(Netflix Streaming, February 2019) You can be out of touch and yet still feel that the cultural conversation is being manipulated, and that would cover my reaction and finding out that, out of nowhere, everyone in January 2019 was talking about the Netflix exclusive horror movie Bird Box. Much of the chatter had something to do with stupid people behaving stupidly—To promote a movie in which characters had to do things while blindfolded, Netflix sponsored influencers to do the same and then idiots ran with the idea to do even more dangerous things such as driving while blindfolded. One well-publicized car crash later, we were left to ponder where viral marketing ends. All of this, unfortunately, makes for a poor introduction to Bird Box—which is a kind of film best discovered out of nowhere rather than heavily marketed. It is, at best, an effectively realized horror thriller with an intriguing premise. But even then, it’s not able to sustain the scrutiny that a hype campaign creates. Simply put, the premise has to do with something invading earth and making sighted people go crazy suicidal. Screens or mirrors won’t protect you: the only way to go outside is to do it blind. (And ignore those who tell you to take off the blindfold, because they’re just trying to trick you.) Fast-forward a few years after the global catastrophe, and the story picks up with a mother (Sandra Bullock, effective) having to leave the confines of a comfortable secured home to undertake a dangerous journey to a possible sanctuary … with two kids in tow. In a way, Bird Box finds a niche in the spate of recent horror movies revolving in one way or another around sensorial deprivation, whether it’s sight (Lights Out) or sound (Hush, Don’t Breathe). It’s not badly executed on a technical level, although the less you think about the premise the better it’s going to be. The film does feel longer than it should thanks to a framing device that takes a long time to go through the inevitable plot points that it announces in the first few minutes of “now” time. The opening sequence is rather good, though—as there’s a catastrophic pandemic of suicides affecting our protagonist, it’s hard not to think that this is how The Happening’s first half should have felt like. Still, the story eventually settles down to a bunch of survivors in a house learning about the rules of the film’s horror and figuring out the essential facets of life under this new environment, followed by the protagonist and her kids making their way in a dangerous journey. While not particularly good, Bird Box remains an adequate film, and I think it may actually appreciate the longer it’s away from its initial hype.
(On TV, January 2019) Some movies are more infamous than famous, and to the extent that anyone even thinks about All About Steve, it’s usually to remind everyone else that it was a terrible film. (I don’t like the Razzies, but All About Steve is notable in that it led to Sandra Bullock winning a Razzie for the worst actress of the year, and picking it up herself … the day before winning a Best Actress Academy Oscar for The Blind Side, which is not necessarily a better movie.) With a reputation like that, it’s normal to approach the film with an “it can’t be that bad” presumption. All About Steve, however, is honestly that bad, although it can often camouflage its awfulness by humour. Even the premise is strange, what with a socially awkward girl obsessively pursuing a dreamboat of a romantic prospect, turning psychotic behaviour into rom-com antics. The problems, I suspect, go straight to Bullock as the producer of the film. There are plenty of hints that the script, as originally written, was far wackier than what eventually landed on the screen. There are enough zany hijinks and eccentric characters left over on the sides of the plot to make a reasonable hypothesis that when Bullock became the film’s producer and cast herself in the lead role, the main character re rewritten to fit their lead actors, and that neither Bullock nor Bradley Cooper wanted to strike out too far in absurdity. The result is a film that doesn’t know how to approach its own material. Bullock in the lead role is too conventionally sympathetic and cannot allow herself to completely become the nerdy obsessive protagonist in her full glory—she has to be fit to be played by Sandra Bullock’s persona, and that works to the film’s detriment as it holds back what could have been a far funnier film. Another actress may have been able to play a brainy outcast, but Bullock has to get her star moments. Much of the same also goes for Bradley Cooper, asked to play a relatively straight and featureless male romantic lead in a film geared for something else. This would explain such baffling tonal issues with the rest of the film, including a scene (glorifying Bullock’s character, naturally) mean to be inspiring and heroic, but just coming across as tone-deaf. I suspect that movie-star interference in films is widespread and corrosive, but All About Steve looks like an ideal example of the problem. The problems of All About Steve are all about casting—specifically when the casting of a persona end up weakening the character as originally written … which happens when the star and producer end up being the same person.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) Like many, I’m not overly happy with the recent tradition of relaunching franchises with gender-flipped casts—it smacks of opportunism, and a cheap way to revive franchises that have otherwise run their courses. But even grouchy me had a hard time resisting the charm of Ocean’s Eight, which resurrects the modern Ocean’s comedic heist franchise with a mostly female cast. Headlined by Anne Hathaway (going back to a sympathetic character after a too-long detour playing out-of-persona unlikable characters), the ensemble cast tears into the usual heist plot mechanics with gusto, with everybody getting a choice moment or two. Plot-wise, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, although it should be noted that rather than head for banks or casinos like their male colleagues, the women of Ocean’s Eight head for jewelry at a high-end fashion event … because why not. This enjoyable follow-up has a snappy rhythm thanks to director Gary Ross, and even the post-heist material doesn’t drag on too much despite wallowing in useless complications. (But it wouldn’t be a heist movie if they went for a simple approach.) The ensemble cast is at the top of their game, what with Sandra Bullock going head-to-head with Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter throwing in a bawdy French dialogue wordplay that is not adequately translated in the subtitles, as well as younger actresses such as Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and Awkwafina having good moments. It’s not meant to be profound or sophisticated beyond surface appearance, but Ocean’s Eight is a fun heist movie, and I quite liked it.