(On Cable TV, October 2018) So… Jessica Chastain as the lead in an Aaron Sorkin film? You definitely have my attention. But Molly’s Game goes many steps further in giving us a real-life story of poker, Hollywood, organized crime, Idris Elba, a brainy leggy heroine and a two-hour stream of patented Sorkin dialogue. A fascinating example of an adaptation that goes further than the source material, this film not only adapts the content of Molly Bloom’s story as published in the original Molly’s Game, but updates it through a framing device taking place after the book’s publication. The fascination here is evenly distributed between Sorkin’s usual brand of rapid-fire witty dialogue, Molly Bloom’s extraordinary personality and Chastain’s uncanny ability to inhabit the role. It’s a great match between actress and subject, as the attractive Chastain gets to play a ferociously smart character who turns to the legally dubious side in order to make a living. Her conceit is simple enough: take care of all the necessary arrangements for wealthy poker players to have their regular games. It’s not entirely legal, certainly not completely safe, and much of the film’s interest is in detailing all the precautions she has to take in order to attract and retain the high-rollers while protecting herself. Michael Cera plays against type as a slimy Hollywood actor (reportedly Tobey Maguire) who ends up becoming one of Molly’s worst opponents, while Elba is his usual charismatic self as a high-powered lawyer. Sorkin also has fun directing his own script, fully getting into his heroine’s mind and history. (Kevin Costner pops up for a few scenes as her father, and gets a great scene in which he fast-forwards through years of therapy with his immensely intelligent daughter.) At 140 minutes, Molly’s Game is not a short movie, but it is seldom less than engrossing thanks to its script, directors and multiple subject matters. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and a strong demonstration of what Sorkin and Chastain can do at their best.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2017) I’ve grown soft on some of the movies I loved to dislike back in the nineties (see: Independence Day), but as it turns out, Waterworld is just as dumb now than it was back then. From the first moments, the idiocies accumulate quickly, and it’s hard to remain immersed in a Science Fiction movie when you keep muttering “no, no, that’s just stupid” every thirty seconds or so. Soaked dystopia Waterworld desperately tries to make audiences believe in a world entirely covered with water, in factions repeatedly meeting on a featureless ocean, in scarce resources being expended wildly, in … oh, forget it. But there’s more to the annoyance than nitpicking the film to death: it really doesn’t help that Waterworld’s action sequences are so repetitive, either taking place on water or in rusted-out low-imagination post-apocalyptic environments. The film is dull and blurs in trying to recall specific moments. Costner himself is almost a caricature of his own stoic persona, and there’s added irony in contemplating that the film largely takes place on a sea over the American west … that’s right: Westworld is another Costner western. If the film does show most of its then-record breaking budget on the screen, it’s not particularly exciting nor engaging. Sure, Jeanne Tripplehorn is always interesting and sure, it’s OK to see Dennis Hopper ham it up as a villain made to scare kids but … really? Now that I’ve watched Waterworld again, I’m ready to go another twenty years (or more) not thinking about it.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I gave 3000 Miles to Graceland a pass when it first came out, discouraged by the terrible reviews and probably captivated by some other film (let me check … ah yes: Monkeybone came out that weekend, followed in the next few weeks by The Mexican, 15 Minutes, Enemy at the Gates and Memento, all of which I saw at the theatre). Sixteen years later, the film is not quite as bad as I thought it would be. Part of it, I think, can be explained by Tarantino fatigue dissipating—3000 Miles to Graceland is a very stylish, very violent road movie, and writer/director Demian Lichtenstein seems eager to work in more or less the same stylized criminal comedy subgenre that had movie reviewers burnt out by 2001. Here in 2017, the thought of an unseen Tarantino-esque film can be interesting because there are comparatively fewer of them being made. It’s no accident if 3000 Miles to Graceland is far more interesting in its first half-hour than the sometimes-grating hours and a half that follows: It’s also the most deliberately stylized act of the film, the one that most closely apes the exuberant crime comedies of the time. That casino shootout is bloody fun (helped along by a bouncy turn-of-the-century techno soundtrack) and the way some characters are abruptly dispatched gives a welcome initial sense of unpredictability to the film. Kurt Russell is instantly likable as the anti-hero, while Kevin Costner does push his persona outside his comfort zone by playing an irremediable villain. (Compare and contrast his performance in 2016’s Criminal.) Courteney Cox is sexier than expected, while the unexpectedly good cast is rounded out by familiar faces such as Christian Slater, Kevin Pollak, David Arquette, Jon Lovitz, Thomas Haden Church and Ice-T. The best moments of the film have a good rhythm to them. But then the film goes on, and on, and on, becoming steadily more ordinary along the way. The promising Elvis-themed casino heist becomes a revenge road movie with awfully convenient plotting, with the stylishness and unpredictability flying away in the distance. There is, in the end, a lot of wasted potential—and even clinging to what works or almost works in 3000 Miles to Graceland can’t quite save it from mixed feelings.
