(On DVD, October 2017) “Christian Bale plays J.G. Ballard” is a really weird sentence to contemplate for anyone who knows a bit about twenty-first century blockbuster movies and new-wave sixties prose Science Fiction. It’s even half-true. Empire of the Sun certainly features Christian Bale in one of his first major roles, and adapts J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel to the big screen. However, Ballard’s autobiographical experience mostly applies to the first part of the film, which depicts the lavish lifestyle of the British upper-class in early-WW2 Shanghai and their internment in civilian camps after the Japanese invasion. There are differences, though, as explained in a fascinating 2006 essay on the novel and the film by Ballard himself: Ballard spent the war in a camp with his parents, modified his character’s arc to differentiate it from himself and generally provided more closure than reality afforded. Still, as reported, Christian Bale did introduce himself to the author by saying “Hello, Mr Ballard. I’m you.” (The essay multiplies the strangeness—the film was partially filmed near Ballard’s home, leading some of his neighbours to feature in the film as extras.) The film itself is a study in the kind of old-school epic war drama that seems to have disappeared from the current movie landscape in favour of CGI-fuelled fantasy spectacles. There are a number of scenes with thousands of extras, a story that spans years, gorgeously fantastic sights captured in-camera without special effects (such as a stadium filled with objects taken by the Japanese) and an overall sweep to the story that feels prodigious. Bale is fine as the sometimes-unwitting protagonist of the story, but John Malkovich is delightfully amoral as a survivor trying his best to make it through the war, while various other notables such as Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantoliano and Ben Stiller (!) show up in smaller parts. The depiction of Shanghai is gripping, as is the way normalcy is disrupted in small and big ways after the Japanese invasion. The airplane motif is well done, and the film does earn its relatively happy conclusion. Dark humour and vertiginous sights (such as a faraway glimpse at nuclear explosions) enliven an already satisfying story. The result is still surprisingly engaging thirty years later—but then again, it’s a Steven Spielberg production.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I’m not always a good audience for period drama, but Dangerous Liaisons is something else. At times, and at first, it feels like top-class smut, as two obscenely wealthy members of the French aristocracy scheme the seduction of innocent women for nothing more than carnal stakes. There is quite a bit more nudity than expected (especially from Uma Thurman) and the dialogue is first-class. Behind the fine manners, elaborate costumes and lavish historical recreation lies a pitch-black comedy of cynical matters. John Malkovich are Glenn Close are superbly reptilian in their power games—Malkovich in particular is perverse in the best sense of the word. Familiar faces abound, including baby-faced Keanu Reeves and Peter Capaldi in minor roles. But what begins as comic debauchery soon turns to more serious matters, and by the time Dangerous Liaisons ends with death and dishonour, the ending has been amply set up by the journey. Knowing the origins of the story as an epistolary novel turned into a theatre play and then a film, the big-screen adaptation proved adept in incorporating the best elements of its complex DNA—letters end up being essential plot devices, the razor-sharp dialogue is as good as it gets, and the film manages to achieve a few authentic purely cinematic moments, either during the opening “dressing up for war” montage, or the ending sequence collapsing cause and effect of three separate scenes. Unusually for a historical drama, Dangerous Liaisons is fun to watch—either aghast at the character’s actions, or nodding along as those awful people get their comeuppance at the end.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) I wish I could like The Killing Fields a bit more than I do. It is, after all, serious filmmaking the sorts of which are rarely attempted nowadays—a depiction of the rise of the Pol Pot regime in 1970s Cambodia, and the heroic efforts of a good man in trying to escape the nightmare. It’s an effective gateway to a history lesson, an intriguing look at a specific time and a place and a harrowing experience. Non-actor Haing S. Ngor delivers a terrific performance that required him to re-create several of his real-life experiences at the time, while John Malkovich pops up in a secondary role as an intense photographer. But a few things don’t work as well. There’s a strange shift of protagonists between the two halves of the film, as the focus goes from a western journalist to a Cambodian escapee as the film advances. It goes without saying that much of the film’s second half, as a story of oppression and dangerous escape, is filled with uncomfortable moments, human cruelty and tragic death. Finally, there’s the role held by the western journalist who’s supposed to be our entry character into the story—he spends much of the second half wracked by guilt, ineffectively trying to help his friend stuck behind enemy lines. Trading the white saviour narrative (since he’s unable to affect the events, and in fact his friend is the one who engineers and succeeds in his escape) for an extended white-guilt sequence doesn’t strike me as an improvement, but on the other hand this is a 1984 film and it does get points for tackling the topic at the time, in a way that does allow (save for an overdone reunion at the end) for the non-white character to be presented as an equal. On the other hand, maybe it could have been fairer to let that character be the hero of the entire film, rather than a supporting one in the first half? Still, despite those issues, The Killing Field does end up a decent film. It’s harsh and rough and can be a lot to take, especially for those relatively unfamiliar with the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Year Zero.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2016) I’ve had Shadow of the Vampire on my radar on-and-off (mostly off) since 2000, but only recently managed to get ahold of it. A revisionist filmmaking comedy in which the crew of Nosferatu realizes that they’re dealing with a true vampire? Sounds good to me! My expectations may have been too high, though, as viewing the film quickly tempered my enthusiasm. Despite seeing John Malkovich and Willem Defoe in fine form in the two lead roles, Shadow of the Vampire quickly becomes over-stylized and under-entertaining. (The dull opening credits, spanning almost five of a 90-minutes film, should have been a tip-off.) Despite the potential of the film, it’s executed limply and without much of the pleasure we may have expected from the premise. I will acknowledge that my enjoyment may have been hampered by insufficient familiarity with the object of the metafiction—if I was more familiar with the original silent Nosferatu silent film, I may have gotten more out of its re-enactment. Still, there isn’t much in the result to compel ordinary viewers, and so I leave Shadow of the Vampire unsatisfied, with the shadow of unfulfilled potential.