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) Contemporary reviews of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close were fairly clear and unanimous: this was schmaltz of the highest grade, cynically manufactured to bait audiences and perhaps even the Academy Awards. As a jaded reviewer, surely I didn’t need to watch it and so decided not to. (I was also busy with a newborn.) But what if it worked? Years later, running down the list of Oscar-nominated pictures I hadn’t yet seen, I ended up starting Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close with low expectations and a considerable amount of built-in reluctance, leaving it in the background as I was doing something else. It really doesn’t help that the opening moments of the film hammer the premise home: Here’s the semi-autistic kid of a good man who died in 9/11, and he’s still having trouble coping. Buzzword bingo. From a conceptual standpoint, the film is still disastrous and a masterwork of manipulation. But as it unfolded and I kept interrupting what I was doing to pay attention to the film, I realized that the execution of the whole preposterous thing was gradually seducing me into accepting its reality. It helps to have good actors—Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock are exactly the screen persona that the posters promise us, but then there’s Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman and Jeffrey Wright in small roles. But the real draw of the film is Stephen Daldry’s inventive direction, which takes us into the dynamic mind of its young protagonist, and treats the edges of the screen as mere suggestion—there’s a lot of image blending here, flights of fancy from strict realistic mimetism and to see this after a few weeks spent deep in classic film was a reminder of how the state-of-the-art in terms of direction has considerably evolved over the past decade, with unprecedented ability to make reality malleable. Of course, the film is far too often too much for its own good: Daldry piles on the weepy triggers by the end of the film and if some of them work, the others feel far-fetched. I’m almost sure that my reaction in 2018 is far more positive that if I had seen the film in 2011—at the time, the film was pitched as a sure-fire Oscar candidate, tied to the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and still playing with raw wounds. Seven years later, well, the first kids without direct memories of 9/11 are finishing high school, we have more pressing urgencies to think about and the film has retreated into semi-respectability as “one of those Oscar nominees”. As a result, it now feels like a discovery more than an imposed viewing and that does make quite a difference. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film needs a critical revaluation (I mean: it is still schmaltzy), but it’s probably quite a bit better than critics said at the time.
(In French, On TV, July 2017) No one will ever claim that Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous is a modern classic. While some may have a justifiable soft spot for the original, it quickly becomes clear that this sequel has more interest in predictable box-office gross than any kind of artistic intention. Dragged back kicking and screaming into the world of pageantry when it becomes clear that her identity has been forever blown on national live TV, our returning protagonist (played with usual dedication by Sandra Bullock) knows fully well what’s expected from her this time around. Still, she gets to make humiliating mistakes, go rogue, tackle Dolly Parton to the ground (because why not?), vamp it up at a transvestite show (because again why not?) and impart some of her hard-won lessons to another female agent who could use a makeover. It’s formula and cute and saccharine like the first film, and it even lets William Shatner do a little bit of hamming along the way. The very essence of sequels is to do the same thing again but not too differently and in this light then Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous fulfills its ambitions. Fans of the first movie should like it. Everyone else may need to consider whether they want to subject themselves to more of the same.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) As a political junkie (with acute flare-ups in election years like this one), I’m perhaps more enthusiastic than most at the thought of movies seeing political operatives as heroes. Our Brand is Crisis (adapted from a true story) follows a group of American consultants as they are hired to help during a Bolivian election pitting a few bad choices against each other. But it’s not just candidates battling it out when the operatives have their own grudges to nurse against each other. In South American politics, nearly all tricks are allowed, and so much of the movie is spent following the twists and turns of the campaign as the consultants try to outwit each other. It sounds fun, it should have been hilarious and somehow … isn’t. Too contemplative to deserve a full “black comedy” qualification, Our Brand is Crisis falls short of the potential it had set up for itself. It’s also remarkably pat, as if it didn’t know about the audience’s political sophistication. Oh, so your candidate lies, cheats, won’t hold his promises and is widely disliked? Well, start with that rather than lead up to it, or be shocked when it happens. Otherwise, there seems to be a distinct lack of energy in David Gordon Green’s execution of the material, or maybe a dearth of substance itself. Sticking too close to the true story may have been a mistake. At least Sandra Bullock is enjoyable as a genius-level political consultant reluctantly dragged into the mud of a campaign once again. (She’s particularly funny early on, not so much afterwards.) Billy Bob Thornton gives her capable repartee as a longtime rival, while Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan (captivating in a woefully underdeveloped character) and Joaquim de Almeida are serviceable supporting players. Still, Our Brand is Crisis doesn’t reach its full potential and mishandles its ending by being far too falsely outraged after its own shenanigans. Just as there have been plenty of movies about political consultants, others are sure to follow. But it may be a good moment for newer and fresher narratives than “protagonists discover that their candidate is terrible” and “protagonists contemplate the damage they’ve done to democracy” because those have been done enough times already.
