(On TV, July-August 2019) As someone who’s working on a book-length film history organized by decades, I had more than a passing interest in seeing how CNN would approach the topic in its flagship documentary production The Movies. Well, it turns out that they divided the topic in six 90-minute specials: Pre-1960, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000+. The decades are obviously chosen to make CNN’s target audience happy, compressing the earlier and later decades in looser groupings. I was a bit disappointed to see both the 2000s and 2010s lumped together, but that does reflect what I’ve been finding in my own attempt to categorize the decades: The 2000s were a fairly dull period in terms of cinematic evolution, whereas I suspect that the dramatic changes of the 2010s (studios focusing exclusively on spectacles, malleable digital reality, the rise of streaming) do not mesh well with the golden-hued nostalgic atmosphere that CNN aimed for. I’m less critical of the lumping of 1910–1959 together for a broadcast aimed at general audiences — I think it’s a fascinating period and that episode of the show did a really good job at pointing out the stars of the time, but I can see why most viewers wouldn’t care for more. I have more serious issues with the overall structure of the 1960s and 1970s shows — I think that the New Hollywood period and its counter-reaction were not sufficiently highlighted, but that may just be me. This being said, The Movies is not a documentary series with a strong structure: within each episode, we get 2–4 minutes segment meant to illustrate various trends and genres within that period, focus on beloved movies, or talk about specific actors. As you’d expect, almost all of the series’ material is either made of clips from the movies or talking heads footage—sometimes historical—featuring actors, directors, film critics and historians (including Drew McWeeney!) discussing the topics at hand. There is no overriding narration nor much in terms of interstitial material, further contributing to the series’ lack of structure. The series is obviously very proud of the people it managed to interview: Predictably, it often focused on superstar actors (Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, etc.) and directors (Spielberg, Howard) — The actors often come across as mere big-name fans with only superficial contributions (unless they’re talking about acting, in which case they have a few interesting insights), while the directors are reliably more interesting. The critics and historians usually do the heavy work of pulling together the material into coherent mini-theses. The excerpts are chosen well and usually hit the high points of the movies that should be discussed in each decade. It amounts to a series that works as intended — I can certainly argue against some choices, but this is meant as a generalist overview of a century of film and as such is rarely boring. The total length of The Movies is roughly nine hours, and as a quick course on Hollywood movies it’s actually not too bad.
(On TV, June 2019) There is a built-in perversion of expectations in August: Osage County that is as provocative as it is frustrating. If you picture a theatrical play (or a movie) about a dysfunctional family, you already have a rough outline of how it’s going to be structured already pre-assembled in your head. The family will get together. They will exhibit the aberrant traits that make them dysfunctional. There will be shouting. Some people are likely to be punished. But as the story advances, the family will reunite, and those most sympathetic characters will get back together toward the end, having resolved some of their difficulties and being ready to make even further progress going forward. Well, take those comfortable preconceptions and throw them away, because August: Osage County ultimately goes in a very different direction, shattering family bonds until we’re left with individuals. I had been curious about this film ever since watching the uncompromising Killer Joe—both are well-regarded movies adapted by Tracy Letts from his own plays, and this one featured an ensemble cast of capable actors. Julia Roberts goes toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep, and some unusual choices such as Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch are to be found elsewhere in the cast. This is definitely an actor’s film, guided along with the pen of a professional playwright. As such, be ready for meaty dialogue, explosive revelations, off-kilter plot development and a merciless conclusion as a family crisis featuring a disappeared patriarch brings people home and detonates repressed fault lines in their relationships. It’s often very darkly funny, with extreme actions and language (Roberts hasn’t sworn as much on-screen since Mystic Pizza). While I enjoyed much of the film on a word-for-word basis, the ending did not sit right with me for a while—until I played around with it and realize how much it upended traditional expectations about how that kind of movie is supposed to go. But as I re-read my review a few weeks after watching the film, I’m somewhat more sympathetic toward what it manages to achieve, and honestly think that being forewarned is being better prepared to appreciate it when it comes. Do not expect a final weepy get-together—August: Osage County isn’t that kind of film.
