(On Cable TV, January 2018) The appeal of Edgar Wright’s role as a director is multifaceted (you can like his impeccable editing, highly structured scripting, hip pop-culture references or ability to get great comic performances from his actors), but he is without peers in his use of music as an essential counterpoint to the visual aspects of his movies. Nearly all of his films so far have included at least one sequence that perfectly blend sound and images, and he pushes that facet of his work to its limits in Baby Driver, a movie in which nearly the entire film seems built around its soundtrack. I mean it in the best way, as the opening sequence proves: Wright dares to synchronize an entire feature film around a selection of underexposed songs and the result is a frizzy delight. Sure, it’s all in the service of a criminal revenge story … but why use labels when the entire film is a tour de force? From beginning to end, Baby Driver is a choreography of sound and visuals as it takes us in the mind of its music-obsessed protagonist. A movie experience with few peers, Baby Driver is meant to be listened to as much as seen—while I’m a big fan of watching movies with the sound down as so not to disturb other members of my household, I made an exception for Baby Driver—and it deserves to be played at the appropriate volume. Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead performance, but the supporting actors are far more interesting, in-between what is likely to be Kevin Spacey’s last high-profile performance, Jon Hamm leaning on his comedy and action skills, Jamie Foxx as a dangerous sidekick and Lily James as the love interest. Much of the overall plot is familiar, but it’s the execution that truly shines—Baby Driver is filled with cool little moments, set pieces and the usual amount of Wright’s clever writing that becomes more apparent upon viewing the film a second time. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a particular treat for anyone who’s been following Wright’s career so far.
(Third viewing, On TV, August 2017) Hmmm … how is it that no review of The Usual Suspects shows up on this web site? I recall seeing the film in the late nineties (at my grandma’s place, on regular TV, probably in French) and loving it. I also recall seeing it much later and still liking it a lot. And yet there are no reviews in my files. Bah, this gives me another chance to formally extol the film’s virtues. The Usual Suspects gets a lot of attention for a surprising ending, but it’s a movie that works just as well when you can anticipate the big twist. In between Christopher McQuarrie’s script and Bryan Singer’s direction, it’s made well enough that it has an unusually effective moment-to-moment immersive quality: you just want to see what will happen next, or bask in great dialogue, capable direction and terrific actors. Nearly everyone in the cast brings their best to their roles, from Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-winning role to Gabriel Byrne’s solid presence, Benicio del Toro’s oddball diction and great turns for Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin and Chazz Palminteri. The set pieces are well done, and for a movie that hinges on deception, there is far more truth to it than I remembered from previous viewings. A minor classic in the crime thriller vein, The Usual Suspects combines engrossing viewing with a deceptively dense story. It qualifies as one of the must-see movies of its genre.
(Video on Demand, September 2016) This off-beat film is based on the famous photograph of Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon in the White House. While the real story of the picture is detailed elsewhere for your fascination, the film uses the real story as a springboard to explore the character of Elvis, Nixon and those surrounding them—obviously providing the best dramatic arcs to the supporting characters rather than the titular historic figures. Michael Shannon isn’t bad as late-period Elvis: paranoid, unstable, not entirely deluded yet still charismatic and loyal enough to be likable. Kevin Spacey is equally good as Nixon, although the film doesn’t focus on him as much. Compressing the timeline of the events to barely 24 hours gives some energy to the picture at the expense of credibility, but the screenwriter doesn’t waste time in using this charged schedule to develop characters. Elvis & Nixon is almost refreshing in that there isn’t much traditional conflict to the picture. Sure, White House advisors fret about whether they can convince their boss to meet with a genuine superstar, and our viewpoint protagonist wants to make it home to meet his girlfriend’s parents, but otherwise this is a film that is content just exploring facets of its premise and taking viewers by the hand rather than shove a spectacle in their face. There are far better portrayals of Nixon out there in the film universe (I’m still fond of the silly comedy Dick) and more convincing Elvis impersonators, but their union in the same film is special enough and treated reasonably well. Elvis & Nixon will never become a well-known success, nor will it play much once its initial Pay TV window is over. But it works reasonably well at what it tries to do, and it takes us along for the gentle ride.
(In French, On TV, October 2015) Sometimes, you have to let go of narrative and embrace the atmosphere. Despite it being a murder/courtroom drama, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is best appreciated as an atmospheric look at a southern-US Savannah and its unusual characters. It’s digressive, tangential, occasionally supernatural, almost uninterested in its own plot. It lives when it allows its characters to do their own thing, and grows weaker when it gets down to the business of narrative closure. This is a kind of film made for a particular kind of audience (director Clint Eastwood is often best at ease while idling), but even narrative-driven moviegoers may appreciate the unhurried pace at which it unfolds, almost as if it was an invitation to spend some leisurely time visiting Savannah. It also helps feature capable actors: Kevin Spacey is essential as a local mogul accused of murder and whose defence essentially rests on being a community pillar. John Cusack is fine but unchallenging as the audience’s stand-in to the local madness, but The Lady Chabis turns in a great performance by playing herself. If I had more time, I’d check out the book to confirm that this atmosphere is developed even more fully on the page – and I’d re-watch the film in English to get the fullest Southern-accent experience.