(On TV, June 2017) As discussed elsewhere, I’m not particularly taken by the links that a number of artists make between baseball and grander themes. I get that it’s an effective chord to strike for average Americans, but as it turns out, I’m Canadian—I’ll let you know when I see the Great Hockey Film. In the meantime, there’s For Love of the Game, which uses a pitcher’s last game as a structural element on which to tell us all about that pitcher’s life, loves and setbacks. Thanks to director Sam Raimi (here signing what looks like an atypical film), the device is somewhat effective. Not all the flashbacks are equally compelling, and the romantic story developed by the film suffers from a few serious cases of idiot plotting, but the overall concept is intriguing enough. Kevin Costner is his own usual stoic self as a pitcher about to throw his last few balls, with Kelly Preston and John C. Reilly providing support in different roles. Unfortunately, for all of the interest of the film’s structure, the plot it develops is generic to the point of being dull—for all of the subplots, the film doesn’t quite manage to deliver something that rises to the level of its premise. The result is still watchable enough, but For Love of the Game stops well short of fulfillment.
(On TV, June 2017) “Build it and they will come” is what most people remember from Field of Dreams, but one of the surprises in discovering this film from pop-culture references is that much of its best-known material (a guy builds a baseball field in the middle of nowhere, attracts ghosts of long-dead players) only makes up a small and early portion of the film. Much of the rest is spent on a road trip in which our protagonist travels through time to bring contentment to a frustrated guru and solves his daddy issues. (But I’m simplifying.) As modern magical realism, Fields of Dream does have the advantage of evangelizing baseball to the point of slipping fantasy tropes under a heavy blanket of false nostalgia. What would have felt incongruous in other contexts here gets a fantasy pass. It helps that Kevin Costner’s stoic persona sells the illusion and drives the dramatic motor of the story: Fields of Dreams dates from his early stardom moments, at a time when he was best placed to represent the ideal of the down-to-earth American man. As a non-American, I’m less taken than most in glorifying baseball as the key to all-around happiness and spiritual fulfillment, but even the mawkish sentimentality of Fields of Dreams has its place somewhere.
(On DVD, May 2017) It’s either a good or a bad thing that I got to see Tombstone a week before Wyatt Earp. A good thing, in that Tombstone suggests a better way to develop the same material as the dour, overlong and self-important Wyatt Earp. Although, to be fair, seeing Kevin Costner at the top of the cast would suggest something as dour, overlong and self-important as nearly all of his other movies. Rather than focusing on a specific slice of time in Earp’s life, this movie chooses a far more inclusive approach, beginning with childhood experiences and going all the way to an Alaskan cruise epilogue. In doing so, it may present a more faceted portrait of the character, but it can’t be bothered to provide excitement or even enough entertainment over the course of a rather long three hours and change. Costner himself is stoic, impassible, heroic without being engaging. (On the other hand, Dennis Quaid is compelling as Doc Holliday) The film plays without being interesting, and even the Tombstone-set segment suffers in comparison to Tombstone’s more dramatic approach. There’s no scenery chomping here, and that’s too bad, because even as Wyatt Earp does touch upon the nature of myth-making late in the film, there’s a sense that it, itself, has not pushed that aspect more. Years later, Tombstone has decisively won the comparison with its near-contemporary: it’s remembered more frequently and fondly. Even if the only thing people remember from Tombstone is Kurt Russell’s over-the-top “Hell is coming with me!”, then that’s one more thing than people will remember from Wyatt Earp.
