(On TV, September 2017) Nowadays, it’s not particularly difficult to make feminist-themed historical movies. Being a woman has seldom been easy in recorded history, and it doesn’t take much highlighting to make the point that it was even worse not too long ago. So it is that The Duchess, even fancifully adapted from historical events, doesn’t have to reach in order to present a credibly oppressed heroine. The plot summary does read like a melodrama: An 18th-century young English woman stuck in an arranged marriage, pressured to produce a male heir, sidelined by her husband’s affair with her friend (herself pressured by having been taken away from her sons), embarking on an affair of her own … and so on. A nudge too far would have sent the film in X-rated territory, especially given how little consent there is all around. While the summary reads like a wild ride, it’s considerably dampened by a running time that feels too long even under two hours, considering the tepid pacing and highly mannered costume drama. At least there’s the acting to admire along the way: Kiera Knightley turns in a serious performance, while Ralph Fiennes has seldom been so detestable and Hayley Atwell distinguishes herself with a difficult character. The visual look of the film is as good as period dramas get, and the Oscar-nominated costumes are indeed pretty good. This being said, The Duchess does feel like an intensely familiar story—from The Other Boyleen Girl to Anna Karenina to Belle to a chunk of the Jane Austen adaptations, there is a lot of similar material out there and if it happens to scratch an itch, then hurrah. Otherwise, it’s a long film with familiar plot points, reasonably entertaining but not essential.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) Whew. I’m not going to try to give a coherent review of Schindler’s List, but it has certainly earned its notoriety, awards and enduring reputation. More than twenty years later, it hasn’t aged, and in fact may have appreciated in some respects—the last sequence, presenting Holocaust survivors who have largely died since 1993, will only grow more impressive as a time capsule. Both Liam Neeson and Joseph Fiennes are terrific in their roles—there’s even a bit of canny physical casting going on with Neeson, given how his height often allows him to effortlessly become the focus of group scenes. But what’s perhaps most astonishing about Schindler’s List is how it works despite ignoring conventional wisdom. Its most transcending moments are found in digressions from the story it could have told more economically, whether it’s showing what happens to the luggage of people being hauled away to concentration camps, or a lengthy sequence detailing the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto, or another scene in which terrified women are forced into a group shower where they fear the worst. Those highlights are, at best, tangential to the film’s story about a businessman who saved more than a thousand people from being killed in concentration camps. But they pack an emotional punch that raise Schindler’s List far above countless more mechanical attempts at portraying the horrors of the Holocaust. If it means that the film is a massive 197 minutes long, then so be it: it’s so good that it passes by quickly. The essentially black-and-white cinematography is terrific, and hasn’t perceptively aged today. Director Steven Spielberg has achieved an artistic and humanitarian masterpiece here, and has done so in the same year he delivered his blockbuster Jurassic Park. Neither of these films are going away, but Schindler’s List has the added appeal that it will never be remade. Who can even pretend to retouch quasi-perfection?
(On TV, March 2016) Revisiting Oscar-winning movies twenty years after the fact screams for reassessment: What is truly the best movie of that year? Has it aged well? Does it still warrant attention? At times, The English Patient seems like a kind of prestige middle-budget movie that has disappeared in the squeeze between low-budget independent films and tent-pole studio blockbusters: A film with the budget to credibly re-create an era of history, and comfortably deliver a story that plays heavily on emotional nuances. Here, we hear from an adventurer as he tells the story of his love affair with the wife of another man, set against the troubled backdrop of World War II in northern Africa. Ralph Fiennes excels in the title role, first as the “English patient”, burnt beyond recognition after a plane accident, but also, in flashbacks, as a dashing explorer who gets involved with a woman despite the dangers of such an affair. The English Patient is a long film, made even longer by an oft-maddening framing story that never feels as interesting as the other one. It’s competently presented on screen, showing the romance of the time as well as its dangers. It’s tragic, of course, doing its best to feel even more important thanks to this tragedy. And twenty years later, it has survived relatively well. As a historical drama, it doesn’t suffer too much from less-than-cutting-edge special effects, and the star-studded casting is even remarkable today for showing a number of respected thespians as their younger selves. It had sweep, scope, dramatic irony and tragic heartbreak. Twenty years ago, that was enough to get you two handfuls of Oscars. Today, The English Patient remains a film worth seeing.
