(On Cable TV, January 2016) Jason Statham starring in a William Goldman script? Well, yes: Apparently, veteran director Simon West dug up an old Goldman screenplay and polished it to Statham’s persona, although the result remains more Goldmanesque than playing to Statham’s usual action thrillers. Taking place in the seedier corners of Las Vegas, Wild Card revolves around a British-accented hard-boiled bodyguard with a gambling problem. As the movie begins, an old acquaintance asks for help in exerting her vengeance, a new client wants pointers on how to be tougher, and our protagonist starts thinking about the amount of money it would take to get out of the business. Add some mobsters, a cinematography that practically lives in the seventies, a restrained number of action scenes and you have a movie that actually provides Statham enough substance to show that he’s a better actor than most people are willing to consider. The compromise has a cost, though: The few fights may not make his fans happy, and it’s certainly nowhere near thoughtful enough to aspire to art-house respectability. So it is that Wild Card often feels as if it’s sitting halfway between an action thriller and a gambling drama. There are a few good moments: In West’s capable hands, the fights are fine, Stanley Tucci has a very likable quasi-cameo as a mobster and Michal Angarano isn’t too bad as a nebbish millionaire trying to toughen up. Wild Card almost harkens back to an older era of filmmaking, not quite as rigidly bound by formulas and willing to punctuate drama with action rather than the other way around. But while the result may be fitfully interesting, it’s not enough to be memorable: it plays like far too many Statham films, as merely serviceable filler.
(On TV, April 2015) I’m usually a good audience for romantic comedies and/or anything featuring Jennifer Lopez, so imagine my disappointment at my disappointment for this film. A fairy-tale recast in modern setting (i.e.; a Manhattan maid in disguise as a wealthy guest catches the eye of an up-and-coming politician, leading to romantic complications), Maid in Manhattan seems intent on self-destructing before it ends. It is, of course, about class issues… but doesn’t offer much in terms of criticism beyond a pat “work hard and you too can become part of (or marry into) the upper class.” It never properly convinces audience of the perfect match between the two leads. It doesn’t offer much to do for Jennifer Lopez, who seems to have been cast almost solely on the basis of finding an attractive Latina with name recognition. It meanders through a series of obligatory scenes whose point is painfully obvious even when they begin. Poor Ralph Fiennes seems to wander in the film, lost and confused as to what he’s doing there, never credible as a rising political star. Even Stanley Tucci is stuck in a caricature and can’t escape the irritating mediocrity of the result. By the time the stock ending is assembled out of the obvious plot-pieces, it feels more like a relief that the entire film is over more than any heartfelt affection for the reunited characters. Maid in Manhattan classifies as a comedy on the basis that it’s not much of a drama and certainly not a tragedy –but you’d be hard-pressed to find laughs here. Neither will you find anything else worth remembering.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The past ten years have seen a mini-boom of sort in fairy tales and fantasy books converted to the screen through the same screenwriting formula, all eventually leading to the climactic shock of two armies running into each other. Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, Jack and the Beanstalk: nothing is safe from the Hollywood fantasy paradigm. In Jack the Giant Slayer, two fairytales become an action fantasy epic about kingdoms going at war, a peasant winning over a princess and assorted shenanigans to take over the throne. While the results can be interesting in bits and pieces (the depiction of a giant beanstalk has a can’t-be-missed patina of realism), it usually boils down to a familiar and ultimately boring template. While director Bryan Singer is a seasoned professional who knows what he’s doing, there simply isn’t much to the script. Nicholas Hoult does a bit better as the titular hero, although it’s easy to wonder what could have compelled Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci to take on such minor and thankless roles. It’s not an unpleasant film to watch… but the biggest problem with Jack the Giant Slayer is that it’s dull and almost instantly forgettable. Save for a highly pretentious final scene that somehow feels the need to link with the present, it’s a film that’s too middle-of-the-road to be noticeable. The perfect example of how quickly pop-culture can dispose of movies that have involved years of work by hundreds of talented craftsmen.
