(In French, On Cable TV, May 2018) Some movies stay with you and some movies leave without much of a fuss, and writing this capsule review a few weeks after seeing Dead Man Walking, I’m having trouble remembering anything specific about the film. This may or may not tell you more about the film than myself. After all, the film was a modest hit upon release, sparking discussions about faith, revenge and the death penalty. It’s executed soberly, and director Tim Robbins gives a wide berth to star Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon to show what they can do as actors. It touches upon a highly dramatic subject, what with a nun trying to help a death row prisoner atone for his sordid actions. It even leads to the kind of life-and-death climax that ought to leave an impression. Alas, my attention checked out early, perhaps motivated by the realization that I had seen this kind of Oscar-baiting movie countless times before, perhaps encouraged by the certitude that I would not see anything here outside of the usual Hollywood mould for issues drama. Once the premise is clear, so is its execution and conclusion. The film runs through expected paces, and the chosen tone of the story limits what it will do on its way to a foregone conclusion. I certainly do not expect anyone else to react the same way as a jaded cinephile such as myself would do—in fact, I would applaud strong reactions to the film by others. I can only report about what I think of the film, or how quickly it has evaporated in my mind.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, March 2018) I first saw The Player sometime in the mid-nineties and fondly remembered it as a good satire of the Hollywood system. Seeing today, now that I’m venomously better-informed about moviemaking, is almost better than a first viewing. Tim Robbins stars as a studio executive who, harassed by an unknown person, comes to accidentally kill a screenwriter. The rest of the film is about avoiding detection even in the face of persistent investigators. Writer/director Robert Altman has rarely been funnier as he (somewhat gently) skewers the Hollywood machine, portraying nearly everyone as self-absorbed jerks capable of the worst. Back in 1992, much was made of The Player’s nonstop parade of cameos—twenty-five years later, it’s turned into a game to spot people whose fame has considerably waned a quarter of a century later, or non-actors Hollywood royalty whose face were never that well-known in the first place. The film does begin on a very high note with a complex seven-minute shot that neatly introduces a bunch of narrative threads and characters. It spends a remarkable portion of its first half-hour lining up joke after joke even as it gradually builds up its premise. The rest of the film isn’t as constantly funny—The Player does take its plot seriously after a while, and the detective subplot isn’t particularly high on satire. The last few minutes, however, do go back to the satire, with an amusing movie-in-a-movie and a killer last few lines in which, well, “forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” While I don’t think I’m quite as bullish about the movie as when I first saw it, I still like it quite a bit.
(On DVD, October 2016) For some reason, Tim Robbins’s persona in my head has solidified as a bit of a semi-presidential intellectual at this point. So it feels surprising to see him ham it up in Nothing to Lose as an ad executive whose life crumbles to dust and is forced to ally himself with a disreputable quasi-criminal. The surprises don’t stop there: Martin Lawrence is almost likable as the motormouth criminal, which doesn’t reflect the unbearableness of his later performances. The rest of the film, though, plays almost on autopilot, with only a few surprises along the way. The first act chronicles how a successful man appears to lose nearly everything, while the second act shows him regrouping and the third taking vengeance against someone who has apparently wronged him. It’s familiar stuff, unimaginably contrived but moved along at a decent clip. Twenty years later, it’s potable but hardly revelatory—the social issues in allying a white executive with a black quasi-criminal film are nearly the same in 2016, which is depressing enough. At least there are a few laughs along the way. The soundtrack nearly feels like a time capsule at this point. While Nothing to Lose isn’t essential viewing, it’s not a complete waste of time either.
(In French, on Cable TV, November 2015) Some movies are made before their time, and I really wonder if Arlington Road would have been a more unnerving film had it been released three (or more) years later. There is, of course, a definite mid-nineties vibe to the proceedings, drawing from the Oklahoma City bombing to Ruby Ridge and Waco in setting up an anti-government domestic terrorism rationale: Three years later, the American national paranoia would be obsessed about foreign-driven terrorism. Adding foreign involvement to Arlington Road would have muddled an already preposterous plot that draws equally upon unlikely coincidences, comically evil plans, superhuman levels of deception by the antagonist and plans that would have a near-impossible chance to succeed if this wasn’t a movie. There’s emotional manipulation nearly everywhere, and at times it’s hard to believe that anyone in the cast, even Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges, can keep a straight face pushing the story forward. On the other hand, well-executed ludicrousness has a believability of its own, and so Arlington Road has the decency to remain interesting on a pure “OK, what will happen next?” level, egging us on to the next unlikely plot point. I’m not sure that it helps that the film is so determined to get its downbeat ending: you can forgive a lot more silliness if it’s all neatly wrapped with a happy bow. It makes for a more-memorable-than-average thriller, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better one.