(On TV, June 2019) There is a built-in perversion of expectations in August: Osage County that is as provocative as it is frustrating. If you picture a theatrical play (or a movie) about a dysfunctional family, you already have a rough outline of how it’s going to be structured already pre-assembled in your head. The family will get together. They will exhibit the aberrant traits that make them dysfunctional. There will be shouting. Some people are likely to be punished. But as the story advances, the family will reunite, and those most sympathetic characters will get back together toward the end, having resolved some of their difficulties and being ready to make even further progress going forward. Well, take those comfortable preconceptions and throw them away, because August: Osage County ultimately goes in a very different direction, shattering family bonds until we’re left with individuals. I had been curious about this film ever since watching the uncompromising Killer Joe—both are well-regarded movies adapted by Tracy Letts from his own plays, and this one featured an ensemble cast of capable actors. Julia Roberts goes toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep, and some unusual choices such as Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch are to be found elsewhere in the cast. This is definitely an actor’s film, guided along with the pen of a professional playwright. As such, be ready for meaty dialogue, explosive revelations, off-kilter plot development and a merciless conclusion as a family crisis featuring a disappeared patriarch brings people home and detonates repressed fault lines in their relationships. It’s often very darkly funny, with extreme actions and language (Roberts hasn’t sworn as much on-screen since Mystic Pizza). While I enjoyed much of the film on a word-for-word basis, the ending did not sit right with me for a while—until I played around with it and realize how much it upended traditional expectations about how that kind of movie is supposed to go. But as I re-read my review a few weeks after watching the film, I’m somewhat more sympathetic toward what it manages to achieve, and honestly think that being forewarned is being better prepared to appreciate it when it comes. Do not expect a final weepy get-together—August: Osage County isn’t that kind of film.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2019) Dark comedies are a tricky exercise in tone, and She-Devil doesn’t quite manage to create the necessary balance to be completely successful. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t worth seeing for other reasons, namely having Roseanne Barr as a cheated-upon housewife taking revenge over a wealthy romance novelist played by none other than Meryl Streep. That’s a matchup for the ages, and while Barr carries the film on her shoulders, Streep certainly looks like she’s having fun as the Other Woman in a then-rare comedy role for her. But while the concept of She-Devil has potential, the execution can be off—nearly everyone in the film is a terrible person, and we get the sense that we’re supposed to cheer for the protagonist solely because she’s the protagonist—that being cheated upon is the thing we should be sympathizing with, rather than the person having likable qualities of their own. Otherwise, the film holds up decently well: the fashions are very 1980s, but the rest still plays along similar lines today. Not for lack of trying, She-Devil doesn’t quite get the mixture right … but it’s still watchable with low expectations.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) There’s quite a bit of metafictional context about Postcards from the Edge that make it a fascinating movie for those steeped in Hollywood history. For one thing, it’s not just a movie about a Hollywood actress with addiction issues trying to get back on the right path despite the domineering influence of her mother—it’s also adapted from an autobiographical novel from Carrie Fisher that many saw as a roman-à-clef about her relationship with her own mother Debbie Reynolds. (Fisher herself maintained that it was a novel for a reason, but there are substantial differences between the inward-driven, stylistically experimental novel and the far more conventional film whose script she adapted herself.) Taking all of this rich material and giving it to seasoned actors’ director Mike Nichols seems like a natural fit, even more so when he’s able to count on an impressive gallery of capable actors, staring with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in the central mother/daughter roles. I don’t particularly like MacLaine in general, but she’s quite good here and Streep has seldom been as funny as in this role. The Hollywood satire circa 1990 is likely to remain more interesting than the familiar dramatic material, but there’s enough here for everyone—including musical numbers. Postcards from the Edge is almost a piece of Hollywood history the more you know about the business and the history, but it’s strong enough to be interesting even to casual viewers.