(In French, on TV, February 2019) If Congo has any claim to fame, it’s this superb quote from co-star Bruce Campbell: “What if you were offered a chance to appear in a movie based on a Michael Crichton novel? It will be directed by veteran Frank Marshall. Stan Winston will handle the special effects and it will be a big budget Paramount production. Sounds good? Congratulations, you just made Congo.” (There are a few versions of that quote around, but they all end with the same punchline.) The point of the anecdote is to illustrate the vagaries of Hollywood projects between what sounds good on paper and what comes out in the end—and to slam the movie along the way. Of course, your take may not be as harsh: While I found the much-maligned movie quite disappointing indeed, it’s not nearly as bad as some of the critical pile-on would have you believe. I wasn’t a fan of the original novel (which crammed one incident inspired by African clichés per chapter, narrative coherency be damned), but its episodic nature translates quite naturally to the screen, where it becomes one thrill after another until we’ve stopped asking for any kind of believability. The ridiculous pileup of subplots all justifying an expedition in deep Africa makes for an entertaining premise, and that’s well before we end up with a climax in which volcanoes, diamonds, killer apes and laser weapons are all involved. Congo’s bombastic nature ensures that we never take it seriously. The ever-cute Laura Linney stars, along with a few notables such as Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry and the inimitable Bruce Campbell. As long as you keep your expectations in check, this is an old-fashioned adventure film that should satisfy roughly 51% of your cravings, even if there’s quite a lot missing to ensure that the film is fun, that it flows well and that it makes the most out of its elements. As it is, Congo does remain a disappointment: It’s inert more often than it should, can’t quite capitalize on everything at its disposal and none of the cast or crew can’t quite save it. But that’s the risk that you take on every Hollywood movie … no matter how good their pedigree.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) There have been quite a few movies about the American presidency, but few of them as cutely romantic as Dave, in which a presidential impersonator gets the job on a long-term basis when the real president is medically incapacitated. The plot is familiar from there, but the real fun of the picture has to be seeing Kevin Kline in a dual role, with Sigourney Weaver as the wife who suspects that something is afoot, and Frank Langella as the villain trying to take over the United States through an unwitting patsy. Ving Rhames and Laura Linney also show up in smaller early roles. Oliver Stone has a funny cameo. Clearly, director Ivan Reitman is aiming more for a feel-good romantic fantasy than a hard-edged political thriller, especially given how the film plays with the idea of the everyday man replacement being better in all aspects of the job than the original. There’s an interesting comparison to be made here with near-contemporary The American President, but also with the classic idealistic films by Frank Capra, in which he took pleasure in scrutinizing the American political system to reveal the good intentions underneath it. Dave is a lightweight comedy, but a charming one, and certainly a welcome antidote to the kinds of heavier thrillers that the American presidency usually invites.
(In French, On Cable TV, March 2017) My allergy to muddy family dramas remain just as pronounced, as a viewing of The Squid and the Whale confirms. Writer/director Noah Baumbach takes a small budget, some quirky ideas, well-known actors and a heartbreaking subject as the basic elements of an eighties-set drama in which two boys react badly to their parents’ ongoing divorce. It’s more of a darkly amusing drama than a somber comedy: While the humour is there, much of the film is intensely depressing. At least there are great performances along the way. Jesse Eisenberg turns in a nuanced performance, while Jeff Daniels is fantastic as a deeply flawed, yet oddly captivating father. Laura Linney doesn’t get as good of a role as the mother (given that the film is largely written from the elder son’s unsympathetic perspective, she doesn’t get the best role in the ongoing mess) while Anna Paquin merely … shows up as a student with a deeply inappropriate relationship. Much of the film is mumbled through domestic scenes of heartbreak and aimless fury, set in intellectual-class New York intelligentsia. It’s not fun, but it ends up being more absorbing than you’d expect considering the flawed characters, super-16mm cinematography and life-goes-on ending. The Squid and the Whale was less painful than expected, which actually stands as outstanding praise in this case.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) It’s unfair to judge movies on the merits of later ones, but watching The Mothman Prophecies, I couldn’t help but think that this kind of material (horror movie shifting in prophesied disaster movie) was executed to much better effect in the 2009 thriller Knowing. Here, the film seems to dawdle a long time on a series of barely connected phenomena, never quite pulling everything in a coherent whole. Despite the early promise of supernatural phenomena occurring over electric or electronic networks, the film takes a far more muddled approach to its central horror. It doesn’t help that the scares are low-octane, and that the film seems to coast a long time on weirdness rather than build something up. By the time everything pulls together, the spectacle of a disaster (with shades of Final Destination) manages to be interesting in a wholly different way than the horror film that has unspooled for the previous hour. Richard Gere and Laura Linney are merely fine in the lead roles, but this isn’t the kind of film to coax any kind of remarkable performance. The Mothman Prophecies manages to eke out a narrow victory over a “dull” rating by virtue of a disconnected action climax, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. Why don’t you watch Knowing again instead?