(Video on Demand, February 2015) Perhaps the most interesting thing about Horrible Bosses 2 is the length to which this sequel is determined to follow-up on a film that didn’t need a sequel. I mean; our heroes having gotten rid of their horrible bosses, what’s left to do? Get newer even more horrible bosses? For a short while, as they create their own company and bumble around making terrible mistakes, it almost looks as if the sequel is ready to invert the roles and allow them to become the horrible bosses. But that’s not to last, as they are swindled by a horrible client, stuck with a kidnapping victim with plans of her own, and overextend itself to bring back the two surviving horrible bosses of the previous film. All handled with a slick tone that never gets too far out of control: For all of the potential violence (and sexual debauchery) hinted at, Horrible Bosses 2 knows that it’s meant to be a mainstream comedy and wouldn’t dare go where audiences won’t like. (Although at least one innuendo in the coda is deeply disturbing) Still: the film moves fairly quickly, gives short but striking moments to both Kevin Spacey (as a horrible boss who won’t let prison tone down his disdain for the protagonists) and Jennifer Aniston (once again playing sultry nymphomaniac), whereas leads Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day are once again up to their own comic personas. The film does have a few visually ambitious moments: There is a good business start-up pan shot early on, and the film is never better or more engaging than when the protagonists lay out their plan (which fails horribly, as expected.) Otherwise, Horrible Bosses 2 is a disposable sequel that’s not too difficult to watch –a bit of faint praise, maybe, but also an acknowledgement that it could have been much worse.
(In theaters, December 2011) Obviously inspired by the financial crisis of September 2008, Margin Call is a rare thriller in which conversations, analysis and boardroom meetings take the lead over car chases, explosions and gunfights. It starts with a mass layoff at an unnamed Wall Street trading firm and a dire warning from one fired analyst to his still-employed protégé: “Be careful.” Before long, our intrepid boy wonder has discovered that the firm is about to go bankrupt, and the news spread upward in a series of meeting with ever-more-important people. Strategies are discussed, blame is tentatively assigned, speeches are made, decisions are taken and, eventually, a terrible no-return strategy is adopted. The film isn’t as good as it could be: Margin Call’s low-budget and first-time director shows in the static cinematography, tepid pacing, overlong shots and lack of a fully satisfying conclusion. But the achievement here is considerable, starting from the terrific cast assembled here: Kevin Spacey gives a far more humane take on his usual screen personae; Paul Bettany is terrific as a high-flying trader who realizes the danger of his current situation; Jeremy Irons makes an impression as a point-one-percenter with gravitas; Stanley Tucci is wonderful as usual as an engineer turned financial analyst; and so is Zachary Quinto (looking a lot like a prettier Ewan McGregor in Rogue Trader) as the pivotal character who flags the crisis. The dialogue is sharp, the dramatic dilemmas are unusual, the characters are well-developed and the themes are current at a time where an increasing number of Americans are openly questioning the social usefulness of the business described here. While the dialogue-heavy piece won’t appeal to everyone, Margin Call is a clever and efficient film that fully exploits the limits of its budget to deliver a striking result.
(In theaters, July 2011) Two and a half years after a catastrophic global meltdown, movies are starting to reflect the soul-deadened guilt of those who kept their jobs. Playing heavily on wish-fulfillment, Horrible Bosses dares to ask how much better life would be if people could just get rid of their awful supervisors in the most definitive way possible. It takes strong protagonists to keep our sympathy in such circumstances, and Horrible Bosses get two out of three in that matter: Jason Bateman continues his streak of playing endearing everymen, while Jason Sudeikis somehow manages to make us look past his character’s horn-dog issues. As the remaining member of the trio of oppressed worker looking to dispatch their bosses, however, Charlie Day is almost more annoying than useful, and the tic of reverting to a high-pitched whine whenever things go wrong is annoying the moment it happens a second time. Then there’s the other half of the deal: the bosses. Fortunately, that’s where Horrible Bosses wins a perfect score: Kevin Spacey is deliciously slimy as the kind of arrogant sociopath that climbs up the corporate ladder; Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as a loser working to extract as much loot out of the family company before it goes bankrupt; whereas Jennifer Aniston is all sex-appeal with bangs, toned body and racoon eyes as a crazed harasser. They deserve their fate; the protagonists have suffered enough; and the film can stand on its own. It does get better as it develops, mostly due to some clever writing, sympathetic performances (including Jamie Foxx as a criminal consultant), a few twists in which real world problems become comic plot points, and a conclusion that neatly wraps things up. While Horrible Bosses won’t stick around in popular culture, it’s a decent example of the kind of film it wants to be: It’s amoral without being offensive, edgy without grossing-out and polished to an extent that it leaves little if any unpleasant aftertaste. Good enough for entertainment; consecration isn’t an essential prerequisite with a good-time comedy like this.
(On DVD, June 2011) Casino Jack never played in more than a few dozen theaters, but this limited release had more to do with its specialized subject than any particular fault in the film’s execution. Consider the total audience for a low-budget sardonic comedy about a real-life American lobbyist who ended up in prison after a few spectacular instances of fraud, taking along a few others with him. It’s not exactly wide-audience stuff, but maybe that’s a good thing, because this fictional take on the Jack Abramoff story may not be able to afford much in terms of production values, but it can afford to be remarkably engaged about its subject. For the facts, have a look at Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which covers the same ground from a documentary perspective. For a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a professional con man like Abramoff and a blackly amusing look at the way Washington really works, however, get this film. Kevin Spacey shines as Abramoff, portraying a complex character with a lot of empathy. Supporting players include Barry Pepper as a business partner, Jon Lovitz as a hilariously inept businessman with ties to the mob and Rachel Lefebvre as a woman scorned. While the film does feel a bit flatter than it should be given the subject matter, it’s not a bad time at all, and one gets the feeling that Abramoff himself would like the result. The DVD contains only a few special features. Skip over the gag reel and deleted scenes, but sadly-deceased director George Hickenlooper’s written notes and pictures of the production give an intriguing glimpse of how a low-budget film shot near Toronto could double for Washington and Miami thanks to second-unit work and clever location scouting.