(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I’d like to give Boys Don’t Cry the fair shake it deserves. After all, this is a sensitive, haunting story about a transsexual encountering hate in rural America. It’s adapted from a true story, it doesn’t end well, it earned Hilary Swank a well-deserved Academy Award; it ended up on several year’s-best lists and it remains a minor cultural touchstone (especially given the renewed attention given to transsexual issues nowadays). In other words, it checks off nearly every significant box in the list of a good movie still worth seeing more than fifteen years later. Alas, this is not the kind of film that appeals to me. The languid pacing, small-midwestern-town setting, faux-reality style, self-important direction, showy acting and downbeat ending are really not my favourite elements of moviemaking. I acknowledge that Boys Don’t Cry is a good movie without feeling any personal affection for it: hopefully your reaction won’t be the same.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) If you thought you’d seen gritty westerns, hold on to your ten-gallon hat, because you haven’t seen The Homesman yet. From the first few minutes, which piles up graphic depictions of romantic rejection, dead babies, spousal abuse and women made crazy by the horrible conditions of the Wild West, this is a film that doesn’t pull any punches. Hillary Swank stars as a woman homesteader who can’t find a suitable husband, and accepts to drive back east for weeks in order to escort three unbalanced women back to civilization. She eventually manipulates a loner (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directs the film) into providing assistance during the weeks-long journey. Various adventures ensue, most of them underscoring the almost unbearable nature of life in the un-colonized American west. Surprisingly enough, The Homesman ends up being a progressive western, deeply concerned with the burden of being a woman at that time and showing, often in far too painful details, what could happen to anyone pushed to their limits. The film features a third-act development so unpredictable that it redefines the perception of the film’s protagonist and casts a very different light over the rest of the film. Don’t expect a fast film or a spectacular conclusion: The Homesman is slow, methodical, gloomy and not a little bit tragic on its way to the closing credits. It is, however, quite haunting in the way it refuses anything close to a happy ending. Call it the perfect antidote to a succession of rote Hollywood films – it may not be fun to watch, but it’s certainly far more respectable.
(On TV, June 2015) Few romantic dramas manage to straddle the unexpected line between creepy and romantic as thoroughly as P.S. I Love You. It’s the kind of high-concept romantic premise (a dead man leaves a series of messages for his surviving spouse) that seems as horrifying as it could be sweet. While the film does manage a few nice surprises (such as a non-chronological structure and a conclusion that doesn’t rush to a romantic coupling), it’s still a bit off-putting, rather long and not entirely convincing in the details it uses to fill the blanks in its structure. Hilary Swank is, somehow, not particularly well-suited to a romantic lead role, and neither is Gerard Butler –despite generally likable performances, they don’t quite seem to click as well as they should. Lisa Kudrow and Harry Connick Jr. are also in the same boat: they do what they can with the material they’re given, but we know they’re capable of much more. Ultimately, though, much of P.S. I Love You feels heavily manipulated by the author/screenwriter’s whims, leading to plot points that don’t seem to happen organically. That’s sort-of-forgivable in romantic comedies, but not so much in attempted tearjerkers.
(On DVD, June 2011) There’s something almost earnestly old-fashioned about Conviction, a film that has few scruples about belonging to the “inspiring story based on true events” category. Here, a woman puts herself through law school for the express purpose of freeing her wrongfully accused brother. It ends pretty much like you’d think. Still, Conviction is more polished than you’d expect: the setup is handled efficiently, and the early structure of the film seamlessly meshes two levels of flashbacks to explain how the characters got where they are. This is the kind of film that showcases actors, and Hilary Swank is very good in the lead role, with a strikingly transformed Sam Rockwell as her wrongfully accused brother. I almost always, for some reason, enjoy seeing Minnie Driver on-screen, and she gets a lot of screen time as a sidekick to the protagonist’s legal investigation. For a film of its genre, it’s curiously restrained until the very end, and clever about how it takes us from one detail of the case to the next. It doesn’t necessarily spring Conviction up and away from typical TV-movie-of-the-week fare (it will live best on DVD than it did in theaters), but it does pretend to be a dramatic awards contender, and it’s not misplaced in those ambitions. It all piles up to amount to a satisfying film, but not an overly memorable one.