(On Cable TV, May 2019) Catch me on a bad day, and I will talk your ears off about how grown-up adult cinema has been evacuated from the multiplexes and shuffled off to art-house cinema, minor streaming releases and the corners of the cable channels. I’m not even talking about meditative character studies, here—I mean geopolitical thrillers such as Beirut, heavy in suspense and action but somehow a bit more complex than the save-the-world Manicheism of modern blockbuster films. Beirut doesn’t do anything outlandish—it simply takes us back to early-1980s Lebanon, near the peak of the unbelievable civil war that took it from a world-class city to loosely arranged rubble. In this complex environment, with half a dozen factions fighting each other under the watchful eye of two superpowers and the powder-keg environment of next-door neighbour Israel, comes a negotiator being asked to secure the release of an American hostage. There are several complications, not the least of them being that the protagonist knows both parties to the hostage exchange and is returning to the city ten years after tragic events involving him. Beirut has the heft of a good thriller, with a flawed world-weary protagonist unsure of who’s trying to help or kill him in an environment where there are no certitudes. Every year, you can read about a dozen similar novels … but you’ll be lucky to find even one movie with that kind of ambition. Of course, there’s Tony Gilroy writing the script, one of the few Hollywood screenwriters with the clout and chops to tackle such a project. Director Brad Anderson has an uneven filmography, but he handles the material well, backed with capable production design taking us credibly to 1982 Beirut. More crucially, he can also depend on a good script and decent actors: Jon Hamm is great as the bruised negotiator, Rosamund Pike is fine as his local liaison (she even gets to have some well-delivered French dialogue) and there’s Dean Norris with a hairpiece in a secondary role. The ending is suitably satisfying—with characters more or less getting what they wanted, but with the impending irony of the 1983 bombing just around the corner. The plot is a full order of magnitude more complex than the usual blockbuster, so it will take some sustained attention to follow. Beirut is the kind of film in my wheelhouse, the kind of film I wish I’d see more often. It’s not a slam-bang thriller, but it’s engrossing enough to be worth a look—especially if the modern blockbusters have let you down.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) Thrillers don’t need a lot to plot to work, but there’s an acceptable minimum of twists and turns that have to be met and Return to Sender never manages to have more than two plot beats in mind. Rosamund Pike stars as a likable nurse violently assaulted in her own home. As you may expect, the rest of the film is very much about vengeance, even though the film may try to hide that fact. Much of the last act of the film is obvious and linear, without the slightest twist to keep things interesting. It doesn’t help that the film moves at a languid pace, easily allowing viewers to piece together what’s going to happen before it actually happens. As a result, Return to Sender is a remarkably dull film even for a dark vengeance thriller. The film’s low budget and pedestrian directing doesn’t help. Despite those significant flaws, it’s easy to see why Pike took the role; the film is centred around her, and there are eerie parallels between her character here and in Gone Girl, bordering on typecasting. She easily remains the best thing about Return to Sender, running circles around the other actors (well, except Nick Nolte as her father) Pike completists (not something to be ashamed of) may want to take a look at the film, especially now that it’s on Netflix. Everyone else, though, may have better things to watch.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) While I like director David Fincher’s first movies more than his last few ones (Seven, The Game and Fight Club are classics; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake less so), the world at large seems to disagree, his stature having grown steadily since the beginning of his career. With Gone Girl, though, it looks as if I’m re-joining the critical consensus: It’s a terrific thriller, unsentimental and merciless with a lot of depth along the way. It starts innocently enough, as a man reports the suspicious disappearance of his wife. As the plot unspools, twists appear. Many twists, eventually leaving characters as aghast as viewers. Saying more would be a disservice, except to praise both Ben Affleck and especially Rosamund Pike for performances that play off their existing persona (in Affleck’s case) or their lack of it (in Pike’s case). Fincher directs the film with quasi-alien precision, which feels just about right when Gone Girl reveals itself to be an acid commentary on marriage. A genre-aware script by Gillian Flynn (based on her own novel) makes Gone Girl a terrific thriller, but nearly everyone involved in the film bring their best work: In smaller roles, Tyler Perry delivers a memorable turn as a mesmerizing defense lawyer, while Carrie Coon transforms a small confidante role into something far more interesting. Still, it’s director Fincher who remains the star of the show, effectively presenting his set-pieces with a lot of technical polish. Gone Girl may not be a pleasant film, but it’s almost impossible to stop watching from its intriguing opening to its nightmarish conclusion. It’s just not (really not) a date movie.