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) I read the original novel years ago but I can’t recall much about it other than some metafictional tricks and multiple endings. So when I saw The French Lieutenant’s Woman pop up on the TV schedule, promising a story about a historical couple and the actors playing them in a movie, I was definitely interested. The best thing about the film is how it takes some metafictional ideas from the book (which sought to be “novel” in the way it presented and commented upon the story) and spin them in an original film-appropriate direction. Here we have married actors having an affair while shooting a movie about a complex Victorian-era romance. It sounds interesting … but the execution is underwhelming. The links between the two parallel plots aren’t particularly strong, and the modern-day romance peters out in an undignified fashion, which would be disappointing only if we actually cared for it. Meryl Streep does look surprisingly good in curls or with bangs (the similarities with Joan Cusack in the later case are striking), while Jeremy Irons does himself no favour with a moustache. The historical plot feels more interesting than the modern one, so it feels frustrating that there aren’t more resonances between the two, or that the film gets the good idea of transforming literary metafictional devices into cinematographic ways to comment upon the story … but then does nothing spectacular with that idea. In other words, there is less to The French Lieutenant’s Woman than expected, and I don’t think that the film manages to come up to its own expectations in terms of the story. Too bad; because there’s a really good kernel of an idea here.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) There’s something quietly amazing in how Steven Spielberg, now that he has mastered the filmic form, can go from wide-screen spectacle to a far more restrained drama and deliver said smaller movie in the time it takes for the bigger movie to complete post-production. As the story goes, Spielberg read The Post’s script in February 2017, started shooting in May, wrapped up editing in November and the film made it to theatres in time for the December Oscar season—all the while blockbuster Ready Player One underwent post-production and release. That’s ludicrously fast, but you can understand the urgency while watching the film. After all, The Post is a full-throated defence of the power of a free and independent press unafraid to aim for the biggest targets—something very much needed considering the authoritarian behaviour of the current American administration. It specifically tackles the story of the Pentagon Papers, and specifically the decision of The Washington Post to publish from the papers at a time when it wasn’t clear if this was an illegal act. You know how it’s going to end, but the script wisely focuses on then-new owner Katharine Graham as she wrestles with the decision to publish, balancing legal and business exposure with journalistic duty. With Meryl Streep playing Graham and Tom Hanks as the legendary Ben Bradlee, Spielberg can rely on screen legends to deliver the drama, and the film is never quite as good as when it features characters batting around big ideas as they relate to their current situation. It’s an inspiring film, perhaps a bit too rearranged to suit dramatic requirements but not outrageously so. Spielberg’s direction remains satisfying even when there are no car chases, supernatural creatures or fantastic landscapes to behold—this is one of his tight dramatic films that would have been released straight to video had it not featured his producing and directing skills. The Post also explicitly positions itself as a prequel to All the President’s Men and generally sustains the scrutiny created by the association. I’d call it essential viewing in these troubled, often truth-alternative times, but I fear that the only people willing to watch the film are those already convinced of its righteousness.
(In French, On TV, July 2017) It turns out that there’s more to Sophie’s Choice than the titular choice made famous by thirty-five years of pop culture: In addition to the Nazi concentration camp drama, there’s a 1947 Brooklyn twisted love triangle featuring a nice-guy writer, damaged Sophie and a volatile schizophrenic. Alas, for audiences without patience, there isn’t much more to Sophie’s Choice than that—at nearly two hours and a half, the movie tests viewers used to a faster pace. It does help that Meryl Streep’s performance is a tour de force, and that she’s able to hit the various emotions asked of the role. (Having watched the film in French, I didn’t get the vocal part of her performance, but the almost ridiculously accented translation suggests that there was a lot of it.) Meanwhile, Kevin Kline (in a debut performance that has little to do with his latter screen persona) is surprisingly disturbing as a character capable of the worst. To contemporary audiences, Sophie’s Choice suffers in two ways: The pacing is far too slow for such a familiar story, and it all leads to a choice that has been spoiled in various ways since 1982. The second isn’t that big of a problem—good movies don’t hinge on twist endings or big revelations—but the first one definitely is: at times, I was struck by the thought that much of the film’s plot would be a sub-plot in a more ambitious film or TV series. See Sophie’s Choice for Streep’s Academy Award-winning performance, but otherwise steel yourself for a dull watch.