(On Cable TV, May 2019) I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the target audience for Steel Magnolias—I imagine it being best suited to a cross-generational selection of female viewers, the closer to its southern setting the better. But no matter who you are, the film is a feast of great acting and excellent dialogue dunked in a warm bath of gentle southern-USA atmosphere. I had a lot of fun watching the first two thirds of the film, what with such notables as Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Shirley McLaine and Daryl Hannah at her arguable peak. It’s not an entirely cheerful film (the third act focuses on a character’s death and the other characters’ subsequent mourning) but it’s often very funny—especially once you factor in the combination of gifted actresses biting into theatrical dialogue. The last third of the film will work either better or worse depending on the audiences—while the point of Steel Magnolias is to show how the tightly-knit community reacts to the death of one of their owns, the film does milk those moments as hard as it can, and does feel overly manipulative at times. That’s not enough of a problem to stop recommending the film, though: the quality of the dialogue and the relationship between the characters remains the best reason to see the film, even if you think it won’t appeal to you.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2019) A good old-fashioned weeper, Dying Young is built on a premise that has been made before (Dark Victory, gender-switched) and after (Me before You)—it’s an entirely unsurprising caretaker-falling-in-love-with-a-dying-person film, executed with very 1990s style and period-appropriate stars. Clearly relying on its star power, the film features Julia Roberts as a nurse and a then-slim Vincent D’Onofrio as the ailing patient. In terms of plot, that’s pretty much it—it goes through the motions of its predictable plotting, but slowly enough that you start being exasperated at both the speed and the obviousness of it all. Both actors are worth a look, though: D’Onofrio has some good material to rely on, and circa-1991 Roberts, fresh off her meteoric breakthrough role in Pretty Woman, was spectacular to behold. Unfortunately, the movie really isn’t as good as its actors—despite good production qualities, it feels on autopilot from beginning to end, especially if you’ve seen any of the many similar movies. The soundtrack will feel very familiar to those of us who were 16 in 1991. Otherwise, there’s really not much to say about Dying Young—it’s almost exactly what the plot summary tells you.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) If you know Julia Roberts but wish she’d do something more daring than her usual screen persona, then stop what you’re doing and go watch Mystic Pizza if you haven’t already done so: it’s a revelation. Here, a pre-stardom, pre-Pretty Woman Roberts has a very early role as a fiery curly-haired teenager and you won’t believe the cuss-words coming out of her mouth. That’s more than enough of a reason to watch the film, but fortunately there’s more to it: an affectionate coming-of-age story, coupled with an engaging look at the travails of a small family-owned pizzeria on the brink of closing down. The small-town atmosphere is credibly presented, and while Annabeth Gish hasn’t risen to the same superstardom as her co-star, her work here is also quite good—along with Lily Allen in a supporting role. In the end, Mystic Pizza does feel like its namesake food—a bit cheesy, rather delicious, very familiar, incredibly comforting. Not something to be snobby about.
(In French, On TV, March 2019) In retrospect, it does make sense that a straightforward crowd-pleasing novelist like John Grisham would lead to a handful of straightforward crowd-pleasing movie adaptations. I’m not complaining! In fact, I miss those solid, medium-budget standalone thrillers. Take The Pelican Brief, for instance—an average but competent thriller in which a young woman stumbles upon a conspiracy by linking the death of Supreme Court justices to land development shenanigans. If the film has a stroke of good luck, it’s in being able to depend on a few capable actors (Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, obviously, but also John Lithgow, Tony Goldwyn and Stanley Tucci in a rare role as a terrorist) as helmed by veteran director Alan J. Pakula—who clearly knows how to wring every drop of suspense out of a given sequence. The early-1990s atmosphere of The Pelican Brief is getting quainter and more charming by the day as it reminds us of how difficult it was at the time to get any kind of information without the Internet: the movie would be about an hour shorter if they just had access to Google. But then again, maybe that’s the way they’re going to go with a remake: have a blogger spew a joke conspiracy theory that happens to be true, rather than have a law student speculate as in this film. Ah well—I’m not really asking for a remake. This one is good enough.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) It sure looks as if someone in the programming department of Canadian cable TV SuperChannel has a sense of humour for scheduling romantic thriller Sleeping with the Enemy on Saint Valentine’s Day. Back in 1991, Sleeping in the Enemy was “the next movie” for Julia Roberts: The follow-up movie (after Flatliners) to the instant stardom that Pretty Woman unlocked for her. It certainly was an interesting choice of roles: A story of escape from spousal abuse in which she played the battered wife running away from the violent husband, looking for some quiet far away … but never far away enough. If this strikes you as made-for-TV Lifetime movie material, you’re not wrong: Sleeping with the Enemy has an incredibly formulaic plot, and many other films, famous or not, have re-used the same elements—sometimes as a showcase for other stars. (Jennifer Lopez in Enough, Ashley Judd in Double