(On Cable TV, November 2018) I’m not that impressed with Red Sparrow, but it did make me realize that I miss those espionage thrillers that used to be far more prevalent. If recent geopolitical events have taught us something, it’s a fresh reminder that spying is still a thriving business, even between the USA and Russia—and I miss the tone, the excitement, the style of those movies. Red Sparrow is a watered-down substitute for what I’m looking for, although it does have its good moments. Much of the central conceit of the film feels out-of-place in a mainstream Hollywood movie: the idea of agents trained to do anything (well past the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” definition of anything) to get targets to talk. In order to make this premise credible, the film relies on Jennifer Lawrence’s sex appeal which is a … specific choice. (Tastes vary, and so Russia if you’re listening please don’t bother with a Jennifer Lawrence lookalike in my case. OK, thanks.) Poor Lawrence gets mistreated in all kinds of ways here, as the universe of the film demands us to believe in Machiavellian Russian operatives willing to do anything to bring western civilization down, and that includes roughing up poor Jennifer – this is not a film made for titillation. Not that Red Sparrow is a bore—as the machinations of all characters develop and crash into each other, we get down to a cold icy runaway prisoner exchange scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cold-War-era spy thriller, and that’s what I wanted out of Red Sparrow more than the sexual torture, extended chemistry-free romance between Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, or training minutiae that could have been handled in flashback. I could have used less violence and meanness in the overall result, as a similar and just as interesting espionage thriller could have been possible without the gratuitous exploitation. Alas, you get the films you get, not those you wished for. Frankly, I’d rather watch Atomic Blonde again.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Despite my best intentions, I continue to have a hit-and-miss relationship with critically acclaimed horror movies. Sometimes I fully align and claim the film’s greatness to the ends of the Earth (that’s you, Babadook), sometimes I keep staring at the screen thinking that I’ve missed something (that’s you, VVitch). It Comes at Night falls squarely in the second category: While others have praised its take on the aftermath of a viral apocalypse, I kept wondering until the end credits what was so special about the film. It’s certainly not the premise, which is undistinguishable from dozens of other movies in just the past few years. It’s not the darker-than-black tone with no likely survivors, as that has become a solid horror cliché. It’s certainly not the pacing: saddled with a slow, deliberate and agonizing rhythm: It Comes at Night feels interminable even at 91 minutes. The acting talent isn’t bad (with special notice to Joel Edgerton and a thoroughly de-glammed Carmen Ejogo) and there’s clearly an intentional aesthetic at work from writer/director Trey Edward Shults in the way it shows a family disintegrating thanks to external and internal pressures. But considering the everybody-dies ending, the large number of unexplained ambiguities and the misanthropic tone, all kinds of viewers—casual and jaded alike—may come to feel that it asks too much in return of very little payoff. I’ll respect the intention behind such a measured psychological horror movie far more readily than a shlockfest, but the end result is depressingly similar: It Comes at Night is a film that doesn’t feel as if it’s worth watching. Certainly not twice, maybe not even once.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) I’m not the most enthusiastic viewer of social-issue dramas, but there is something quietly fascinating in how Loving portrays the story of how laws against interracial marriages were struck down in the 1960s. For, as amazing as it can sound, there were laws on the book in several southern states that forbid interracial couples. The Lovings, whose story is told here, were forced to pick up everything and leave the state for twenty-five years or spend a year in jail. Writer/Director Jeff Nichols takes up their story with his typical attention to details, and the result is interesting largely because the Lovings did not see themselves as civil rights activists, just two people in love with each other. This is particularly the case for the husband, played with quiet determination by Joel Edgerton, who may not have been particularly intelligent or outspoken, but let his actions speak for themselves. Ruth Negga also turns in an exceptional performance as the wife. The script spends a lot of time on the Lovings and very little on courtroom machinations—in keeping with the heroes of the story, which were far more concerned about living their lives than being a symbol. The resulting movie is heartfelt without being overbearing, a combination that makes it more effective than other similar social-issues film. For Nichols, Loving is a return to formal drama after three genre films and it shows that he can do just as well without any genre elements (which shouldn’t be an issue, given that the strengths of his genre pictures were in their dramatic elements).