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Nearly forty years later, there are things about divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer that have aged poorly, but the film itself does still carry a good chunk of its original impact. While single dads are more commonplace nowadays, the pain of divorce proceedings remains portrayed with heart-wrenching effect. Dustin Hoffman is good as an advertising executive suddenly asked to be a single dad after his wife leaves abruptly—the sequence in which he seeks a job on Christmas Eve remains a highlight of the film. Meryl Streep doesn’t have the most sympathetic of roles as the disappearing wife, but she’s amazing in her own ways. The script does appear to cheat in its final moments (and it does come really close to misogyny in portraying Streep’s character—fortunately, she gets a monologue to explain herself), adding even more drama to the entire film. The portrayal of late-seventies New York City is fascinating in itself, and much of the film still plays effectively even today. What doesn’t quite play so well is the reactionary content—while there’s a conscious attempt here to tips the scales and argue in favour of fatherhood, it seems really blunt by today’s standards. Kramer vs. Kramer hasn’t become a more sympathetic movie along the way, though, so viewers may want to steel themselves for an unpleasant experience.
(On TV, May 2017) No, no, no, I will not have anyone rehabilitate, humanize or soften Margaret Thatcher. I won’t excuse the hardline regressive policies that set such a bad example in the eighties. But such is the bet placed by The Iron Lady, a biographical picture that uses Thatcher’s dementia-afflicted last few years as a springboard through which to fast-forward through her career, battling sexism and lesser minds along the way. To be fair, The Iron Lady isn’t always boring as it frames Thatcher’s career as flashbacks through an afflicting episode of dementia. Nor is Meryl Streep anything less than spectacular as Thatcher. Jim Broadbent is also quite amusing as an imaginary character who probably knows he’s imaginary. (Alas, this last sentence may cause more curiosity in the film than I’d like.) There’s also something quietly interesting in showing an “iron lady” as a frail old woman whose mind is fast slipping away. But even then, The Iron Lady can be a trying viewing experience for two big reasons. The first being that an episodic collection of scenes hitting the high points of a life doesn’t necessarily amount to a coherent narrative—the second being that for all of the daring in showing Thatcher as a doddering old woman, the film is firmly sympathetic to its subject, eliding or minimizing the lengthy list of valid complaints against her and her time in power. Margaret is always right, everyone else is a fool—and her resignation is forced by small intellects rather than a reflection that she’d gone on too long and too far. So there you go: The Iron Lady as a mirror of viewers’ feeling about a divisive historical character. The film itself is too flat to change anyone’s mind on the topic.
(On TV, April 2017) I’m usually pretty good about compartmentalizing an artist and an artist’s work—something that has occasionally caused me a few retroactive pangs of guilt, especially in considering Roman Polanski’s work. Most of the time, those little bits of disapproval aren’t enough to affect me: I’ve got my list of good Woody Allen movies despite being aghast at his personal life. But for all of Manhattan’s reputation as one of Allen’s best, I understandably had a really hard time separating the movie (in which he gets romantically involved with a high-school girl) from Allen’s personal life (in which he got romantically involved with not one, but at least two high-school-age girls). As much as I tried getting into the rhythm and sensibilities of Manhattan, the film itself couldn’t stop getting me from thinking, “No, Woody Allen, no!” every time Allen and Mariel Hemingway (who, for all of the problematic aspects of her character, is terrific in the role) snuggled on-screen. So if I sound less than enthusiastic about Manhattan, keep thinking, “42-year-old guy writing a role in which he’s dating a 17-year-old girl”). Fortunately, there are other things to talk about in talking about Manhattan. The black-and-while cinematography is exceptional, some of the one-liners are very funny, the portrait of complicated romances is stronger than the usual pap that passes for romantic comedies, Diane Keaton is fantastic and the portrait of intellectual New Yorkers has a strong credibility to it. Oh, and Meryl Streep shows up for a handful of devastating scenes. Still, I was never completely convinced by Manhattan’s humour or its romance(s). Much as I appreciate the achievements of the film, I can’t quite bring myself to like it. You can credit Woody Allen for both reactions.