(In French, on Cable TV, August 2017) Given the western genre’s continued tendency to reach for dour drama, it can be a relief, even decades later, to encounter a light-hearted western. It feels even more refreshing to see it use its western setting as a springboard for a gambling conman comedy. In Maverick, Mel Gibson is practically perfect as a wisecracking protagonist equally adept with cards and guns, bluffing and shooting his way to a high-stakes gambling tournament. It’s a fine performance in his best persona, but it’s equalled by Jodie Foster in an atypical western bombshell role—Foster’s long been known for playing mostly cerebral, often desexualized roles, so it’s a bit of a delight to see her play up blonde curls and tight dresses. Other name actors round up the cast, in-between James Coburn, Dan Hedeya, James Garner, Graham Greene and Alfred Molina … plus more cameo roles than you’ll be able to recognize. Director Richard Donner’s rapid pacing helps its entertainment value, but there is considerable charm in its setting and attitude—not many westerns have steamboats, and fewer include rapid-fire romantic repartee or wryly funny native characters. The script, by legendary William Goldman, is as good as you’d expect, with a pile-up of confidence games and triple-crossing characters in addition to the western backdrop. Maverick is not a great movie, but it remains a really good one.
(On TV, July 2017) Roman Polanski’s Carnage, adapted from a theatre piece, isn’t much more than a one-set conversation between two couples that quickly turns bad. It almost acts as a prototype for Polanski’s later Venus in Fur, down to the bookends being the only escape from the limited set. In some ways, it’s depressing to see grown adult viciously turn on each other. In others, and especially toward the end, it becomes blackly amusing to see the four characters variously argue against each other, forming shifting alliances, as well as exposing secrets and resentment in an explosion of anger. It helps that in-between Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christopher Waltz, Polanski doesn’t need more help in the acting department: All four are terrific, although Waltz gets perhaps the most overly slimy role, while Reilly gets to break out of his usual nice-guy persona. This being said, none of the other characters are perfect, and Carnage is about peeling the layers that usually limit polite conversation. Once you’re caught on that this is going to be a verbal demolition derby, you can wait until the next inevitable reconfiguration of factions—including couples vs the other, men vs women, three-vs-one and so on. Also: If you’ve been waiting for seeing Kate Winslet vomiting profusely, then this is the film for you. (As for the rest of us: Ew.) Unfortunately, Carnage ends limply, almost as if it had run out of things to say—there isn’t much of a conclusion to the conversation, and whatever closure is offered by the film comes from the final bookend. Still, as a film that places so much emphasis on dialogue between limited characters, Carnage is a nice change of pace, and even a mildly entertaining piece of verbal fireworks.
(Video on-Demand, September 2016) Given how I’ve been screeching about the disappearance of medium-budget Hollywood thrillers, I should at least take a moment to acknowledge the very existence of Money Monster, which not only provides two A-list actors with an original script, but also returns to the kind of contemporary issues-driven film that has also disappeared from the timid studio slates. Money Monster is about corporate malfeasance in financial matters, and the uneasy relationship between industry and the media. It’s also a bit of a cry against the exploitation of workers, but that’s easy to forget as the film moves into a thriller narrative in which a downtrodden worker takes a celebrity financial commentator hostage while live on the air. Cue the efforts of the show’s producer to try the resolve the situation without bloodshed … and maybe piece together the piece of a financial scandal along the way. Directed with some energy by Jodie Foster, Money Monster also turns out to be a mid-list showcase for the kind of role that George Clooney (as a borderline-sleazy TV pundit who learns better) and Julia Roberts (as a competent show producer) can do purely on the strength of their persona. As the complications pile up, Money Monster remains engrossing throughout—although there’s a temporary lull when the action moves outside the studio. Perhaps more interestingly, it ends up satisfying a scratch for almost exactly that kind of perfectly serviceable thriller, dabbling in social issues while showcasing good actors. (If you were wondering about how Money Monster existed, bet something on Foster’s ability to attract A-listers.) It may not be a film that will remain at the top of the year-best rankings, but it’s good, it’s entertaining, it’s got morals at the right place and it’s the kind of film I’d like to see more often.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp made a splash in 2009 with his debut feature District 9, an exceptional blend of kinetic thrills and thematic wit. Elysium may not benefit from the same element of surprise, but it certainly operates in the same vein: Drawing a clear line between impoverished Earth and privileged space station Elysium, the film tackles social issues in an explicit SF setting with gritty aesthetics and impressive action sequences. Matt Damon is quite credible as a lower-class working man who is forced to become a hero through desperate circumstances while Jodie Foster is perfectly ice-cold as the orbital protector, but it’s Sharlto Copley who steals scenes as a crazed mercenary. The film’s other unassailable highlight are the action sequences, shot a bit too close, but with a documentary-style dynamism that works pretty well. In-between clever visual design and various bits of post-cyberpunk plotting, there’s enough here to keep true Science Fiction fans happy. Unfortunately, Elysium has enough small problems that it seems somewhat less than solid as a whole. The intention to discuss issues of class, wealth and privilege is laudable (there’s even a historical reference to the mercenary class taking over the rich elites when the barbarians come knocking), but it’s ham-fisted and riddled with inexplicable bits of world building. Never mind the open-sky design of Elysium or the software-based plot to overthrow the station’s social order: the lack of a shown middle-class to keep the poor in line is historically strange (it can’t be explained solely by robotics), and it would have been nice to see a bit more nuance beyond the Manichean Earth-is-poor-Elysium-is-rich world-building. The ending makes little logistical sense, and even less political sense –it med-beds are so effective, wouldn’t it be an effective instrument of social control to install them downside? The problem with Elysium may not be that it’s as nonsensical as most Hollywood SF blockbusters, but that it’s so thematically and visually ambitious that it invites greater scrutiny, and that its world-building isn’t able to sustain more than surface-level contemplation. (As an aside, I expect that as Hollywood Science-Fiction gets better and smarter -pushed along by, yes, people such as Blomkamp and movies such as Elysium-, the contrast between its stated sophistication and brute-force Hollywood-style plotting will be more and more apparent.) Elysium is, all things considered, pretty good at what it tries to do. But it’s missing the extra little bit of credibility that would have vaulted it from merely good to potentially great.