(On DVD, February 2014) If you’re going to subvert the expectations of a coming-of-age college comedy, it’s not a bad idea to follow in the iconoclastic traces of screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Swigoff as they take on the mystique of fine-arts education in Art School Confidential. Max Minghella stars as an idealistic artist trying to thrive during his first year at a not-so-prestigious specialized college, alongside flawed teachers played by such notables as Jon Malkovich and Angelica Huston. While the film flirts with convention (fresh in the big city, our hero discovers girls, makes friends, has academic reversals of fortune and uncovers unsavory truths about teachers), it gleefully plays with them in a second half that leads up to a darkly cynical ending. As a portrait of the strange sub-culture of art school, the film earns its laughs. It’s later on that the film become less and less satisfying, as the various threads are either tied up perfunctorily, or not at all. (Witness one of the early scenes, showing various students by how they arrive at school –rather than introduce characters, it just presents people we never see again.) The details don’t add up to much of a story despite the subversion of expectations. At least Art School Confidential offers a few chuckles, and that’s already not too bad.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) The original Red dared to combine aging action stars with quirky comedy and strong action sequences to deliver a film that wasn’t entirely successful, but remained distinctive enough to distinguish itself in a crowded field. This sequel is slightly improved by a better understanding of how to combine humor with action, and it can dispense with the tedious work of introducing its main characters. Bruce Willis plays his familiar world-weary tough-guy role, quipping when he’s not exasperated at being thrown once again out of retirement. Among the returning cast, Helen Mirren is as much fun as ever as a top assassin, while John Malkovich is a bit less crazy (but more sympathetic) this time around, even as Mary Louise Parker furthers her transition from adrenaline junkie to rookie operative. There’s a fascinating “throwback to the cold war era” atmosphere as the action goes well beyond the borders of the United States and to Europe, with Anthony Hopkins bringing new laughs as a crazed weapons designer and Catherine Zeta Jones earning a few chuckles of her own as a once-fatale assassin. While the CGI works gets a bit tiresome by the end of the final chase sequence, most of the other action scenes are good enough. Red 2 doesn’t work on a particularly high level, but it’s adequate and in some ways moves past the whole “retired action heroes” shtick into a post-Cold War plot that seems to grow organically out of the characters’ age. It works just fine as an unassuming action film, and even a little better as a sequel.
(In theaters, November 2010) By now, the action/comedy genre is so familiar that everyone should cheer whenever a quirky off-beat project tries to do something differently. While originality isn’t always an advantage (Knight and Day showed that quirkiness can’t replace solid screenwriting), films like Red can tweak the usual formula and make it feel just a bit fresher than usual. The story is familiar (a renegade secret agent tries to find out who wants him dead, accompanied by a reluctant love interest), but the details aren’t as overused: The agent is retired, his allies are old and paranoid, his enemies are deep within the government and his would-be girlfriend initially has to be tied, drugged and dragged along before she comes to appreciate the action-comedy lifestyle. Red flies around the United States, literally showing postcards along the way –which may give you an idea of its particular sense of humour. Bruce Willis may be the Red’s headliner, but the real appeal of the film is through Mary Louise Parker’s wide-eyed evolution from house-bound kitten to adrenaline junkie. Helen Mirren is delightful as an aging assassin, while John Malkovich has a typical turn as a deeply paranoid retiree. Action highlights include a shootout in New Orleans and the use of heavy artillery in a Chicago hotel parking lot. Much of the plot is routine, but the film is a lot more enjoyable during the comedic moments between the characters. Fans of the original comic book may want to forget all about the source material, because Red is quirky and light-hearted whereas Warren Ellis’ story was sombre and nihilistic. While Red often goes spinning too fast in all sorts of directions to be truly effective, the result isn’t too bad as long as you don’t expect the sort of straight-ahead action-with-quips blockbuster: Red is handled with another kind of sensibility, and if the result is often a bit too off-beat to be fully enjoyable, it delivers what is expected with a little bonus that no one asked for.
(On DVD, October 2010) “Not as terrible as rumoured” isn’t much of a positive review, but given how Jonah Hex was savaged upon release as one of the worst big-budget release of 2010 (with rumours of a very troubled production), it’s almost a relief to watch the film and notice a few worthwhile things. Much of those, alas, are conceptual rather than actual: It’s a movie that sounds a lot better than it plays largely because it ineptly executes its most interesting ideas. Part of the problem is the script’s middle-of-the-road commitment to the Hex comic book mythology’s most outlandish aspects: The resulting film feels as if it never commits to full-blown fantastical concepts, and its occasional anachronism feel like weak sauce in today’s steampunk-knowledgeable media universe. It’s not often that Wild Wild West is held up as an example to follow, but it –at least- didn’t forget to have some fun in introducing anachronistic concepts in a Western setting. Worse yet is Jonah Hex’s execution of what it chooses to embrace: Thanks to the scattered direction, It’s not rare to figure out after the fact what the film was trying to do, and think that there was a far more coherent way to achieve it. It’s violent without being gory, and yet displeasingly so in a film that otherwise seems suited for an escapist romp. As such, Jonah Hex limps along from one semi-interesting scene to another, and it ends (after a mere 80 minutes) with an underwhelming, overly-familiar whimper. So, what are its good points? While Megan Fox’s character is useless and John Malkovich is wasted as the antagonist, Josh Brolin does a fine tortured Hex. There are occasional flourishes of direction in, say, resorting to comic-book panels to show what would have been unbearable to watch as live action, and there is some interesting twisted western imagery in the mix. But even with those advantages, Jonah Hex goes in the “almost” category: almost interesting, almost good and almost worth watching.