(In French, On TV, December 2018) I can certainly understand Little Women’s timeless appeal—as a story detailing the struggles of the four March girls following the American Civil War, it’s got no fewer than five plum female roles, including four for young actresses. The 1930s version practically made a star out of Katharine Hepburn, and this 1994 version features a terrific cast, in-between Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis and Claire Danes as the girls, with Susan Sarandon as the mother. But wait, it gets even better! Gabriel Byrne, Eric Stoltz and Christian Bale are also featured as some of the suitors of the March girls. Meanwhile, the story has just enough melodrama with war casualties, fatal illnesses, romantic entanglements and literary progression. Director Gillian Armstrong manages to adapt and propel the story in a way that avoids some of the hawkishness of earlier version, and create a convincing portrait of a family sticking through challenging times. I do like the 1930s version, but this Little Women may be even more accessible and lighter on cheap sentiment.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) By now, Sofia Coppola’s female-centric, soft gauze, slow-pacing, contemplative style almost defies parody. But it happens to be the correct approach for this remake of The Beguiled, in which a wounded soldier comes to rest at an isolated house entirely peopled by women. The presence of a man in an otherwise all-female environment is a recipe for disaster, and the film follows this to the expected conclusion. Hugh Jackman is featured as the soldier, but he’s outclassed by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. It’s not much of a story, but it’s deliberately told with plenty of atmosphere. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s competent and daring enough to create discussions as to who, if anyone, was in the right here. I’d like to have more to say about it, but The Beguiled is the kind of film that can only be taken in, not picked apart.
(TubiTV streaming, April 2017) In talking about Elizabethtown, it’s almost essential to talk about aliens and angels. Aliens, because the leading theory to explain what happened to writer/director Cameron Crowe between Jerry Maguire/Almost Famous and Elizabethtown/Aloha is that he has been replaced by an alien with imperfect understanding of human behavior. Elizabethtown professes to be about life, love, laughs and other wholesome sentiments, but even from its first five minutes, it seemingly takes place in a reality with limited similarities to our own. Reading the late and lamented Roger Ebert bring in angels to explain the behavior of the female lead character is a testimony to how far we have to go in order to even make sense of the film. I’m usually good to mention one or two particularly dumb moments in my capsule reviews, but Elizabethtown has so many nonsensical bits that it would take too long to do them justice. Orlando Bloom is sort of bland but still effective as the grieving suicidal lead, while Kirsten Dunst is bubbly as the entirely improbable love interest. “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was invented to discuss Elizabethtown as one of the few rational responses to such a character. I could go on and on about how the film may be a fever dream or a fantasy written by aliens whose only exposure to humanity has been through romantic comedies, but Elizabethtown is frankly just that weird. It even becomes oddly endearing after a while, once it’s clear than anything goes here. The Free Bird/Firebird sequence is amusing (if, again, directed so poorly as to be ludicrous), there are a few laughs here and there and odd resonant piece of dialogues. Alec Baldwin shows up too briefly as a Big Boss, while I always enjoy seeing Judy Greer and Jessica Alba even in minor roles. Still, Elizabethtown seems to belong in a category of its own, a blend of outsider and performance art, perhaps. In that light, I’d be doing a disservice to tell you not to see it.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) The secret of romantic comedies isn’t that hard to piece together. Give us likable protagonists and a competent execution, and who cares if you’re telling the oldest story in the world? Of course, it’s nice if you can set the plot in an interesting environment, add witty dialogues, showcase some directing style and depend on good actors. Fortunately, Wimbledon manages to get all of these right. From casting Paul Bettany as an aging tennis player, to Kirsten Dunst as a top contender, to setting the story over a Wimbledon tournament, to funny dialogue (including worthwhile voiceovers) and directing flourishes, Wimbledon cleverly combines underdog sports comedy with romance and the result is surprisingly good … even for those who know next to nothing about tennis. The film quickly zips by, carried by the charm of its leads and Richard Loncraine’s sure-footed direction. There are issues with the film (it’s clearly told from the male lead’s point of view, often marginalizing the agency of the female character) and a few longer moments, but generally speaking Wimbledon is a big bowl of unassuming romantic comedy, unsurprising but satisfying nonetheless. I like it quite a bit better than I expected from the plot summary and found myself more engrossed in the characters than I thought. Not bad. For more ridiculous fun, follow this film with 7 Days in Hell as an absurdist Wimbledon chaser.