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) A big-budget dramatic romance set in Africa, featuring two megastars and a credible historical recreation without the tiniest bit of genre elements? No, they don’t make them like this anymore. Out of Africa is more than thirty years old and it often feels even older, what with its languid pacing, lush location shooting, and its young-looking Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Director Sydney Pollack clearly understand the film he’s trying to make, and the African locations are impressive in their own right. Streep is terrific in an Oscar-winning performance, Redford tempers his natural charm with a not-entirely admirable character and the complex story is a cut above the formulaic notion of “romance” that has dominated the genre over the past decades. (It helps that it adapted from a book.) While I’m not sure it’s possible to be enthusiastic about Out of Africa nowadays, it’s not that hard to understand why it swept the Academy Awards that year: This is big-budget respectable filmmaking in the classical mould. A modern version would be about 20 minutes shorter, but then again a modern version would be rewritten (for better or worse) by Nicholas Spark, make extensive use of CGI, probably feature a biplane/car chase and co-star Vanessa Hudgens and Channing Tatum (again, for better or worse). Perhaps it’s best if they don’t make them like this anymore.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I rarely think that movies are worth seeing solely for acting talent, but Doubt is an obvious exception, even more so now than when it was released. Meryl Streep is a national treasure, of course, and Viola Davis has always been a solid performer, but now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone and that Amy Adams has become a megastar, Doubt looks dangerously top-heavy with an incredibly strong cast. As befits a play brought to the screen (director John Patrick Shanley adapting his own award-winning work), the performers are the key to a dialogue-heavy drama. Every four of the leads got Oscar nominations, even Davis for a mere two scenes. Dealing with troubling allegations of abuses and what happens when beliefs (in God, in goodness, in guilt) clash together, Doubt is a drama in the purest sense, uncluttered by physicality or artifices—it could be a radio play if it tried. Visually, the film blandly re-creates a 1960s Catholic school, but the point is elsewhere. It’s certainly not an action film, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a thriller when it reaches fever pitch and truly sparks with dramatic conflict. The last line is merciless in offering no comfort, moral support or resolution. This is not a film that ends as much as it lingers.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) Comedy from drama is tough, but drama from comedy is even tougher. Someone deluded about the fact that she’s singing badly is prime comic material when it’s about a fictional character, but it can feel like punching down if the subject is a real person. Hence Florence Foster Jenkins’ modest success in discussing its titular character, a 1920s New York socialite who convinced herself of her singing abilities (up to an album and a concert at Carnegie Hall) despite, well, not being very good at it. How do you approach a subject like that? By going past the jokes and taking a look at the character. Our viewpoint character here isn’t Jenkins as much as her husband in an unusual marriage, seeing her delusions in a more objective frame of mind. Florence Foster Jenkins manages to be funny without being cruel to its lead character, and while Meryl Streep brings her usual gravitas to the role, the script deftly finds a balance between the comedy in her actions and the drama of understanding what moves her. Hugh Grant is suitably sympathetic as her husband, and nicely shows how well he’s aging into more interesting roles beyond the foppish goof persona he maintained for most of his career. In other smaller roles, Simon Helberg is surprisingly good as a pianist thrown into the madness, while Nina Arianda steals two scenes as a socialite who can’t help but say what’s on her mind. The depiction of a slice of 1920s New York society also has its appeal. While the result isn’t much more than the usual Oscar-baiting biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins has the advantage of being funnier, quirkier and even perhaps more resonant because of it.