(On Cable TV, June 2018) There is a very familiar blend of thrills in The Mountain between Us that makes the movie almost useless despite some very nice high points here and there. Mixing a disaster survival story with a romance isn’t new, and the way director Hany Abu-Assad uses high-tech means to create visual excitement (most notably in a lengthy one-shot crash sequence) don’t really amount to much when the film can be almost entirely predicted from the first five minutes. While the nature photography is nice, the survival story strains credulity while the romance seems overly familiar from similar films. The execution isn’t that special, and not even capable actors Idris Elba and Kate Winslet can save this one from nearly instant forgetfulness. Far too long for its own good given its thin plot, The Mountain between Us is not predestined to much of a future—it’s the kind of film that becomes a footnote more quickly than you can imagine.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Is it possible for a film to be so good as to become invisible? The 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility has, in adapting Jane Austen’s novel so well, become part of the fabric of pop culture. It launched an Austen revival that continues even today, it solidified the career of its director Ang Lee, netted Emma Thompson an Oscar-winning reputation as an actress and screenwriter and became a strong calling card for other actors such as Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry. It cleverly alters the plot and themes of the original novel for modern sensibilities, and delivers everything with an appropriate atmosphere of period detail. In short, it succeeds at being what it wanted to be. Alas, I was surprisingly bored through it all, and I suspect that much of the problem lies in the film’s own success. Since 1995, there have been an explosion of Austen-inspired material, and many of my favourite ones have remixed the material in ever-stranger ways, from Los Angeles-set From Prada to Nada, to Canadian-Indian musical Bride and Prejudice, to the unlikely mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies … and the list goes on. Going back to the unadulterated source material at a time when it has become such an inspiration isn’t necessarily dull … but it does feel overly familiar. I will also note that Sense and Sensibility is the film of film uniquely affected by mood—it doesn’t make much an effort to draw audiences in (the beginning is notably in media res), but rather relies on pre-existing sympathies and goodwill. If it so happens that you’re distracted or otherwise less than receptive … this may also be an issue. So: Good movie, muted impact—by creating an incredible legacy for itself, Sense and Sensibility may have dulled its own reception twenty years later.
(On TV, July 2017) Roman Polanski’s Carnage, adapted from a theatre piece, isn’t much more than a one-set conversation between two couples that quickly turns bad. It almost acts as a prototype for Polanski’s later Venus in Fur, down to the bookends being the only escape from the limited set. In some ways, it’s depressing to see grown adult viciously turn on each other. In others, and especially toward the end, it becomes blackly amusing to see the four characters variously argue against each other, forming shifting alliances, as well as exposing secrets and resentment in an explosion of anger. It helps that in-between Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christopher Waltz, Polanski doesn’t need more help in the acting department: All four are terrific, although Waltz gets perhaps the most overly slimy role, while Reilly gets to break out of his usual nice-guy persona. This being said, none of the other characters are perfect, and Carnage is about peeling the layers that usually limit polite conversation. Once you’re caught on that this is going to be a verbal demolition derby, you can wait until the next inevitable reconfiguration of factions—including couples vs the other, men vs women, three-vs-one and so on. Also: If you’ve been waiting for seeing Kate Winslet vomiting profusely, then this is the film for you. (As for the rest of us: Ew.) Unfortunately, Carnage ends limply, almost as if it had run out of things to say—there isn’t much of a conclusion to the conversation, and whatever closure is offered by the film comes from the final bookend. Still, as a film that places so much emphasis on dialogue between limited characters, Carnage is a nice change of pace, and even a mildly entertaining piece of verbal fireworks.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) Utterly forgettable crime drama featuring crooked cops moonlighting as robbers, Triple 9 struggles to remain in mind even as the end credits start rolling. There is very little here that’s interesting, either from a plot point of view (repeating clichés often seen and just as often better-executed) or from a visual point of view. The opening heist sequence, with its vivid orange colors and urban shootout, is the closest that the film comes to a memorable image—it’s not a coincidence if the poster features it. After that, the film fast goes into diminishing-returns territory as it gets less and less interesting. The gunplay blurs, the line between villains and heroes is irrelevant and the film isn’t even able to use its appealing ensemble cast to good effect. There’s a tremendous amount of wasted potential here—any film that manages to avoid doing anything interesting Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Gal Gadot and Woody Harrelson really isn’t trying. Kate Winslet does the best she can as a Russian Mafia boss wife and comes closest to avoiding complete ennui, but it’s really not enough to save the film. I took my time before writing this review and I shouldn’t have—a few weeks after seeing the film, it’s almost entirely gone from my memory, and reading the Wikipedia summary of the film to fill in the blank is just prolonging the ennui—Triple 9 is such a generic crime thriller that it’s a miracle it didn’t go straight to video with a cast of unknown actors.
(On TV, July 2015) Routine romantic comedies are usually best appreciated for their details rather than their familiar plot structure, and so it is that while you can read a synopsis of The Holiday (“two lovelorn women exchange houses for the holidays, finding love in the most unexpected places”) and have a pretty good idea of where the film is headed, but you may not suspect to which extent the film is filled with references to the world of movies. Cameron Diaz play a movie-trailer editor (the fake for fake movie Deception, with Lindsay Lohan and James Franco, gets the film’s biggest laughs.) and thinks about her life via voice-over narration; Kate Winslet plays a British book editor on holidays in Hollywood, befriending an Oscar-winning screenwriter and getting movies at the video store (a sequence that actually reminded me that I do, on some level, miss video stores) Some romantic comedy terms are explained, played with and sometimes even adopted wholesale. Still, there’s a little bit more to The Holiday than movie stuff: The performances are pretty good (with Eli Wallach getting one last great role), the sentiments are heartfelt, the expected scenes happen roughly in the expected order. In short (or rather; in long, since the film does run a bit too long), it’s a perfectly serviceable romantic comedy, fit to make the holidays feel even more like the holidays.
(On TV, March 2015) I would be far more impressed with this movie had I not seen Mad Men’s entire run: Tales of fifties suburban desperation can only be told so many ways, after all, and while Revolutionary Road truly goes to the limit in arguing about the way the conventional American ideals of a suburban house, a good job and two-point-five kids destroy free spirits, the film does feel like a big plate of reheated leftovers. (At this point, I’d be far more interested in movies arguing about the advantages of conventional suburban living than the good-old tortured-artist take on how many people are being just boring.) This being said, I may not warm up to the film’s depressing subject matter, but can’t help but appreciate the good acting performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, Sam Mendes’ precise direction, or a script finely attuned to small nuances. It’s an exceptionally well-made film –too bad it’s successful at something I don’t enjoy at all.