(On Cable TV, December 2016) There’s an interesting dichotomy at play in Midnight Special that’s likely to make Science Fiction fans as happy as it’s bound to infuriate them. Writer/director Jeff Nichols made a name for himself in crafting intimate character-driven dramas such as Take Shelter and Mud. But in tacking explicit science-fictional themes in Midnight Special, Nichols may have exceeded his capabilities. The good news are that his character-driven approach is still very much showcased here. He has an uncanny ability to portray the small details of his story and characters in an immediately compelling and credible way. On a moment-to-moment basis, Midnight Special is compelling for its quasi-tactile ability to portray reality. The small beats of the film are grounded to a phenomenal level, and it doesn’t take much for him to sketch his characters and make their adventures feel real. The opening sequence is immediately gripping, and there’s a fascinating moment later on when we see the result of a car chase rather than the chase itself. There are some serious skills on display here, and I would certainly like more directors (especially SF directors) to take notes on how to ground their concepts into believable real-world details. The way he uses his actors is also fascinating: Michael Shannon is magnetic as the lead character, a father trying to protect his son with special psychic powers. Kirsten Dunst shows up briefly in a lived-in role as a suburban mom, while Adam Driver gets an unusually sympathetic role as a scientist trying to understand what’s going on. But for all of the good that one can say about Midnight Special in five-minute increments, it’s a building disappointment to find out that the small moments and good sequences don’t build to anything particularly compelling. Answers are withheld, not all of the Weird Stuff is pulled together in a coherent whole, and the ending seems to peter out before the answers that it promised. There are some spectacular moments in Midnight Special, and some of them even include a terrific sense-of-wonder sequence at the climax of the film. But they don’t add up to something as good as its individual components, and that’s where Nichols’ lack of understanding of Science-Fiction as a genre shows up most clearly. Too bad, because Midnight Special is great in ways that don’t often have to do with SF.
(On DVD, October 2016) I’m not sure anyone was actively campaigning for a historical re-evaluation of Marie Antoinette (who never actually said “Let them eat cake!”), but she proves to be an irresistible subject for Sofia Coppola’s sympathy-for-the-devil approach. (Dovetailing in her latter The Bling Ring) Portraying a sympathetic young woman finding herself way over her head in the French royal court and the subsequent French Revolution, Marie Antoinette scrupulously ignores the less appealing aspects of the queen’s history (ending well before her execution by the guillotine, for instance, or ignoring the political role she eventually assumed) in favour of a poor-girl-lost routine. While lavish in its recreation of 18th century royal court (with numerous scenes filmed in Versailles itself), Marie Antoinette makes a play toward contemporary sensibilities through an aggressively modern soundtrack and a few deliberate visual anachronisms sprinkled among the pomp and pageantry of royal France. Contrary to some expectations, it actually works: it’s remarkably easy to empathize with a young girl forced to become the queen of a nation, even as she finds refuge in amusements more appropriate for her age, and then motherhood as a way to escape expectations. While it’s probably not a good idea to look upon Marie Antoinette as an accurate history lesson (Read Wikipedia’s entry for a complementary view of the character), it does plunge viewers in a very different time and place, with lavish sets and costumes to reinforce the strange conventions illustrated by the script. Kirsten Dunst is very good as the titular character, with some good supporting performances by Jason Schwartzman (as the meek Louis XI), an atypical role for Steve Coogan (as diplomatic counsellor) and a short but striking turn from Danny Huston. Even those who don’t fancy themselves fans of period pieces will find something to like in Marie Antoinette’s off-beat sensibilities and its compassionate portrayal of a reviled historical figure.
