(In French, On TV, May 2017) Let me tell you what a bad trailer is: A bad trailer spoils the movie so thoroughly that you can anticipate how it ends even eight years later. Now, I can’t account for the quirkiness of my brain given that it forgets when I’ve put my car keys while remembering a decade-old trailer for a mostly-forgotten movie, but the point is: I sat down to watch Brothers and kept waiting for that police confrontation scene … which comes at the end. It doesn’t help that the film is frankly dull, dealing with two brothers and what happens when one of them comforts the wife of the other while he’s missing and presumed dead in Afghanistan. You’d think that the question of whether the brother sleeps with the wife would be an interesting one, but Brothers is so limp and tedious that it’s a let-down when he doesn’t. From a narrative standpoint, there isn’t much to Brothers, making it feel even longer as the same plotlines are laboriously developed. It does fare batter as an acting showcase, given how it features Tobey Maguire in one of his most animated performances, the always-reliable Jake Gylenhaal as the problematic brother, and Nathalie Portman in a down-to-earth performance. Fans of straight-up drama will appreciate, although others may start eyeing their watches not long into the movie.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) As far as “suburbia is hell” dark comedies are concerned, The Details runs close to the clichés: Despair over a perfect yard, home renovations, adultery, family-building and keeping good relations with the neighbors all loom large over the stranded subplots of the film. It’s messy, chaotic, not particularly believable nor even likable, but The Details does score one or two laughs along the way, and is seldom uninteresting largely due to its one-thing-after-another approach to plotting. For a film that practically went unseen before making its cable-TV debut, writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes’ dark comedy does boast of a pretty good cast: Seldom has anyone used Tobey Maguire’s innate blandness to better effect, while Ray Liotta, Kerry Washington, Dennis Haybert and Elizabeth Banks all turn in perfectly respectable performances. (Still, Laura Linney earns most of the attention here with a performance that is alternately kooky, frumpy, sexy, scary and pitiable.) As befits a film that multiplies its subplots, The Details gets a bit sprawled along the way to its dark and cynical conclusion (rather than act as a guide-post, the opening monologues tells a little bit too much), but the ride is interesting. Don’t let the fact that you’ve never heard of the film dissuade you from taking a chance on it: It’s a sign of the current hyper-saturation of the movie industry that decent films such as this one can disappear in the system for more than three years after a limited theatrical run before resurfacing on cable TV.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a certified Moulin Rouge fan, I had been waiting a while for Baz Luhrmann to return to the same overblown wide-screen film style. Fortunately, the wait is over: The first half of his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is crammed with visual excess, lush 3D cinematography, frantic energy and flashy camera work. As a way to portray the excesses of the Roaring Twenties (along with a not-so-anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack), it works splendidly and I can see myself gleefully revisiting that part of the film before long. The film reaches an apex of sorts as it magnificently introduces the titular Gatsby (a perfectly-cast Leonardo DiCaprio) with fireworks and a wink. Toby Maguire makes for a good everyday-man audience stand-in through this madness and the film eventually calms down during its increasingly somber second half as the true themes of the story play out and reach their tragic conclusion. Luhrmann is the real star of The Great Gatsby, but the actors he brings on board all have their chance to shine. I’m not a fan of Casey Mulligan, but she couldn’t have been better that she is here as a flapper; Joel Edgerton also does well as he goes toe-to-toe with DiCaprio. As an adaptation, the film faithfully keeps the plot, overplays the symbolism, dispenses with a few subtleties, adds a framing device that’s not entirely useless and provides enough of a thematic slant on the material to keep fans of the book arguing in depth about intended meaning. On a surface level, The Great Gatsby is well worth-watching for its visual sheen (especially its first 30 minutes): this is an indulgent, no-budget-limits style of filmmaking that I enjoy tremendously, and as a way to present a classic curriculum novel, it’s invigorating.
(In theaters, May 2002) So everyone’s favorite web-slinging superhero swings in theaters, and even if I bemoan the quasi-absence of the classic TV show’s theme, I’m rather impressed with the rest of the film. Focusing as much on character than on action scenes, this is very nearly the ultimate comic-book film insofar as the “secret identity” passages aren’t deathly dull. Tobey Maguire transforms a potentially miscasting in one of the film’s greatest assets; Peter Parker, the geek-turned-superhero! Willem Dafoe is also excellent as the antagonist. (oh, that mirror scene… genius!) Kirsten Dunst, on the other hand, is blander than beige, giving us no reason why we should fall for her like our hero does. The few action scenes in the film really rock, thanks to the dynamite direction of Sam Raimi, who seemingly helms the film he’s been born to. Spider-Man appeals on several levels; if ever you’re bored, you can always watch for how it’s a curiously Catholic superhero film, as Spider-man is defined by guilt, celibacy and self-sacrifice. Good summer entertainment; I would have liked a few more action scenes, but now that the background’s been taken care of, maybe the inevitable sequel will be even faster-paced?
(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) This is pretty much the definition of a superhero movie for general audiences. Some adventure, some romance, some character development, some soap opera plotting, some special effects and some flashy colors. Sure, it made millions, but is it a film one can absolutely love? Eh. Shrug. The DVD is the incarnation of this eagerness to please everyone; two making-of are strictly pre-release promotional material (which isn’t appropriate material for the DVD, since we already paid for the damn thing; we don’t need to know how wonderful everyone was!) and the technical material is reduced to a strict minimum, safely tucked away in a “special feature” where only the die-hard geeks will look for it. The commentary track is okay, and so are the repetitive pop-ups. (Alas, the infamous first “World Trade Center trailer” is missing) Slick entertainment for the whole family, but a second look reveals the mechanical underpinnings of this lucrative enterprise.