(On Cable TV, December 2018) As a director, Clint Eastwood is well-known for a quick and efficient shooting style: He goes fast, doesn’t overthink the details and is often satisfied with one or two takes. This works well when dealing with good actors (including Eastwood himself), but the limits of his approach clearly show when dealing with non-professional actors such as in The 15:17 to Paris. It must have been a good idea at the time: Since the point was to make a movie about the three American who thwarted a terrorist attack on a European train in 2015, and the three young heroes of the story were still very much alive and willing, why not cast them in their own roles? As it turns out, there is a reason why we have professional actors, and the limits of their experience in portraying themselves quickly become apparent throughout the course of the film. Not that this is the biggest issue. The 15:17 to Paris, having to fill 90 minutes out of a relatively short incident involving a trio of wholesome young Americans, has to fill its running time somehow, and it’s not going to do that by, say, exploring the perspective of the terrorist. No, The 15:17 to Paris prefers to pad its running time with an awkward denunciation of secularism and then a travelogue as it follows our intrepid heroes throughout the sightseeing trip that precedes the dramatic events at the end of the movie. That’s right: Eastwood “directing” three young guys as they backpack through Europe, and a wasted Judy Greer as a mother who puts school officials in their place. The best part of the film, fortunately, comes at the end, when it’s time to deliver what audiences have come to see: a few tense minutes facing a terrorist and saving a victim. That final act of The 15:17 to Paris is much better … but it’s too bad we have to struggle through the hour that comes before. Eastwood gets terribly sloppy here, and it severely harms the point of the film.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) It’s sad when capable actors are stuck with dull material, and The Wedding Planner is a case study in how that happens. Here, the always-appealing Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey (in the early rom-com phase of his career) do their best with a script that combines dumb situations with uninspiring dialogue. Their natural charm (plus good contributions from the always-interesting Judy Greer and Justin Chambers) is just about the only thing that keep the film together as it moves through the usual story beats of the romantic comedy formula. The first half-hour is quite a bit better (as in; interesting, less predictable, quirkier, looser, hotter) than anything that follows—it eventually becomes a romantic comedy so cynical that it practically forgets about the romance, so preoccupied it is with ritually moving its plot pieces through the expected episodes leading to the climax. The Wedding Planner is not much of a comedy and it’s not much of a romance either—at best, it does the strict minimum, lets its stars carry the film and calls it a day. Too bad.
(On DVD, October 2016) Katherine Heigl as a neurotic shrew whose personal anxieties prevent her from finding true love? Well, that actually works—especially given that it describes maybe half of Heigl filmography so far. I’m not sure she got the screen persona that she wanted, but it doesn’t matter: It’s consistent and even a gnawing feeling that we’re supposed to dislike her works in 27 Dresses’ favour most of the time. As a freelance wedding planner who can’t manage to tie the knot, Heigl gets to go through the usual romantic comedy gamut of emotions regarding the male lead of the story, from exasperation to love. A rom-com in the classical mould, 27 Dresses can be confounding in its plot logic, lazy on its reliance on idiot plotting and not quite smooth in the way it lines up its set pieces, but it’s a generally harmless piece of fluff that can be watched easily and forgotten almost immediately. Judy Greer gets a few laughs as a deliberately promiscuous friend of the heroine, while James Marsden makes for a serviceable male protagonist. Some of the cynical commentary about the wedding industry is amusing, but would have been deployed to better effect in a darker kind of film. Much like the use that the film makes of the titular 27 dresses, this is a film that aims for the average rom-com and achieves it … leaving the full reactions to the viewers.
(On TV, October 2016) The tale of Carrie and its remake is almost identical to the one of every other classic horror film and their remake. The remake is usually faithful to the overall structure of the story, but strips away most of the original’s rougher edges and leaves a shorter, slicker but generally featureless remake. Updating the references usually doesn’t mean much for the overall film (who cares if it’s uploaded to YouTube?), while the overall better technical credentials usually mean a less bumpy viewing experience. Seen back-to-back with the original, this Carrie remake is most notable for considerably speeding up the languid pacing of the original: despite being a minute longer, it often feels more evenly interesting than the original, with fewer digressions and dead moments along the way. (Witness the way two scenes featuring the other girls are combined early on as an illustration of how today’s scripts are far more efficient.) While the film is said to go back to Stephen King’s original novel, there’s no doubt that the original film is the template on which this remake is built. Chloë Grace Moretz isn’t bad as the titular Carrie, while Julianne Moore brings considerable credibility to the mother’s role and Judy Greer gets a more substantial role than usual as the sympathetic gym teacher. Kimberley Pierce’s direction is much flatter than the original, though, which helps this remake rank as technically better but far more forgettable.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) I watch a curiously low number of straight-up dramas, usually out of an unfair suspicion that they are not as interesting as my usual genre movies. But then there are films such as The Descendants, absorbing from the get-go and witty enough to keep my attention until the end. Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel (a literary origin that can be felt in the complex back-stories for most characters) by veteran screenwriter/director Alexander Payne, The Descendants works partially because it never quite does the expected thing, and partly because it can count on an exceptional, world-weary performance by George Clooney. Expectations are quickly subverted, as the opening monologue discusses the disillusionment of day-to-day life in Hawaii and then moves on with a surprising lack of sentimentality in discussing the burden of a man dealing with the terminal coma of his wife. (It’s a measure of how unconventional The Descendants can be when the brain-dead wife gets verbally harangued on her deathbed by grieving family members no less than three times.) When the quasi-widower discovers the unfaithfulness of his nearly-ex-wife, it’s up to him and his daughters to deal with the situation. Blend in an extended subplot about land stewardship, and you’ve got the makings of an interesting script no matter the execution. But Payne’s touch suitably lets Clooney own the lead character, and display a wide range of emotions that more than reaffirm his abilities as an actor. Shailene Woodley has a career-launching role as a teenage girl who ends up far less rebellious than initially portrayed, while Robert Forster has a small but remarkable role as a punch-happy older man. (Judy Greer also makes a striking appearance as a cheated-upon wife who’s a great deal less forgiving than she initially appears.) Often unexpectedly funny, The Descendants offers a slice of life for characters thrown in a difficult situation, eventually reaching an accommodation with their new circumstances. By the time the film ends, we’re reasonably certain that they will be all right… which is for the best given how much we’ve learn to like those characters.