(In theaters, December 2011) Obviously inspired by the financial crisis of September 2008, Margin Call is a rare thriller in which conversations, analysis and boardroom meetings take the lead over car chases, explosions and gunfights. It starts with a mass layoff at an unnamed Wall Street trading firm and a dire warning from one fired analyst to his still-employed protégé: “Be careful.” Before long, our intrepid boy wonder has discovered that the firm is about to go bankrupt, and the news spread upward in a series of meeting with ever-more-important people. Strategies are discussed, blame is tentatively assigned, speeches are made, decisions are taken and, eventually, a terrible no-return strategy is adopted. The film isn’t as good as it could be: Margin Call’s low-budget and first-time director shows in the static cinematography, tepid pacing, overlong shots and lack of a fully satisfying conclusion. But the achievement here is considerable, starting from the terrific cast assembled here: Kevin Spacey gives a far more humane take on his usual screen personae; Paul Bettany is terrific as a high-flying trader who realizes the danger of his current situation; Jeremy Irons makes an impression as a point-one-percenter with gravitas; Stanley Tucci is wonderful as usual as an engineer turned financial analyst; and so is Zachary Quinto (looking a lot like a prettier Ewan McGregor in Rogue Trader) as the pivotal character who flags the crisis. The dialogue is sharp, the dramatic dilemmas are unusual, the characters are well-developed and the themes are current at a time where an increasing number of Americans are openly questioning the social usefulness of the business described here. While the dialogue-heavy piece won’t appeal to everyone, Margin Call is a clever and efficient film that fully exploits the limits of its budget to deliver a striking result.
(In theaters, July 2011) The inherent nationalism of the Captain America character makes it a tricky sell outside the United States. How best to translate a superhero originally developed to tap into pro-American anti-Nazi fever to an international audience that, to put it politely, may not believe as much in American exceptionalism? Nazis, unsurprisingly, are part of the answer: This Captain America not only takes places during World War 2 (albeit a dieselpunk-verging-on-atompunk fantasy version of WW2) and squares off against a supernatural Nazi opponent, but director Joe Johnston also adopts an un-ironic filming style reminiscent of classic adventure films. Fortunately, it all fits together, with a little surprise at the end: Trying something a bit different from other films superhero films proves to be a good idea, and Captain America turns into a refreshingly old-fashioned entertainment. A good chunk of the fun belongs to Chris Evans, who takes on the square-jawed heroics with unselfconscious honesty; good supporting roles also go to Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, Stanley Tucci as an eccentric mentor and Tommy Lee Jones, chewing on the kind of gruff military man role he’s so naturally suited for. The story plays itself out over a few years, with a few unexpected hooks and references to the real-world history of Captain America: keep your eyes out for a reproduction of the real Captain America #1 cover during the film’s amusing showbiz digression. Fans of the Marvelverse put on film will love the references to Thor and the Iron Man hooks with the importance given to Tony Stark’s father. Add to that a few good supporting characters, a decent romance with chronological room to grow, a nifty coda and some fascinating special effects and Captain America isn’t just good enough to become a high point of Summer 2011 in Hollywood, but a superb lead-in to 2012’s The Avengers.