(On Cable TV, May 2016) I will admit it: I expected far worse from The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and I’m pleasantly surprised at the result. Keeping in mind that expectations may be the key to good reviews, there is something fascinating in the way this film blends a courtroom procedural and religious possession horror, cleverly allowing dual versions of events to be shown on-screen. (Of course, as with nearly all horror movies, the paranormal version is far more compelling—otherwise why are we watching it?) This unusual sensibility helps explain why the film can boast of such a good cast, from Laura Linney’s conflicted lawyer protagonist to Tom Wilkinson as a tortured priest, with a good supporting turns by relative newcomer Jennifer Carpenter in the title role. Considering director Scott Derrickson’s subsequent filmography, we can already see in The Exorcism of Emily Rose the atmospheric conviction that would elevate many of his later films. It’s certainly enough to paper over the script’s overly dramatic manifestations of evil that would strike many as ridiculous. Still, this film’s biggest strength is to do the usual in a slightly unusual way, almost hiding behind the trappings of a legal thriller to blur the shape of its horror thrills. It does manage to keep audiences interested, which is more than we can say about many other similar movies. The tension between rationality and the supernatural is explored competently—just don’t pay too much attention to the claims that it’s based on a true story. Now popping up late at night on cable TV channels The Exorcism of Emily Rose remains a nice little surprise, especially for anyone expecting a formula exorcism horror thriller.
(Video on Demand, December 2015) At a time when we’ve been served with no less than three recent muscular re-invention of Sherlock Holmes (from Sherlock to Elementary to the two Sherlock Holmes Guy Richie movies), it’s a noteworthy change of pace to see Iam McKellen play an elderly Holmes wrestling with early dementia and past regrets in Mr. Holmes. Directed by Bill Condon, this is a film about a very human Holmes (far less fanatical than his three recent counterparts) and it plays in minor keys: the caper to be resolved doesn’t depend on outlandish deductions, and the real mystery here is Holmes struggling to recall events from his own life. McKellen is a terrific Holmes, bringing both gravitas and vulnerability to the role. A thoroughly de-glammed Laura Linney is there to provide another point of view, further challenging our view of Holmes. It’s a fairly slow film, and one that may not hold your attention easily if you’re distracted by other things, but it does build to a finely-controlled finale in which Holmes accepts his place in life and the necessity of being close to other people. Given that at least two of the three other recent Sherlocks are struggling with the same thing, Mr Holmes does have something more to bring to the character and should be admired as such. Just don’t expect fist-fights, gun battles and ticking-clock deductions: it’s not that kind of film, and it’s probably better for it.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) As far as “suburbia is hell” dark comedies are concerned, The Details runs close to the clichés: Despair over a perfect yard, home renovations, adultery, family-building and keeping good relations with the neighbors all loom large over the stranded subplots of the film. It’s messy, chaotic, not particularly believable nor even likable, but The Details does score one or two laughs along the way, and is seldom uninteresting largely due to its one-thing-after-another approach to plotting. For a film that practically went unseen before making its cable-TV debut, writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes’ dark comedy does boast of a pretty good cast: Seldom has anyone used Tobey Maguire’s innate blandness to better effect, while Ray Liotta, Kerry Washington, Dennis Haybert and Elizabeth Banks all turn in perfectly respectable performances. (Still, Laura Linney earns most of the attention here with a performance that is alternately kooky, frumpy, sexy, scary and pitiable.) As befits a film that multiplies its subplots, The Details gets a bit sprawled along the way to its dark and cynical conclusion (rather than act as a guide-post, the opening monologues tells a little bit too much), but the ride is interesting. Don’t let the fact that you’ve never heard of the film dissuade you from taking a chance on it: It’s a sign of the current hyper-saturation of the movie industry that decent films such as this one can disappear in the system for more than three years after a limited theatrical run before resurfacing on cable TV.