(In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) When it comes to Liste Noire, I definitely have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was one of Québec’s mid-1990s attempts to ape the conventions of American-style judicial thrillers. Rather than endlessly talking around the proverbial dinner table like far too many French-Canadian movies do, Liste Noire quickly gets to the heart of its noir premise: A prostitute engineers her own arrest, and then delivers a secret list of names to a Québec High Court judge, implicating other high-ranking judges. The ensuing portrait of the backroom dealing between judges is definitely cynical, showing them as even more corrupt than the average person. Québec big-screen legend Michel Côté is quite good in a thankless role, playing the new judge with the list who soon has to deal with death threats and attempts on his life. It’s all pretty jazzy material for a thriller, and now-renowned director Jean-Marc Vallée manages his big-screen debut with some intensity. The sharp (but dated) 1990s edge is now strikingly neon and noir, with a suitably jaundiced view and sympathies on the side of prostitutes rather than judges. But then there’s the ending. If you stopped watching the film three-quarter of the way through, you would probably have a nagging feeling about where it was all going … but no proof of the insanity in store in the film’s big twist. Alas, the nagging doubt is soon realized and the film self-destructs in a violent final burst of ludicrousness and bad plotting. Some movies are improved by twist endings while others are weakened by them, and Liste Noire definitely belongs to the second category. Ultimately, it makes the movie difficult to take seriously once all is wrapped up. Too bad, because there’s roughly four fifths of a great suspense thriller in here.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) I will admit that over time, I have gotten used to Reese Witherspoon’s innocuous screen persona to the point of never expecting more than blandly likable performances in the vein of Legally Blonde and Walk the Line. Maybe I’ve been watching the wrong movies, but memoir adaptation Wild feels different. Obviously a passion project for the actress, it features Witherspoon in the role of a young woman walking the Pacific trail in an attempt to reboot her life after the crushing loss of her mother and an aimless hedonistic period. Shot in nearly cinema-vérité style by Jean-Marc Vallée, Wild feels raw and honest, a true-life odyssey walking north the West Coast. The scenery is spectacular, the way the flashbacks are structured as impressionistic bursts is effective and Witherspoon herself is captivating through the entire film. It feels like a far more likable version of Into the Wild, and the mechanics of how the protagonist manages to master hiking and deconstruct herself to her satisfaction is both uplifting and poignant. Both a thrilling adventure story and an effecting character study, Wild works far better than expected, and will remain a milestone in Witherspoon’s filmography.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) Three decades after the beginning of the AIDS crisis, twenty years after the obvious tears of Philadelphia, we’re not talking about the disease the way we used to, even in historical retrospectives. Dallas Buyers Club may go back to 1986, but it does so with the knowledge that AIDS has, in some ways, become a treatable chronic disease. Rather than focus on the inevitable death sequence (although we do get that), it’s a film that dare to blend all-American entrepreneurial spirit, antiestablishment smuggling and expert-defying hunches into a fight-back story against AIDS. Anchoring the film is Matthew McConaughey’s astonishing physical transformation into a gaunt but indomitable figure, as his radical post-Lincoln Lawyer career renaissance had led him to a pivotal dramatic role (and modified audience expectations accordingly). Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner turn in serviceable supporting roles, but this is really McConaughey’s movie. Skillfully directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club offers a look at the early AIDS era that is both unflinching and more than occasionally entertaining as we see the protagonist defy the medical establishment’s glum predictions to provide a better life for other afflicted people. It’s a surprisingly entertaining film that keeps the preaching to a minimum –as should be, considering how attitudes have changed.