(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) I went into Great Expectations with less-than-ideal preparation, knowing only that it was directed by Alfonso Cuaron and that it was a contemporary adaptation of a Dickens novel that I unaccountably hadn’t read. That may explain why the film feels so odd at times, especially during a third-act revelation that left me shrugging my shoulders more than anything else. (It doesn’t help that, well, you don’t have Robert de Niro pop up for a five-minute cameo at the beginning of the film without it paying off at some point!) Ethan Hawke is largely forgettable as the main character of the story, a boy-artist who has a brush with Floridian aristocracy before settling for an ordinary life. Everything changes when he’s mysteriously called to New York to pick up his brush once more, and meets a striking figure from his past. On the other hand, Gwyneth Paltrow is radiant as the object of his affections—she has aged well as an actress with occasional sex-symbol claims, but circa-1998 Paltrow was something special and Great Expectations plays it up nearly as well as Shakespeare in Love. Director Cuaron’s talent is obvious enough to be striking even today—his sense of atmosphere is terrific, especially during the film’s first half-hour. As for the rest, well, the Dickens story is adapted to the late twentieth century, but some of the more melodramatic moments of the original remain, to some puzzlement by viewers used to more contemporary plotting devices. The film does run a bit long at times, but it’s not a bad experience thanks to Cuaron’s frequent flourishes. I suspect that my appreciation for Great Expectations would have been more favourable had I been more familiar with the original novel, though.
(On TV, June 2015) Some good movies just slip by unseen, but the beauty of endless reruns is that sooner or later, they come back. So it is that I was able to catch up on old-fashioned thriller A Perfect Murder, adapted from classic Hitchcock thriller Dial M For Murder but more than good enough on its own. The first few minutes all pile up the mini-revelations, as a woman (a young-looking Gwyneth Paltrow) is revealed to be having an affair with a man who is further revealed (by her husband, no less) as being a career con artist who’s probably up to no good. A deal is made; money for murder for money, the husband paying the con man to get rid of his wife so that her inheritance can shore up his bad investments. It’s already twisted, but there’s more to come, with murder and suspense aplenty. Michael Douglas can play the wealthy heavy like no others, while Paltrow looks suitably vulnerable as the heroine of the film. Director Andrew Davis keeps things moving, the film has that pleasant mid-nineties sheen and the suspense sequences do have a classic quality to them despite the odd eruption of blood. It amounts to a decent time, perhaps a bit overlong but not outrageously so. A Perfect Murder remains a thriller in the classical mode, and that’s not an inconsequential advantage at a time where we seem to have moved a bit too much beyond the classical.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) I quite enjoyed Mordecai, but I’ll be the first one to admit that it’s got a peculiar sense of humor: it’s far more ridiculous than funny, and that’s a tricky tone to appreciate. Johnny Depp stars with, once again, a consciously off-the-wall performance as an art dealer who gets embroiled in all sorts of shenanigans surrounding an infamous painting. (While he’s initially portrayed as incompetent, the film improves immeasurably when we get an idea of his true skills.) Gwyneth Paltrow, unexpectedly radiant, joins the fun as Lady Mortdecai, while Paul Betttany, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Goldblum also seem to be enjoying themselves in their respective roles. Of course, Mortdecai makes a few bold choices along the way, taking on a particular kind of humor than runs the risk of falling flat for those who aren’t perfectly attuned to what it’s trying to do. I, for what that’s worth, didn’t laugh much throughout Mortdecai, but I smiled a lot, and found myself looking forward to the next ridiculous scene or bit of snappy dialogue. Much of the humor is forced (the mustache gags are… special) but the silly tone itself is amusing, bringing to mind respectable references such as Wodehouse and less-respectable ones such as Hudson Hawk. Director David Koepp keeps things moving briskly (the place transitions are a work of beauty), and it doesn’t take much to be swept up with the infectious oddball charm. But, then again, keep in mind that I actually liked Hudson Hawk –don’t trust me if you don’t feel the same way.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) I’m not sure why I’ve waited fifteen years before seeing The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’m not fond of stories in which the protagonist is a serial murderer, but there’s a bit more to this film than simply rooting for an anti-hero. Part of the attraction now, of course, is seeing five actors at the beginning of their career, from Jude Law’s magnetic presence to Matt Damon’s versatile lead performance, to Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow in young ingénue roles, to an early good turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The other big asset of the film, of course, is the period detail. An impersonation thriller taking place amongst Americans living in late-1950s Italy, The Talented Mr. Ripley can be, at its best, an immersion in a romanticized time and place. It only becomes darker and more thrilling after a (too) leisurely prologue, then drags on a touch too long as it places its protagonist in ever-more desperate circumstances, all the way to a heartbreaking final act of violence. Slickly directed by Anthony Minghella from a now-classic novel by Patricia Highsmith, it’s a thriller that plays with questions of identity, aspirations, repression and the nature of affection. It’s lovely and ugly, with good tension and complex plot engines. The Talented Mr. Ripley has aged gracefully, and remains just as good today as it must have been sixteen years ago.
