(On Cable TV, March 2017) The secret of romantic comedies isn’t that hard to piece together. Give us likable protagonists and a competent execution, and who cares if you’re telling the oldest story in the world? Of course, it’s nice if you can set the plot in an interesting environment, add witty dialogues, showcase some directing style and depend on good actors. Fortunately, Wimbledon manages to get all of these right. From casting Paul Bettany as an aging tennis player, to Kirsten Dunst as a top contender, to setting the story over a Wimbledon tournament, to funny dialogue (including worthwhile voiceovers) and directing flourishes, Wimbledon cleverly combines underdog sports comedy with romance and the result is surprisingly good … even for those who know next to nothing about tennis. The film quickly zips by, carried by the charm of its leads and Richard Loncraine’s sure-footed direction. There are issues with the film (it’s clearly told from the male lead’s point of view, often marginalizing the agency of the female character) and a few longer moments, but generally speaking Wimbledon is a big bowl of unassuming romantic comedy, unsurprising but satisfying nonetheless. I like it quite a bit better than I expected from the plot summary and found myself more engrossed in the characters than I thought. Not bad. For more ridiculous fun, follow this film with 7 Days in Hell as an absurdist Wimbledon chaser.
(In theaters, December 2011) Obviously inspired by the financial crisis of September 2008, Margin Call is a rare thriller in which conversations, analysis and boardroom meetings take the lead over car chases, explosions and gunfights. It starts with a mass layoff at an unnamed Wall Street trading firm and a dire warning from one fired analyst to his still-employed protégé: “Be careful.” Before long, our intrepid boy wonder has discovered that the firm is about to go bankrupt, and the news spread upward in a series of meeting with ever-more-important people. Strategies are discussed, blame is tentatively assigned, speeches are made, decisions are taken and, eventually, a terrible no-return strategy is adopted. The film isn’t as good as it could be: Margin Call’s low-budget and first-time director shows in the static cinematography, tepid pacing, overlong shots and lack of a fully satisfying conclusion. But the achievement here is considerable, starting from the terrific cast assembled here: Kevin Spacey gives a far more humane take on his usual screen personae; Paul Bettany is terrific as a high-flying trader who realizes the danger of his current situation; Jeremy Irons makes an impression as a point-one-percenter with gravitas; Stanley Tucci is wonderful as usual as an engineer turned financial analyst; and so is Zachary Quinto (looking a lot like a prettier Ewan McGregor in Rogue Trader) as the pivotal character who flags the crisis. The dialogue is sharp, the dramatic dilemmas are unusual, the characters are well-developed and the themes are current at a time where an increasing number of Americans are openly questioning the social usefulness of the business described here. While the dialogue-heavy piece won’t appeal to everyone, Margin Call is a clever and efficient film that fully exploits the limits of its budget to deliver a striking result.
(In theaters, May 2011) It’s not a good sign when you can feel the film’s final act locking itself into position, think “Already?”, look at your watch and find out that the film’s barely past the 65-minutes mark. There may not be all that much to say about Priest, but at least it has the decency to wrap things up in less than 90 minutes. Anything more would have been wasted, mind you: Even though the film seem very loosely adapted from a presumably richer Korean graphic novel series, there just isn’t a whole lot of plot here to gnaw upon: Setup, two dramatic confrontation and we’re already on to the third act. At least there’s a bit of eye-candy to contemplate during that time: The techno-grunge atmosphere is a bit tired, but it’s reinvigorated with the somewhat less usual industrial-western feel of the film’s middle section. Paul Bettany also gets a good role as priest with quasi-supernatural ass-kicking powers: After seeing him in so many dramatic roles (including Charles Darwin in Creation), it’s entertaining to see him re-team with Legion’s director Scott Stewart for action-movie credentials. Otherwise, well, Maggie Q is fine as another renegade Priest, Karl Urban chews scenery like he enjoys it and Christopher Plummer earns a pay-check as the face of the shallow-but-oppressive Church. But it’s all flash and pretty visuals here: no depth, little originality and even less substance. That doesn’t make it a bad film as much as it makes it a very forgettable one. The future for Priest is clear: an unceremonious DVD release, and then onward to cultural oblivion.
(On DVD, October 2010) I’m far too cynical to label any film as a “public service”, but the nature of Creation in today’s hyper-politicized controversy over evolution is such that I can’t help but admire the contribution that a well-made drama can bring to the public understanding of the man behind one of the most fundamental ideas of all times. A heavily dramatized account of the years Charles Darwin spend perfecting the manuscript for On the Origins of Species, Creation delivers a portrait of the icon as an immensely fallible man, tormented by visions of a dead daughter and debilitating convictions of heresy. It is, in many ways, a depiction of Darwin influenced by his critics, and yet a revealing look at a time where people thought very differently. The film wasn’t widely screened in theaters for reasons that soon become obvious to casual viewers: This is a film not of outer action, but inner struggles and the clash of new concepts. Like many works of primary interest to intellectual audiences, it presents ideas as inherently interesting and studies how people are affected by them. (Don’t tell anyone, but that’s as good a definition of Science Fiction as any). It’s not really helpful to add that the film is slow, contemplative and occasionally grating from a contemporary perspective. At times, overly-dramatic Creation seems to play more as a pre-emptive answer to Darwin’s critics rather than a celebration of the scientist himself. But there are a few standout sequences in the mix (an accelerated view of how species interact in nature is particularly good), while both Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly are effective in their roles. It all amounts to a film that will be presented in classrooms for a long time, and serve as a reminder that cinema can occasionally rise to the occasion and deliver a compelling celebration of human thought.
(In theatres, January 2010) The second religious-themed action/fantasy thriller in as many weeks in North American theatres, Legion has the elementary decency not to be terribly serious about its usage of Christian mythology. God has decided to wipe out mankind, angels are out to zombify humanity and only one renegade can save the world by protecting the mother of an unborn child. No, it doesn’t make any sense: Legion’s screenwriters would rather spend five interminable minutes setting up character relationships between cannon fodder than actually making sense. But some of the character time is worthwhile: For a cheap B-grade horror film that blends zombies with angels and demons, it’s unusually generous with the patter, and that almost makes it better than average. It’s a good thing that all of God’s forces are well-mannered enough to line up zombie-style for maximum usage of conventional firepower by our small band of survivors, and that we’re never asked to think too much. Which is sad, really, because in-between the tattered script and the conventional execution, there are glimmers of a terrific concept, character set-pieces and several cool scenes. (Paul Bettany is better than expected as a renegade angel, while Dennis Quaid provides a dependably gruff presence as the owner of the small lonely diner where everything happens.) But the banal dialogue, indifferent scenes and dumb mistakes keep ruining the fun: For such a self-aware, borderline-camp film, Legion never fully realizes its potential. What remains isn’t much more than the type of genre picture that sinks to the bottom of the remaindered bin, and becomes an unfair trivia question within years of its release.