(On DVD, May 2017) As someone who’s almost viciously opposed to conspiracy theories, I’m about as far as you can imagine from being someone predisposed to like JFK. As a self-conscious “counter-myth” to the official conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, JFK multiplies outlandish claims and plot in order to present a messy version of history in which powerful interests conspired to kill a sitting president. From a substance perspective, JFK often feels like a big ball of nonsense, spitting in all directions and actively introducing bad ideas in the discourse. But the big surprise is that despite all of this, I really liked the movie. It is, in many ways, a triumph of execution. Much of it has to do with its hyperactive style of editing, which feels very modern even twenty-five years later. It’s even more remarkable in that contrarily to much of the rapid-fire digital editing since then, JFK’s editing makes sense both from a content and container perspective: it’s often used to fake documentary proof, distinguish between periods, introduce flashbacks (sometimes even flashbacks within flashbacks) and peer into the characters’ minds … and it almost always makes sense. Acting credentials as solid, with a solid Kevin Costner in the lead, and various supporting roles played by such surprising names as Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones (in a very atypical role), Donald Sutherland, Gary Oldman and many others who are not always instantly recognizable in their roles. It all culminates in a barnstormer of a speech that will leave even conspiracy-skeptics cheering for truth and untainted democracy. For a three-hour film, JFK flies by and impresses even as a propaganda piece. It’s kind of amazing, actually, that such a piece of firebrand cinema would be so closely associated with major studio Warner Brothers. The years have been kind to JFK, even though its theory seems increasingly dubious (twenty-five years later, and no deathbed confessions…), its craft seems just as solid now as ever … and perhaps a bit less disorienting as it must have been then.
(On DVD, January 2017) I don’t normally have much patience for westerns that last two hours and a half, and there’s no denying that Open Range could have benefited from a more aggressive editing pace. Still, this is a Kevin Costner western, and after Dances with Wolves and The Postman, we all know what that means: Expansive vistas, rough-hewn charisma from its stoic hero, tepid pacing and melodramatic filmmaking. Open Range is in-line with his earlier work: good without being perfect, with enough old-fashioned charm that should appeal to an older audience. Costner gets to play his own archetype, but the film’s standout role has to be the “Boss” played by Robert Duvall: the saving grace of the film’s 139 minutes is having the chance to hear Duvall crunch down on folksy tough dialogue, the kind of which we easily could have used fifteen more minutes. Otherwise, there’s a refreshing realism to the way the story evolves, with casual violence when necessary, an unforgiving environment and tough guys trying to keep what’s theirs. There’s even a grown-up romance thrown in the mix, and it doesn’t feel too out-of-place. Open Range may not sound particularly exciting on paper (or in the middle of the two hours and a half), but some of its moments stand out, including a gritty gunfight where we can honestly fear for at least one character. Not a bad choice, not a bad western.
(On TV, November 2016) What?, you say, Kevin Costner playing an idealized stoic male loner figure designed to make women swoon? Well, yes. Message in a Bottle, predictably adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, starts with a mystery (who is the man who would write such a heartbreaking letter and toss it off to sea in a bottle?) and gradually ends on the trail of a sensitive model of masculinity, still grieving over the loss of his wife in a picturesque eastern seaboard town. Cue the waterworks, cue the stirring music, cue the sage old man, cue the lies that lead to rifts, cue just about everything that such Nicholas Sparks-inspired movies have. It’s mechanistic and calculated and cynical and obvious and it still works in some fashion. It helps that the actors are good at what they do: Costner is Costner, obviously, but Robin Wright makes for a suitably bland heroine and Paul Newman shows up as a wizened old man. Throw in Ileana Douglas as spunky comic relief and Robbie Coltrane as a gruff boss and the clichés just write themselves into comforting lines. The audiences for this kind of movie are self-identified—the rest of us might as well not even try to comment.
(On DVD, November 2016) Though largely forgotten nearly twenty years later, The Postman does have a few things going for it. It’s a Kevin Costner-directed movie featuring Costner in his classic stoic persona. It tackles not just the post-apocalypse, but the reconstruction of civilization. It (very loosely) adapts a novel by David Brin, an author I quite like. It is, by nature, fundamentally optimistic about humanity, which is not necessarily something that is expressed all that often in the post-apocalyptic genre. It features some good landscapes from the American northwest, further highlighting similarities with Costner’s western oeuvre such as Dances with Wolves and Open Range. The script isn’t too bad, wrestling a complex subject matter (and often wild source novel) into a relatively enjoyable film. Still, it’s not without its own problems. The most obvious would be the lack of concision in the result, and the overdone sentimentality. The Postman would have been perceptibly better had it been shorter and a bit less overbearing in its mawkishness. Removing some of the slow motion and toning down the insistent score would have helped in making the result palatable to a wider, perhaps more jaded audience. Streamlining the script would also have helped—the final result doesn’t benefit from a lot of repetitiveness and overly-explained context. I’m not overly bothered by the Americano-centrism of the symbolism in what is after all an American movie, but some of the imagery can feel a bit fetishistic to non-Americans. (Woo, post office!) Still, there are a few good moments in The Postman, and the result still feels fresh among other post-apocalyptic Science Fiction films. Even if imperfect, it’s quite a bit better than the crucial consensus seemed to be at the time.
