(On Cable TV, January 2019) I’m not sure whether it’s a disappointment or a compliment to say “Wow, that wasn’t as unpleasant as I expected” at the end of writer/director David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. I suppose that it depends on what you think of Cronenberg’s movies and his reputation as a master of body horror. What seems like faint praise can be interpreted as disappointment if you hold the view that Cronenberg movies should be as extreme as possible, then go back to praise considering that Cronenberg’s reputation is such that he creates a sense of dread even before we start watching the movie, preparing our imaginations to all sorts of terrors yet to be experienced and perhaps more effective than if they had been shown on the screen. Of course, “not as unpleasant as I expected” is a relative term and jaded Cronenberg viewers will interpret it differently than more mainstream audiences—Dead Ringers remains a movie with sexual deception, torture-like gynecological tools (ick!), drug abuse, fatally codependent relationships, evisceration and a body count. “Not as unpleasant as I expected” may simply mean that we’ve been spared horrors such as a fifteen-minute one-shot of the film’s most sordid business. Everyone’s mileage will vary. Jeremy Irons stars as twins working as gynecologists and is suitably creepy in his dual roles, while Geneviève Bujold plays the unusual client that divides them. Dead Ringers’ sense of unease is displayed early on and never dispels, although it does prepare us for horrors more extreme than what we actually see. (For once, the female character escapes unscathed—and may even unwittingly deliver the killing blow.) It may not be as crazily imaginative as Cronenberg’s most unhinged movies such as Scanners and Videodrome, but it’s slicker, better controlled and probably a bit cleverer in the way it plays with unease rather than outright disgust. This being said, I suspect that Dead Ringers is more effective for viewers who think they know what to expect than relative newcomers to Cronenberg, and that male viewers will have more muted reactions than female ones.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) I read the original novel years ago but I can’t recall much about it other than some metafictional tricks and multiple endings. So when I saw The French Lieutenant’s Woman pop up on the TV schedule, promising a story about a historical couple and the actors playing them in a movie, I was definitely interested. The best thing about the film is how it takes some metafictional ideas from the book (which sought to be “novel” in the way it presented and commented upon the story) and spin them in an original film-appropriate direction. Here we have married actors having an affair while shooting a movie about a complex Victorian-era romance. It sounds interesting … but the execution is underwhelming. The links between the two parallel plots aren’t particularly strong, and the modern-day romance peters out in an undignified fashion, which would be disappointing only if we actually cared for it. Meryl Streep does look surprisingly good in curls or with bangs (the similarities with Joan Cusack in the later case are striking), while Jeremy Irons does himself no favour with a moustache. The historical plot feels more interesting than the modern one, so it feels frustrating that there aren’t more resonances between the two, or that the film gets the good idea of transforming literary metafictional devices into cinematographic ways to comment upon the story … but then does nothing spectacular with that idea. In other words, there is less to The French Lieutenant’s Woman than expected, and I don’t think that the film manages to come up to its own expectations in terms of the story. Too bad; because there’s a really good kernel of an idea here.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) While acknowledging that The Mission is a good film, I must also report my almost complete lack of interest in it. The story of missionaries deep in unsympathetic South American surroundings, The Mission is a heartfelt look at a difficult chapter in history. Despite the lavish location shooting, the colourful cinematography, the calibre of the actors (not only Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, but also Aidan Quinn and Liam Neeson in minor roles) and the serious subject matter presented soberly, I repeatedly failed to become interested in The Mission. Bad timing? Esoteric subject matter? Overdose of epic films? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try again in a decade or two.
(In theaters, December 2011) Obviously inspired by the financial crisis of September 2008, Margin Call is a rare thriller in which conversations, analysis and boardroom meetings take the lead over car chases, explosions and gunfights. It starts with a mass layoff at an unnamed Wall Street trading firm and a dire warning from one fired analyst to his still-employed protégé: “Be careful.” Before long, our intrepid boy wonder has discovered that the firm is about to go bankrupt, and the news spread upward in a series of meeting with ever-more-important people. Strategies are discussed, blame is tentatively assigned, speeches are made, decisions are taken and, eventually, a terrible no-return strategy is adopted. The film isn’t as good as it could be: Margin Call’s low-budget and first-time director shows in the static cinematography, tepid pacing, overlong shots and lack of a fully satisfying conclusion. But the achievement here is considerable, starting from the terrific cast assembled here: Kevin Spacey gives a far more humane take on his usual screen personae; Paul Bettany is terrific as a high-flying trader who realizes the danger of his current situation; Jeremy Irons makes an impression as a point-one-percenter with gravitas; Stanley Tucci is wonderful as usual as an engineer turned financial analyst; and so is Zachary Quinto (looking a lot like a prettier Ewan McGregor in Rogue Trader) as the pivotal character who flags the crisis. The dialogue is sharp, the dramatic dilemmas are unusual, the characters are well-developed and the themes are current at a time where an increasing number of Americans are openly questioning the social usefulness of the business described here. While the dialogue-heavy piece won’t appeal to everyone, Margin Call is a clever and efficient film that fully exploits the limits of its budget to deliver a striking result.