(On Cable TV, October 2017) There’s been a lot of ink and footage about the JFK assassination since 1963, but Jackie manages to find new things to say by focusing on Jackie Kennedy in the wake of the tragedy, from the blood-soaked aftermath in the car to the state funeral days later. It’s both a way to examine the state of the nation in those uncertain days, and a way to put a focus on Jackie Kennedy as a woman reacting to the events from a perspective no one else could imagine. Parts of it play like a ghastly black comedy (such as time it took for her to shower and clean up the gore that had splattered her dress) and other parts as high-stakes drama, with her guiding the nation in mourning. But while this take on the events is interesting in itself, and while Natalie Portman owns the title role, much of Jackie plays in generally unremarkable fashion, like a made-for-TV drama. (Indeed, it was originally conceived for HBO.) Some of the historical re-creation is evocative enough, but much of the film’s visual character lies in recreation and not distinctiveness. Still, it’s a painless-enough history lesson and a take on the topic that gives some much-needed agency to Kennedy beyond simply being a grieving widow. I expected something far duller from Jackie, but the flashes of feistiness given to the lead character do end up making the film much better than expected.
(In French, Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I know I’ve seen Léon at least once twenty-some years ago, but I didn’t remember much more than one or two images for it. Count that as a good thing, because it allowed me to rediscover Léon in most of its glory. It’s not a triumph of plotting, but of execution: writer/director Luc Besson’s a flawed filmmaker, but in Léon has managed to play to his strengths such as action, atmosphere and iconic characters, while minimizing most of his weaknesses like stupid dialogues and tiring anti-establishmentarianism. Well, most of his weaknesses, because if you go down the rabbit hole of the movie’s deleted scenes picturing a romantic relationship between the two lead characters and then match that to Besson’s own personal romantic history you will be screaming, “No, Luc Besson, no!” faster than you’d expect. But moving on: Léon distills a strong but uncomplicated story to a few action set pieces and clever character moments. It’s almost uncluttered (save from some oddities such as the shooting-the-president comic sequence), focuses on its better moments and showcases three great actors: Natalie Portman in her screen debut, Jean Reno in what’s perhaps still his best-known role (luckily, he dubs his own voice in the French version), and Gary Oldman in another great role in a long and varied filmography. The action beats are impeccable, and the atmosphere of a bustling but slightly rotten New York City is fantastic. Léon holds up all right, especially considering how often the teenage-assassin idea has been redone since then.
(On TV, January 2015) It’s hard to watch this romantic comedy about two young people having a physical relationship and trying not to fall in love and not think about 2011’s similarly-themed Friends with Benefits or Love & Other Drugs. It’s not a comparison that advantages No Strings Attached, which seems to be running at about half the speed and a quarter of the charm of the other film. Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutscher are likable, but they don’t do much –given how Portman usually manages to portray smarter characters, it’s a bit of let-down to see her, here, struggle with a fairly dull characters who never gets to explore the most interesting aspects of her personality. Kutcher is also stuck in a bland romantic lead role, not having much to do that be bewildered and say the right things. No Strings Attached is often frustrating because it does have interesting quirks and secondary characters who seem to have a lot more life than the protagonist and the main plot –the best scene of the film involves Portman’s roommates and an impromptu prank they play on Kutcher’s character, and it works because the film forgets about its main plot and simply goes with the absurdity of the gag. Lake Bell and Mindy Kaling are both wasted in small roles. It doesn’t help that the script isn’t particularly tight –there’s a pair of prologues that do very little in the remainder of the film, which seems inordinately pleased with its premise but unable to actually do anything with it beyond the usual romantic comedy clichés. To its credit, it’s not as if No Strings Attached is unlikable or exasperating –it’s just annoying in ways that the far-more-successful Friends with Benefits highlights with its more charismatic leads, better writing and tighter plotting. It’s not that you have a bad time watching the film as much as the certitude that you could have a better time.
