(On Cable TV, April 2018) Frankly, there isn’t much worth remembering about The Basketball Diaries than its cast and one dream sequence. One of those hard-hitting yet undistinguishable scared-straight stories of teenage drug addiction, this is a film that takes place in low-rent apartments, high-school classes, New York streets and basketball courts. It does have the good fortune of starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg, plus Juliette Lewis, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Rappaport and Ernie Hudson—a cast that ensures that interest in the film will remain as long as they are known. The other claim to fame for the film is the dream sequence in which the protagonist graphically commits a high school shooting—you can bet that in the years since, that kind of material is ever controversial. Otherwise, unfortunately, there isn’t a whole to note about The Basketball Diaries. It is a powerful anti-drug movie. It does talk about what teenage boys talk about. It is, in other words, not particularly unique in a world where dozens of those movies appear (and disappear without a trace) every year. But, OK, if you want to see a black-clad DiCaprio mowing down classmates, then this is the film for you.
(On DVD, March 2017) Going into Romeo + Juliet, I only knew two things: I usually like director Baz Luhrmann’s work (I usually love the first half-hour of his movies); and I have a lot of trouble with Shakespearian dialogue. Despite my best intentions, I bounced off hard from the recent contemporary reimagining of Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing: my brain can’t process that language even with subtitles to help. In that context, Romeo + Juliet’s central conceit, to reimagine Shakespeare’s best-known romantic play with the same dialogue but in a mid-1990s Californian-ish context with warring crime families using fancy guns rather than swords, seemed like courting trouble. Fortunately, Luhrmann’s typical verve was enough to get me over the initial hump. The opening sequence of the movie not only indelibly imprinted IN FAIR VERONA in my mind, but was stylish and action-packed enough to get me interested in the (more sedate) rest of the film. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine as Romeo, while Claire Danes makes for a fair wide-eyed Juliet. Able supporting presences by actors such as John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite and Harold Perrineau (plus a very young Paul Rudd) complete the already wild portrait. Add to that Luhrmann’s usual energy and visual flair and the Shakespearian dialogue becomes far less important—knowing the basic beats of the classic story means that we’re free to appreciate the adaptation rather than the words, and so Romeo + Juliet comes alive. While much of this energy dissipates in the latter half of the film, there are enough elements of interest in the modernization of the story (complete with car chases, helicopters and news media commentary) to keep watching until the end. As pure piece of style, this is a film that is both precisely dated in mid-nineties aesthetics yet timeless because of them. It’s breathless, witty, just sappy enough to qualify as a true version of Romeo and Juliet, and an experience in itself. Maybe I’m getting ready to take another look at Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing…
(On TV, August 2016) At first glance, a summary of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape sounds like a word salad, perhaps written by a foreigner whose understanding of Middle America is shaped by Hollywood clichés: Here’s a twentysomething man from a family where the father committed suicide, the mother is morbidly obese, the youngest son is autistic and the daughters are obsessed with pop trivia. Our small-town protagonist has an affair with an older married woman, sees his job as a grocery clerk threatened by the arrival of a big-box store and gazes wistfully at the people passing through… Not exactly promising stuff, isn’t it? But as it turns out, there’s a lot more than a plot synopsis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the most noteworthy of them being the handful of astonishing actors brought together for the occasion. Johnny Depp stars as the brooding over-solicited protagonist, but he’s upstaged by an impossibly young Leonardo DiCaprio as his developmentally challenged brother, a performance so convincing that it’s a relief to know that it’s not real. Elsewhere in the movie, the ever-beautiful Mary Steenburgen shows up as an adulterous wife, John C. Reilly is a hoot as a mildly dumb handyman, and Juliette Lewis makes an impression as a girl passing through town. Director Lasse Hallström assembles a perfectly watchable film from it all, a slice of weird Americana that’s occasionally grotesque, but engaging from beginning to end.
