(On Cable TV, March 2019) Merchant Ivory films get some flak for being middle-of-the-road filmmaking, often undistinguishable and stuck in a very specific style. That’s largely true … but what that criticism misses is that these are consistently good movies, made with some filmmaking skills and great actors. So it is that A Room with a View feels unimpeachable in its chosen genre—a small masterpiece of gentle atmosphere, where every character is impeccably well mannered, humorous and well spoken. It’s a love story with a happy ending—what more do you want? A superlative cast is up to the material: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, even Daniel Day Lewis is amusing in a bit of a comic role. Meanwhile, baby-faced Helena Bonham Carter is simply adorable in the lead role while there are very likable roles and performances by Denholm Elliott as Mr. Emerson and Simon Callow as Reverend Beebe. The now-period perspective on a 1908 novel does reinforce its then-daring critique of the Victorian era and wraps it up in a 1980s patina. While humorous, the story is made even more respectable through a lush recreation of an earlier era, perhaps slow paced but with some odd enjoyable notes here and there. As a comedy, A Room with a View feels a bit insubstantial to have been nominated for an Oscar, but then again why not? Merchant and Ivory know what they’re doing and why.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) In fiction, searching for long-lost family secrets is fun and exciting and fruitful as the unlikeliest of thread lead to bigger and bigger revelations. In reality, those family secrets usually lead nowhere (as people don’t remember or are dead) or to unsatisfying places (as in terrible secrets, or conversely making much of what turns out to be mundane material). Occasionally, though, you do get real-life mysteries that end up like fiction, and that’s the story that Philomena ends up telling. It starts as a disgraced British journalist is contacted by an older woman with a story to tell about how her child was taken away from her and given up for adoption. Where is that child now? And who made this happen? Our two protagonists’ investigation eventually takes them to the United States, where they discover in rapid succession that the long-lost son was an influential closeted Republican, and that our journalist had met him years before. There’s a little bit more to the story, but Philomena is more than the result of the investigation: It’s about an unlikely buddy road movie, calling out injustice, discovering unfinished facets of history and very good performance from Steve Coogan (maintaining a grip on his showboating tendencies) and Judi Dench as the eponymous Philomena. Well-executed with a satisfying (yet tragic) mystery at its core, Philomena is a decent drama that may win over even skeptics.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) The James Bond franchise needed to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in style, and Skyfall is just what critics ordered, especially after the disappointment that was Quantum of Solace on the heels of the invigorating Casino Royale reboot. A surprising, intimate celebration/deconstruction of the Bond mythos, Skyfall feels like the most richly thematic Bond yet, indulging into the British machismo of the character while making him fail at nearly every turn. It’s a film that makes a daring series of choices, by nearly killing off the character, graphically exposing his shortcomings, putting him in the service of the matriarchy, flipping the Bond structure as to put the obligatory winks at the beginning of the picture, and delving deeper into Bond’s back-story than ever before. It also features one of the oddest and most effective villains in recent Bond history, as Javier Bardem flamboyantly (yes, that’s the code word) plays an enemy with a straightforward yearning for vengeance. Director Sam Mendes wasn’t the most obvious choice to direct the film, but his handling of the film is immensely self-assured, delivering neat jolts of action alongside the most character-driven moments. It helps that Daniel Craig here solidifies his take as the most credible Bond since Connery, that Judi Dench can sustain a script heavy on her character, and that Naomie Harris fits perfectly in her role. The film’s cinematography is top-notch, and Skyfall is peppered with great moments from a climax-worthy opening action sequence to a one-shot neon-backlit fight to a masterful villain walk-in. Thematically, the film is rich, with real-world allusions crowding symbolism and dramatic ironies. There are too many issues with Skyfall to qualify it as an unimpeachable masterpiece: There’s a lull at the beginning of the third act, the villain’s plan is one of those convenient “everything has to be just so” house of cards, and the seriousness of the picture is the kind of reinterpretation you can only do once a generation. But Skyfall does complete the franchise re-invention process started by Casino Royale: by the time the credits roll, all the pieces (Q, M, Monneypenny, Bond back in service “with pleasure”) have been put in place for another series of installments, preferably ones that goes back to a less serious take on the character now that it has reset expectations.
