(On Cable TV, January 2018) Interestingly enough, nearly everything I know about the Armenian genocide has been because of attempts to deny it. In early 1994, for instance, the antics of “Serdar Argic” in flood-posting Usenet newsgroups with genocide-denying messages gave pre-web users a reason for a crash course in unpleasant Turkish history. Twenty-five years later, Turkish nationalists took it upon themselves to give one-star IMDB votes to The Promise, a film dramatizing the Armenian genocide. But here’s the thing: I base part of my essential viewing choices on the list of movies with the most votes … meaning that I likely would not have watched the film had it not been from the vote-stuffing attempt. Well done, genocide deniers—you denied yourselves. As it stands, The Promise is an effective dramatization of dramatic historical events, wrapped up in a generous wrapping of romance and personal drama. The film’s star power is good enough to be worth a watch by itself: Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale are known as intense actors, and while the film doesn’t quite fully exploit their acting talent, they do lend a lot of credibility to a film that seems content to run by the usual melodrama. A touch too long, a touch too predictable and a touch less satisfying than it should be, The Promise is run-of-the-mill historical drama filmmaking. It wouldn’t be particularly memorable, except as a reminder of the Armenian genocide and the attempts to silence it from history.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) I have always been cautiously positive about the X-Men film series, largely because (especially at first, when there weren’t that many good comic-book movies around) it has always put themes and characters front-and-centre, thus earning extra respectability as comic-book movies with something deeper to say. Lately, the shift to historical periods with First Class was good for style, but with Apocalypse, it looks as if the X-Men series has reached a point of diminishing returns. The themes of alienation and discrimination are more than well-worn by now, and it seems as if the series struggles to find anything more to say about it. It certainly doesn’t help that the film goes back to a hackneyed villain-wants-to-destroy-everything premise: This is exactly the kind of city-destroying stuff that has been done ad nauseam in other superhero movies, and the generic antagonist (a complete waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents) doesn’t help. Other issues annoy: the teenage angst of the X-Men is getting old, and so is the fan service to trying to cram as many characters as possible, especially Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Jennifer Lawrence’s increasingly useless Mystique. There are, to be fair, a few lovely sequences here—the Quicksilver sequence is, just as the preceding film, a joy to watch. Olivia Munn looks good despite being in a handful of scenes. It’s hard to dislike James MacEvoy as Charles Xavier or Nicholas Hoult as Beast. But Apocalypse seems far more generic than its predecessor, and suffers even more from a close comparison to Deadpool’s self-aware sarcastic exuberance. The period setting isn’t used effectively, and the film has some lengthy scenes that play out like all similar scenes in other similar movies. Even under director Bryan Singer’s helm, the result is flat, dull, mediocre and a dead end as far as the series is concerned. The next instalment (because we know there will be another instalment) better shake things up, otherwise it’s going to tailspin into the kind of movies that viewers won’t bother to see.
(On Blu-ray, April 2016) It’s not that The Force Awakens is un-reviewable—it’s that there’s so much to say that a full review would take a few pages, encompass the recent business state of Hollywood, meander on commodified nostalgia, indulge in insufferably nerdy nitpicking, and yet deliver an assessment not that far removed from “wow, competence!” This is a capsule review, so let’s start cracking: My first and biggest takeaway from The Force Awakens is that I’m not 7 years old, watching Star Wars on French-language broadcast TV and being so amazed that I can’t say anything bad about it. The Force Awakens is far from being perfect, and it doesn’t take much digging to find it crammed with problems. Even on a first view, I’m not particularly happy that thirty years later, The Rebellion hasn’t managed to establish a workable government and seems stuck in an endless echoing battle against evil. (Heck, they still haven’t changed their name, apparently.) My mind boggles at the economic or political absurdities of what’s shown on-screen, and the moment I start asking questions about basic plot plausibility is the moment I start making a lengthy list of the amazing coincidences, contrivances and plain impossible conveniences that power the plot. The jaded will point out that director J.J. Abrams has never been overly bothered by plotting logic and The Force Awakens certainly bolsters this view. Worse, perhaps, is the pacing of the film, which often goofs off in underwhelming ways rather than go forward. Then there’s the way this return to the Star Wars universe seems unusually pleased in echoing the first film’s elements, all the way to another who-cares run through a Death Planetoid’s trench. On the other hand, echoing is forgivable when the point of this film is to reassure everyone that the soon-to-be-endless Star Wars franchise is safe now that Disney took it away from George Lucas. In that matter, The Force Awakens is a success: it feels like classic Star Wars, from the visuals to the music to the elusive atmosphere of the first three films. Sometimes, a bit too much so: The decision to shoot the movie on actual film introduces film grain issues that sometimes vary from shot to shot, which is enough to drive anyone crazy. (Witness the Rey/Finn shots in the cantina…) Star Wars clearly isn’t as much about story than characters and set pieces, and that’s also where The Force Awakens succeeds: Harrison Ford seems timelessly charming as Han Solo, while John Boyega, Daisy Williams and Oscar Isaac are also easily likable in their roles. (Boyega and Isaacs are effortlessly cool, but Daisy Williams has a more delicate role as a stealth superhero.) Adam Driver has a tougher job as the intriguing Kylo Ren, riffing but not copying the series’s iconic villains. Then there are the set pieces, which often work despite shaky logic, implausible premises and nonsensical engineering. Coring a new planet-killer out of a planet may not strike anyone as the best plan, but it’s good for some fantastic images and at some point, that’s what really counts. Especially when, in the end, we’re left satisfied that this seventh Star Wars film is better than the prequel trilogy, and are left looking for more. Mark these words: There will now be a Star Wars movie every year for at least a decade and probably more. This one’s special, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t age well once the sequels start piling up.