(Video on Demand, May 2016) From the first moments, it’s obvious that The Revenant is going to be a beautiful film, a long film and a film with a lot more on its mind than a survival/revenge story. It could have been a cheap and efficient 90-minute exploitation film, considering the nature of the story: As far as incredible stories of survival are concerned, it’s hard to beat a gravely wounded man in 1790s American wilderness travelling 300 kilometres to seek the man who left him for dead and killed his son. Extreme survival, justified revenge, beautiful nature backdrops… No-one would have faulted The Revenant for focusing on the primal survival/revenge story. But in the hands of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the result is a few steps above the strictly necessary. A savvy blend of nature shooting and cutting-edge special effects allows for lengthy, almost unbearable sequences of violence set against spectacular natural landscapes. In-between harsh weather, aggressive bears, warring white groups and wronged natives, there are many moving parts in The Revenant, and the script effortlessly plumbs at the complexities to be found in even such a so-called wilderness. Leonardo DiCaprio is remarkable as the hero of the story, even though Tom Hardy also does a lot as the antagonist. Still, the stars here are cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Iñárritu, transforming an exploitation premise into A-grade filmmaking. It’s true that the result could have been a bit shorter and less repetitive, but it feels a bit ungrateful to ask for less of an excellent film.
(On TV, May 2015) The 1998 Three Musketeer follow-up The Man in the Iron Mask is still worth a look for a variety of reasons. The first may be seeing the Three Musketeers at an older age, continuing the oft-portrayed legend at a time where they are disillusioned, ready to pass the torch to another generation and maybe even rebel against the King. The historical re-creation is lovely –but don’t watch it for a historical lesson, though. The plot, adapted from a literary source, is also a bit more surprising than the usual Hollywood historical film. Then there are the actors, now almost inconceivably younger: Leonardo Di Caprio has an interesting dual role, while Gabriel Byrne, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Gérard Depardieu make for great musketeers. While The Man in the Iron Mask starts slowly and could have use a little more buckling of the swashes, it has an acceptable amount of adventure, twists and character development. I’m fond of the line “I’m a genius, not an engineer” (better in French: “Je suis un génie, pas un ingénieur”) and I liked spending some time in that period of history. I wasn’t expecting much from the film, though, and being happy about the result doesn’t mean that I’m enthusiastic about it.
(On TV, April 2015) I seem to remember The Beach being some kind of minor cult-classic film for disaffected young adults in the early 2000s, and watching the film fifteen years later does offer a few clues as to why. The Big One is the promise of pure escapism, as our backpacking protagonist hears of a secluded Thai beach where expatriates have established their own little hedonistic society. But as our main character understands soon enough, utopia doesn’t work so well in the real world. The Beach at least has a bit of a plot running through it, even though the real star here remains either Leonardo DiCaprio (who, at the time, was starting to transition from teenage heartthrob to the serious actor he’s become today) or Danny Boyle’s direction, which showcases the fondness for hallucinatory deviations from objective reality that would be used to such good effect in later films such as 127 Hours. The film doesn’t always move quickly, but it does have a small number of standout sequences, a lovely setting, an interesting performance by DiCaprio and a younger Tilda Swinton attempting a fairly generic role. Still, there’s a whiff of pretention here in the way our privileged hero philosophizes on the nature of life through a temporary escape. What’s meant as meditative comes across as jejune, and the protagonist isn’t much to cheer for. Still, the stylish touches remain interesting and there’s always the scenery to look at.