(On TV, August 2016) In an age of CGI-fuelled extravagant spectacles, you’d think that a special-effect-free western Dances with Wolves would be underwhelming … but it’s not. A sweeping western epic, this is a movie that still feels great today largely because it so grounded. You can compare the film’s standout buffalo hunting sequence to the SFX-heavy stampede in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (as sacrilegious it may be to even mention both movies in the same paragraph) and there’s no comparison: the best special effect remains reality. It helps that the film itself is solidly put together: Dances with Wolves remains director/star Kevin Costner’s most notable achievement, and still one of his best roles to date. (Contrarily to his other career-best The Bodyguard, his stoic persona hadn’t fully solidified by then, and he seems more adept in the various facets of his role.) There are also notable roles for Graham Greene, and the lovely Mary McConnell. While Dances with Wolves’ pacing can be maddening throughout its three hours, it does help create the sense of scale that the story requires: As shown by the film’s title, it’s very much a character-driven piece set against the immensity of the frontier, as a white man comes to adopt the native way of life. As such, I think that it has weathered the past quarter-century better than other similar pieces. From my limited white-guy privilege, interrogating the story through a white-saviour perspective doesn’t lead to a full-blown condemnation, since the protagonist doesn’t do all that much to save “the others” (arguably, he only creates trouble for them along the way), and “the others” are portrayed with some nuance. While I’m not a natural audience for westerns (nor assimilation narratives, and especially not three-hour films), Dances With Wolves flows better than I expected, and remains just as respectable today as it was back in 1990. It’s still an impressive achievement, even without computer-generated hordes of buffalos.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) There’s something unintentionally amusing in seeing Ryan Reynolds in Criminal as a man whose personality gets transferred into a new body … given that’s pretty much what happened to his characters in Self/Less, RIPD and The Change-Up as well. There are a few crucial differences, though, and the first being that actor Reynolds is sent home early in Criminal after a short thrilling sequence that concludes with his death. The film’s real lead is Kevin Costner, as an unredeemable psychopath who ends up being an ideal memory transfer subject. Much of the movie is a standard terrorist chase through London, but there are enough wrinkles here to keep anyone interested: In particular, the dramatic tension between Reynolds’s do-good protagonist and Costner’s morally empty anti-hero is surprisingly compelling. There’s an impressive roster of known actors in small roles, from Tommy Lee Jones as a reluctant scientist to Gary Oldman as a CIA manager intent on cracking the case, with Gal Gadot as a non-super-heroic turn as the wife of Reynold’s character. As a blend of thrills and SF ideas, Criminal is competent. Less fortunately, director Ariel Vromen seem content in doing things conventionally, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to imagine the film playing out more grandiosely, taking fuller advantage of its set-pieces. The action scenes are fine, but they could have been done better. Still, wasted potential is more interesting than no potential, and if Criminal didn’t do blockbuster business during its brief theatrical run, it’s got enough of a budget, stars and ideas to make it a more than decent cable-TV choice.