Jeopardy…) Still, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that both the film and Roberts benefited from each other. Robert’s new star power ensured that the film would be profitable (and with a nine-to-one box-office return on investment, this means incredibly profitable), while the film gave her the chance to stretch her screen persona in the thriller genre. She looks stunning in long red hair at the beginning of the film—but then later on, after cutting the hair, she also gets to show some dramatic range as the resourceful fleeing wife faking her death, and then as a combative woman defending herself when the psycho husband inevitably comes knocking. Despite the film’s predictable nature, there are a few fair moments of suspense along the way. Spousal abuse is the topic that powers the film and despite a serious treatment of the issue, the film can’t help but push it a bit too far at times: Oh no, the towels are aligned! Oh no, he’s watching them at the state fair from behind an implacable moustache! OH NO, the cupboard’s been rearranged! This being said, the familiarity of the plotting sometimes works in the film’s favour by making it easier to take: we know where it’s going, we know how it’s going to go, we know she’s going to be the last one standing. In director Joseph Ruben’s hands, Sleeping with the Enemy is not a good movie—the villain is so cartoonishly evil that the film begs the audience for fist-pumping approval upon his inevitable death—but it’s not an unbearable one, and it even has a few effective moments along the way. It probably speaks too much about my sense of humour that I deliberately watched it on Saint Valentine’s day in keeping with SuperChannel’s scheduling.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Frankly, I expected much worse from Wonder after seeing its rather misleading trailer. To believe the coming attraction, we have to brace ourselves for an entire film’s worth of seeing a facially disfigured boy trying to fit at a new school. But, as we know, trailers lie—or at least misdirect, because even if the film is about a facially disfigured boy’s adventures in fitting at his new school, it’s also quite a bit more than that, and in this case the subplots are what keeps the film interesting beyond its predictable premise. Wonder soon becomes about the boy’s entire family as they, too, experience that first year in school in their own way. There’s nothing truly earth-shattering here, and one of the mildest surprises of the film is how easy it goes on the inevitable scenes of cruelty and abuse by the boy’s schoolmates. The result is one of relief, as the film remains rather gentle and sympathetic in its approach. Jacob Tremblay continues to impress in the lead role, while other notables such as Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin and Julia Roberts take supporting roles in a youth-focused film. As a result, Wonder remains an enjoyable film … even for jaded curmudgeonly critics such as myself.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) I remember two or three jokes from my first viewing of Hook more than twenty years ago, but not a whole lot more. I have noted a certain polarization of opinion about the film—a lot of regular people like it, while critics don’t. I watched the film in regular-person mode, and wasn’t displeased from the experience: Despite claims of this being a sequel to the original Pan, Hook is very much a retelling … so closely so that it gives rise to some vexing issues (as in: “why bother?”) There is a very late-eighties quality to the way the action is staged in Neverland, prisoner of limited soundstage sets and the special effects technology of the time. As a take on the Peter Pan mythos, it’s decent without being exceptional or revolutionary—it’s still miles better than the 2016 Pan, although not quite as successful as 2003’s Peter Pan. Julia Roberts isn’t bad as Tinkerbell, although her unrequited romance is good for a few raised eyebrows. Robin Williams is OK as Peter, but it’s hard to avoid thinking that another actor may have been better-suited for the role. Meanwhile, Dustin Hoffman seems as if he’s having a lot of fun in the titular role. While Steven Spielberg directs, there is little here to reflect his legendary touch. It does strike me that Hook fits almost perfectly with the latest Disney craze of remaking its classic animated movies as live action. Perhaps contemporary opinion about the film will be more forgiving than the critical roasting it got at the time. Until that reconsecration, the result is perfectly watchable and squarely in the middle of the various takes on Peter Pan.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) Not every good foreign movie has to be remade by Hollywood, and the latest piece of evidence for this assertion is Secret in their Eyes, the somewhat forgettable remake of the acclaimed Argentinian thriller El secreto de sus ojos. It’s not as if this Hollywood version is completely worthless: If nothing else, here are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and a surprisingly unglamorous Julia Roberts doing their best in their given roles. I also found a provocative parallel in equating the original’s “Pinochet years” with this remake’s “post-9/11 era”. The plot is also partially streamlined, getting rid of a lot of non-essential material even though the result is still a bit too contrived and verbose to qualify as fast paced. Otherwise, though, there isn’t much here worth noticing for fans of the original, and one or two things have been taken away from the original, such as the incredible one-shot sequence that is limply made ordinary in this remake. If you haven’t seen the original and if you are in the mood for a leisurely-paced thriller, Secret in their Eyes will do the trick. For everyone else, though, it’s a mediocre film that will never earn (nor deserve) even a tenth of the attention given to the original Oscar-winning film.
(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.
