(On TV, February 2019) I’m an enthusiastic and forgiving audience for stories about writers, so it was natural that I’d eventually gravitate to The Rewrite even years after its release. Focused on a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who takes a teacher’s job in a northeastern university, The Rewrite is, at its best, an entertaining trifle of a comedy/drama with a few pointed jokes at Hollywood, academia and those who make “being a writer” too big a part of their identity. It’s actually the kind of story that begs to be a novel more than a movie, but I’m not about to complain given that it features the ever-likable Hugh Grant in the main role, and my perennial movie-crush Marisa Tomei. A strong supporting cast (J. K. Simmons! Bella Heathcote in a substantial role! Allison Janney!) helps the film get rolling and remain likable throughout. (Well, likable despite the unlikable character played by likable Hugh Grant. It’s that kind of film.) The plot itself is serviceably in thrall to the usual rom-com tropes, albeit with a bit of a harder edge than usual in terms of character growth. The clash of culture between Hollywood and Academia is amusing in its own right, and it feels as if the lead character does earn his happy ending along the way. The Rewrite is nowhere near an essential movie, but it’s likable enough to be worth a look for anyone interested in its lead actors or subject matter. I had a good-enough time watching it.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) Like most, I was very skeptical of yet another attempt to reboot the Spider-Man series. Only the idea that Marvel Studio was the creative force behind Spider-Man: Homecoming (and the affirmation that the film would fit within the MCU) kept me hopeful. As it happens, this new integrated take on the character is completely successful. Indeed coming back home to the character’s spiritual and physical origins, Homecoming manages a fresh take on an overexposed character, seamlessly blending him with the rest of the superhero universe and also taking on the Marvel house style honed to perfection over the past ten years. While I liked Andree Garfield a lot as Spider-Man, Tom Holland brings the required wide-eyed naiveté to the character, making the relationship with father-surrogate Tony Stark even more interesting. Strong action sequences and a credible villain (leading to an honestly surprising moment midway through the film where Peter Parker and Spider-Man’s identities come crashing together) do much to make the film fun, but so do the de-rigueur touches of humour and self-conscious goofiness. By choosing to depict a looser, funnier, younger Spider-Man, the MCU creative team has found a terrific antidote to the increasingly dour direction the character was taking, and the result is irresistibly fun. The integration even works at the story level, as the film deals with the fallout of having alien invasions and superheroes running around; the MCU is maturing nicely as it grows older. Veteran actors such as Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei and Michael Keaton are used expertly to ground the film, while among the high-school crowd, Zendaya is remarkable despite having nearly nothing to do (at least until the sequel.) Homecoming adds up to a surprisingly entertaining movie, even more so given the low expectations. Once again, Marvel Studio defies the odds.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2017) I recall seeing The Paper on its opening week, happy (as a former high-school paper editor) to see a film where newspapermen were heroes. I kept a good memory of the result, but I was curious to see if it held up two decades later. Fortunately, The Paper remains almost a definitive statement on 1990s city journalism. Tightly compressed in not much more than 24 hours of action, The Paper follows a hectic day in the life of a newspaper editor juggling work, family and citywide tensions. Directed with a lot of nervous energy by Ron Howard, The Paper can boast of an astonishing cast. Other than a top-form Michael Keaton as a harried news editor, there’s Robert Duvall as a grizzled senior editor, Glenn Close as something of an antagonist, Marisa Tomei as a pregnant journalist desperate for a last bit of newsroom action, Randy Quaid as a rough-and-tough journalist … and so on, all the way to two of my favourite character actresses, Roma Maffia and Siobhan Fallon, in small roles. The dense and taut script by the Koepp brothers offers a fascinating glimpse at the inner working of a nineties NYC newspaper, bolstered by astonishing set design: That newsroom is a thing of beauty as the camera flies by and catches glimpses of dozens of other subplots running along the edges of the screen. You may even be reminded of how things used to work before the rise of the 24-hour Internet-fuelled news cycle. (Of all the things that the Internet has killed, “Stop the presses!” is an under-appreciated loss.) The Paper is one of those solid, satisfying movies that don’t really revolutionize anything, but happen to execute their premise as well as they could, and ends up being a reference in time. I’m sad to report that by 2017, The Paper seems to have been largely forgotten—while I caught it on Cable TV, it rarely comes up in discussions, has a scant IMDB following, and is rarely mentioned while discussing the careers of the players involved. Too bad—with luck, it will endure as the kind of film you’re happy to discover by yourself.