(On Cable TV, August 2013) For years, I’d heard about Garden State as being either a terrific voice-of-a-generation film, or horrifyingly self-indulgent emo-pop. After seeing the film, well, I have to ask: why can’t it be both? The first few minutes are unexpectedly skillful, as writer/director/lead Zach Braff sketches an efficient portrait of an emotionless young man forced back home after the death of his mother. As he reconnects with old friends, the film gives him one epiphany after another and reveals his secrets until he’s supposed to be half-way normal. It’s easy to make fun of such oh-woe-is-
me-my-character self-flagellating filmmaking, but there are some really good directorial moments in Garden State, even though they get less distinctive as the film advances. Natalie Portman gets to play an eccentric girl that would be insufferable in real life, but is here supposed to be charming beyond belief. The soundtrack is a collection of meowing, moaning, self-pitying slow ballads (your mileage may vary) that show better than anything else how I’m not supposed to be the target audience for the film. While I’d be interested in seeing other directorial efforts by Braff, he can probably leave the episodic journey of self-discovery by a damaged protagonist thing behind.
(In theaters, May 2011) I went into this film not understanding why it existed, and came out of it just as baffled. Granted, I’m not a fan of the comic-book character: I don’t even recall reading an issue of the source material. But unlike better comic-book movies, Thor has no point, no thematic depth and no reason for existing other than setting up the upcoming Avengers film. (At best, those looking for a message will find out that it’s anti-adoption agitprop.) As the film sets up its background in the fantasyland of Asgard, I found myself wishing that the film could go back to Earth, to Natalie Portman (as little as she has to do here) and to something I could care about. Otherwise, it’s all pompous accents, aliens, palace intrigue and invented mythologies that (I’m guessing) teenagers will love a lot more than I do. Am I losing the ability to care about fantasy movies? Maybe, but it’s not as if Thor gives me any reason to care. I’ll grant at least one thing, though: it’s got a certain visual style, and some of the Asgard sequences are pretty. Chris Hemsworth is also very good in the title role: Few other actors could have pulled the arch dialogue and regal bearing without looking ridiculous. Otherwise, it’s more interesting to see how the film exists in continuity with the other Marvel-universe movies, from the return appearance of a few SHIELD agents to Jeremy Renner’s cameo as Hawkeye to the now-requisite post-credit sequence. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling Thor dull or uninvolving, it does feel like a low-expectation, low-results kind of film: the scaled-back main-street fight scene is a clear example of that. Thor does brings back to mind the kind of underwhelming comic-book films that we used to get before filmmakers realized that they had to put some depth into it. To say that Kevin Branagh is behind it all almost boggles the mind.
(In theaters, April 2011) I was pretty sure I would loathe this film: After all, I really didn’t care for Pineapple Express, and this follow-up seemed to be heading for the same coarse stoner humour. But I had forgotten that I dislike bad self-important heroic fantasy even more than I don’t care for stoner fantasy. So that’s how I end up feeling relatively warm regarding Your Highness, which seems happy stuffing drugs, profanity and coarseness into a bog-standard fantasy premise. It works better than anyone would expect, in no small part because the framework of the film itself works fine, and it features decent set-pieces (a coach pursuit action sequence more than holds its own when stripped of comic elements). Otherwise, we get a deeply reluctant hero, a perverted mage, pervasive swearing, nudity, crudity and far too much gore for what’s supposed to be a light-hearted film. (As with Pineapple Express, there’s a feeling that a film as juvenile as Your Highness doesn’t actually deserve the level of gore that it features.) As a comedy operating at the edge of good taste, You Highness often over steps into material that goes beyond humour and into bad taste, hitting sexism, homophobia, immaturity and lameness along the way. Danny McBride bears the brunt of the film’s humour as the foul-mouthed cowardly protagonist while James Franco is fine as the always-smiling hero, whereas neither Natalie Portman nor Zooey Deschanel embarrass themselves through their performance –although, mind you, Portman is playing the straight-woman, while Deschanel doesn’t have much to do except being the classic damsel-in-distress. Otherwise, it’s not much of a film for the ages (I suspect that seeing it at the legendary Alamo Drafthouse helped a bit in assessing the film above its true value), but it’s certainly an interesting oddity in the movie landscape: Given the cost of fantasy films in general and their inconsistent level of commercial success, it’s almost mind-boggling that anyone took enough chances on the concept to see the film through to completion. I suspect that Your Highness will appeal mainly to those who can’t take another ponderous high-fantasy film. It’s not much as itself, but as an antidote to worse films, it’s almost refreshing.