(In theaters, June 2004) Oh no; here I am, twisted between a bad film and a genre I love, a ridiculous script and a director who knows what he’s doing. In some ways, this film is the epitome of dumb people’s conception of bad SF. Would I be inclined to melodramatic statements, I’d probably say something like how it “sets back the general public’s perception of SF by decades”, except that Battlefield Earth already damaged the genre’s perception for years. On the other hand, I’ve professed my admiration for David Twohy just about everywhere else, and there’s no denying that he’s attempting something very ambitious here. Too bad that it’s pure bargain-basement nonsense: despite some nifty details here and there, this movie rarely makes sense and is content to rely on tired clichés (the Furian prophecy, the easy “victory by killing the head vampire”, etc.) rather than bring forth something new. It doesn’t help that the direction is just about as original as the writing. Scientifically, it’s all trash (don’t get me started on the impossible weather patterns of Crematoria), but that hardly matters given that the film veers more often in science-fantasy territory. As such, there’s something admirable about the grandeur of the visuals: even though the film’s design is singularly ugly, it’s big and bold. Much of the same could be said for Vin Diesel, who once again turns in a serviceable return performance as bad-boy Riddick, though he’s nowhere near the impact of his turn in the prequel Pitch Black. Judi Dench and Colm Feore spend the entire movie slumming in undignified and humourless roles. Still, there’s an undeniable appeal in seeing scorched-hot Thandie Newton vamp around in a snake-tight outfit, or even Alexa Davalos do her best with the usual “tough chick” shtick. So there I am, twisted between dull directing, bad writing, a love of the genre and respect for Twohy. What’s a critic to do?
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2005) Some movies improve upon a second viewing and some don’t. This one not only doesn’t, but actively suffers from the supplement of information that is to be found on the DVD. Sure, some of the action sequences aren’t bad, the art direction is imaginative and Vin Diesel has a screen presence that can do much to compensate for the material. But nothing can raise the quality of the atrocious script, nor make sense of the ridiculous excuse for a science-fiction story. In fact, the more information is presented to us, the less sense the film makes. Yikes. Don’t listen to the audio commentary!
(In theaters, December 1997) So this is what happened to James Bond after The Rock: A lot of action, but not much of a solid plot. Still, better than Goldeneye. Pierce Brosnan is a great James Bond. As if killer gadgets, a lovely credit sequence and a few great lines weren’t enough, we get Michelle Yeoh as the very best Bond girl ever. Tomorrow Never Dies is far from being a very good Bond (Bad usage of Teri Hatcher, strange impression of deja-vu versus other Bond movies) but it’s as entertaining as anything we’ve come to expect from the franchise. Even spending the entire movie being half-sick standing against the rear wall of the movie theatre didn’t torpedo the experience for me.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2019) Time has been kind to Tomorrow Never Dies, especially when you compare it to some of the later entries in the series. Fresh off the renewal that was Goldeneye, this second Pierce Brosnan outing gets back to the basics of the Formula without too much second-guessing. We’re back to grandiose villains, Bond girls, big stunts and ingenious gadgets, handled competently. Brosnan’s take on Bond is endearing in these second installments, blending character traits in a format acceptable to the 1990s… and later decades. Jonathan Pryce turns in a striking villain, one that still has relevance now in an era of normalized lying. Teri Hatcher doesn’t have much of a role here, but Michelle Yeoh remains one of the best bond girls in the series, combining beauty, wit and action chops to rank as Bond’s equal. (It helps that in the Brosnan era, Bond actually cares quite a bit about his partners). Action-wise, we’re in the late nineties and that means over-the-top action sequences, a bit too aggressively edited but impressive in their panache — I particularly liked watching the Hamburg parking-lot chase (with Bond chuckling in the back seat at the effectiveness of his gadgets), but the Hanoi motorcycle chase also has its strong moments. The James Bond theme gets one of its better remixes here thanks to David Arnold. Ricky Jay shows up at the brains of the evil outfit, while Judy Dench once again takes the M role to the next level. Compared to the Goldeneyeand a surprising number of its successors, Tomorrow Never Dies is straight Bond formula competently executed, something that I’d like to see once more after the off-brand and intermittently interesting entries in the Craig era. You liking of it (especially compared to its immediate predecessor) will depend on whether you’re in the mood for a straight-up, no-flourishes Bond adventure.