(On TV, June 2016) As twenty-five years of commentary has it, Pretty Woman is a feel-good romantic comedy featuring a corporate raider and a Hollywood hooker. Any serious look at the film will highlight the differences between the original, somewhat darker script and the one that ended on screens. But what’s amazing is that it actually works: Largely based on the charm of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts (whose star-making turn here eerily echoes her character), Pretty Woman manages to take a biting premise and transform it into a fairytale in which everyone ends up happy, rich and vindicated. Business dealings are innocuous, drugs are avoided, and uncomfortable issues of sex and power relationship are avoided or nullified by even worse behaviour by the film’s antagonists. (Who’s worse? An attempted rapist or a snooty shopgirl?) On some level, Pretty Woman is a case study of Hollywood techniques for disarming anything that may disturb a large audience. On another, it’s a romantic comedy that packages Pigmalion into a set of tropes fit to be absorbed in a Hollywood subgenre (which it did, the film arguably revitalizing the romantic comedy subgenre for more than a decade). Much of it remains timeless, even though Gere’s character still belongs in the eighties, and sharp-eyed viewers will spot newspapers harkening back to 1989’s Panamanian invasion. Despite the film’s darker edges, Pretty Woman still works well as a crowd pleaser. Stranger things have happened between a daring script and a box-office success.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I wouldn’t call Mona Lisa Smile unpleasant or unsuccessful, but there is something easy and obvious nowadays in showing how a free-spirited teacher could liberate the mind of her students in a 1950s college for young women. We’ve seen this story many times before, and even acknowledging that this was a real social environment doesn’t do much to excuse a film that runs on autopilot most of the time. But, of course, Mona Lisa Smile is more interesting as a showcase for actresses than for anything else. Beyond Julia Roberts (who frankly doesn’t do much in the lead role), the cast includes half a dozen other actresses would either were, or would become recognizable names. Seeing them interact (often in spectacularly bitchy fashion) is its own brand of fun. The conventional nature of the film shouldn’t take away from the comfort offered by a film in which enemies turn friendly, contemporary values are upheld, every actress gets a small moment to shine and we get to spend some time in a past which, for all of its oppressiveness, was simple and understandable. All of this may sound demeaning without meaning to—even as far away from the target audience of the film that I can be, I still smiled and nodded at the film’s broad strokes. The final tiny twists mean that Mona Lisa Smile isn’t quite as obvious as it could have been, but let’s face it: this is a kind of film made for people who like that kind of film and it’s unlikely to meet more than a muted response from anyone who’s not already looking forward to what it has to offer.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) Prepare your hankies, because Stepmom is determined to make you cry as hard as you can. The narrative threads are set up early, as the younger second wife of a sympathetic but featureless man (Ed Harris) can’t quite get the respect she wants from her stepchildren. Real mom is best mom, and so Susan Sarandon puts Julia Roberts in her place a few times to establish the narrative tension right before her cancer diagnosis is revealed. The rest is by-the-number sentimental filmmaking by director Chris Columbus, made fitfully interesting by a few hilariously unrealistic looks at fashion photography and adequate performances. Harris, Sarandon and Roberts can’t disguise that this is a very specific kind of movie. Everything plays exactly like we expect, and the result defies any attempts at deeper analysis or even sustained interest. Stepmom will appeal to its target audience and leave large groups indifferent. It is well made, but it is not worth more than a moment’s attention.
(On-demand, August 2012) What a strange film this is. Playing off the elements of the Snow White fairytale, it teeters between fantasy archetypes subversion, camp humor, beautiful visuals and oddly stilted locations. In the hands of director Tarsem Singh, Mirror Mirror is, at the very least, beautiful to look at: Nearly every frame looks polished to perfection, and imaginative visuals are featured throughout. There is some inventive costuming, the actors all seem to have some fun (Armie Hammer’s take on puppy-love is hilarious, while Julia Roberts seems to relish the antagonist role) and some of the funny moments are, in fact, pretty funny. Unfortunately, the flashes of cleverness and humor are intermittent: the script seems to lurch from one mode to another without coherency, and the humor seems sprinkled randomly rather than coming from a unified approach. (As it is, a significant portion of the gags embarrassingly fall flat.) Mirror Mirror remains amiable throughout, but it seems to be trying a lot of things without understanding how they fit together. For a big-budget film, it does seem to take place in a mere handful of locations. The inclusion of modern idiom and hipper-than-thou cynicism seem particularly out of place in a fantasy setting. Thematically, I’m not sure that the stated feminist ideals of the film are actually upheld, especially once the antagonist seems dispatched with a superfluous amount of cruelty. Mirror Mirror’s lack of tonal unity makes it hard to really get into the groove of the film, and easier to notice its flaws. There have been plenty of similar and far more successful takes on such material (Enchanted springs to mind) and what sets them apart is cohesion, not scattered cleverness. [September 2012 Update: This review is a bit too harsh. At least Mirror Mirror is better than Snow White and the Huntsman.]