(In French, On TV, November 2018) In fiction, searching for long-lost family secrets is fun and exciting and fruitful as the unlikeliest of thread lead to bigger and bigger revelations. In reality, those family secrets usually lead nowhere (as people don’t remember or are dead) or to unsatisfying places (as in terrible secrets, or conversely making much of what turns out to be mundane material). Occasionally, though, you do get real-life mysteries that end up like fiction, and that’s the story that Philomena ends up telling. It starts as a disgraced British journalist is contacted by an older woman with a story to tell about how her child was taken away from her and given up for adoption. Where is that child now? And who made this happen? Our two protagonists’ investigation eventually takes them to the United States, where they discover in rapid succession that the long-lost son was an influential closeted Republican, and that our journalist had met him years before. There’s a little bit more to the story, but Philomena is more than the result of the investigation: It’s about an unlikely buddy road movie, calling out injustice, discovering unfinished facets of history and very good performance from Steve Coogan (maintaining a grip on his showboating tendencies) and Judi Dench as the eponymous Philomena. Well-executed with a satisfying (yet tragic) mystery at its core, Philomena is a decent drama that may win over even skeptics.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) You’d think that a “remake” taking on not only a classic Jules Verne novel but also the legacy of an Oscar-award-winning 1950s epic movie would struggle to distinguish itself, but that’s not really the case with the 2004 version of Around the World in 80 Days, for reasons both good and abysmal. Let’s not pretend that this is a good movie: By taking the guts of the Verne novel as overlay on an unusually dumb kids’ movie featuring the “comedy” of Steve Coogan, it quickly and firmly establishes itself as a waste of potential from the very first few minutes. The accumulation of steampunk anachronisms and low comedy means that it’s hard to take the result seriously, and the various hijinks that follow only confirm this experience. The result is pretty much what we’d expect, the only flashes of wit being either upstream (Verne’s source material) or downstream (acting, special effects, set design) from the script. And yet, there is something to see here, mostly because Around the World in 80 Days is an exemplary representative of the big-budget bomb subgenre: so much money has been thrown on-screen that it’s hard to look away. Since the film co-stars Jackie Chan and features a bit of his classic blend of action and comedy, a few sequences still stand out as watered-down but still effective examples of what Chan could do in his prime. Then there’s the casting, which brings together western comedy and eastern action in combinations never seen anywhere else: Jim Broadbent, Kathy Bates (as Queen Victoria!), Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Cleese, Rob Schneider, Luke and Owen Wilson, but also Maggie Q, Karen Mok and none other than Sammo Hung as Won Fei Hung. That’s … amazing. The mixture is far less involving than the individual parts that form it, but the film is definitely worth a look if you want to see those actors and ideas thrown together. The result certainly underperforms, but it’s a ride.
(On DVD, July 2011) There’s a mess of intentions in Hamlet 2 that makes it hard to cohere as a purely enjoyable comedy. On one hand, the film is generally more successful when it plays things broadly, taking advantage of Steve Coogan’s go-for-broke willingness to try anything, and an irreverent attitude that places no gags beyond the script’s reach. The “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” musical number is the highlight of the film, topping whatever risqué subject matter and foul language may not have reached. There are a few good absurd touches and unexpected character reversals, such as starring Elizabeth Shue as herself, taking plot directions from a young drama critic, meeting the accomplished parents of a good kid posing as a gang-banger, and ultimately having the kids save their teacher’s self-esteem rather than the usual other way around. As with most comedies, there are a few smiles here and there. But Hamlet 2 is also saddled with a misguided intent to delve into humiliation comedy, to carry scenes too long after the point of the joke, and to attempt providing redundant emotional scaffolding to the comedy. As a result, the film runs long even at roughly 90 minutes. Coogan, playing a character often too dumb to live, is exactly the kind of actor who overacts when he’s not reined in: his performance is a symptom of a film that hasn’t quite mastered tonal harmony from beginning to end. There’s enough off-kilter experimentation here to keep anyone interested, and the third act is successful enough to patch most of the early film’s laugh-free rough spots, but Hamlet 2 doesn’t quite manage to do justice to the kind of film it’s mocking. The DVD contains a making-of featurette that tells us a bit about the writers’ intentions (parody the “inspirational teacher” movies sub-genre) and shows us that the film’s been fun to make.