(In French, On Cable TV, December 2018) There’s a whole slew of apolitical politics-adjacent American movies out there, and Guarding Tess has one of the strangest hooks of them all—Nicolas Cage as a Secret Service agent assigned to an exasperating detail as he’s in charge of protecting a widowed First Lady living in a small town. She (played by Shirley MacLaine) often considers her security detail undistinguishable from her serving staff. You can imagine the rest, including a third-act thriller that runs at odds with the generally comic tone of the film up to that point. Of course the secret agent and former first lady will make up and learn lessons about each other—that’s not the point of the film. What Guarding Tess has in abundance is Cage playing off MacLaine, pokes at the reality of a Secret Service team assigned to what they consider to be a dead-end posting, and the minutia of such an arrangement. There’s a real genre twist thirty minutes before the end of the movie as the former first lady is kidnapped, buried underground and then Nicolas Cage has to shoot a toe off a suspect for him to confess the crime. Somehow this ended up in a comedy, but it feels a bit more natural in the movie than described like this. (After all, what would be the point of a security detail if there wasn’t a threat to their client at some point?) I still liked it, but Guarding Tess is almost the very definition of a movie that you shouldn’t watch if there’s anything more pressing to do.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) There’s quite a bit of metafictional context about Postcards from the Edge that make it a fascinating movie for those steeped in Hollywood history. For one thing, it’s not just a movie about a Hollywood actress with addiction issues trying to get back on the right path despite the domineering influence of her mother—it’s also adapted from an autobiographical novel from Carrie Fisher that many saw as a roman-à-clef about her relationship with her own mother Debbie Reynolds. (Fisher herself maintained that it was a novel for a reason, but there are substantial differences between the inward-driven, stylistically experimental novel and the far more conventional film whose script she adapted herself.) Taking all of this rich material and giving it to seasoned actors’ director Mike Nichols seems like a natural fit, even more so when he’s able to count on an impressive gallery of capable actors, staring with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in the central mother/daughter roles. I don’t particularly like MacLaine in general, but she’s quite good here and Streep has seldom been as funny as in this role. The Hollywood satire circa 1990 is likely to remain more interesting than the familiar dramatic material, but there’s enough here for everyone—including musical numbers. Postcards from the Edge is almost a piece of Hollywood history the more you know about the business and the history, but it’s strong enough to be interesting even to casual viewers.
(On TV, September 2018) There’s nothing particularly fancy in Two Mules for Sister Sara than a by-the-numbers Western adventure featuring Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Mexican rebels and French antagonists. But the details are what matters, and especially the interplay between two actors in fine form. Peak-era Clint Eastwood more or less reprises his man-with-no-name role as a capable loner who comes across a woman being assaulted by bandits. Compelled to help her by her nun’s habit, they then both go on various adventures that end with the defeat of the invading French forces. I’m not a big fan of MacLaine, but she’s pugnacious and likable here as a two-fisted nun. The film does a nice job at pacing its adventures, and features one spectacular train derailment to keep things interesting. Most of Two Mules for Sister Sara has been seen elsewhere, but it’s executed so well that it feels fresh again.