(On TV, June 2016) Watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves twenty-five years after release (almost to the day) is a reminder about the evolution of the Hollywood blockbuster between the eighties and nineties. You can see in Robin Hood the elements that would make up the blockbuster tropes of the nineties, but you can also see the remnants of eighties-style filmmaking stiffness: The slightly-too-slow pacing, the quirks that don’t necessarily reinforce the film’s strengths, the unconscious irritation (such as the attempted-rape elements of the conclusion) the stiff studio staging, and so on. Director Kevin Reynolds doesn’t do a bad job with what he’s given, but it’s a film of its time. It’s good, but it’s not necessarily polished to a shine like latter blockbusters would be. It doesn’t help that Kevin Costner is off as Robin Hood: his stoic persona can’t accommodate the more light-hearted requirements of the role. On the other hand, Alan Rickman is fantastic as the all-out villainous antagonist, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio looks great at Maid Marian, and Morgan Freeman gets a pretty good role as an Islamic Moor stuck in the madness. Watching this film today, after the pop-culture clichés and most notably the 1993 full-length Mel Brooks parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights, is strangeness multiplied. But then again I was in high school when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out—much of the pop culture of the time has stuck in my head to a degree that may not be as extreme for other viewers.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) By now, anything with Luc Besson as a screenwriter should come with its own warning: “Stupid stuff within.” The problem isn’t that Besson’s name is usually associated with dumb scripts: it’s that the same issues keep coming back: dumb anti-establishment rants, moronic plotting, blatant misogyny and a striking lack of tonal unity that has the films jumping all over the place. With 3 Days to Kill, writers Besson and Adi Hasak end up reprising the worst aspects of From Paris with Love: no skill in blending comedy with violence, dim-witted characters and plot-lines that would have been laughable thirty years ago. Here, a CIA agent suffering from a fatal disease is manipulated in executing “one last job” while caring for his estranged daughter. What follows is an unlikable blend of torture played for laughs, uncomfortable comedy, fish-out-of-water parenting and a portrayal of espionage that makes James Bond movie feel sophisticated. The film hits its worst moments when it asks us to believe that a character would forget about violent torture in order to help his torturer bond with his daughter… moments after being electrocuted. Such uneasy blend of jokes in-between deathly serious violence show the tone-deaf sensibilities of either the screenwriters, or fallen-from-grace director McG, whose Charlie’s Angels heydays are nowhere reflected in his recent work –it’s not this or stuff like This Means War that make him look better. While 3 Days to Kill does briefly come alive during its action sequences (in particular, a chase sequence besides La Seine), much of the film is just inert, flopping aimlessly and failing to get its audience’s sympathy. Surprisingly enough, Kevin Costner doesn’t emerge too badly from the ongoing train wreck –he’s able to display a certain weary stoicism through it all. Once really can’t say the same about Amber Heard, playing dress-up as a would-be femme fatale when she’s got the gravitas of half a beach bunny. (Her character may be badly written, but the way she plays it make it seem even worse.) It’s refreshing to see Connie Nielsen in a motherly role, but Hailee Steinfeld may want to re-think playing such unlikable brats flouncing without reason. 3 Days to Kill redefines “scattershot” in the way its scenes don’t seem to flow along in the same film, and how it usually privileges the dumb answer to just about any plot question. The predictable plot twists, stomach-churning “comic” violence really don’t help… but what else have we come to expect from Luc Besson?
(Video on Demand, November 2013) There’s something both annoying and admirable about the entertainment industry’s insistence at rebooting and shoving down superhero movies down our throats. DC’s maniacal insistence at reviving Superman after the 2006’s disastrous Superman Returns is understandable: Superman is iconic, the superhero film genre is still going strong, and there’s still some goodwill among genre fans for a good Superman film. Man of Steel, fortunately enough, is pretty much as good as it gets from a narrative perspective: Screenwriter David S. Goyer (with some assistance from Christopher Nolan) has managed to find a compelling story to tell about a fairly dull character, and it’s more thematically rich than we could have expected. Man of Steel, in the tradition of Nolan’s Batman films, voluntarily goes gritty: Zack Snyder’s direction favour pseudo-documentary aesthetics, the cinematography is more realistic than glossy, and the final act’s destruction feel more traumatic than purely entertaining. Much of this grittiness feels wrong for those raised on the squeaky-clean Superman character, causing more discomfort than necessary. On the other hand, the result is a film that’s reasonably captivating to watch: Superman has an inner conflict to solve, the action sequences aren’t generic and there’s a real effort to ground Superman to an identifiable reality. Henry Cavill is pretty good in the lead role, while Amy Adams does the most with a somewhat generic character. Michael Shannon brings some unexpected complexity to the antagonist, while both Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner get small but plum roles as the protagonist’s two fathers. While Man of Steel is (ironically) a bit too down-to-earth to feel like a blockbuster epic made to be re-watched over and over again, it’s a cut above the usual superhero fare: There’s some real pathos here, an origin story built on well-used flashbacks, sense of personal growth for Superman (something rarely seen) and the solid foundation for further entries. Recent superhero movie history has shown that it could have been much worse, and if I’ll happily take a glossy Superman movie over an unpleasantly gritty one, it would be churlish to deny the successes of this version of the character.