(On Cable TV, October 2017) Of all the things I didn’t really want to see, a sensitive, almost exculpatory look at celebrity fraudster Bernie Madoff is way up there. (If there was any justice in the world, Madoff should have fuelled a few more years of Occupy Wall Street.) It does take a while for The Wizard of Lies to overcome this prejudice, especially at it seems to spend its first hour explaining how, aw shucks, Madoff kind of, you know, stumbled into massive pyramid schemes as a business model. But, slowly, the movie does get better. It helps that Madoff is played by Robert de Niro (finally acting, for a change) and that capable actors such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Hank Azaria (under the watchful eye of director Barry Levinson) are there to keep up their halves of dialogues. The script struggles under the weight of the accepted biopic standards, allowing itself a few fanciful moments to break the monotony. But The Wizard of Lies hits its strides during its last act, as the weight of Madoff’s criminal acts finally catch up with him well after incarceration. His name now synonymous with fraud, his wife leaves him to rot in jail and his son commits suicide. At more than two hours, this made-for HBO film is a modest success but it may not be as good as it could have been. Madoff’s warm portrayal can be infuriating, but the film does lack a bit of extra energy, especially at first, to make it compulsively watchable. Still, it’s a fairly worthwhile entry in HBO Films’ long list of biopics … and it deserved its Emmy nominations.
(In French, On TV, October 2017) There is, without question, a lot of fun to be had watching The Witches of Eastwick on a basic level, as three likable women are seduced by the devil incarnate, only to take revenge. Jack Nicholson playing the Devil is as perfect a piece of casting as you can imagine, and there’s no denying the combined sex-appeal of Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon as the titular coven. The film does have a good go at satirizing various relationship conventions (What do Women Want? Indeed) before predictably moving toward a female empowerment finale. But therein lies the rub: There was no other way to finish the film, and it kind of goes wrong in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. I would feel far better if a woman had written the screenplay, because the male gaze (and male privilege) shown here is problematic. I’m not sure that all three women being ga-ga over babies of a dubious father makes sense. (It makes even less sense to consider that one of the female characters already has half a dozen children that practically never show up during the movie—where are they and why isn’t she spending time with them???) In some way, The Witches of Eastwick is an artifact of a time that is hopefully past—a dumb producer’s (i.e.: Jon Peters) brute-force vision of something that should be far more delicately handled. The Witches of Eastwick is funny and sexy, but it’s a guilty fun and an even guiltier sexiness. It doesn’t help that the script seems patched-up at times. The cherry pit-vomiting sequences are just gross and take away from the generally amiable remainder of the picture. (Then again, this is directed by George Miller, who’s made a career to strange tonal shifts) But this was 1987 and we’re now thirty years later—I’d be game for a less problematic remake, but I’m not sure who could step up to Nicholson’s performance.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) Significantly darker and grimmer than its 1989 predecessor, Batman Returns is at once more frustrating than Batman while being better in some regards. Director Tim Burton is back and obviously has more confidence in his ability to use the character’s mythology to serve his own pet obsessions. Adding two villains works well, although Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman is far more interesting than Danny DeVito’s Penguin. While Batman had a straightforward hero-versus-villain structure, this sequel mixes the cards a bit with additional villains and allies, gets going into heavier themes of abandonment and social validation (Daniel Waters wrote the script!), and seems far more comfortable in its cinematography than the previous film. Alas, some moments don’t work as well: At least twice (the nose bite, the death of the beauty queen, arguably the sad conclusion), the film gets significantly too dark for its own good and wastes some of the viewer’s best intentions. Some rough CGI work is fascinating, but decisively date the film. Still, the set design is arresting, the film moves briskly from one plot point to another, offering a few high points (such as the Masquerade Ball) and smaller rewards from beginning to end. Christopher Walken has a great villainous role, while Michael Keaton remains better than more people remember at Batman/Bruce Wayne. In context, it would take another twelve years (and a superhero wave of movies kicked off by 2000’s X-Men) until Batman got any better on the big screen. Hey, I remember seeing Batman Returns in theatres with friends, back when I actually started going to the movies (which, given that the nearest theatre was twenty kilometres away, was a significant endeavour for a small-town teenager). I can still echo the TV/radio ads: “The Bat, the Cat, The Penguin!”