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Given the quasi-classic status that Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz enjoy in my own personal ranking, I was waiting for The World’s End with loaded expectations: As the concluding entry in the so-called Cornetto trilogy, would it be as funny, as tightly-written, as visually innovative and as purely enjoyable as its two predecessors? Well, while it may not be as hilarious as Shaun of the Dead, nor as satisfying as Hot Fuzz, The World’s End definitely holds its own as a great piece of genre moviemaking. A boozy nostalgic comedy that eventually evolves into something far more outrageous (with a daring ending that crams another film’s worth of content in the last five minutes), The World’s End is perhaps most impressive for the interplay between structure and surface, as written signs comment upon the action, as the story is outlined in-text as a flashback before re-occurring during the film, or for the various (sometimes less-than-pleasant) questions raised by the ending. There is a lot of depth here, and some of it may not be entirely apparent at a first viewing. Still, The World’s End is no mere puzzle box: it works well on a surface level, whether it’s the actors reunited for the occasion (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost interchanging their hero/cad roles, obviously, but also Martin Freeman, the lovely Rosamund Pike, and a glorified cameo by Pierce Brosnan), the impressive fight choreography, the ironic dialogue and Wright’s usual attempt to push film grammar in new directions. While a first viewing leaves a bit unsettled, The World’s End steadily grows in stature as you reflect on it –another characteristic it shares with its predecessors. Mission accomplished for Wright/Pegg/Frost, then, as the wait begins for their next films.
(In theatres, January 2011) As much as I like supporting Canadian Content (and there’s nothing more CanCon than an adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s last novel, filmed and set in Montréal), there’s something just subtly off about Barney’s Version. It’s an accumulation of small annoyances that damage the film, from a scatter-shot episodic narrative to flat performances to overly sentimental moments. I’ll be the first to note that presenting forty years of a man’s life on-screen isn’t the simplest screenwriting challenge: As an adaptation of a dense and thick novel, you can perceptibly feel the loose threads running over everywhere and be frustrated at the amount of extra detail missing from the screen. That’ll explain the way the film doesn’t quite seem to hang together. While Barney’s Version revolves around Paul Giamatti’s exceptional lead performance and Dustin Hoffman’s unrecognizable turn as his father, actors surrounding them are far less credible. Most of the female characters seem played either without subtlety (I once thought I could watch Minnie Driver all day, but her one-note shrill performance tested that assumption) or without affect (Rosamund Pike, sedated throughout): even assuming that the film is from Barney’s subjective perspective isn’t enough to excuse it. Humorous in the details and tragic in the whole, Barney’s Version runs off in all kinds of directions, and it’s not in its nature to finish neatly with a big finale. It’s best, then, to appreciate its small quirky moments, its Montréal atmosphere and the occasional Denys Arcand cameo. It is, as is the case with so many middle-of-the-road Canadian dramas, amiable but unremarkable. Barney’s Version is good enough to make Canadian audiences feel better about seeing it, but it’s not worth much commentary otherwise.
(In theaters, November 2002) Forty years after Doctor No, James Bond is back with his twentieth movie, and this one is kind of a half-hearted renewal. In the first hour, we actually see something new: James Bond failing and being captured. Shocking! you say as the suave British spy does things never seen before. He is tortured (with a Madonna song, appropriately enough), exchanged for another prisoner and has to fight his way back in the service. Tons of winks to previous Bond adventures are there for the sharp-eyed viewer, including a further nod to “the original James Bond” for those hardcore Bond fans. The only sour notes come from Halle Berry, whose Jinx has to be one of the worst Bond Girl ever: her line delivery is flat and perfunctory, with the added disadvantage of a crass attitude that make Bond look downright humble. Yikes! The second half of the film isn’t as appealing, given that it simply delivers Yet Another Bond Adventure with the usual trappings, boring action sequences and overlong finale. Jinx is scarcely worth rescuing, the villains are flat, the directing/editing gets more and more incoherent as the film goes along and some truly hideous CGI shots (Bond surfing amongst the icebergs) contaminate the otherwise good visuals. I did like parts of the end sequence, but the rest is just dull, dull, dull… Still, it’s hard not to like Rosamund Pike and the sword-fighting sequence. Add those to the good first hour, and we’ve got a better-than average Bond. Which is all you need, really.