(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.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) Presenting the grandiose life story of a criminal isn’t new grounds for veteran director Martin Scorsese, and that may explain why he has chosen to pile so much excess in a film that could (but probably shouldn’t) have been told far more economically. Centered around Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort’s short-lived (but lucrative) career in the waning days of the twentieth century, The Wolf of Wall Street does make an attempt at the usual tragic structure of such films: The introduction to a life of crime, the excessive fun and games of the high-flying protagonist, the enemy forces closing in, and the final disgrace as the protagonist loses everything. But the proportions are different of the norm: The introduction is frantic, the downfall takes less than two minutes and the rest of the film is pure excess piled upon pure excess: Drugs, sex, nudity, profanity all jostle for screen-time in this three-hour paean to the utter corruption made possible by a multi-million-dollars annual salary and an enabling environment without restraints. Leonardo DiCarpio is simply magnificent as the protagonist: Smart, driven, charismatic, absolutely corrupt and unable to stop himself. He directly addresses the audience as the revelry is unleashed around him, reassuring us that this is all illegal and that we wouldn’t understand all of the details. Not that we need to: At a time where Wall Street excesses are well-known and even celebrated, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t need to waste its time giving us a moral lesson: It would rather give us a full-throttle ride through decadence without false reassurances that sociopathic behavior always gets what it’s due. It makes for a lousy Sunday-school example, but an absolute marvel of a film: The Wolf of Wall Street is rarely less than hypnotically compelling, the work of a director working at his best. Many actors get their chance to shine here besides DiCaprio: Jonah Hill gets a ton of laughs (especially during a Qualuude-fueled scene with DiCaprio that already ranks as a classic bit of physical humor), Matthew McConaughey continues his white-hot acting streak in a pair of film-stealing scenes, while Margot Robbie gets a plum role that requires as much sex-appeal as honest acting talent. It amounts to a terrific thrill-ride of a film, slick in all the right ways and unusually respectful of its adult audience. Frankly, I’d rather see this film a second time than have a first look at many other films in my playlist.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a certified Moulin Rouge fan, I had been waiting a while for Baz Luhrmann to return to the same overblown wide-screen film style. Fortunately, the wait is over: The first half of his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is crammed with visual excess, lush 3D cinematography, frantic energy and flashy camera work. As a way to portray the excesses of the Roaring Twenties (along with a not-so-anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack), it works splendidly and I can see myself gleefully revisiting that part of the film before long. The film reaches an apex of sorts as it magnificently introduces the titular Gatsby (a perfectly-cast Leonardo DiCaprio) with fireworks and a wink. Toby Maguire makes for a good everyday-man audience stand-in through this madness and the film eventually calms down during its increasingly somber second half as the true themes of the story play out and reach their tragic conclusion. Luhrmann is the real star of The Great Gatsby, but the actors he brings on board all have their chance to shine. I’m not a fan of Casey Mulligan, but she couldn’t have been better that she is here as a flapper; Joel Edgerton also does well as he goes toe-to-toe with DiCaprio. As an adaptation, the film faithfully keeps the plot, overplays the symbolism, dispenses with a few subtleties, adds a framing device that’s not entirely useless and provides enough of a thematic slant on the material to keep fans of the book arguing in depth about intended meaning. On a surface level, The Great Gatsby is well worth-watching for its visual sheen (especially its first 30 minutes): this is an indulgent, no-budget-limits style of filmmaking that I enjoy tremendously, and as a way to present a classic curriculum novel, it’s invigorating.
(Video on-demand, April 2013) Over the past year, I have willingly forgone an almost-exclusive diet of theater films in favour of extensive sampling from premium cable channels, with the pernicious result that I am seeing a far wider variety in the quality of the films I watch. From made-for-TV stinkers to big-budget critical darlings, I now watch everything and my expectations are now lower (ie: more realistic) than they used to be. These personal considerations are prologue to one stone-cold fact: When such a great film as Django Unchained makes its way inside my brain after so many undistinguished movies, the sheer cinephile pleasure of it seems increased. I’ve long admired nearly everything directed by Quentin Tarantino: his love of moviemaking is so infectious that every single film he makes is a treat for jaded movie fans, his script are unlike anyone else’s, his direction makes the familiar feel fresh and the depth of his films is such that you can spend a long time discussing them. As a gleefully revisionist historical revenge fantasy, Django Unchained feels like a natural follow-up to Inglourious Basterds: It exploits the strengths of exploitation cinema to deliver a fully satisfying entertainment experience, putting power back in the hands of the oppressed and allowing for a graphic depiction of wrongs being righted. It makes full use of a talented cast in order to provide unique moments of cinema. Jamie Foxx is sheer charisma as Django, while Christoph Waltz completely owns his role. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a rare but effective villainous presence, while Kerry Washington singlehandedly raises the emotional stakes of the film. It takes its time in order to build single-scene suspense of a sort seldom seen in more average films. But the exploitation/entertainment label that is so easily affixed to Django Unchained can mask something far more interesting: in fully showing the viciousness of slavery required for vengeance to be so effective, Django Unchained goes farther than most similarly-themed movies in graphically condemning this ugly chapter of American history. It takes an exploitation film like this one to go where more serious films won’t dare, and this one is gleefully unrepentant in allowing the downtrodden to punish their exploiters. When you combine such crowd-pleasing intentions with top-notch filmmaking skill, the result is irresistible and quickly climbs up year’s-best listings. Django Unchained is, warts and slavery and self-indulgence included, a sumptuous cinematic feast and a splendid piece of entertainment. Don’t dare miss it.