(On DVD, January 2018) For late-twentieth century cinephiles such as myself, Jack Lemmon is first the eponymous Grumpy Old Man, or the miserable salesman of Glengarry Glenn Ross. But this late-career Lemmon is the last act in a long list of roles, and films such as The Apartment (alongside Some Like it Hot and The Odd Couple) do suggest that young Lemmon was the best Lemmon. He’s certainly charming in The Apartment, playing a young man who has struck a most unusual arrangement with his superiors at work: His apartment made available for dalliances, in exchange for professional advancement. The film does begin in firmly comic mode, as the protagonist juggles the schedules of four executives with his own desire to sleep, and then to court an elevator attendant played by Shirley MacLaine. The first half of The Apartment plays as a proto-Mad Men, capped off by a sequence in which Lemmon dons a dapper hat and strolls out like a true New York City professional with a bright future. The look at this slice of 1960 NYC living is terrific and if the film had stopped there, it would have been already worth a look. But there’s a lot of murk under the premise of the film and The Apartment soon heads deeper in those troubled waters, shifting from suggestive comedy to much bleaker romantic drama as the protagonist ends up in romantic conflict with one of his superiors, and then in even darker territory with a suicide attempt that changes everything. Director Billy Wilder had an illustrious career, and the way he shifts adeptly between three subgenres in a single film is a great example of what he could do with difficult material. The Apartment is still unsettling today—less so than upon its release, but it still defies sensibilities. The film’s second half is a great deal less fun than the first, but it does give much of the film’s enduring power.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2017) Get your hankies out, because Terms of Endearment is here to make you sob as hard as you can. The story of a relationship between a mother and her daughter spanning decades, this is the kind of slice-of-life movie where mundane details add up to epochal drama. The weight of the passing years heighten the sweep of the drama, but it’s not all wall-to-wall dourness as the film does reach for comedy under writer/director James L. Brooks. Some of the film’s most memorable moments are very funny, although they do take on a more sombre quality knowing how the film ends. Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger both turn in best-of-career performances as the mother/daughter duo, with Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, Danny Devito and John Lightgow all delivering good supporting roles along the way. It’s a kind of A-list picture that big studios don’t make anymore (although you’ll find similar material in independent films) and while it still works today, it’s a kind of movie made for a specific audience—I didn’t respond all that deeply to it, but I suspect that’s because I fall outside its target demographic.
(On TV, November 2015) One of the advantages of going back in time and catching moderately-popular movies from a decade ago is that they can help fills a few gaps along the way. If I had seen In Her Shoes back in 2005, then Cameron Diaz’s similar turn in 2011’s Bad Teacher may not have been so surprising. It also helps answer the question “What has Curtis Hanson done since L.A. Confidential?” and “Does Toni Colette look better with or without glasses?” (Answer: “With”, but then again I’m always answering that.) Otherwise, the most noteworthy thing about In Her Shoes is getting further proof that a romantic melodrama adapted from a book often feels far less formulaic than similar original screenplays. There’s an added depth and complexity to the story that comes straight from the novel, along with a number of literary devices that for some reason seem more common in adapted screenplays. (Reading a synopsis of the novel does help in finding out that the screenplay isn’t above some compression and simplification, but that’s how these things go.) Balancing heartfelt sentiment about long-lost family relationship with sibling rivalry and more straightforward romantic subplots, In Her Shoes doesn’t seem like much, but it lands its emotional beat honestly, takes an expansive left turn past its first act and features a few good performances by Diaz, Colette and acting-her-age Shirley MacLaine. Hanson’s direction gets the point across effectively, and if the film does feel a bit too long at times, it definitely ends well enough.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Truth is often stranger than fiction, so it’s no surprise to see Bernie work extra-hard at blurring the line between the two in telling us an unusual story of crime and punishment in small-town East Texas. Blending interviews with real people with fictional re-creation of the events, Bernie is the story of a likable man who ends up shooting a disliked widow. The public reaction in the community is such that in planning the trial, the District Attorney ends up requesting another venue in order to ensure that his client won’t be pre-emptively acquitted by the jury. Of course, the fun of the story is in the details, and the way writer/director Richard Linklater ends up presenting this true story through a blend of testimonials and scripted scenes. Jack Black has a good role as the titular Bernie, earning himself a spot outside the annoyance zone in which his last few roles have landed. Bernie also features two smaller but showy roles for Shirley McClaine (as the hated widow) and Matthew McConaughey (as the ambitious District Attorney, and another link in the rebirth of his career) While Bernie isn’t a laugh-a-minute comedy, it’s an often-affectionate look at a small Texan community and the weirdness of true life crime.