(On Cable TV, November 2018) I’m really, really glad I waited four years to see Selma, because if I had seen it upon release (or—even worse—during its Oscar run), I would have been sorely tempted to dismiss its appeal as righteous Oscar-bait feel-good progressive tripe. Four years later, as American racism runs resurgent with an unrepentant ruling party cozying with white supremacists and a president who thinks there are “some fine people on both sides” of the racism question, we clearly need to go over the basics again. Racism is bad, discrimination is bad, hate is bad and violence is bad. And if that message hasn’t been dumbed-down or amplified enough so that everyone gets it, then let’s do it again. And again. Until at least a sizeable majority of American voters get it and act accordingly, putting the “economic anxiety” garbage to rest. That’s a lot of baggage to put on Selma, but it’s a film that can take the extra load. Cleverly written by Paul Webb and exceptionally well-directed by Ava Duvernay, it’s a film that describes the Selma-to-Montgomery marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s mind-boggling that this happened only fifty years ago, and even more mind-boggling that the United States, as shown by the 2018 midterm elections, are still having issues with racial voter suppression. Directed with some energy and awareness of the complexity of the issue portrayed on-screen, Selma feels like a political thriller more than a history lesson, and it doesn’t shy away from complex portraits of Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King. Capable actors like David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson and Carmen Ejogo (as well as many other actors in smaller roles, some of whom have become familiar names since the film’s release) are there to help, and some sequences—most notably the violence that interrupts the first march, breathlessly narrated by a journalist—are intense. But it’s also a film about moves and countermoves in conscious activism, and it is far from being as cheaply manipulative as it could have been. Movies like Selma often become activist acts of their own, by reminding us vividly of the nature of progress and what is needed to achieve it. At this moment, we need all the inspiration we can get.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) I will admit it: I expected far worse from The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and I’m pleasantly surprised at the result. Keeping in mind that expectations may be the key to good reviews, there is something fascinating in the way this film blends a courtroom procedural and religious possession horror, cleverly allowing dual versions of events to be shown on-screen. (Of course, as with nearly all horror movies, the paranormal version is far more compelling—otherwise why are we watching it?) This unusual sensibility helps explain why the film can boast of such a good cast, from Laura Linney’s conflicted lawyer protagonist to Tom Wilkinson as a tortured priest, with a good supporting turns by relative newcomer Jennifer Carpenter in the title role. Considering director Scott Derrickson’s subsequent filmography, we can already see in The Exorcism of Emily Rose the atmospheric conviction that would elevate many of his later films. It’s certainly enough to paper over the script’s overly dramatic manifestations of evil that would strike many as ridiculous. Still, this film’s biggest strength is to do the usual in a slightly unusual way, almost hiding behind the trappings of a legal thriller to blur the shape of its horror thrills. It does manage to keep audiences interested, which is more than we can say about many other similar movies. The tension between rationality and the supernatural is explored competently—just don’t pay too much attention to the claims that it’s based on a true story. Now popping up late at night on cable TV channels The Exorcism of Emily Rose remains a nice little surprise, especially for anyone expecting a formula exorcism horror thriller.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) There is often a tension, in modern-made period films, between the most idealized aspects of the era being presented and the modern values we wish they’d embody. Classic examples include Victorian Britain, as confronted with their terrible record on human rights; Antebellum Southern United States and slavery; the suburbs of the nineteen-fifties and the place left to women. (Heck, any historical period in Western history featuring anyone who wasn’t a straight white male.) But it’s occasionally possible to find a topic that manages to address both kinds of wish-fulfillment, and that’s something that Belle accomplishes quite well. The story of a half-black woman raised as an equal in a rich British families in the late 1700s, Belle builds its dramatic tension based on what we expect from such an era, and resolves them by showing ordinary people acting decently. Here really isn’t much more to that: the film’s big conflict is solved by revealing a panting (a real-life painting, as it turns out). As far as progressive-values film go, it’s basic but enjoyable – the period garb look fantastic, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is lovely in the lead role, director Amma Asante does well and Tom Wilkinson continues a highly successful string of good supporting roles. Belle doesn’t need to be much more than be amiable and look good, and it does that well.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) I usually find Vince Vaughn annoying, which is not really a good portent when watching a film built around him. But this time around, Vaughn looks as if he’s slowly stretching out of his overgrown frat-boy persona as a family man heading out for a crucial business trip. I’m not suggesting that his humor is any more mature than his usual shtick – but in Unfinished Business, he shows signs that he’s at least trying to play his age. It helps that hi co-stars, Tom Wilkinson as a sex-obsessed pre-retiree and Dave Franco as a too-dumb-to-live youngster, take up a lot of his usual immaturity routine. The result isn’t necessarily a good movie: Unfinished Business is dumb even by Vaughn standards, with crude humor sabotaging whatever emotional core the film tries to build as foundation. But it’s unsatisfying for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with Vaughn himself, and that’s already an improvement over much of his filmography. As for Unfinished Business, what’s to mention? A good small role for Nick Frost. Far more nudity (of both genders) than you’d expect. A far too long time-jump at the end of the prologue. I suppose that the film’s biggest flaw is how it unsuccessfully tries to navigate a middle-road between family-friendly sentiment and outrageous raunchiness. Unfinished Business feels padded despite a short running time and while the basic laughs are there, there’s also a sense that it should be much better.