(In theaters, December 2010) Burlesque does quite a few things blandly or badly, but the real test of musical comedies is whether they deliver the expected music, laughs, dance choreographies and smiles whenever the final credits start to roll. So it is that we can’t really fault the film for an intensely familiar structure, predictable plot developments, weaker tunes or a very PG interpretation of “burlesque”; not as long as it has enough song-and-dance. There are plenty of good news: Christina Aguilera proves to be a credible actress, Cher looks amazingly good for her age (and you can see this as an invitation to cue all of the usual cosmetic surgery jokes), Stanley Tucci is as good as he usually is, the somewhat better-than-usual banter probably comes from Diablo Cody’s screenwriting and in terms of choreography, Burlesque has more or less what we can expect from a contemporary musical. Unfortunately, there is little here to set the film apart from more notable musicals: The songs are instantly forgettable (the one exception, a maudlin solo number by Cher, stays in mind because it uses the flimsiest of pretexts to stop the entire film dead in its tracks), the plot offers few surprises, the choreography of each number blurs into an indistinct mush, and the choice to play much of the story earnestly rather than as ironic camp seems like a modestly wasted opportunity. There’s no risk-taking here, and the film’s family-friendly take on neo-burlesque is a telling clue as to what kind of middle-American target the filmmakers were aiming for. Fortunately, there are still enough fancy fishnet stockings on display to resort to sheer sex-appeal when the film’s other qualities prove defective. No matter what, there is at least some redemption in the mud: Burlesque may be ordinary, but it’s not often boring.
(In theaters, September 2010) I have a big soft spot for clever bubbly teen comedies, and those aren’t as frequent as you may think. Never mind how long it’s been since Clueless, Bring it On or Mean Girls: Easy A is now here to make us believe again in the power of a good script, decent direction and capable actors having fun in redeeming a high-school setting. Paying explicit homage both to classic works of literature and to John Hugues’ work, Easy A’s starts out with a witty and literate script, but it’s the actors that really bring it to life: Emma Stone is immediately compelling as the picture’s lead character, a sassy/cynical/smart teenage girl who takes on lying about carnal trysts as a path to social success. Around her, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci shine as an endearing mature couple who can’t stop trading sarcastic barbs: the rapid-fire delivery of their lines is one of the film’s sustained pleasures, and it show how confident Easy A can be in unloading its polysyllabic dialogue. There’s a lot of really funny material in here that doesn’t call attention to itself, and that will reward viewers with enough attention to keep up. Director Will Gluck showcases the script with zippy direction, but his technique wisely keeps the focus on the actors. While the film has a bit of a third-act problem in trying to bring everything together (the real-life answer would be “nobody will care as soon as you graduate”), the rich writing more than makes up for whatever longer moments can be found on the way to its conclusion. This is one teen film that everyone has a decent chance to enjoy.
(In theatres, January 2010) For viewers unfamiliar with Alice Sebold’s novel, Peter Jackson’s take on Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones has two major problems: First; its determination to beef up an elegiac tone about the aftermath of a brutal murder with suspense sequences that aren’t just jarring, but drawn-out to an extent that they become more ridiculous than gripping. Second; its utter refusal to provide conventional closure on both the thriller as the dramatic elements of the picture. There are several small flaws (such as Mark Whalberg’s unremarkable “say hi to your mother” performance, the difficulty of literalizing heavenly metaphors, or Stanley Tucci’s over-the-top performance as a character who screams serial-killer), but those two stick out badly. The second is actually a feature, especially for those who have read the book: The point of The Lovely Bones is not vengeance from beyond the grave (even though the narrator is the murder victim speaking from heaven) nor police procedural success despite the fixation on tracking down the serial killer. It’s reaching that final Kubler-Rossian step of acceptance, letting go of horrible things and accepting with serenity the idea that some things are never avenged, explained or satisfied. Still, this leaves us with the troubling tonal problems in transforming a dramatic novel that uses genre elements into a genre picture that seems stuck in inconclusive drama. The differences between book and movie are both profound and trivial: the chronology is compressed, one dramatic climax is toned down to a simple kiss, various lines of the novel are rearranged wildly. Some of this is due to the demands of presenting material on-screen, while others are simple prudishness. Still, Jackson does make a few sequences last twice, maybe three times as long as they needed to be, and that simply reinforces the sense that his approach to the material is fundamentally flawed. The best thing about the film, in fact, may be that those who go read the book afterwards will enjoy hearing Saoirse Ronan’s voice as the narrator.