(On DVD, October 2017) I’m old enough to remember the hubbub surrounding the release of The Crying Game, and the numerous references/jokes/parodies to the film’s “big secret” that popped up in its wake. (In retrospect, much of it amounted to transphobia, and I would hope that today’s audiences would react in a more mature fashion.) But viewing the film today, spoilers firmly applied, reveals a film that’s both better and worse than its critical reputation. The worst aspect of the film is its pacing. It takes forever for the premise to be cleared up, there are two first acts to the movie, and there are entire stretches where not much happens. On the other hand, The Crying Game does have quite a bit of dramatic power when it does get going. Knowing all about the film’s dramatic reveal does help in appreciating the subtle humour of the film (ending with “Stand by your Man” is cheeky, but beginning with “When a Man Loves a Woman” is even cheekier), but it also helps in appreciating Jaye Davidson’s unique performance. He’s the standout in a film that also features no less than Stephen Reas as an everyday-man terrorist, Forest Whittaker as a soldier in unique circumstances and Jim Broadbent as a bartender with an impressive head of black hair. The Crying Game has often been reduced to a punchline, but it’s far more heartfelt than its caricature would suggest. I would really be curious to see a remake in the next decade or so, largely in order to appreciate the progress on transgender issues since 1992. In the meantime, it’s an efficient drama, with a solid emotional core and far more entertaining than I assumed.
(On TV, May 2017) No, no, no, I will not have anyone rehabilitate, humanize or soften Margaret Thatcher. I won’t excuse the hardline regressive policies that set such a bad example in the eighties. But such is the bet placed by The Iron Lady, a biographical picture that uses Thatcher’s dementia-afflicted last few years as a springboard through which to fast-forward through her career, battling sexism and lesser minds along the way. To be fair, The Iron Lady isn’t always boring as it frames Thatcher’s career as flashbacks through an afflicting episode of dementia. Nor is Meryl Streep anything less than spectacular as Thatcher. Jim Broadbent is also quite amusing as an imaginary character who probably knows he’s imaginary. (Alas, this last sentence may cause more curiosity in the film than I’d like.) There’s also something quietly interesting in showing an “iron lady” as a frail old woman whose mind is fast slipping away. But even then, The Iron Lady can be a trying viewing experience for two big reasons. The first being that an episodic collection of scenes hitting the high points of a life doesn’t necessarily amount to a coherent narrative—the second being that for all of the daring in showing Thatcher as a doddering old woman, the film is firmly sympathetic to its subject, eliding or minimizing the lengthy list of valid complaints against her and her time in power. Margaret is always right, everyone else is a fool—and her resignation is forced by small intellects rather than a reflection that she’d gone on too long and too far. So there you go: The Iron Lady as a mirror of viewers’ feeling about a divisive historical character. The film itself is too flat to change anyone’s mind on the topic.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) Now here is a pleasant surprise: an honest big-budget slam-bang action thriller featuring iconic images about the American Presidency, coming from… Finland. What? Well, yes. Thanks to the magic of special effects, global financing, location shooting and well-paid actors, even Finland is able to put together the kind of movie that Hollywood wishes it could make. Big Game’s premise is absurdly simple (Air Force One is sabotaged and brought down deep in Finland’s forests—only a boy can help the President escape his pursuers) but it works, largely because writer/director Jalmari Helander is willing to go big and bold on his images and action sequences. It does help that the film can rely on Samuel L. Jackson as a curiously cowardly president, and Jim Broadbent as an oracle of truth with a hidden agenda (his last scene is fantastic). But when the film shows Air Force One crashing into a lake, or being ripped apart by its auto-destruction mechanism, or the President running in the woods like hunted prey, or a heliborne freezer slamming through a forest, this is the kind of action movie iconography that Hollywood has unexplainably abandoned lately. No wonder if Big Game works so splendidly well once it firmly engages into its first act: It plays the action movie Hollywood game better than Hollywood itself, and keeps piling up the cool stuff. It’s unabashedly a thriller and it doesn’t try to be anything else. As such, it’s a success … and it’s too bad that a lot of American filmgoers won’t even hear of it.