(On TV, April 2015) I’m usually a good audience for romantic comedies and/or anything featuring Jennifer Lopez, so imagine my disappointment at my disappointment for this film. A fairy-tale recast in modern setting (i.e.; a Manhattan maid in disguise as a wealthy guest catches the eye of an up-and-coming politician, leading to romantic complications), Maid in Manhattan seems intent on self-destructing before it ends. It is, of course, about class issues… but doesn’t offer much in terms of criticism beyond a pat “work hard and you too can become part of (or marry into) the upper class.” It never properly convinces audience of the perfect match between the two leads. It doesn’t offer much to do for Jennifer Lopez, who seems to have been cast almost solely on the basis of finding an attractive Latina with name recognition. It meanders through a series of obligatory scenes whose point is painfully obvious even when they begin. Poor Ralph Fiennes seems to wander in the film, lost and confused as to what he’s doing there, never credible as a rising political star. Even Stanley Tucci is stuck in a caricature and can’t escape the irritating mediocrity of the result. By the time the stock ending is assembled out of the obvious plot-pieces, it feels more like a relief that the entire film is over more than any heartfelt affection for the reunited characters. Maid in Manhattan classifies as a comedy on the basis that it’s not much of a drama and certainly not a tragedy –but you’d be hard-pressed to find laughs here. Neither will you find anything else worth remembering.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) How many movies does it take for a director to redeem himself? I’ve had trouble with Wes Anderson’ first few films (too twee, too weird, too annoying), but after Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonlight Kingdom and now The Grand Budapest Hotel, it feels as if I have re-discovered a great director. Easily the most ambitious of his films so far, The Grand Budapest Hotel ends up being a delicious blend of comedy, fake history, striking characters, artful cinematography and dozens of name actors seemingly having tons of fun. Visually, the film voluntarily goes retro with classical staging, highly stylized set design and voluntarily cheap special effects that somehow add to the comic absurdity of the plot. (Also notice the absence of diagonal movement in-frame) The story has surprisingly dark twists and turns, but screenwriter Anderson seems delighted in playing with a familiar plot, only to flip over the table and have whimsical fun whenever it suits him. The result is almost impossible not to watch with a growing sense of fondness. Ralph Fiennes turns in a small comic masterpiece performance as an ultra-competent hotel concierge, while being ably supported by far too many great players to count or enumerate. It amounts to a striking oddity of a film, something almost impossible to describe faithfully but nonetheless utterly compelling upon viewing. From time to time, we get a film that reaffirms why cinema can be fun and stylish without forgetting to be meaningful.
(In theatres, July 2009): There can be such a thing as too much of a good thing, and the second hour of this film is a case in point: What starts out as a tight episodic war thriller with uncanny suspense sequences eventually loosens its grip on the audience and meanders on its way to a meaningful conclusion. Don’t be fooled: even with its loose and predictable third act, The Hurt Locker still is one of the best action films of the year, and one of the best Iraq war movie so far. But a better-controlled film would have been even more powerful. Director Kathryn Bigelow makes a welcome return to the big screen and shows from the start that her action sequences can be as good as anything else: The Hurt Locker’s best moments (including the hair-raising image on the poster) are in the half-dozen action/suspense sequences putting us far too close to American bomb-defusing experts working in Baghdad. This film justifies the whole quasi-documentary handheld-camera aesthetics to a level of clarity that other glossier filmmakers can’t even imagine: As a depiction of war-driven action, it’s as good as it gets –a fortunate achievement for a film that focuses on the adrenaline junkies for whom war is a continuous peak experience. There are a few familiar faces among the supporting characters (including Ralph Fiennes as a foul-mouthed English mercenary), but it’s the relatively-unknown main characters that make the strongest impression: In particular, Jeremy Renner is a revelation as a loose-cannon protagonist whose motivations eventually become the crux of the film. Despite the meandering subplots that shed a lot of energy in the latter half of the picture (and the accumulation of inaccuracies to pump up the drama at the expense of realism –how handy that one of our lead sappers is also a sniper!), The Hurt Locker remains a strong piece of cinema, and one of the rare war films about Iraq to make its point with little partisan content. It’s both exhilarating yet realistic, reaching out to both the action-movie fans and those who think that war is hell.
(Second Viewing, on DVD, June 2009): You would think that a 1995 film re-casting 1992 racial tensions in then-future 1999 Los Angeles would be irremediably dated fifteen years later. But nothing could be farther from the truth: For once thing, the story (co-written by James Cameron) is a savvy exploration of a seductive SF concept that hasn’t aged a wrinkle since then. For another, Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional direction keeps things moving both in and out of frame: there’s a terrific visual density to what’s happening on-screen, and the subjective camera moments are still brutally effective. But even the dated aspects of the film still pack a punch, as they now appear to have taken place in an alternate reality where police brutality and memory recording have flourished even as the Internet hasn’t taken off. (History of Science students are free to sketch how one explains the other.) But it’s really the characters that keep the whole thing together: Ralph Fiennes is mesmerizing as a romantic hustler, while Angela Basset’s seldom been better than she is here, all smooth cheekbones, high attitude and shiny dreadlocks. The pacing is a bit slow (how many times do we need to see Lenny pine away for Faith?) and the ending isn’t as snappy as it should have been, but Strange Days is still amazingly peppy for a film with such an explicit expiration date. It measures up against the best SF films of the nineties, and that’s already saying something. The DVD has a smattering of extras (most notably a few good deleted scenes, a twenty-minute audio commentary and a teaser trailer that I could still quote fifteen years later), but this is a film overdue for a special edition treatment.