(On DVD, May 2017) As someone who’s almost viciously opposed to conspiracy theories, I’m about as far as you can imagine from being someone predisposed to like JFK. As a self-conscious “counter-myth” to the official conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, JFK multiplies outlandish claims and plot in order to present a messy version of history in which powerful interests conspired to kill a sitting president. From a substance perspective, JFK often feels like a big ball of nonsense, spitting in all directions and actively introducing bad ideas in the discourse. But the big surprise is that despite all of this, I really liked the movie. It is, in many ways, a triumph of execution. Much of it has to do with its hyperactive style of editing, which feels very modern even twenty-five years later. It’s even more remarkable in that contrarily to much of the rapid-fire digital editing since then, JFK’s editing makes sense both from a content and container perspective: it’s often used to fake documentary proof, distinguish between periods, introduce flashbacks (sometimes even flashbacks within flashbacks) and peer into the characters’ minds … and it almost always makes sense. Acting credentials as solid, with a solid Kevin Costner in the lead, and various supporting roles played by such surprising names as Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones (in a very atypical role), Donald Sutherland, Gary Oldman and many others who are not always instantly recognizable in their roles. It all culminates in a barnstormer of a speech that will leave even conspiracy-skeptics cheering for truth and untainted democracy. For a three-hour film, JFK flies by and impresses even as a propaganda piece. It’s kind of amazing, actually, that such a piece of firebrand cinema would be so closely associated with major studio Warner Brothers. The years have been kind to JFK, even though its theory seems increasingly dubious (twenty-five years later, and no deathbed confessions…), its craft seems just as solid now as ever … and perhaps a bit less disorienting as it must have been then.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) If you thought you’d seen gritty westerns, hold on to your ten-gallon hat, because you haven’t seen The Homesman yet. From the first few minutes, which piles up graphic depictions of romantic rejection, dead babies, spousal abuse and women made crazy by the horrible conditions of the Wild West, this is a film that doesn’t pull any punches. Hillary Swank stars as a woman homesteader who can’t find a suitable husband, and accepts to drive back east for weeks in order to escort three unbalanced women back to civilization. She eventually manipulates a loner (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directs the film) into providing assistance during the weeks-long journey. Various adventures ensue, most of them underscoring the almost unbearable nature of life in the un-colonized American west. Surprisingly enough, The Homesman ends up being a progressive western, deeply concerned with the burden of being a woman at that time and showing, often in far too painful details, what could happen to anyone pushed to their limits. The film features a third-act development so unpredictable that it redefines the perception of the film’s protagonist and casts a very different light over the rest of the film. Don’t expect a fast film or a spectacular conclusion: The Homesman is slow, methodical, gloomy and not a little bit tragic on its way to the closing credits. It is, however, quite haunting in the way it refuses anything close to a happy ending. Call it the perfect antidote to a succession of rote Hollywood films – it may not be fun to watch, but it’s certainly far more respectable.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Luc Besson’s work over the past dozen years has been frustratingly uneven, so even a run-of-the-mill action comedy can seem like good news. Co-written and directed by Besson, The Family is about an American mob family being relocalized in deep France and dealing with the local elements before facing down retribution from their past. Featuring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones for instant characterization (neither of the three in any way push beyond their usual screen persona, although with De Niro we’re used to the parody aspect), The Family moves along quickly and without a fuss, its comedy occasionally interrupted with a few action sequences. On paper, it shouldn’t work all that well: The paper-thin justification for the premise is weak, the American characters are borderline sociopaths and the third act hinges on a coincidence so massive that the film spends a solid three minutes establishing it. That it does work is a testimony to the talent of the actors, the skill of the director and the unassuming lack of pretension for the entire film. It ends a bit abruptly and leaves many subplots dangling, but The Family seems like a return to form for Besson: Not only is he directing after repeatedly announcing his retirement, but many of his most unpleasant writing tics seem to have been swept under the rug for once. The result is good enough for a few dark laughs.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) Obvious aimed at older audiences, this gently-paced comedy is about an older couple seeking to re-connect after decades of increasing neglect and disaffection. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones (as the estranged couple) alongside Steve Carrell (as their therapist) lend star-power to a premise that could have gone just as naturally in a straight-to-TV film. As a comedy, it’s low-laughs, high-heart stuff, as the couple repeatedly stumbles while trying to reconnect. The look at mature relationships is unusual enough to be interesting (consider the film as a companion piece to This is 40) but this is in no way a wacky-hijinks comedy, and in fact it may be funny only because it ends on a happy note –much of the film could go either way. There are few surprises in the script, which means that much of the film’s appeal rests squarely on Streep and Jones’ shoulders. Fortunately, they’re veteran actors for a reason, and their sweetly vulnerable portrayal of an old couple is almost worth the time it takes to watch the film if you’re a fan of either actor. Both end up playing far lesser-powered versions of their usual screen personas, and the result has a hum-drum domesticity that is almost surprising. Jones’ character is so broadly defined as to court caricature at times, but he still makes it work; meanwhile, Streep conclusively demonstrates the potential sex-appeal of a sixty-something woman. Many younger viewers won’t have the patience, interest span or life-experiences required to sit comfortably through the film, and that’s fine: Hope Springs may work best as a film targeted to older audiences. It may not be an overly memorable film, but it’s not bad, and it has a few welcome reminders that romance can be rekindled.
