(On Cable TV, June 2018) If The Sting doesn’t play quite as well today as it did back in 1973, it’s largely its own fault—it was so influential that, having birthed an entire sub-genre of con movies, it finds itself imitated to the point of irrelevancy. This is not to say that the film isn’t worth a look—in between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the main roles (Redford being a touch too old, but who cares), some playful directing by George Roy Hill, and a rather charming recreation of mid-thirties Chicago, The Sting was and remains a top-notch crowd-pleaser. Where it fails is in keeping a sense of surprise. Even without having seen the film before, the ending is utterly predictable … not because it’s badly written (in fact, it was quite surprising to audiences at the time), but because the basic tenets of the entire ending have been endlessly duplicated by other lesser conman movies since then. Of course, the conman is in perfect control of the plot. Of course, the con is so big as to envelop even the structures in which the con operates. Of course, you have to confuse and whisk away the victim without them even suspecting the truth. Of course, even the authorities aren’t. Surprise: zero. But… Pleasure: quite high. Mixing memorable ragtime music, fancy scene transitions and even fancier title cards, The Sting is made for fun. It’s early enough in the post-Hays code to be cheerfully amoral, but not quite dedicated to the darkness that engulfed Hollywood cinema in the early seventies.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) One of the peculiar pleasures of re-watching older movies is that you get to experience the same mystifying questions as previous generations of moviegoers. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, that means watching the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage and smiling while wondering what such an atonal sequence is doing in a western movie. Reviewers have been asking that question for nearly fifty years, so I feel in good company. Not that this is the only question left unanswered by this film, which seems dead-set on not doing things the conventional way. While the buddy chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford is next-level fantastic, everything else seems made to defy convention. Our charming but quixotic characters are out of time, too late for western heroics and too early for gangster drama. They flee rather than fight, but find themselves caught by fate several minutes later. There’s comedy overlaying a heavy drama (and one of the most famous tragic endings in movie history, overlaid with comic markers). But it works, largely because screenwriter William Goldman knows what he’s doing, and because of the great actors taking on the lines. The comic moments work—the “enough dynamite” sequence is still very funny. The result has survived the year reasonably well, largely because few studios would be willing to take that many chances with a big-name film these days.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) In many ways, Truth is a tough movie to watch. Whereas other movies will eulogize journalists as fearless truth seekers whose work helps change the world, this 2015 film uses the 2004 Killian documents controversy to deliver a story uniquely suited to 2017’s sadly post-truth era. It’s about journalists doing their best to report explosive documents on a presidential candidate … and then being unable to defend themselves against accusations of biased reporting. Based on journalist Mary Mapes’s memoir of the events, Truth is a stomach-churning docudrama about the nitty-gritty of reporting in a politically charged environment and how truth itself can be elusive despite everyone’s best efforts. Led by the always-excellent Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as a convincing Dan Rather, Truth takes us behind the scenes of TV investigative journalism in all of its quirks in marrying reporting with TV presentations. Alongside them, Topher Grace delivers one of his most animated performances, while Bruce Greenwood, Elizabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid have valuable input in smaller roles. It’s often absorbing viewing, but don’t expect an All the President’s Men triumphant finale here as much of the film’s second half is spent dealing with allegations of partisanship, and the ending offers little certitude in who was right. As 2017 unfolds alongside a misleading chorus of “fake news” allegations, Truth takes on a particularly bittersweet quality for anyone who’d like sanity and reason to come back to the mainstream discourse—it feels like an exposé of the primitive tactics that have since then been weaponized to a virulent degree. But then again, movies don’t owe anyone any comfort.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) Adapting a novel to the big screen is tough enough, but adapting a non-fiction book as a movie seems even tougher—it’s about jettisoning the informative material and building up the story, even if it means adding more to it. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Wood (which I read between seeing the movie and writing this capsule review) is a compulsively readable account of a forty-something man’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, occasionally alongside an old friend who’s even less in shape than he is. In doing so, Bryson gets to talk about the state of American natural preserves, the environmental collapse of some tree species, the nature of the Appalachian trail, what kind of person voluntarily hikes 3000 miles in a few months, and assorted topics that come to mind while walking a few miles every day for weeks on end. The film elides the details, although a surprising amount of top-level information still finds its way in the dramatization. As a movie, A Walk in the Woods wisely focuses on the difficult relationship between the two hikers, and the various incidents that can take place along the trail. Much of the film’s first half sticks impressively close to the book—but both diverge later on as the book itself becomes less storyable and the film feels the need to build everything to a dramatic conclusion. Robert Redford is very likable as Bryson, given his weathered features and sympathetic persona. Playing opposite him, Jeff Bridges makes for a capable foil as “Stephen Katz”, an out-of-shape screw-up who tags along for the hike. A few name actors pop up in amusing small roles (Emma Thompson as an understanding wife, Kirsten Shaal as an intolerable hiker, Nick Offerman as a hiking gear salesman) but the focus here is on Redford, Bridges and the trail itself. The dramatic climax doesn’t quite work (it feels shot in a studio, far too engineered to feel natural, and on-the-nose as to what the characters learn from it) but the rest of the film has a warm feel to it—kind of an extraordinary adventure achievable by ordinary people. Some of the scenery is spectacular enough to kindle a diffuse desire to walk the trail, but in this case please do read the book—better than vicarious adventure, it’s detailed enough to make anyone reconsider ever walking the Appalachian Trail.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) A big-budget dramatic romance set in Africa, featuring two megastars and a credible historical recreation without the tiniest bit of genre elements? No, they don’t make them like this anymore. Out of Africa is more than thirty years old and it often feels even older, what with its languid pacing, lush location shooting, and its young-looking Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Director Sydney Pollack clearly understand the film he’s trying to make, and the African locations are impressive in their own right. Streep is terrific in an Oscar-winning performance, Redford tempers his natural charm with a not-entirely admirable character and the complex story is a cut above the formulaic notion of “romance” that has dominated the genre over the past decades. (It helps that it adapted from a book.) While I’m not sure it’s possible to be enthusiastic about Out of Africa nowadays, it’s not that hard to understand why it swept the Academy Awards that year: This is big-budget respectable filmmaking in the classical mould. A modern version would be about 20 minutes shorter, but then again a modern version would be rewritten (for better or worse) by Nicholas Spark, make extensive use of CGI, probably feature a biplane/car chase and co-star Vanessa Hudgens and Channing Tatum (again, for better or worse). Perhaps it’s best if they don’t make them like this anymore.
(On TV, February 2016) I have never played golf and I’m sure it’s a nice excuse to go for a walk, but the lengths through which The Legend of Bagger Vance goes to add a layer of mysticism to hitting a gold ball would be impressive if they weren’t faintly ridiculous. A very young Matt Damon stars as a golf prodigy damaged by his WWI experiences and recapturing his groove during a crucial tournament. Will Smith shows up as the exemplar of the so-called “Magical Negro” trope but makes it an endearing role through folksy sayings and unaffected demeanour. Charlize Theron has a decent role as a woman trying to save her father’s gold club from closing down and at least looks the part of a southern aristocrat down to the garter belt and stockings. Other than that, and notwithstanding the magical titular character, The Legend of Bagger Vance is very much a standard underdog sports drama, ending with just enough success to feel like a victory. It does feature of lot of material in which golf becomes a proxy for genteel life philosophy. Director Robert Redford is going for a quiet period film and does manage to feature some lush scenery along the way. But the result, for some reason, seems aimed squarely at those middle-aged (and older) men trying to rationalize their love of the game to whoever will listen. No wonder I caught the movie as it was playing on the Golf Channel!
