(Video on-Demand, September 2017) Everything old can be new again, and so it’s not a bad idea to dig up some of Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic romances as inspiration for movies that set themselves apart from the usual cut-and-dried psycho-killer thriller swill that we see too often today. My Cousin Rachel is a thriller told in suspicions, the viewer going back and forth in believing that a character is out to murder our protagonist. Rachel Weisz is very good as the titular Rachel, keeping us unsettled throughout the film and being able to play menacing or charming at rapid intervals. She makes Sam Claflin look pedestrian in what is supposed to be the protagonist’s role. The production values are high, as we spend a lot of time on a credibly recreated 19th-century British estate. My Cousin Rachel is not a fast-paced film, but it does well in taking its time to present us with an unfolding subtle story. The ending hits harder than it should. It’s the perfect kind of film to watch on a cozy snowy evening.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) What would this film do without the intense likability of its five leads? Well, the script is good enough that it probably could have stood up without the chipmunk smile of Ryan Reynolds at his most likable, Abigail Breslin as his daughter and the trio of Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks as the three mysterious women who may or may not be the daughter’s mother in the convoluted story he tells her. The narrative mystery structure at the heart of Definitely, Maybe helps a lot in making this romantic comedy feel fresher and less predictable than most; so does the look at political campaign work, and he decade-or-so of history that the film present, complete with jokey jabs at recent history. Reynolds is absolutely likable here, and his rapport by Breslin feels natural. Banks, Weisz and Fisher also do good work in roles that aren’t necessarily all sugar and sweetness. Competently directed, acknowledging its clichés while benefiting from them, Definitely, Maybe is a better-than-average romantic comedy that may speak to anyone with a tangled romantic history, and remind everyone that some happy endings remain to be written.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Here we go again: beloved kid’s fantasy series transformed into an overblown 3D Hollywood special-effects spectacle with a bit of snark. If the criticism sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been the playbook for just about everything since The Lord of the Rings made so much money. Here, The Wizard of Oz gets a prequel and while the results are familiar, they’re not as bad as they could have been. James Franco may or may not have been the best choice as a con-magician forced to be a hero (with Franco, it’s hard to tell sincerity from laid-back detachment), but director Sam Raimi is certainly in his element in showcasing a bright and colorful Oz in all of its 3D glory. Oz the Great and Powerful is not as derivative as it may first appear: Despite its kinship to L. Frank Baum’s work and the classic 1939 film, it feels relatively new and doesn’t try to ape the first film in its finer details. Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis all do fine work as the three main witches, although it’s Kunis who gets the most interesting material and best make-up work. The visual spectacle is worth a look, and if the film’s so-contemporary hip detachment is its own disservice (because much of Oz should be viewed with pure unadulterated glee), there’s enough here to make the film interesting to adults. The result may not be particularly challenging, but it works well enough, and the de-emphasis placed on straight-up combat in favour of tricks and deception is a welcome change of pace from the usual epic fantasy template.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) How can a film with a big twist be so predictable? Dream House first appears to be a formula-heavy haunted-house thriller with a family in peril and dark secrets underneath the floorboards. Then it turns into something much stranger, as the supernatural takes a back seat to the delusional and we’re left with a far less interesting murder mystery from a cracked perspective. The biggest problem with such plot twists is that if they don’t work, if they leave the viewers saying “Really?”, then the whole film has imploded on itself, with little left to say. Dream House compounds that issue by making all sorts of little mistakes: While it doesn’t try to end on its end-of-second-act twist, the film is left spinning its wheels for a long time after confessing, making a mockery of the film’s now-barely-comprehensible first half. Also disappointing is the way Dream House dangles a supernatural horror story in front of our noses only to yank it back to “just a crazy person!” and a dull movie-psycho ending. It’s surprising to see actors such as Daniel Craig (as effective as ever), Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts (both wasted in dull roles) in fare best suited for direct-to-video mediocrity. The film does look good, and a few moments could have been more interesting had they been in the service of a better film. It’s said that director Jim Sheridan made a mess out of a substantially different script, but the result is unarguable: As is stands, Dream House is a big wasted opportunity, a series of potentially promising tangents that, eventually, go nowhere.
(In theatres, July 2009): It’s a familiar and dispiriting feeling to watch a brilliant first ten minutes of a film lead to a good middle hour and then on to an average third act. So it is that The Brothers Bloom (yes, there’s a meaningful pun in the title given that “Bloom” is the first name of one of the brothers) over-thinks itself all the way into a box stamped “I don’t care anymore”: As a self-aware story about two con artists and their latest (last?) scam, it’s always engaged in a war of deception with its audience, and if that works when the audience is pleased with an ending, it’s not so amusing when the story keeps going where the audience is unwilling to follow. There was a point, late during the film, when I thought that the film was ninety seconds and ten lines of dialogue away from a happy ending; alas, it just kept going in another darker direction, jettisoning the absurd comedy that was such a highlight of the film’s first sequences. The Brothers Bloom may not be taking place in our world (what with bowler hats, steamships and cellular phones), but it’s certainly taking place in the con-movie continuum, and its attempts to buck the formula carry a penalty. It’s a shame that the film we get isn’t the charming offbeat comedy that the trailer and the first half of the movie promised to us. Oh, it’s not a complete loss: Rachel Weisz has seldom been as captivating as she is as an eccentric millionaire; Rinko Kikuchi is hilarious as a quiet demolition expert; there are a few fantastic moments along the way; and at times it’s handled with an old-fashioned charm that makes one long for far many more movies of that type. But The Brothers Bloom is easily three twists and twenty minutes longer than it should be, so that by the time it ends on a note meant to make audiences reflect on the nature of storytelling-as-cons, nobody will care as much as they should have. Card tricks are tough, but movie tricks are even tougher.
(In theaters, April 2003) Ah yes. The con film that begins with the narrator describing his own death. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is all going to turn out nicely, but the twists and turns are the name of the game and if Confidence isn’t particularly revolutionary, it plays well enough. I’ve been, inexplicably, a mild fan of Ed Burns for a while and he certainly knows how to play as the lead man in a gang of con artists on a rampage in Los Angeles. One operation goes too well, they find out they just double-crossed a powerful crime lord and suddenly, they must atone for their miscalculation by performing another con. Double-crosses, counter-crosses, infini-crosses follow. Fans of Rachel Weisz will not be disappointed, as she demonstrates an uncanny capability at playing a scheming seductress. The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good, with the usual props to Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Andy Garcia. The direction moves with a certain style and the screenplay efficiently propels the story forward. The ending is a bit of a mess; I’m not even sure if it makes any sense at all. But in a con film, these senseless twists are the norm, and they are easily forgiven as long as it ends in a satisfactory fashion. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a happier ending than the one featured here, and this happy impression is the one to keep.
(On DVD, September 2010) Years later, this film may play even more smoothly than it first did: I had forgotten much about the smooth scene transitions, clever dialogues and exceptional ensemble cast. Director James Foley knows what he’s doing, and his Los Angeles is drenched in unusual color accents. As a con film, it’s hardly revolutionary… but it promises a good time and it fulfills its part of the bargain handily.