(On DVD, September 2016) Director Sofia Coppola’s films have been hit-and-miss as far as I’m concerned, and The Virgin Suicides won’t settle anything in either direction. I’m certainly not the target audience for a film trying to make sense of the suicide of five sisters, often seen from the perspective of the male teenagers who almost worship them. It’s a film that delves into nostalgia (as narrated from a perspective years later, looking back on the seventies), plays in nuances, doesn’t offer a definitive conclusion and likes to spend time with its characters without necessarily advancing the plot. Dramatic ironies abound—such as when the boys plan a rescue and find out that their help is irrelevant. The subject matter makes it a sad movie, but its execution is perhaps not always as sad as you’d suppose it from the premise. Kirsten Dunst is very good as the oldest sister, while Kathleen Turner and James Woods also make an impression as the parents; perhaps inevitably, most other performers recede in the background of an ensemble cast. The Virgin Suicides certainly offers a change of pace from strongly plot-driven film, so it takes a leisurely frame of mind to appreciate the film in its subtleties. As with other Sofia Coppola movies, I can’t help thinking that there is something in there that I can’t reach.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) Comedies about unlikable protagonists are a tricky act to keep up: There’s a limit to the amount of bad behavior that audiences will tolerate before tuning out, and at times it looks as if How to Lose Friends & Alienate People isn’t afraid to test this limit. Reportedly based on the true story of Englishman Toby Young working for American magazines, this film features Simon Pegg playing one of his most unlikable character: a fame-obsessed smarter-than-thou obnoxious shmuck, gifted with the ability to annoy people almost instantly. He’s surprised when the fights he picks come back to haunt him, while the audience rolls their eyes. Much of the film seems aimless, jumping from one set-piece to another without much connective tissue. When How to Lose Friends & Alienate People does remember that it is a romantic comedy, it’s almost too late to care. Similarly, the film goes from a prickly but interesting comedy to a far more conventional romantic vehicle as it goes along, although it is far from being the only such movie to suffer that fate. I suspect that Toby Young’s autobiography is far more interesting, and that the film fell victim to the adaptation-standardization process. There are, fortunately, a few intermittent bright spots here and there, particularly in taking a look at celebrity journalist and the New York magazine scene. Pre-fame Megan Fox shows up as an object of desire, while Kirsten Dunst shows up for an undemanding role as the hero’s true love. Still, there’s a sense of missed opportunities, of pointless unpleasantness here that prevent How to Lose Friends & Alienate People from leaving a better impression. At least Pegg gets to play a real cad for once, and doesn’t screw it up.
(Video on Demand, July 2013) As a seasoned Science Fiction fan, I rarely have trouble with suspension of disbelief: if a film has an outrageous premise, I’m usually more than willing to grant it immunity from nitpicking. But I have my limits, and Upside Down reached them in about thirty seconds with a triad of absurdly made-up rules about its invented universe. I’m good with the idea of dual worlds facing themselves; I’m even willing to allow that objects from one world can only gravitate to that world. But having stuff from opposite worlds catch on fire when held too long against each other? That’s arbitrary to the point of ludicrousness, and things don’t improve once the film starts developing the world it sketches with its three opening statements: We’re supposed to believe in socioeconomic exploitation of one world by another when matter from one world can’t even enter in contact with the other one. (Hint: political allegory doesn’t work if the underlying metaphor doesn’t.) The longer and the more detailed Upside Down goes on, the more ludicrous it becomes. Now, a reasonable objection to this may be that the film is supposed to be a fable about two ill-fated lovers, and that’s true. The problem is that the story itself is so well-worn and bare-bones as to leave plenty of time for world-building contemplation, with terrible results: the film feels artificial to a degree that even its spectacular visuals can’t overcome, and all of its wit in the presentation of its worlds can’t really compensate for the inanity of its premise. Writer/director Juan Solanas has a good eye for arresting images, but the whole justification for them just isn’t satisfying. It doesn’t help that Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess are blander-than-bland as the romantic leads. As much as I’d like to be kind about a Franco-Canadian film shot in Montréal (and even featuring remarkable local actors such as Holly O’Brien), there isn’t enough to Upside Down to earn more than a recommendation based on pure visuals. The story isn’t there, and the premise simply doesn’t work.