(On DVD, January 2017) As far as mean and slightly seedy crime dramas go, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead hits most of the right notes. Featuring great performances (most notably from an often-naked Marisa Tomei, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, unfortunately playing a heroin addict) and a script that ping-pongs in time, this is the kind of low-stake but well-executed crime drama that doesn’t set the box office on fire but should feature in every moviegoer’s diet. (And I say this having missed the movie in theatres, only to catching a decade later on DVD.) The film does get grim as the consequences of “a simple theft” go awry in increasingly dramatic ways. By the end of the movie, you can expect a few deaths, a family torn apart and no one feeling particularly happy about the whole thing. Nonetheless, in the hands of veteran director Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead steadily moves forward despite a slightly too long running time, and has a few surprises in store until the end. Not bad, even though I’d be surprised if viewers will be able to recall much of the plot weeks after seeing the film.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) At the time of Anger Management’s release, there was something a bit clever in casting Adam Sandler in the role of a meek man who is led by circumstances into assuming his innate aggression: Early-career Sandler exemplified a violent man-child comic persona, so much of Anger Management is spent waiting for the inevitable explosions. (After 2002’s Mr. Deeds, his persona would be softened to a gentler good-guy one.) To see him paired off with Jack Nicholson (who has spent much of his late career perfecting abrasive characters) is a further wonder. And, at times, Anger Management works: there are funny set-pieces, many showcase moments for Nicholson’s ability to be both unpleasant and compelling and Sandler navigates a fine edge between his early aggressive persona and his latter-day amiable everyday-man. Marisa Tomei is likable in a somewhat generic role, with fun performance in smaller roles from Luis Guzman, John Turturro, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. (There are also more than a few celebrity cameos, as is often the case in Happy Madison-produced movies.) Where Anger Management gets in a bit of a mess, however, is in its messy collage of absurd contrivances, late-revealed conspiracy, attempts to link back to a childhood prologue and ultimate claim to be about something else than simple anger management. The last few minutes are a series of “Really? Really??” that don’t add much to the film, especially when its reason for existing is simply seeing Sandler face off with Nicholson –if the film’s poster could get that right, then why didn’t the script? Of course, Adam Sandler films aren’t exactly known for tight scripts and focused scenes – sometimes, it’s best to just enjoy the comic set-pieces and ignore the attempts at making it all mean something at the end.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) There’s something admirable in trying to deliver a foreign political thriller on a low budget and that’s exactly what Ruba Nadda attempt with Inescapable, as a Canadian man goes back to his native Syria in order to find his missing adult daughter. It soon turns out that she was there in order to investigate her father’s past, and that he had made a number of enemies before leaving. Alexander Siddig stars as a man with a tumultuous past who has to get back in the covert operations mindset in order to find and free his daughter. The surprise here is Marisa Tomei, surprisingly convincing as an aging Syrian woman bitterly helping her ex-fiancée against the multiple enemies he still has in Damascus. Inescapable has a number of interesting elements, but it may not have the means to make them work effectively: despite the tangled web of allegiances and secrets shared by the film’s characters, the film takes forever to heat up, and ends without a satisfying coda. For all of the film’s accomplishment in evoking a spy thriller set in Syria (despite being filmed in South Africa with Canadian money), Inescapable is a bit too bland to be interesting as more than a home-grown curiosity. The action sequences are filmed without particular flair, and the stand-offs don’t have enough energy to resonate. Some secrets look far-fetched (how long did the daughter spend with the diplomat?) while others don’t have much of an impact. There’s little tension to the proceedings –it’s tough to even believe that the daughter is in danger, and the ending seems wrapped in mystery more than precipitated by the protagonist’s actions. As much as world-aware Canadian efforts such as this one are to be applauded on general principle, Inescapable’s execution is a bit too ordinary to warrant much attention.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the strength of their cast, so it’s a relief to see that nearly everyone headlining Crazy, Stupid, Love is at the top of their game. Steve Carell anchors the cast as a recently-separated middle-aged man seeking lifestyle counsel from a capable womanizer, but he’s surrounded by more great performances by a variety of known names in a variety of large-and-small roles, from Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon and Ryan Gosling, alongside newer names such as Jonah Bobo and Analeigh Tipton. Veterans Tomei and Bacon are hilarious to watch in small but effective roles, but Gosling is particularly noteworthy, charming his way through a character that could have been immensely repellent in less-capable hands. After focusing on the protagonist’s attempt to recapture some of his male seductive powers, Crazy, Stupid, Love soon expands into a mosaic of romantic subplots, occasionally palming a few cards in order to deliver a few almost-cheap twists along the way. No matter, though: it leads to a relatively pleasant conclusion despite the overused (but subverted) graduation-speech plot device. Such genre-awareness is a crucial component of Crazy, Stupid, Love’s moment-to-moment interest: Beyond the well-used soundtrack (including a striking usage of Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La”), the sharp dialogue and the snappy direction, Crazy, Stupid, Love is just a joy to watch: so much so that even the tangled subplots and tortured twists seem cute rather than annoying. And that, one could argue, is a measure of the film’s success.
(In theatres, April 2011) There’s been a dearth of courtroom drama over the past few years, and The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t just a good return to the form, it’s about as good an adaption of Michael Connelly’s original novel as fans could have hoped for. As with most readers of the book learning about the film’s casting, I wasn’t sold on Matthew McConaughey as protagonist-lawyer Mickey Haller: I had always envisioned Haller as more mature and cynical than McConaughey’s typical romantic-comedy laid-back persona. So it’s a surprise to see him return to serious drama as an older, wiser, far worldlier presence, fully comfortable in the role of a professional defence lawyer operating from his chauffeur-driven car. Brad Furman’s direction fully embraces the California-noir style of the novel, Los Angeles’ broad avenues offering as many dangers as tiny back-streets. The cinematography is bright, sunny, energetic and compelling. Rounding up the main cast are good supporting performances by Ryan Phillippe (detestable as always), Marisa Tomei and William H. Macy. While the twists and turns of the plotting are familiar, they’re well-handled and make up for a refreshing legal drama that proves that execution is often more important than fresh concepts. The Lincoln Lawyer may be less reflective about the role of defence lawyers than the book, but it still delivers enough legal manoeuvres to keep things interesting. For some, it may be the start of a franchise (there are now three further Haller adventures on the shelves); for most, though, it’s a solid, well-paced, well-made crime drama with a cynical smirk: Exactly the kind of film that’s always welcome.