(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Confirmed and settled: I just don’t like writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ aesthetics. After being unimpressed at The Lobster and now all over again with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I’m ready to give up entirely on his work. The premise of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is weird enough (a vengeful teenager puts a curse on a family, to be broken only through a violent choice), but it’s the execution that makes it exasperating: a deliberate blend of flat elocution, languid pacing (at two hours, the film is far too long), unlikable characters and deliberate emotional distance. It may work for some (the film was well reviewed), but I couldn’t wait until it was all over, not really caring about who lived or died. (No, actually that’s not true: at times I was actively rooting for everyone to die.) Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman seem game for the material, which to be fair to the actors is substantially different from anything else they may have been asked to play. Still, as far as I’m concerned, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a notable bore: interminable, uninvolving and unlikable.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) By now, Sofia Coppola’s female-centric, soft gauze, slow-pacing, contemplative style almost defies parody. But it happens to be the correct approach for this remake of The Beguiled, in which a wounded soldier comes to rest at an isolated house entirely peopled by women. The presence of a man in an otherwise all-female environment is a recipe for disaster, and the film follows this to the expected conclusion. Hugh Jackman is featured as the soldier, but he’s outclassed by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. It’s not much of a story, but it’s deliberately told with plenty of atmosphere. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s competent and daring enough to create discussions as to who, if anyone, was in the right here. I’d like to have more to say about it, but The Beguiled is the kind of film that can only be taken in, not picked apart.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) Spoofing American society’s appetite for fame is self-obvious now that reality TV can launch mini-careers going all the way to the US presidency, but back in 1995, director Gus van Sant had to work harder with To Die For in order to present his mockumentary about an insanely ambitious woman working her way to the top of the local media ecosystem. Nicole Kidman headlines a solid cast made of competent character actors (Matt Dillon, Dan Hedaya, and the incomparable Illeana Douglas) as well as some up-and coming actors (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck) who have since made a mark. Kidman proves surprisingly game to indulge in the film’s black comedy, preening herself up in a textbook-worthy depiction of psychological disorders. Everyone else stands in her shadow, mirroring how society tries to deal with such amoral dangers in its midst. The film runs a bit long (something that isn’t helped by the pseudo-documentary format) but is seldom dull thanks to the cast and the tone. While To Die For seems to have sunk back in relative obscurity these days, it’s still worth a look, if only as a precursor to the reality-TV era that would begin in earnest half a decade later.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) Even by the standards of Oscar-baiting historical docu-fiction, Genius seems tame and detached. It’s a problem that can’t be blamed on the actors—Colin Firth is good as legendary editor Max Perkins, while Jude Law is suitably unhinged as Tom Wolfe. Nicole Kidman is more disappointing as Wolfe’s one-time wife, but it’s not much of a role—and she gets to point a gun at the protagonist in the film’s most incongruous scene. The plot loosely talks about the working collaboration and tortuous friendship between Perkins and Wolfe over a period of a decade (two years go by in a blink during a montage) as they argue about Wolfe’s novels and the writer’s mercurial personality eventually leads him to paranoia. All well and good; as someone who’s fond of movies about writers; I particularly appreciated the editing humour and portrait of books as works to be rewritten rather than completed once THE END is first typed. Still, I could help but find the film long and meandering. Viewers may struggle to remain interested, and the film doesn’t help by taking occasional lengthy breaks in plotting. While well shot, with a convincing recreation of 1920s New York, Genius is a disappointment considering its source material. I’m glad it exists (what are the odds of seeing another major movie featuring a book editor as a hero?), but it could and should have been better.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) Not every good foreign movie has to be remade by Hollywood, and the latest piece of evidence for this assertion is Secret in their Eyes, the somewhat forgettable remake of the acclaimed Argentinian thriller El secreto de sus ojos. It’s not as if this Hollywood version is completely worthless: If nothing else, here are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and a surprisingly unglamorous Julia Roberts doing their best in their given roles. I also found a provocative parallel in equating the original’s “Pinochet years” with this remake’s “post-9/11 era”. The plot is also partially streamlined, getting rid of a lot of non-essential material even though the result is still a bit too contrived and verbose to qualify as fast paced. Otherwise, though, there isn’t much here worth noticing for fans of the original, and one or two things have been taken away from the original, such as the incredible one-shot sequence that is limply made ordinary in this remake. If you haven’t seen the original and if you are in the mood for a leisurely-paced thriller, Secret in their Eyes will do the trick. For everyone else, though, it’s a mediocre film that will never earn (nor deserve) even a tenth of the attention given to the original Oscar-winning film.