(In French, On TV, August 2015) There may have been something interesting at the core of Premonition’s premise; a woman experiencing flashes of her life a week later, after a number of mishaps and a fatal accident involving her husband. But as she tries to understand what’s going on without driving herself crazy, the film somehow manages to squander a lot of that potential. There’s a bit of mystery, sure, but the process of discovering what’s happening takes too long and frustrates more than it fascinates. Sandra Bullock isn’t too bad in the lead role –unfortunately, there’s not much to the film for her to do. Alas, the film occasionally dips into so-terrible-it’s-funny territory, first with a macabre decapitated-head sequence (tastefully shot, but there’s no mistaking what’s happening) and then with an ending that seems so ill-conceived that it strains credulity. (Nice job fixing it, hero!) That terrible ending is pretty much the final nail in Premonition’s coffin –it’s one thing to be dull (no one will remember the film, but that may be OK considering the alternative) but ending on that kind of overblown dramatic note is the kind of thing fit to any anyone remember Premonition as a bad one. (Great poster, though!)
(On TV, March 2015) There’s an entire sub-genre of time-traveling romances by now, and few of them actually make any sense on any rigorous level. The Lake House is among the more ludicrous of them, as a fantastical mailbox allows for a man and a woman separated by two years to somehow carry forward an epistolary romance. The premise doesn’t make sense (and I’d urge you not to contemplate it any longer than necessary), but that doesn’t mean that the film is bereft of small pleasures. Keanu Reeves still isn’t much for showing emotions, but he’s not entirely badly cast as the lead. (Although my memories of his disastrous turn in Sweet November may be too recent to offer any kind of non-biased assessment.) Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock is steady-as-she-goes in a rather undemanding role. Much of the film’s effectiveness depends on whether you can simply respond to the star-crossed recipe and stop trying to find ways around their predicament. If you can, there are a few sweet scenes here and there, most notably a tour of the city two years apart or a lost book finding its way back. Would I be trying to reach for a deeper exploration of genre, I would probably use The Lake House as an example of way in which a familiar SF genre premise (transmission of information backward through time) is exploited non-rigorously by romance in order to illuminate a far more emotional premise (that is; lovers separated by insurmountable obstacles) without regard to the extrapolation techniques of hard-core genre fiction. While that mechanism may drive SF genre fans crazy, it will work far better for Romance fans, because their expectations are being fulfilled. Much in the same way than in a letter, sender and receiver have to be aligned…
(On TV, January 2015) The nice thing about high-concept romantic comedies is that their failure mode is relatively innocuous: Even when they don’t work, they’re sort-of-enjoyable to watch as long as the lead actors are well cast. That’s definitely the case with The Proposal, an uneven romantic comedy featuring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Both of them play roles familiar to them: As a high-powered publishing executive, it’s not hard to see in Bullock’s performance echoes of Miss Congeniality. As a charming but long-suffering assistant, Reynolds here best plays his romantic lead archetype; sometimes-cocky yet almost irresistibly affable behind his chipmunk grin. Despite (or because) the 12-year age difference, both of them play well with each other –with extra grins given that he’s a Canadian playing an American whereas she’s an American playing a Canadian. They chemistry goes a long way in overcoming the frequent shortcomings of the film, from an Alaskan setting straight out of the East coast, a structure that feels forced to go back to New York for its conclusion, or an unnerving fascination for Oscar Nunez’s obnoxious character all the way to the end credit sequence. Some of the farce is obvious: sometimes it works almost despite itself (such as for the laboriously set-up nude scene), sometimes it just flops around curiously, asking for laughs and not getting any (such as; have we mentioned Oscar Nunez’s character?). At least Bullock and Reynolds are almost always there on-screen, earning sympathy despite an imperfect script. That makes The Proposal worth a look even when it doesn’t reach its fullest potential –what’s not to like about the sumptuous setting, or the fun of hanging out with two likable leads?