(On TV, February 2015) Am I allowed to say that I really disliked I Am Sam? It’s not as if I’m going to deny its strengths: it’s got an Oscar-calibre performance by Sean Penn at its heart, as he portrays a mentally-challenged man caring for a daughter who’s becoming perceptibly smarter than him. Legal complications ensue. Having seen Penn at work elsewhere, this is a fantastic chameleon-like performance that rings true to the character being portrayed. But it’s in service of a film that’s unabashedly manipulative, even as it presents a heart-breaking premise with no satisfying way out. It doesn’t help that the film is very, very long and wallows in the misery it creates. Michelle Pfeiffer brings some interest back in the film when she enters it as a fire-breathing high-powered lawyer, but she’s soon subdued in mawkish sentiments and character development. To his credit, writer/director Jesse Nelson knows exactly what kind of film she’s making, and she hits her own targets with a decent amount of skill. It’s really my fault that I wasn’t receptive to the material, and increasingly antsy to make it sane to the end credits. I did a considerable amount of writing during I Am Sam, which at least helped me deal with my reviews backlog.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Luc Besson’s work over the past dozen years has been frustratingly uneven, so even a run-of-the-mill action comedy can seem like good news. Co-written and directed by Besson, The Family is about an American mob family being relocalized in deep France and dealing with the local elements before facing down retribution from their past. Featuring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones for instant characterization (neither of the three in any way push beyond their usual screen persona, although with De Niro we’re used to the parody aspect), The Family moves along quickly and without a fuss, its comedy occasionally interrupted with a few action sequences. On paper, it shouldn’t work all that well: The paper-thin justification for the premise is weak, the American characters are borderline sociopaths and the third act hinges on a coincidence so massive that the film spends a solid three minutes establishing it. That it does work is a testimony to the talent of the actors, the skill of the director and the unassuming lack of pretension for the entire film. It ends a bit abruptly and leaves many subplots dangling, but The Family seems like a return to form for Besson: Not only is he directing after repeatedly announcing his retirement, but many of his most unpleasant writing tics seem to have been swept under the rug for once. The result is good enough for a few dark laughs.
(On-demand video, October 2012) Director Tim Burton’s artistic sensibilities are almost always interesting, but that doesn’t always translate in purely enjoyable films. I had issues with his latest Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland, but Dark Shadows renews with a strong sense of fun, readapting a long-running supernatural soap opera into a scattershot blend of character comedy, gothic visuals and straightforward plotting. Johnny Depp turns in another quirky performance as a vampire protagonist, indulging in his usual affectations to create a rather sympathetic blood-sucking hero abruptly thrust from 1760 to 1972. He is ably surrounded by a good cast, most notably Michelle Pfeiffer as the head of the modern family in need of help by the protagonist. The adaptation’s 1972 setting is good for a good soundtrack, cheap (but funny) jokes and knowing nostalgia. (If I wasn’t pressed for time, I’d have something to say about how setting a film thirty years in the past allows context legibility, as we think we know all about 1972 in ways that 2012 still feels very strange and to-be-determined.) Dark Shadows works in bits and pieces, the overarching plot never as interesting as the film’s various moments. The fish-out-of-time aspect is tolerable despite its overused nature, the special effects aren’t bad, there are some surprisingly racy/violent moments and the fantastic is well-integrated with the comic (some of the best gags coming from a lack of reverence toward supernatural tropes.) Where Dark Shadows doesn’t work as well is in trying to present a consistent viewing experience: the straightforward plotting is a bit dull, but the tone of the film keeps going back and forth between avowed camp, earned gothic drama or crowd-pleasing fantastic adventure. It’s not entirely satisfying… but it is fun, and that certainly counts for something after a few dour entries in Burton’s filmography.
(On DVD, February 2011) Subtle, nuanced and character-driven, The Age of Innocence nonetheless never has to struggle to keep our interest. As a piece of American Victoriana, it’s almost endlessly fascinating: the New-York upper-class of 1870 had issues to work through, and director Martin Scorsese lavishly places us in the middle of that society. As a drama of manners, The Age of Innocence carefully establishes the rules than bind the characters, then follow them as they try (or don’t try) to rebel against them. Given that this is a Scorsese picture, both script and direction are self-assured and surprisingly timeless. Even the voiceover, usually a sign of lazy screenwriting, here adds another layer of polish to the film. Production credentials are impeccable, with careful costuming, set design and even split-second glimpses at elaborate dishes. Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as a deeply conflicted man of his time, while Michelle Pfeiffer reminds us of how good she was in her heyday and Winona Rider turns in an underhanded performance as a constantly-underestimated ingénue. It all builds up to a quiet but shattering emotional climax that amply justifies the picture’s sometimes-lazy rhythm. Worth seeing and pondering as one realizes that the protagonist pays for the right crime but for the wrong reasons.