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) It may or may not be a trend, but I’ve now seen three post-9/11 British thrillers about terrorism in the past 18 months (Dirty War, Cleanskin and now Closed Circuit), and they all eventually end up concluding that their secret services are to be feared just as much as the terrorists. The setup, in Closed Circuit‘s case, promises a bit less than full-blown paranoia: As the case against a terrorist heats up, two lawyers are asked to take the suspects’ defense, one operating publically while the other one defends the client in secret court. The suicide of a previous lawyer assigned to the case weighs heavily in the picture. When both lawyers (previously romantically involved, in a twist that initially promises much) discover increasingly troubling details about their client, they too become the target. The first half of Closed Circuit has a good escalation of thrills as our lawyer protagonists discover far more than expected about their client and his connections to the British Secret Services. But it all tips over to a fairly standard conspiracy/chase thriller that, in the end, doesn’t do much than shrug and deliver a weakly comforting epilogue. It’s all well and good to point at the British establishment and argue that they are all-powerful, but that’s not much of a conclusion –I expected a bit more. Still, Closed Circuit does have a few assets. Eric Bana makes for a fine protagonist, while Rebecca Hall once again plays brainy heroines like no others. Jim Broadbent is unexpectedly menacing as a political force warning our heroes against overstepping unspoken boundaries, while Ciaran Hinds once again ends up as a powerful character who can’t be trusted. (Julia Stiles is also in the film, but almost as a cameo. Anne-Marie Duff is far more memorable with even fewer appearances.) The direction is competent (with an expected visual motif of surveillance cameras), the focus on legal proceedings is fascinating in its own way and the first two-third of the script are built solidly. It’s a shame that after such a promising and unusual beginning, the conclusion disintegrates to so much generic pap that we’ve seen countless times before. At least the British pessimism is enough to keep it distinct from what a typical American thriller would have gone for.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) At a time where big-budget filmmaking seems to retreat in familiar narrative structures and a complete lack of daring, Cloud Atlas comes as a welcome break from the usual. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it features six loosely-linked narratives spanning centuries and several known actors playing different roles in each story. Heralding the return of the Wachowskis siblings to the big screen after a few quiet years (they co-direct three of the six stories, with Tom Tykwer directing the remainder of the film), Cloud Atlas is big, ambitious and offers things that cinema doesn’t often get to showcase. It is, in many ways, a singular movie experience, and one that deserves to be contemplated rather than simply liked or disliked. As an adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel, it’s an excellent, even audacious re-working: the film’s structure works in ways that the novel couldn’t, and still ends up a fiercely cinematic work. Most of the actors playing multiple roles seem to have a lot of fun, with particular notice to Tom Hanks (who gets to tweak his usual good-guy persona), Halle Berry (who gets one of her best roles yet as a 1970s journalist), an often-unrecognizable Hugh Grant, as well as gleefully multifaceted Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving –who even gets to play both assassin and nurse. (Some roles don’t work as well, such as when actors get to play outside their ethnicity or gender, but that happens.) The six stories interlock in subtle ways, suggesting both reincarnation of personalities and malleability of interpretation once truth becomes fiction. For all of the good things about Cloud Atlas, it’s almost too easy to forget that this is not an easy or even completely successful film: You have to give it at least 30 minutes for the six stories to earn narrative interest, and there’s a sense that the film is definitely not tight or focused: it often appears to run off on tangents and forced similarities, and certainly will not please anyone looking for solid links between all elements of the picture. Still, for jaded moviegoers, Cloud Atlas is as close as it gets to a truly new experience within the big-budget framework: it tries many new things, succeeds spectacularly well at some of them and leaves hungry for a bit more. I could go on, but the film is too big to be adequately described within the constraints of a capsule review.