(On-demand video, March 2012) There’s little doubt that a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover is a good idea. Hoover was, after all, a dominant figure in twentieth-century America: The man who defined the FBI and led it for nearly 50 years, accumulating damaging dossiers on powerful people along the way. Then there’s the man himself, filled with contradictions and character quirks; stutterer, driven, wed to the idea of law and order, devoted to his mother, not strictly heterosexual… It’s almost a wonder a big-budgeted romanced biography had to wait until 2011 to be released. Still, source material and execution aren’t the same thing, and the big question at the end of J. Edgar is whether this is the best possible film one could have made about Hoover. The script itself dares to question the usual biopic template by indulging in a lot of back-and-forth between Hoover’s early years and the end of his life: At any moment, the film is liable to switch between then and further-then, leaving a chaotic chronology. (That Hoover lies to himself and others makes for a cute third-act plot point, but it also makes chunks of the film less than relevant.) Director Clint Eastwood made the choice to film the film in desaturated colors and dark lighting, creating claustrophobia at nearly every shot. There’s also a bit of intentional blurring between Hoover’s life and the FBI’s early years, which is in-keeping with the character, but also suggests that a better film could have focused on either. Not that the film is a complete miss: Leonardo DiCaprio is quite good as Hoover, playing a character over nearly fifty years and nearly disappearing in it. In the end, J. Edgar is interesting to watch and revealing about its subject, but it’s not particularly involving or gripping. Overlong at two hours and twenty minutes, J. Edgar is a flawed take on a flawed historical figure: Worth a look, but not a film that will remain in mind for long.
(In theaters, July 2010) It’s tough to review Christopher Nolan’s Inception without sounding like a gushing fanboy, but here goes: One of the finest SF movies in years (even so soon after Avatar and District 9), Inception cashes Nolan’s Dark Knight chips and goes on to deliver a masterful cinematic experience that combines big-budget entertainment, thematic depth, weighty characters and splendid action sequences. Good enough for you? While it’s not a perfect film (lengthy snow sequence, insufficient exploitation of dream logic, some weak actors/roles), Inception wipes the floor with other big-budget action films thanks to unusually ambitious goals, pitch-perfect sequences, savvy storytelling and multiple levels of understanding. It’s a measure of how successful it is that much of it appears simple, even obvious. But when the film starts with “it’s a dream within a dream” and works its way to five (maybe six) levels of overlapping reality without losing its audience, it’s hard not to be impressed. Ever since Memento (with high points at The Prestige and The Dark Knight), Nolan has proved himself to be an unusually skilled writer/director with a gift for infusing popular entertainment with weighty thematic consideration. So it is that Inception effortlessly touches upon dream logic, moviemaking shortcuts, personal grief, human mythmaking, memetic madness and subconscious sabotage without seeming to break a sweat, all the while delivering a heist film according to the well-worn conventions of the subgenre. Watching the film is like falling into a pleasant trance, emerging from the experience a lot like the characters coming back to reality. Subtle and not-so-subtle touches add to the experience, such as a deliriously effective shifting-gravity fight sequence, an iconic sequence in which Paris serves as an exposition background, and a frame-perfect last shot that will please both those who want a definitive ending and those who don’t. Brainier viewers will be pleased to watch a film that finally dares viewers to keep up. Science Fiction fans will be particularly satisfied to see a film that uses SF devices for their emotional power while delivering some good old-fashioned sense-of-wonder at interlocking realities. While the actors are a bit hit-and-miss (I’m still not convinced by Leonardo DiCaprio, nor by Ellen Page’s mushy-mouthed lack of affect, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as the picture’s lead action hero), the real star is Nolan as screenwriter and director, because Inception is beautifully controlled from beginning to end, combining the precision of The Prestige with the non-linear storytelling of Memento and the action rhythm of The Dark Knight. Inception is, in a carefully chosen word, amazing, and a shoo-in for year’s end top-10 lists. Expect to see it more than once.