(On DVD, September 2016) There are many reasons that would explain me hating Dogville. It’s almost ludicrously long. It’s got an extremely pessimistic view of human nature. It plays games with the notion of traditional filmmaking by simplifying the sets to a chalk outline … wait, that’s actually something I like about the movie. In fact, it’s probably the reason why I feel curiously positive about it. From the very first shot, in which an entire small town is depicted as chalk outlines on a theatre stage and characters act against minimal props meant to symbolize their surroundings, Dogville goes meta even as it presents a story that doesn’t rely all that much on this abstraction. It’s fascinating for a few minutes, then intermittently interesting as the movie occasionally tries to use this limitation to work around conventional sequences. There is a lot of narration, some of it intrusive in the manner of a classic novel. Various high-profile actors (notably Nicole Kidman, who plays a punching back for half the film, but also Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård and narrator John Hurt) are puppets in writer/director Lars von Trier’s hands as he presents a lengthy and cynical take on human nature, filled with ordinary townspeople turning abusive toward a designated victim. It’s horrifying to the point where the violent take-no-prisoners finale feels satisfying to a ghoulish degree. While not appealing to the angels of our better nature, Dogville does earn a few points for style … even though this may not be a film to be watched a second time.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) For a television show adaptation that could have coasted on simply reprising the basic elements of the original, there is a whole lot more postmodernism to Bewitched than necessary … and it does help make the movie better than it should have been. Less-annoying-than-usual Will Ferrell stars as an arrogant high-profile comic actor in desperate need of a hit, accepting a lead role on a TV show based on the old Bewitched TV show. So far so good, except that the show also ends up selecting an unknown woman (Nicole Kidman) as the co-lead … unaware that she’s a witch trying to go straight. Numerous hijinks ensue, helped along by the multiple levels of fiction and wizardry. Written and directed by Nora Ephron, Bewitched does have a gentle comic quality heightened by it meta-fictional nature. Ferrell is more or less up to his own standards, but Kidman is effortlessly charming as a good witch, with Michael Caine as her disapproving father. Shirley MacLaine also shows up as a matriarch with secrets, plus Steven Colbert in an actual character role. The film itself isn’t that great, but it’s decently entertaining for what it is, and it would have been far less interesting had it not nudged, even gently, in postmodernism. As far as adapting old TV shows are concerned, I’ve seen worse.
(On TV, July 2015) I probably could have written the following review without seeing Australia, so consistent is director Baz Luhrmann when he gets to work: Fantastic visual style, great performances by the lead actors, a bit of an underwhelming script and a sense of excess that overflows from every frame. As it turns out, that’s an accurate assessment: This take on World-War-Two northern Australia is every bit as lush and excessive as we could expect it from the creator of Moulin Rouge! Nicole Kidman is radiant as a widow taking on her deceased husband’s ranch, running against cattle barons trying to take it from her, but meeting a charming cattle driver played by the always-photogenic Hugh Jackman. Thematically, Australia is more concerned about aboriginal exploitation, spending a lot of time fretting over a young boy’s problems as he’s taken away from the ranch. Still, this is all an excuse for razzle-dazzle epic, perhaps none more over-the-top than the cliff-side stampede. To its credit, Australia is about show and spectacle, and there’s definitely a place for that kind of stuff. The landscape is impressive, and shot in consequence. Less fortunately, this tendency toward excess can lead to unchecked lengths and meandering storytelling – and yet, for a movie so grandiosely titled, Australia doesn’t always feel as epic as it should be. It’s not as innovative as it could have been either, as Luhrmann giving a lot of energy trying to re-create familiar sequences. Still, it’s decently entertaining –often on the sole basis of its wide-screen ambition. I suppose that it could have been worse –at least we get almost exactly what we expected from the film.
