(On Cable TV, November 2016) I really thought I’d like Bulworth more than I did. As a look in the life of an American politician, it’s not too bad: we get a feel for the trade-offs, the deals, the drudgery of the work. It’s even promising when it becomes obvious that the lead character has decided to give it all up and hires an assassin to take himself out. But then Bulworth decides to become heavily didactic, has its character raps through a few scenes and more or less gives up on any kind of unified tone. It doesn’t work, even despite the good efforts of the performers. Warren Beatty is very good as the titular politician; meanwhile, a young Halle Berry shows up as a young woman that teaches him the errors of his ways. (She gets a very good speech answering “Why do you think there are no more black leaders?”) Bulworth, to its credits, plays with a few daring ideas that remain evergreen (and I write this even despite the crazy electoral circus that was 2016), trying to pass along those ideas within a credible framework. (Witness Oliver Platt, shining as a political operative trying to keep his candidate on track.) But Bulworth ends up shooting itself in the foot a few times, most notably by having Beatty vamp it up by rapping at high-society events, adopting black speech patterns and trying to ingratiate himself in lower society. It’s often more embarrassing than successful, betraying a juvenile intent more than proving its political sophistication. By the end, Bulworth has become a grab bag of intriguing moment and cringe-worthy ones. Beatty the actor does well, but Beatty the director could have used more restraint and another script re-write. But then again, after the results of the 2016 American elections, it may be that our ability to distinguish satire from reality has completely evaporated.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) For years, I wondered missing out on Flatliners had led to an embarrassing omission in my movie-going culture. Hadn’t this film earned some interest as a science-fiction film? Didn’t it star a bunch of actors who went on to bigger things? Wasn’t this one of Joel Shumacher’s best-known movies from his earlier, better period? The answer to these questions is yes… but the film itself seems a bit of a letdown after viewing. Oh, some things still work well, and may even work better than expected. Of the five main actors, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Oliver Platt have all gone on to big careers –with poor William Baldwin being left behind. Schumacher’s direction is backed-up with Jan de Bont’s impressive cinematography: the visuals of the film may not make much sense, but they evoke a modern-gothic atmosphere that remains distinctive even today. The high-concept of the film remains potent, with genius-level medical students voluntarily defying death to investigate the mysteries of the afterlife. Unfortunately, all of these elements don’t quite add up satisfyingly. The jump from the high concept to the characters’ personification of those concepts is weak, and the contrivances become almost too big to ignore. The idea of atonement being closely linked to death is powerful, but the way this variously follows the character is more difficult to accept. (As Platt’s character knowingly remarks, those without deep-seated traumas will end up with some fairly silly phantoms.) There is quite a bit of repetitive one-upmanship in the way the plotting unfolds, and Flatliners sadly goes too quickly from provocative idea to ordinary morality. Still, it’s easy to argue that the film is worth a look: Roberts, Sutherland and Bacon look really good in early roles, and the visual style of the film is still an achievement twenty years later. There are some good ideas in the mix (witness the visual motif of “construction” -reconstruction, deconstruction- underlying nearly each scene), the portrait of intelligent characters interacting is charming and some of the suspense still works surprisingly well when it doesn’t descend in silliness. There are a few films that qualify as “minor classics” of their era in time. While Flatliners certainly won’t climb year’s-best lists retroactively, it’s a film that remains more remarkable than many of its contemporaries. I don’t regret seeing it… and I may even have liked to see it a bit earlier.
(In theatres, November 2009) It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Roland Emmerich’s 2012 tries to ape and one-up much of the disaster-movie genre. Where else can you find a 10.5 earthquake, a super-volcano and a mega-tsunami in the same movie? As such, it demands to be considered according to the particular standards of the disaster movie genre, and that’s indeed where it finds most of its qualities. The L.A. earthquake sequence is a piece of deliriously over-the-top action movie-making (I never loved 2012 more than when the protagonists’ plane had to dodge a falling subway train), the Yellowstone volcano sequence holds its own and those who haven’t seen an aircraft carrier smash the White House now have something more to live for. The problem, unfortunately, is that those sequences are front-loaded in the first two-third of the film, leaving much smaller set-pieces for the end. This, in turn places far more emphasis on the characters, dialogue and plot points, none of whom are a known strength of either the genre or 2012 itself. Sure, the cast of characters is either pretty (Thandie Newton! Amanda Peet!), competent (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover) or entertaining (John Cusack, Oliver Platt). Of course, we want to see them live through it all. But as a too-late consideration of ethical issues bumps against less-impressive sequences and significant lulls (including a 15-minutes-long prologue), it becomes easier to see that this 158 minutes film is at least 45 minutes too long and suffering from a limp third act. The defective nature of the roller-coaster also makes it less easy to tolerate the hideous conclusions, screaming contrivances and somewhat distasteful ethics of the screenplay. While the clean and sweeping cinematography (interestingly replaced by a hand-held video-quality interlude during one of the film’s turning points) shows that 2012’s production budget is entirely visible on-screen and will eventually make this a worthwhile Blu-Ray demo disk, there isn’t much here to respect or even like. At least special-effects fans will be able to play some destruction sequences over and over again.