(In theaters, October 2008) Never mind that this adaptation seems to have dispensed with the rationale for the original novel’s title: Even in a pumped-up, slightly dumbed-down Hollywood version, this story has the heft of a solid contemporary thriller, not unlike Syriana even if it doesn’t satisfies as completely. As a look at current American covert intelligence operations, it’s credible and merciless: the lack of compassion is biting, the rivalries are omnipresent and even the so-called good-guys have their less-admirable qualities. It’s slightly too long for its own good, but director Ridley Scott delivers the goods when comes the time to deliver the showcase sequences: There’s a jeep/helicopter chase early in the film that makes little tactical sense, yet crackles with energy. Throughout, we’re treated with superb cinematography and capable acting: While the spotlights will go to a scruffier-than-ever Leonardo DiCaprio and a rotund Russel Crowe, two of the film’s most remarkable performers, in entirely different registers, are an unflappable Mark Strong as a jordanian spymaster and an irresistible Golshifteh Farahani as an Iranian nurse stuck in the middle of an espionage plot. The best part of the film is how it’s absorbed like a good novel, watching the pieces set up and running in different directions. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s pretty good at what it tries to do, and that’s already not bad.
(In theaters, December 2004) It’s always a pleasure to see Martin Scorsese at work again, and he does much to please both fans and general audiences with Howard Hughes biography The Aviator. Leonardo DiCaprio may not be such a good casting choice as Hughes (he look too frail and, later, far too young), but his performance is impressive. Mogul in most sense of the terms, the historical figure of Hughes is unequalled when it comes to the richness of available dramatic material: His love life was a parade of celebrities, his legal battles were legendary and his personal problems were, shall we say, gigantic. The Aviator is seldom as absorbing as when it races through Hugues’ good days as a fascination with Hollywood leads him to a life-long passion for airplanes and then on to the civil aviation business. The script has its weaknesses, but they’re often paved over by a Casino-strength Scorsese ably assisted by top-notch editing. The Aviator runs into repetitive sequences later on, as Hugues’ descent in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders gets the better of a grander-than-life character. Many sequences then run too long, and keep on making a point long after which it’s been understood. (Ironically, the film focuses too much on Hughes’ disorders to give a more complete picture of his personality as a businessman, a playboy and an inventor: I wonder if it hadn’t been better to stick to the accepted chronology of Hughes’ life, in which his worst OCD episodes developed much later in life) Still, The Aviator still leaves an impression of superior film-making. Blame Cate Blanchett, whose dynamite interpretation of Katharine Hepburn deserves both an Oscar and a separate biopic of its own. (Kate Beckinsale’s Ava Gardner is also quite good, but Gwen Stephani is over-hyped as Jean Harlow) Blame the seamless visual effects. Blame the Beverly Hills crash sequence, itself a spectacular action scene. Blame the lavish production. But perhaps best of all, blame a director who understands how to portray a character who finds deep joy while flying in a film titled, indeed, The Aviator.