(In French, Video on Demand, June 2015) Even without being overly familiar with the children-book source material, I can report that Paddington works well as a film: It’s an absolutely charming surprise. Whimsical, sweet, good-natured and visually inventive, it manages to create a contemporary version of a walking-talking teddy bear without coming across as overly sweet or manipulative. It’s a tricky balance, but the film pulls it off. The special effects are good enough that at no time do viewers have any reason to question the existence of Paddington. Ben Whishaw brings a lot to our ursine protagonist through his voice performance, while Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are instantly likable as the heads of the family that take in Paddington. Nicole Kidman also makes an impression in a fairly rare role as an antagonist, although her evil character sometimes feel out-of-place in an otherwise good-natured film. Writer/director Paul King should get most of the credit for the success of the film, not only for a charming screenplay, but also for visual flights of fancy that establish its unique atmosphere–the flybys through the cutaway Brown family home are a highlight, but several other sequences are executed in a remarkably original fashion. Funny, heartwarming, instantly-accessible and a pure delight, Paddington should please anyone within sight of the screen it’s playing on.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) I have a bit of a fondness for films in which exotic afflictions are used for thrilling effect. (See; Faces in the Crowd; Memento) Before I Go to Sleep starts by describing the plight of a woman who loses her memory every night, only remembering events from long-ago. Every morning, she reads notes to orient herself; every morning, her husband reassures her; every morning, she discovers who she was. But, of course, some clues accumulate suggesting that what she is told to remember isn’t what really happened to her… and the thrills begin. Who is her husband? Does she have a son? Is the doctor she’s seeing without her husband’s knowledge there to help or hurt her? So many questions to be answered during a delirious third act! Nicole Kidman isn’t bad as the protagonist and Mark Strong is his usual menacing self, but it’s Colin Firth who turns in the most remarkable performance with a somewhat unusual turn for him. Rowan Joffé’s direction has a few stylish moments and if the story is wild enough to compensate for odd turns of logic, the film does suffer from a bit of a middle-third lull and some late-movie clichés. Still, given that Before I Go to Sleep had a fairly low profile in North America, it’s most likely going to be a pleasant surprise for fans of the two lead actors, and offer a reasonably competent late-night thriller for audiences with low expectations.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Oh, what a fiendishly troubled family relationship is set up in Stoker‘s unapologetic gothic madness. Big foreboding house, dead father, crazy mother, troubled daughter and deranged uncle: it’s all there, along with generous helpings of tentative incest and confirmed murder. It takes a special kind of audience to play along, but director Park Chan-wook’s stylish direction means that everything look good even as the script makes no effort to be anything but a deep genre homage. The film surely takes its own time setting up all of its elements: Stoker is moody and contemplative at the best of time. It doesn’t help that the entire film exists in its own reality out of time, the characters living in personal orbits that have more to do with Hitchcockian homage than anything else. Mia Wasikowska is remarkable as the introspective teenage heroine, easily stealing the spotlight away from Nicole Kidman’s by-the-number deranged mother, but it’s Matthew Goode who gets the acclaim with his Anthony-Perkinsesque role as the visiting Uncle Charles, as his handsome features barely disguise a completely demented mind. The best moments of the film are in the heroine’s reactions to his psychopathy, as they take us farther from classical gothic thrillers and into something quite a bit more twisted. And then there’s the sumptuous direction, which imbues a great deal of class to a script that could have been handled as schlock in less-experienced hands. Where Stoker isn’t as successful is in doing anything with the elements at its disposition. Much of the third-act revelations are obvious, whereas what actually happens during the conclusion feels a bit flat despite the increasing amount of blood being spilled. Stoker makes more sense on a shot-per-shot basis than a sustained film, but the direction is so striking at times that it’s hard to be all that disappointed in the result.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) I’m not a big fan of Adam Sandler, but he can be effective when used in the right context (ie; not left free to indulge his man-child persona) and Just Go With It comes closer than most attempts at producing a non-irritating Sandler comedy. It helps that the film uses some fairly convoluted plot mechanics to keep him from taking center-stage: the script involves a decent amount of romantic deceptions, mismatched identities, fortuitous meetings and tangled lies. Set against the pleasant backdrop of a Hawaiian resort, well, it could be worse. Sandler is restrained in a role that asks for more maturity from him than usual, while Jennifer Aniston gets a more interesting role than usual as his assistant-turned-fake-wife. Nicole Kidman gamely tries to keep up, but this kind of comedy really isn’t her thing, and it shows. Still, the plot circumvolutions are enough to keep our attention and while the end result doesn’t aspire, let alone attain, greatness, it’s good enough to fill up a lazy afternoon. As the title says, just go with it.
(Video-on-Demand, December 2011) Once upon a time, maybe in the mid-nineties, a thriller directed by Joel Schumacher and featuring both Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman would have been a sure-fire box-office draw. But this is late 2011 and the most noteworthy thing about Trespass is how a very limited theatrical run was followed barely two weeks later by a wide DVD release. So does the film best compare to theatrical thrillers or direct-to-video efforts? From a visual perspective, it’s clear that this is an A-list effort: Shumacher’s direction is effective, the cinematography is striking and even as the film focuses on house-bound action from dusk till dawn, the filmmakers are able to get a lot of visual energy from limited locations. Much of Trespass, in fact, feels like a theatre production as a well-off family is threatened by a small gang of home invaders. But the criminals aren’t united, and everyone has secrets to hide: by the film’s twentieth-minute mark, they’re already shouting at each other in trying to figure out what’s happening. Nearly hidden behind over-sized glasses, Cage gets a typical “Cage flip-out moment” early on by trying to negotiate with people who aren’t expecting negotiations. The intensity of the psychological drama can’t be sustained over 90- minutes: by the third act, the action diffuses itself back to B-grade movie levels by going out of the house and a few repeated plot beats while we’re waiting for the various elements previously set up to be used in rapid succession. Once the shouting is over, it’s a bit easier to see the generic nature of the plot and the plot cheats used to constrain it. Still, Trespass is a clear notch above much of what’s meant to go quickly from theatres to video –more of a comment on the changing video landscape in the age of instant home video consumption than a particular reflection on the film itself. If nothing else, it’s an average thriller made by above-average filmmakers and stars.