(Video on Demand, August 2015) Writer/Director Andrew Nichols has had a checked career with hits and misses, but he’s almost always interesting and Good Kill certainly fits that description. A five-minutes-in-the-past depiction of what feels like a five-minutes-in-the-future anticipation, this is a film preoccupied not just by military drones, but the people flying them. Our protagonist (played intensely by Ethan Hawke) is an ex-fighter pilot struggling with the ease with which the drones allow consequence-free killing –feeling emasculated, worried about the video-game crazy younger drone operators, and increasingly estranged from his wife. It all leads to a definitive break, but not before musings on the nature of this new kind of war, where decisions come too freely to people safely insulated from the consequences of their killing. It’s not an entirely successful film –January Jones is bland as the housewife, some sequences seem out of place, it’s easy to wish that the ending could have been stronger. But Good Kill is very clever, both with its themes and the way it presents its topic, intentionally contrasting the desert landscape of Las Vegas with those of Afghanistan, the plight of housewives in either places and how even push-button killing takes a toll. It still feels like a strange quasi-science-fictional idea even though it’s all real, and increasingly pertinent as the United States invests more and more heavily in drone warfare. For a writer who also penned Gattaca, S1M0NE and Lord of War, I’d say that this latest film is a pretty good addition to his resume.
(On Cable TV, April 2014) The usual trade-off when watching mediocre movies starring Nicolas Cage is that however dull the film can be, at least Cage will be there to indulge into one of his usual bout of theatrical overacting. Sadly, we get neither a good film nor a typically unhinged Cage in Seeking Justice, with results that feel far more disappointing that had it featured another lead actor. To be fair, the film offers an intriguing premise: A bookish husband is promised vengeance against the man who assaulted his wife in exchange for an unspecified favour sometime in the future. Six months later, the favour escalates all the way to murder, and our protagonist gets stuck between an eager police force and a mysterious conspiracy. So far so good: Seeking Justice is heavy on mysteries for its first half, and then just as heavy on chases in the second. But what’s missing is Cage’s usual persona: in his quest to play a different character, he seems to forget everything that makes Cage, well, Cage. In another context, it may have been forgivable (see his performance in The Frozen Ground, equally restrained as the thriller around him) but here it just feels like a waste as the rest of the film cries out for some wild acting to go along its preposterous premise. But it isn’t so, hence Seeking Justice ending up as nothing more than a middle-of-the-road thriller, the likes of which are quickly sent to the home video market these days. January Jones continues not to impress here as the protagonist’s wife –she doesn’t get asked for emotional range, and so doesn’t have to deliver. The power of wildness is more obvious with Guy Pearce, who gets to chew slightly more scenery as the shaved-head villain. (One starts to wonder if the fault isn’t to be addressed to director Roger Donaldson: was he screaming “more restraint!” on the set?) Thematically, there’s almost something interesting in the portrait of urban decay as pictured in New Orleans (Cage must feel like a honored guest given the number of films he has anchored there lately.) and four-decades-out-of-date criminal sociology. While Seeking Justice is competently-made enough to avoid most of the pitfalls of bad films, it doesn’t get to do much more than be a serviceable thriller, and that’s too bad.
(In theaters, June 2011) I wasn’t expecting anything after the underwhelming Wolverine, but this X-Men: First Class is a return to the strengths of the original trilogy: Some thematic heft, good acting performances, clever sequences and an sense of cool that doesn’t fall into self-indulgence. Even as a prequel, it works just fine: There’s some dramatic irony at the way the characters come together and split apart, and the script is wildly successful at weaving the October Missile Crisis in the fabric of the plot. James McAvoy may be good as Charles Xavier, but it’s Michael Fassbender who steals the show as Magneto, with plenty of good supporting roles for people such as Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence and Oliver Platt. (Meanwhile, January Jones -for all she brings to the film by parading around in white thigh-highs and gogo boots- seems unacceptably stiff). The initial X-Men trilogy worked well in large part due to its thematic ambitions about bigotry, normalcy and self-acceptance; if First Class doesn’t do much than rehash the same issues from “didn’t ask, didn’t tell” to “mutant and proud”, it’s still far more interesting than other recent meaningless comic-book films like Thor. The idea to set the film in the early sixties has refreshing stylistic implications (despite the anachronism of late-sixties fashion) that carry through to the Saul-Bass-tinged closing credit sequence. Director Matthew Vaughn manages to helm a surprisingly talky film with the right mixture of action and character moments, while giving some energy to the whole. X-Men: First Class may be a small victory for style over rehashed substance, but even in repeating itself it seems quite a bit better than the norm –and in presenting itself attractively, it makes itself difficult to criticize. Suffice to say that it’s an enjoyable film, and even one that may get viewers to watch the original trilogy again –something that seemed improbable after Wolverine.