(In French, In Theatres, August 2016) As the father of a preschooler, I’ve been watching a lot of kids’ movies lately, and this 2016 remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon is notable for its refreshing sense of decency, restraint and timelessness. It’s not a particularly complicated story, and that helps set the tone for an unhurried film in which an orphaned boy, living in the forest under protection of a dragon, gradually reintegrates human society. A number of clever design decisions reinforce the film’s intent. Voluntarily set in small-town America, this is a film that avoids too-clear markers of time, and could have been set at nearly any time during the last forty years. The dragon is made fuzzy-green, intensely huggable like a big cat rather than scaly and frightening. The cinematography is all in soft tones, back-lit trees, hazy sunlight and desaturated colours. (Alas, those choices often clash with the film’s 3D projection and make it harder to watch than necessary—Pete’s Dragon may be best seen flat at home.) Robert Redford shows up as a likable old man with stories to tell, whereas Bryce Dallas Howard is just as sympathetic as the mother figure of the film and Oakes Fegley earns notice as the boy in the middle of the story. Director David Lowery’s deliberate pace makes it easier to underscore the film’s themes about family and growing up, as well as big emotional payoffs for most characters. (Even the dragon!) A family film in the classic, almost forgotten sense of the term, Pete’s Dragon is charming and well-made at once, ensuring that it will earn at least a modest success in years to come.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) Marvel Studios sure has been on a roll lately; exception made of the dull Thor movies, their last few films haven’t merely played the superhero-blockbuster movie theme as well as it could, but they’ve started playing around with the formula in ways that could be considered risky. So it is that Captain America 2 goes well beyond its predecessor, taking on the style of a contemporary techno-thriller, destroying some of the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far and piling up revelations about the entire Marvel series. It’s standard superhero stuff, but it’s so exceptionally well-made, and takes such unnecessary chances that a less confident studio would have avoided, that it can’t help but earn a lot of sympathy. Making fullest use of Chris Evans’ enduring charm, Captain America 2 also gives bigger roles to Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury: both prove equal to the greater scrutiny. (And that’s without mentioning the plum role given to Robert Redford, in a nod to his place in 1970s political thrillers, or Anthony Mackie once again making full use of his limited time in a supporting role.) (Oh, and George St-Pierre bring a welcome –if incongruous- French-Canadian accent to the film.) The title character adapts well to the current era, but the dilemmas of the contemporary surveillance/intelligence state aren’t a good match for someone forged in 1940s idealism, and it’s those themes, even cursorily tackled, that give interesting depths to Captain America 2 as more than just an action film. Still, even on a moment-to-moment basis, directors Anthony and Joe Russo show a really good eye for what makes great action sequences: fluid camera work, movement with weight, solid sound design and clever moments all contribute to making Captain America 2 one of the best-directed action movie in recent memory: the extended car chase is particularly good, as is the elevator fight sequence. (In-between the other Phase 2 films, let’s give credit to Marvel Studio for its choices as it picks lesser-known directors for major movies.) Other fascinating bits and pieces pepper the film, from a deliciously mainframe-punk Artificial Intelligence reprising a character from the first film, to the big and small details tying this film to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an impressive piece of work, whether it’s considered on a moment-by-moment basis or as part of a series that now sports seven other entries. At a time where DC can’t manage to complete even one fully satisfying superhero movie, it’s a bit amazing to see Marvel so successfully achieve the insanely ambitious plan they forged years ago, at a time when even planning a trilogy was a bit crazy.
(On Cable TV, July 2014) Some movies demand admiration simply by sheer audacity, and All is Lost‘s ultra-minimalism in portraying a single man stranded on a damaged boat in the middle of the ocean is the kind of stunt filmmaking that makes for an intriguing departure from the usual movies. There is only one cast-member: Robert Redford, supporting an entire film on his shoulders while having fewer than a dozen spoken lines. Much of the film is spent seeing him react to the collision between his boat and an errant shipping container: as his situation gets worse (powerful storms don’t help when the boat is leaking), All is Lost becomes a pure survival thriller about a man losing everything and yet never giving up. Writer/director J.C. Chandor delivers a superb cinematographic exercise, considerably improving upon the directing in his debut Margin Call. There’s a refreshing lack of dramatic intensity at play: Redford underplays everything as would befit a man focusing on survival, while the score and cinematography also try to restrain themselves. But while the film is easy to admire, it’s not quite as easy to love: it’s a bit longer than it should have been, and the ambiguous ending will either work or not. Still, much of All is Lost‘s power comes from its self-assured portrayal of survival at sea under desperate circumstances. It would work as a good double-feature for either Life of Pi or Gravity.