(Netflix Streaming, April 2016) For a film clearly aimed at kids, Holes does manage to keep up an engaging mixture of mystery, fantasy and comedy—not to mention weightier themes of destiny, racism and juvenile incarceration, delivered with a tone akin to magical realism. Shia Labeouf, in his feature-film debut, plays a young teenager sent to a desert detention camp after a freakish coincidence—except that his entire family is accustomed to those freakish coincidences given a long-running curse. Quirky characters inhabit an awe-inspiring mystery (why make kids dig thousands of pits in an old desiccated lakebed?) and by the time our teenage heroes are done unravelling the case, we’ve jumped into a few generations’ worth of conflict, prophecies and opportunities for redemption. There’s an admirable continuity in the way the film goes from specific tactile sensations such as digging under the sun to much-bigger themes such as predestination. Holes isn’t without flaws, but it works in different ways that most other movies aimed at its age cohort, and as such sustain a fair amount of scrutiny by older audiences.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) As far as period crime-dramas go, Lawless offers a quasi-charming throwback to Prohibition-era booze bootleggers. Adapted from a docu-fictive novel written by descendants of the bootleggers (Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest Country in the World) Lawless obviously takes the side of the hero bootleggers as they face off against the real criminals and the corrupt self-righteous representatives of the law. This is a romanced view of criminal activity, and while Lawless attempts something more than the usual crime drama, it doesn’t have the heft or scope required to produce a memorable result. Still, what’s on-screen isn’t too bad, especially when Lawless takes a few moments to indulge in its rural-Virginia setting. It helps that the cast is so impressive: between brother-outlaws played by Tom Hardy and Shia Labeouf, an extended cameo by Gary Oldman, an evil turn from Guy Pearce and a love interest played by Jessica Chastain, Lawless has enough star-power to keep anyone interested. (Hardy’s portrayal of an almost-comically-gruff character is a standout, as is Pearce’s repellent antagonist.) Still, the film’s biggest asset is in its somewhat-sympathetic portrait of moonshine production. Our outlaw heroes aren’t sadistic or repellant: they use the minimal possible amount of violence as a tool to keep things tidy in the pursuit of an extra buck. Occasional moments of significant violence are almost expected for the genre, while lengthier lulls in the pacing sap away some of the film’s energy on the way to attempt a more ambitious kind of film. Lawless ends up falling between two chairs, never completely happy to stick to an entertaining crime drama, while never having quite what it takes to become a criminal epic for the ages. Lawless will have to settle for a good-enough film, probably more disposable than the filmmakers intended (what film isn’t?) but still reasonably entertaining in its own right.
(In theaters, June 2011) I never thought I’d be thankful for 3D reining in a director’s worst impulses, but looking at the dramatic increase in Transformers 3’s visual coherence over its predecessor, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Michael Bay has finally met a limiting factor he couldn’t blow up. Simply put, the visual salad of quick cuts and flashing color that undermined Transformers 2 simply doesn’t work in 3D, and Bay has adapted his style in consequence. Much like accessibility for disabled people ends up benefitting everyone, it turns out that Transformers 3D is a lot more accessible… even for 2D viewers. There are a few amazing long shots in the film (one of the best being a highway stunt in which a robot transforms around its human passenger), and everything feels far more controlled and enjoyable as a result. It helps that the plot is better than the preceding films, blending a healthy dose of conspiracy theory with multiple betrayals and catastrophic imagery. (There’s a particular chilling moment that makes no sense in the context of the series, but shows what the trilogy could have built toward had it been coherently conceived.) It’s easy to miss Megan Fox (her replacement is bland), to wish that Ken Jeong should have gotten a better role and to think that Shia LaBeouf is this close to developing a distinctive screen personality (albeit not a pleasant one), but various bit players such as John Turturro, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand do quite well with small roles. Transformers 3 is hardly perfect, mind you: The plot holes are still obnoxious, the robots still look like unconnected piles of hardware, the lack of attention to characters is still annoying and the dumb humour of the series is still intrusive, but the improvement is perceptible –even when it comes from the actors doing their best with the material they’ve got. At more than two and a half hours, Transformers 3 is overstuffed with barely relevant material: A good script re-write could have combined characters for greater impact, and cut 30-40 minutes without too much trouble. But part of the pleasure of the Transformers series is in finding out what kind of spectacular mayhem can be put on-screen with an ultra-big budget. (The remarkable pre-credit sequence alone is probably more expensive than most movies in the history of movies.) On this level, Transformers 3 certainly doesn’t disappoint, even for jaded action junkies. The last hour of the film pulls out all the stops in portraying inventive set-pieces in downtown Chicago, and some sequences (such as the glass skyscraper) are nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s lavish summer entertainment with terrific audio/video production values, and for once there’s just enough interesting material in the script to keep us interested while Bay’s direction benefits from some much-needed restraint. While I’m not saying that the film will end up anywhere near this year’s end Top-ten lists, it’s such an improvement over the first two in the series that it feels like a success.
(In theaters, September 2010) As someone who’s on record as writing that the original Wall Street was “the definitive film of the eighties”, it goes without saying that I had been dreading the idea of a sequel: why mess with quasi-perfection? As seductive as the idea was to revisit those characters in the context of another financial meltdown, there’s no need to say that the idea of a sequel was entirely useless. After seeing the film, I still feel the same way: While director Oliver Stone’s film (he didn’t write it, curiously enough) is a lucid treatment of the 2008 financial crisis and has some interesting things to say about the shared hallucination that are today’s financial markets, it merely plays on the existing Wall Street brand and quickly becomes bogged down in a superfluous romantic drama featuring perhaps the blandest young couple in contemporary cinema. (Shia LaBeouf’s continued acclaim remains a mystery to me given his lack of on-screen personality, but he’s a charismatic powerhouse compared to Carey Mulligan.) With serial numbers filed off, Wall Street 2 is a lucid high-stakes drama skillfully dramatizing a difficult subject… but as a sequel, it lacks some oomph and magic. Still, occasionally, it shines a bit brighter than usual. One fascinating facet of the film’s direction is the blatant use of infographics to illustrate what the characters are saying, reflecting the way our world has become far more abstract since 1987, to a point that we even think in information being presented as computer graphics. While Gekko’s character has been considerably softened (a good creative choice, given the character’s age and his prison experience), Michael Douglas’ august performance still makes him one of the film’s chief attraction –to say nothing of a delightful cameo from another character in the Wall Street universe. What may be missing from the film, however, is the kind of dripping popular outrage that keen observers of the recent meltdown have felt at the way corruption, sociopathy, greed and sheer criminal behaviour are endemic in the financial sector. Wall Street 2 never gets angry the way the original did, and seems content to play with money as long as the right people get some. But wouldn’t that, in itself, be the most damning indictment of our times as seen from 1987?