(On Blu-ray, November 2016) I think I expected just a bit more from The Gift than I got. Which isn’t necessarily a knock against the film: Written and directed by Joel Edgerton (who also holds a pivotal role in the film), The Gift is an understated psychological thriller than eventually deals with some very primal emotions on its way to a devastating conclusion. It’s a powerful anti-bullying statement (you never know what your victims will become … or how much you’ll have to lose to their revenge), an uncomfortable suspense film and an unsettling drama as well. It plays games with our perception of the characters, not to mention exploiting Jason Bateman’s screen persona very effectively. (Bateman has often played the everyday hero, but many of his performances have had a streak of meanness to them, and The Gift plays up that looming menace exceptionally well.) Edgerton himself plays his character well, even when he’s written himself as an ineffectual loser. Sadly, Rebecca Hall doesn’t have much to do here—her persona as a brainy sophisticated woman is custom-made to make her one of my favourite actresses, but doesn’t always find appropriate scripts. But the biggest issue against The Gift may also be one of its best assets: a relatively slow forward rhythm that leaves plenty of time for uneasiness, dread and boredom. It’s a finely controlled film, but it’s also a bit long and often underwhelming along the way … even though the conclusion does pack a punch. It will work best with audiences who don’t necessarily expect a thrill a minute, and who enjoy the often uncomfortable situations that it presents.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Counter-intuitively enough, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings chooses to downplay its biblical material in favor of plausible political intrigues and natural phenomenon. So the Ten Plagues of Egypt become an overlapping set of environmental disasters, retreating waters from a tsunami makes the Red Sea disappear, and Moses is stuck in an impossible political situations following power-plays by other powerful characters. It’s an interesting choice (especially when compared against Noah, which seems to maximize the fantasy aspect of its own old-testament inspiration) that tells us much about the way religious subjects can be handled when they’re the focus of a multi-million-dollars effort involving hundreds of people. Does it work, though? At times, it certainly does: Scott’s success in period or future pieces has always been in creating a convincing atmosphere, and Exodus certainly has a few wondrous moments during which we entirely believe this recreation of historical Egypt, with its shiny pyramids and sprawling cities. It’s also hard to go wrong with the intensity of Christian Bale (as Moses) and Joel Edgerton (as Rameses II), alongside such notables as Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. Still, that’s not a whole lot to satisfy, especially given the subject matter. While the Ten Plagues sequence is a highlight, the Red Sea sequence seems a bit lacking as a spectacle, and the choppy narrative strives for complexity while producing either confusion or boredom. For Scott, it does feel like Kingdom of Heaven all over again, with a lengthy running time hinting at missed opportunities, either at a shorter or longer duration. A lot of efforts and energies were spent making this film, and it seems like such a shame that it doesn’t rise much above the level of a mildly interesting one.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a certified Moulin Rouge fan, I had been waiting a while for Baz Luhrmann to return to the same overblown wide-screen film style. Fortunately, the wait is over: The first half of his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is crammed with visual excess, lush 3D cinematography, frantic energy and flashy camera work. As a way to portray the excesses of the Roaring Twenties (along with a not-so-anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack), it works splendidly and I can see myself gleefully revisiting that part of the film before long. The film reaches an apex of sorts as it magnificently introduces the titular Gatsby (a perfectly-cast Leonardo DiCaprio) with fireworks and a wink. Toby Maguire makes for a good everyday-man audience stand-in through this madness and the film eventually calms down during its increasingly somber second half as the true themes of the story play out and reach their tragic conclusion. Luhrmann is the real star of The Great Gatsby, but the actors he brings on board all have their chance to shine. I’m not a fan of Casey Mulligan, but she couldn’t have been better that she is here as a flapper; Joel Edgerton also does well as he goes toe-to-toe with DiCaprio. As an adaptation, the film faithfully keeps the plot, overplays the symbolism, dispenses with a few subtleties, adds a framing device that’s not entirely useless and provides enough of a thematic slant on the material to keep fans of the book arguing in depth about intended meaning. On a surface level, The Great Gatsby is well worth-watching for its visual sheen (especially its first 30 minutes): this is an indulgent, no-budget-limits style of filmmaking that I enjoy tremendously, and as a way to present a classic curriculum novel, it’s invigorating.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Being neither a fan of combat movies nor family drama, the most remarkable thing about Warrior is how well it managed to keep my attention. After a shaky first fifteen minutes, the stakes become clearer: These are two brothers from a broken family picking up Mixed Martial Arts and eventually facing off in the ring. The story isn’t much more complicated than this (and the repetitive third act contains very few surprises), but the film itself is well-made, with strong performances to lure viewers in. Nick Nolte earned an Oscar nomination for his role and Joel Edgerton turns out a strong performance as a family man forced to return to the ring in desperate circumstances. Still, it may be Tom Hardy who gets the thankless role of the younger brother cast adrift in his own isolation. It all amounts to a fairly predictable, but well-executed story, one that doesn’t suffer as much as you’d think from an improbable sequence of contrivances. There isn’t much to say about the grainy cinematography (except that some shots of Atlantic City look pretty nice), but the direction is a straight-ahead affair. Heavily slathered in the usual Americana sauce (family, military, sports), Warrior takes itself a bit seriously, but in doing so manages to avoid many of the traps that a less-earnest approach to the same subject would have encountered. It’s manipulative, of course, but baldly so. It’s arguably best seen as a double-bill with The Fighter.