: The biggest suspense sequences of the film (sneaking documents from the archives, waiting for the mole to show up) are moments that would have been glossed-over in an action film. So it’s no surprise if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works best as an atmospheric period piece, featuring two handfuls of capable actors and a mature view of the reality of the intelligence game that is far closer to reality than most other films. Information here is far more important than bullets. Gary Oldman is mesmerizing as George Smiley, a spy who does his best work by interviewing people and then thinking really hard about what he has learned. The surrounding cast is very strong, from Mark Strong’s atypical performance as a wounded ex-spy to Colin Firth’s unrepentant seducer to Toby Jones’s slimy ladder-climber. The adaptation from the novel is skillful, as it seems to completely re-structure the chronology of the story while keeping much of the plot points intact. The result may not be up to everyone’s favored speed, but it’s a skillful film, and one that does wonder in terms of pure atmosphere. It works much like the novel does, as a counter-point to espionage fantasies.