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) Many recent science-fiction movies are probing the uncomfortable notion of humans being replaced by their creations, but few have the nerve to do so as deviously as Ex Machina does. At first, it seems like a familiar kind of film: A young man is brought in to a remote location to administer a Turing Test to a freshly-developed Artificial Intelligence. What could go wrong? Oh, we know the answer to that question. But Ex Machina goes there through unexpected paths: It stacks the deck against its lovelorn examiners by featuring a robot optimized for sex-appeal, bypassing higher cognitive functions by going straight for base instincts. (Much as I loathe to admit any robosexual fetishes to the world at large, Alicia Vikander is here far more attractive as a visibly artificial character than when she dons a dress and wig to pass as human.) Oscar Isaac turns in another terrific performance as a mad genius combining technical skills with in-your-face arrogance. (The dance sequence alone is instantly memorable) Domhnall Gleeson is just as effective as the audience stand-in, a young man who doesn’t even realise the extent to which he’s being manipulated. But the mastermind here is writer/director Alex Garland, who direct a great first film from his own tight and mean script. There’s a deceptive simplicity to Ex Machina’s surface that hides a lot of philosophical allusions, well-explored ideas and contemporary fears. The result maximizes its secluded location and small cast to present a great science-fiction film, unnerving from beginning to end and very successful in what it manages to achieve. It’s a surprisingly raw treatment for a cerebral subject, and it’s a sure-footed modern classic about a well-worn SF trope.
(Video on Demand, May 2015) There is something fascinating and heartening in seeing J.C. Chandor’s evolution as a filmmaker. From the sterile boardrooms of Margin Call to the lonely ocean of All is Lost, Chandlor goes somewhere else entirely in tackling the problems of a circa-1981 New York heating businessman in A Most Violent Year. The title is deceptively apt, as our protagonist comes to realize what is required of him during a particularly brutal period in his life; attacked by rivals, spurred on by his merciless wife, besieged by police and unions, he reluctantly turns to the dark side in an effort to keep what he has worked hard to create. It’s a slow and low-key film, but one that is seldom boring or uninteresting: Oscar Isaac is splendid in the lead role, while Jessica Chastain is no less compelling as his connected wife. Chandor’s directing is far more self-assured than the static shots of Margin Call, but less gimmicky than the high-wire audacity of All is Lost: here, he’s clean, unobtrusive yet evocative. It all amounts to a kind of film seldom seen today, studying the compromise of a good man rather than the spectacles of an action thriller.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) My current life circumstances mean that I usually see movies 6-9 months after their theatrical release. In order to “stay current” and understand much of the ongoing conversation regarding movies, I often spoil myself silly on movies I haven’t seen but eventually will. This usually works pretty well and doesn’t ruin movies as much as you’d think. But there are exceptions and Inside Llewyn Davis shows the limits of the spoil-yourself-rotten approach in tackling plot-light interpretation-heavy movies. Having read many descriptions of what made Inside Llewyn Davis so interesting a while ago, I now find that most of the theories about the film are more substantial than the film itself. A ramble through 1961 Greenwich Village before the folk-music explosion, Inside Llewyn Davis is about a talented but prickly musician who may be at the end of his moribund career. The film follows him during an eventful week, but don’t expect much in terms of plotting or conclusion: As with many of their previous movies, the Coen Brothers don’t settle for neat dramatic arcs, fully-tied subplots or self-contained screen characters: they hint, leave plenty to the imagination, play with chronology and cut to the credits five minutes before other directors would. It’s maddening and yet in my encroaching old age, I don’t find it as frustrating as I would have years ago. (But then again, if you follow the Coen Brothers you’ve already seen No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man) The music is great if you like folk (I don’t, but the artistry is remarkable and then there’s “Please Please Mr. Kennedy” to amuse us uncouth barbarians.), and as a look at a specific time and place, it’s fascinating in its own right. The cinematography is remarkable, as this is a cold winter movie and there’s no visual comfort for anyone here. Oscar Isaac is fascinating as the titular protagonist while Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan have short but striking roles. While I like individual elements, themes and sequences of Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m not sure I like it as much as the idealized version I had made up in my head while reading the chatter surrounding the film. You can probably figure out that this is a problem with me rather than the film itself.