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) The success of raunchy female-centric Bridesmaids has (sadly?) led to the realization that there was a market out there for crude R-rated comedies featuring uncouth damsels rather than frat-minded bros. This makes it easier for films like Bachelorette to be marketed: suggest that it’s kind-of-like The Hangover and Bridesmaids and, voila, instant interest. Fortunately, Bachelorette is a bit better than this capsule marketing tactic. Yes, it’s about a trio of disrespectable female leads doing bad things while on a wild night in town. But it’s written with quite a bit more wit than most comedies out there, and it dares takes chances with characters that aren’t made to be liked. Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher do great work here, and Rebel Wilson adds another good performance to a short but impressive list. What’s perhaps just as interesting are the subtle background choices made by writer/director Leslye Headland: A significant portion of the film takes place in a working strip club, for instance, and yet no nudity is shown. The male characters are interestingly flawed and don’t overshadow the female leads. This shouldn’t be revolutionary stuff, but in today’s comedy-film scene is almost feels as if it is. Offbeat without being disgusting, Bachelorette is worth a look for those looking for a bit of wit to go along their unglamorous comedies.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Melancholia, but I expected it to be interesting. “Dogme 95” director Lars von Trier isn’t usually associated with science-fiction or special effects, so seeing him handle a spectacular end-of-the-world disaster film had its own particular fascination. There’s little in Melancholia that’s conventional, of course: it opens with a series of exquisitely photographed slow-motion portraits expressing the film that will follow. Then we’re boldly thrown into an hour-long dramatic first section that seldom even acknowledges the ultimate science-fictional aims of the film. This first hour is all about a young woman getting married and causing/suffering the worst day of her life. The key to Melancholia is the idea that depressed people cope well with apocalyptic situations. After that, the dramatic dynamics of second half of the film, describing in an intimate setting the reaction to impending disaster, makes perfect sense: The depressive is unaffected, the rational shatters under stress, the normal retreats into shock and the innocent isn’t aware of what’s going on. It may be a frustratingly slow film, but it’s more than occasionally beautiful in its own way, and it forces actors such as Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland to show some real acting capabilities. (Particularly Dunst, too-often dismissed in more superficial roles.) For SF fans, it’s fascinating to see how carefully von Trier limits his scope: isolated location, four characters, scientific jargon that acknowledges the hard-science behind the scenario while using it for more fanciful purposes. It’s also a revealing take on material that would be treated far differently in a pure-genre film. Best seen on a small screen with plenty of distractions on-hand (it is a rather slow-paced film, and often skips over connective material), Melancholia nonetheless has its own languid appeal, a cozy catastrophe brought to the screen and an intimate exploration of a subject that, handled more conventionally, would seem downright ordinary.
(In theaters, May 2002) So everyone’s favorite web-slinging superhero swings in theaters, and even if I bemoan the quasi-absence of the classic TV show’s theme, I’m rather impressed with the rest of the film. Focusing as much on character than on action scenes, this is very nearly the ultimate comic-book film insofar as the “secret identity” passages aren’t deathly dull. Tobey Maguire transforms a potentially miscasting in one of the film’s greatest assets; Peter Parker, the geek-turned-superhero! Willem Dafoe is also excellent as the antagonist. (oh, that mirror scene… genius!) Kirsten Dunst, on the other hand, is blander than beige, giving us no reason why we should fall for her like our hero does. The few action scenes in the film really rock, thanks to the dynamite direction of Sam Raimi, who seemingly helms the film he’s been born to. Spider-Man appeals on several levels; if ever you’re bored, you can always watch for how it’s a curiously Catholic superhero film, as Spider-man is defined by guilt, celibacy and self-sacrifice. Good summer entertainment; I would have liked a few more action scenes, but now that the background’s been taken care of, maybe the inevitable sequel will be even faster-paced?
(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) This is pretty much the definition of a superhero movie for general audiences. Some adventure, some romance, some character development, some soap opera plotting, some special effects and some flashy colors. Sure, it made millions, but is it a film one can absolutely love? Eh. Shrug. The DVD is the incarnation of this eagerness to please everyone; two making-of are strictly pre-release promotional material (which isn’t appropriate material for the DVD, since we already paid for the damn thing; we don’t need to know how wonderful everyone was!) and the technical material is reduced to a strict minimum, safely tucked away in a “special feature” where only the die-hard geeks will look for it. The commentary track is okay, and so are the repetitive pop-ups. (Alas, the infamous first “World Trade Center trailer” is missing) Slick entertainment for the whole family, but a second look reveals the mechanical underpinnings of this lucrative enterprise.