(On TV, April 2013) The true mark of a film isn’t to be found in its premise as much as its execution, and twenty years after its theatrical release, The Fugitive remains as slick and tightly-paced as ever was. The cars are starting to look dated, the Internet isn’t there to speed up the information-gathering but no matter: it’s a well-made film, with a few good suspense sequences and compelling writing. The protagonist is smart, the antagonist equally so, and the plot is able to wring a lot of excitement out of a series of near-misses. Vintage-era Harrison Ford is pretty good as the titular fugitive, while Tommy Lee Jones solidified his onscreen personae with his dogged portrayal of a determined federal marshal. (Elsewhere in the film, keep your eyes open for a short role for pre-fame Julianne Moore) The cinematography is crisp, the city of Chicago is used to good effect and the pacing seldom lets go. All elements combine to make a familiar premise feel fresh and exciting: Twenty years later, thrillers still don’t get much better than The Fugitive.
(Video On-demand, March 2013) In the stream of critical adulation for Lincoln, mark me down as undecided: Maybe it’s because I’m not American, but this presidential biography feels flat, dark and dull compared to the material’s potential. I am not objecting to the film’s initial refusal to bow to the mythology of the character: some of Lincoln’s best moments come in presenting the president as a canny politician rather than a heroic folk-figure. Unfortunately, Lincoln gets more self-important as it advances, yet still feels unnecessarily dull throughout. The dark cinematography doesn’t help things, and while the film is not bad at building a political thriller about the passing of a bill rather than a fully satisfying portrait of a historical figure, it still feels overblown for what it tries to do. At least Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as Lincoln, presenting a solid portrayal that manages to combine both Lincoln’s historical importance with a sense of the man behind the myth. (The supporting cast is also very strong, with special mention to Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens) Still, Lincoln fails to fully satisfying: Perhaps too long, perhaps too leisurely, perhaps too ordinary for a film signed by Steven Spielberg.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) Nobody was asking for a third Men in Black installment after the disaster that was 2002’s second film, but here we are: Will Smith wants another box-office hit, and this is the best franchise he’s got. To be fair, the Men in Black concept is still strong: it’s a great framework through which to combine humor, gadgets, action, special effects and the occasional bit of awe at the strangeness of the universe. When it clicks, Men in Black 3 is able to touch upon all of those strengths. Alas, it doesn’t always do so, and whatever strong points it has often seem accidental thanks to the ego of a few of the people involved. Let’s start with elements of the premise, which sees both lead characters reprise the same character dynamics despite a ten-year gap: Will Smith is still playing his character (heck, his entire screen persona) as a mid-twenties smart-ass, which wears increasingly thin for someone in his mid-forties. Does it make sense that his character (still single) should still have the same relationship with his job partner a decade later? Who knows: at least it sets up a laborious series of scenes all reminding us that Tommy Lee Jones’ character is emotionless. After a surprisingly gory opening sequence and some obnoxious flaying around, Men in Black 3 finally hits its stride when it sends its protagonist back in time: Milking the era for a few Mad-Men-in-Black jokes, it also has fun reconceptualising the MIB agency in an earlier time. Josh Brolin makes for a droll younger Tommy Lee Jones, while some of the considerations surrounding the improbability of even the most mundane events are good for a bit of sci-fi pop-philosophy. The time-traveling elements are used in a manner that is both ingenious and nonsensical (don’t be surprised if your suspension of disbelief snaps at a crucial junction, because it really doesn’t make sense even with a neuralizer.) It doesn’t help that Barry Sonnenfeld is at his usual inconsistent best: While he can handle comic set-pieces and great visuals with a deft touch, he’s all-too-often likely to include head-scratching diversions and meaningless details good only for making us wonder why. Tallying the pluses against the minuses, we end up with a film that’s generally better than its predecessor, with enough high points (and an absence of truly bad points) to make it worth a look. It’s not a complete success, but it’s quite a bit better than anyone was expecting given the film’s troubled production history and decade-distant awful predecessor. See it as a buffet, and take only the parts that you like.
(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.
(On TV, September 1998) Not bad. Not very good, either, but what can you say about Yet Another Die Hard clone, this time with a lone cook (Steven Seagal) battling terrorists on a ship (the battleship USS Missouri)? It’s actually decent entertainment as long as you don’t expect much from it. Tommy Lee Jones makes an interesting villain, we get a totally gratuitous nude shot of Miss-July-1989 Erika Eleniak and the battleship scenery is original. On the other hand, there’s scarcely any suspense for anyone (Seagal is never in any kind of real disadvantage) and the story isn’t really innovative. Still, not bad.