(On Cable TV, August 2014) It’s almost liberating to realize, shortly into a film, that you’re not the target audience. It’s a realization that frees you from the burden of trying to like the movie: Once you realize it’s aimed at someone else, you can become as dismissive as you can. So it is that comedy The Heat is really aimed at another kind of audience. While I’m left uncharmed by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, I can remind myself that the movie is for someone else. I can criticize the dumb humor, unlikable characters, simplistic plot points and lazy witless approach and who’s going to stop me? The movie is made for someone else. Overlong, repetitive and unnecessarily gruesome? Not. For. Me. I can find peace with The Heat as long as I remind myself that I shouldn’t be watching it. This isn’t meant to be a solid procedural cop drama: it’s a high-concept (Bullock reprising Miss Congeniality! McCarthy being as rude and foul as she can be!) executed just well enough by director Paul Feig to ensure that the target audience feels that it got what it wanted. It turns out that I like McCarthy a lot less in lead roles than in supporting turns such as Bridesmaids, and the tonal problems with the script frankly pale besides its unpleasant atmosphere. I suppose that I should feel satisfied that this is a female takeover of a typically masculine film genre. I should probably be happy that a performer as unorthodox as McCarthy gets a big leading role. But somehow, as The Heat plays out, I’m left out in the cold and unsatisfied by the results. But, oh yes, this isn’t for me.
(In Theaters, October 2013) I’m going to take a break from reasoned movie criticism and indulge myself in a few freefall back-flips about Gravity: This is a movie I’ve been waiting a long time to see, at least ever since I wanted to be an astronaut while growing up. Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film takes us in orbit for 90 minutes, and I loved every moment of it, jaw hanging open in astonishment for much of that time. The narrative setup couldn’t be simpler (accident in space; astronaut wants to go home), but the execution is almost perfect: Seen in 3D, Gravity is the definition of an immersive experience. From the impressive 17-minutes-long opening take, this is a film that attempts something ambitious and manages a delicate balance between showing something new while trusting its audience to follow along without excessive dumbing-down. It’s not scientifically impeccable (the orbital mechanics are simplified, the plot armor a bit thick at time) but most of the compromises are conscious ones made in good faith so that the story can work on a more emotional level. Sandra Bullock is spectacular as the quasi-civilian thrust in an impossible situation, while George Clooney is his usual charming self as an old-school “Right Stuff” veteran doing his best to keep the situation under control. But it’s writer/director Cuarón who earns most of the praise here, because Gravity is an insane gamble that works: A technically-complex film that features grand thrills, thematic depths, beautiful visuals and new ways of telling a story on-screen. There are a few remarkable moments in this film, from seamlessly going to-and-from subjective perspective, soundless mayhem, zero-gravity fire and strong emotions conveyed without histrionics. It’s both a science-fiction film (despite the lack of speculative elements, it’s a classic “Analog story”) and a memorable thriller, and it arrives in theaters as an invigorating antidote to the kind of cookie-cutter moviemaking that big studios seem all too eager to present. It’s worth seeing in 3D, and it’s worth seeing in theaters: how many other films can claim the same? Assured of a top-ten spot on my year’s end list, and most likely headed straight to the top spot, Gravity isn’t just a great movie: it’s one that makes it worth feeling excited about movies again.
(On TV, March 2012) Some movies just rub me the wrong way, not matter how skillfully they’re made and how upbeat they can be. Seen from far away on paper, The Blind Side is pure movie-of-the-week stuff: A desperately poor and lonely teenager is rescued by the unbelievable kindness of strangers and goes on to earn some success in sports. But then you pile up the extras, increasingly the misery of the protagonist, making sure the rescuing strangers are kinder than virtue itself, ensuring that the sport is all-American football and topping it off with “this is based on a true story”. The film itself is well-made: Sandra Bullock plays her age well as a charming southern belle who decides to rescue the disadvantaged teenager; dialogues are occasionally very funny; technical credentials are just fine and the film ends on a note of unabashed optimism. The Blind Side earned accolades all the way up to an Oscar nomination, made tons of money and it’s almost disgusting to criticize a real-life true story like this one. And yet… it’s not that difficult to be troubled by the portrait of a rich white family rescuing a traumatized black child. There’s an element of unctuous Caucasian paternalism there that overshadows the rest of the film’s virtues, and being the whitest guy I know doesn’t change the cringe-inducing way the film portrays the issue. (Compare and contrast with Precious.) I’m just as uneasy about the way The Blind Side seems to be courting mainstream audience approval with its repeated devotion to religion, football, family and other traditional values. It certainly doesn’t help that the film seems adapted from a very small portion of Michael Lewis’ far more cerebral eponymous book, and that its structure seem built on a series of short dramatic loops, suddenly introduced and quickly resolved. Every character seems nice, every passing difference can be overcome after a conversation or two and the film seems unwilling to tackle any serious issue along the way. It works, but it seems so deliberately paternalistic that I can’t buy into it.