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, October 2016) I saw The Deer Hunter decades ago, but couldn’t remember much other than the Russian roulette sequences. Watching it again reminded me why. As much as there’s a lot to like in the story of blue-collar workers being irremediably damaged by their Vietnam experience, the film is just too long and meandering to be as effective as it could be. The interminable wedding sequence springs to mind as the worst culprit here (boo, director Michael Cimino, boo) although there’s enough fluff elsewhere in the film to make the running time balloon even higher. At least the film is blessed with a few terrific performance, the best being a very young Robert de Niro as a quiet hunter, an equally young Christopher Walken as the one who goes crazy, and Meryl Streep as the object of their affection. Great sequences also fill the movie, but the connective material between them kills much of the film’s urgency, and takes away from the relatively straightforward plotting. The Deer Hunter’s then-daring portrait of soldiers as real people without glorifying war heroics doesn’t come across as clearly now, given the steps taken to humanize warriors in later movies. A classic for a good reason, The Deer Hunter is not a bad piece of work—although its emotional impact is bound to vary widely.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) I remember seeing bits and pieces of Death Becomes Her before (especially the special effects work) but not the entire thing and having watched it, I can only conclude that Hollywood’s become far more risk-averse in the past twenty-five years because … wow, this is a weird film. It blends comedy with a fair bit of understated horror, hops viewpoints between protagonists, plays with supernatural tropes and seems delighted in deglamorizing its stars. Seeing Bruce Willis play a downtrodden surgeon is remarkable not only because he’s relatively animated in the role, but because it’s the kind of self-deprecating role he’d never play any more. Goldie Hawn (occasionally in a fat suit) and Meryl Streep (gamely going to lowbrow physical comedy) also play against persona, carefully directed by Robert Zemeckis with the kind of silliness that seems absent from the last two decades of his work. What’s definitely within his filmography is the film’s use of special effects for storytelling purpose: While dated, the work still carries a certain charge even today, and it’s not a surprise to find out that it won the Special Effects Oscar back in 1993. Beyond effects, Death Becomes Her does have a bit of beauty/age thematic depth to it, although I probably would feel better about a clash between aging actresses had the script been better at portraying the female gaze: At times, the “ha-ha, they’re so vain!” gags can feel mean-spirited and missing the point of the theme. But it’s definitely a weird film, also so much so that it’s to be discovered and savoured. It takes chances, occasionally missteps and often dares to indulge in risk-taking humour. The result may not be entirely successful, but it’s gleefully audacious and remains its own creation, without giving the impression of being photocopied from the Hollywood mainstream. Worth a look, if only as a reminder of the kind of stuff that Hollywood won’t dare touch these days at it chases predictable results.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) I only saw Ricki and the Flash because of “Meryl Streep as an aging rocker” and after watching the film, I can confirm that “Meryl Streep as an aging rocker” is pretty much the only reason you need. Here, Streep plays an older woman who has sacrificed everything (including a marriage and three children) to music. Her nights playing at a local bar may still be glamorous, but her days as a cashier aren’t. Things start to change when she finds herself drawn to reconciliation after her daughter goes through a suicidal depression. Much family comedy/drama ensues, with Kevin Kline playing back-up as her ex-husband. While Ricki and the Flash is written by Diablo Cody, there’s little here to wow anyone: Much of the film seems tepid, chugging along to a halfway-celebratory conclusion. There are some pacing issues, most notably in the last half-hour where the film slows rather than pick up to a conclusion. Streep remains the film’s best asset throughout, picking up a guitar and credibly signing in-between an unusually sympathetic of a woman who may or may not have screwed up her life. At least she can still sing and carry a tune, which is what the curiously pat ending stops at. Ricki and the Flash is obviously aimed at a particular public, meaning that anyone who falls out of it is likely to find it a bit lengthy and flat. Streep’s pretty good, though, if that hasn’t been said enough already.