(On TV, February 2015) There is a surprising strain of magical realism in mainstream movie comedies, where a seemingly unexplainable premise in a contemporary context is explored for laughs even though the film itself is never seen as belonging to the fantasy genre. Shallow Hal is a good example of this, as it posits a man hypnotized to perceive the inner beauty of someone rather than their surface appearance. This quickly leads our shallow protagonist to become romantically involved with a grossly obese woman who is perceived as… Gwyneth Paltrow. Various gags revolve around the difference between reality and perception (or, more accurately, how physical reality strains to accommodate the protagonist’s delusion and how more objective observers also react), leading to a third act where reality finally sets in. It’s, as you may expect from a mainstream comedy even in the gross-out late-stage, a relatively sweet film whose more outrageous moments are in the service of an unobjectionably “don’t judge by appearances” morality. It feels serviceable and predictable at one welcome exception, where one ugly character makes it through our protagonist’s distorted perception… and is revealed to be beautiful but evil in reality. It’s a good moment, and Shallow Hal certainly could have used more of those second-order extrapolations over much of the reheated pap it serves throughout the film. Jack Black is OK in the lead role, Gwyneth Paltrow appealing as the object of his affections (less so in a fat suit but that’s the point of the film) and Tony Robbins makes a good cameo appearance. The film’s third act is a bit duller as it goes for emotional significance over jokes, but that’s also something in the nature of comedies. The final result has a few highlights that help it distinguish itself from so many other movies of the time.
(In Theaters, May 2013) Going back to theaters after nearly a year spent at home enjoying a fully-loaded movie cable package with video on-demand feels… strange. So many inconveniences. Ill-behaved strangers. Endless commercial come-ons. Uncomfortable seating. Oh well; at least Iron Man 3 is the kind of film designed to warrant theater viewing: It’s a big, loud, crowd-pleasing blockbuster spectacular, and it’s actually quite good at what it does. You have to be a fan of the first two films (and having seen The Avengers helps as well, which by coincidence was the previous film I saw in theaters) in order to get the most out of this third entry in the Iron Man series: It re-uses many of the relationships set up in the previous movies in order to deliver a few dramatic pay-offs, from Gwyneth Paltrow suddenly cast as an action heroine, or seeing how deftly writer/director Shane Black is able to take the mantle from Jon Favreau and yet make the film his own, much in the same vein as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The direction isn’t perfect –the action sequences aren’t as clean as they could be– but who cares when the dialogue is delicious, the plotting is strong and Robert Downey Jr. delivers another pitch-perfect performance as Tony Stark, a character so closely aligned with Downey’s public personality as to be undistinguishable from it? It’s all good fun, and Black’s subversive instinct go from unconventionally unsentimental dialogue to messing with big audience expectations at the third-act pivot point. That twist works as long as you’re willing to laugh at the reversal, and see how well it meshes with Stark’s thirst for being visibly indissociable from his superhero identity –otherwise, well, it’s one big thing the trailers haven’t revealed. As the launching entry in Marvel Studio’s “Phase Two”, Iron Man 3 is a solid film. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s accomplished and maybe even more purely enjoyable than the first two entries.
(In theatres, May 2010) As one of, apparently, only half-a-dozen people who didn’t go completely crazy about the first Iron Man film, my expectations for the sequel were kept in check. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself nodding in agreement at this follow-up’s overlapping snarky dialogues, well-choreographed action sequences and pleasant character beats. The force of the film remains the character of Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr, one of the few superheroes around to actually enjoy the superpowers at his disposal. Contrary to many of his brethren, this sequel tackles the responsibilities of power from another direction: while the parallels with alcoholism get heavy at times (in-keeping with the source material), it’s a neat bit of character affliction that keeps things interesting even when stuff is not exploding on-screen. Add a little bit of honestly science-fictional content in how Stark manages to synthesize a solution to his problem (“That was easier than I thought”, the movie self-knowingly wisecracks) and there’s enough fun here to pave over the film’s less convincing moments. Never mind how a single suit-equipped billionaire can apparently create world peace, or Sam Rockwell’s unconvincing grandstanding as another, dumber billionaire, or the shoe-horned intrusions by the rest of the Marvel universe, or the lengthier stretches in which Iron Man 2 occasionally bogs down. At least the film has a good understanding of the character’s strengths, and works hard at maintaining them. I can’t say enough nice things about the replacement of Terrence Howard by the ever-dependable Don Cheadle, nor of Gwyneth Paltrow’s adorable reddish bangs: director Jon Favreau is fine on-screen and even better directing the whole thing. Iron Man 2 is, unlike other superhero movies often dominated by angst, about joy –and the feeling is infectious. It may not be a classic, but it’s a decent follow-up.