(In theaters, December 2010) The difference between genre horror and “psychological drama” is often that in the latter case, much of the monsters can be explained away by the narrator being completely crazy. That’s certainly one plausible interpretation for Black Swan: In this high-class horror film, a ballerina driven mad by the pressures of performing the lead role in Swan Lake gradually lets themes of repression, doppelgangers and mirror images get the better of her. It doesn’t end well… or does it? This murky conclusion is only one of the ways in which Black Swan acts as a companion to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous The Wrestler: Same grainy flat cinematography, same fascination for the psychological impact of intense passion, same look at a performance-driven sub-culture. Visually, Black Swan looks ugly (with exceptions whenever the performers are on-stage), but it constantly reinforces the visual themes of opposite doubles: the grainy super-16mm cinematography has enough depth to sustain a film-school paper. It also strips all glossy moviemaking glamour away from Nathalie Portman’s mesmerizing lead performance, instantly credible as a ballerina with enough issues to sustain a film’s worth of delusions. Mila Kunis also acquits herself honourably in her third significant role of 2010, whereas Vincent Cassel is as deliciously slimy as ever. But the star here remains Portman, and if Black Swan works, it’s largely because of her dedication to her craft. As for the ending, well, it grows with time: If, initially, it seems as if the film stops about thirty seconds and a coroner’s report too soon, it also fully commits itself to its unreliable narrator, and eventually lends itself to about three interpretations spanning the entire length of the genre horror / psychological drama spectrum. Aronofsky may never direct a comedy, but his dramas are growing ever-more finely tuned to their subject, and viewers may as well endure the ride.
(In theaters, March 2006) It may be too early in the year to talk about 2006’s best films, but it’s certainly not too early to say that this is the first good movie of the year. I’m always a sucker for tales of insurrection against totalitarian government, and this one is slicker than most. Somewhat faithfully adapted from the graphic novel, V For Vendetta remains faithful to the spirit of the original, and delivers a tighter, more cohesive take on the basic story: the film is likely to become my preferred version. (Alan Moore may pout and fume about Hollywood betrayal, but this one’s really not that bad.) From a cinematographic standpoint, the film is gorgeously designed and directed with a great deal of self-confidence: James McTeigue may be overshadowed by the Wachowski producers, but his work is crisp and clean. Blessed with capable lead actors, V For Vendetta showcases some fantastic mask work by Hugo Weaving and one of Natalie Portman’s best role yet. Despite the lack of action set-pieces (don’t believe the trailers), the film has considerable forward momentum and only falters slightly late in the film. Politically, it’s a loud scream against the dangers of totalitarianism, and successfully manages to integrate the Thatcher-era fears of the original with current-day concerns over the so-called War on Terrorism: If it touches a nerve, it’s only because there is something to be concerned about right now. Otherwise, unfortunately (and there’s my biggest problem with the film), it remains quite literally a comic-book fable that tackles ideas in a stylized fashion, but falters on the follow-up: Totalitarian regimes never spring up completely without popular roots, and are seldom defeated by a grandiose gesture. V For Vendetta, hobbled by the necessities of a feature film’s running length and the low bandwidth of cinema, does not seriously engage with the demands of political thought, or the solutions required by real-world trade-offs. It’s all well and good to scream revolution, but it’s not going to do much good unless there are solid alternatives behind the reform. (And it’s what distinguishes comic-book-reading teenagers from adults used to the real world). But I’m being overly harsh: After all, I didn’t say such things after Equilibrium, right? But if V For Vendetta is going to propose itself as a bold political thinking piece, it better withstand the scrutiny it invites. That rabid political point aside, there’s little doubt that V For Vendetta is going to be one of 2006’s good films. Now let’s see the competition before deciding if it’s one of the best.