(On Cable TV, January 2019) If, somehow, Cyrano de Bergerac-inspired The Truth about Cats & Dogs is still watched by future generations, I’m reasonably certain that it will continue to unite audiences around one single common takeaway: It makes no sense to feature mid-1990s Janeane Garofalo as the “unattractive” woman. Any romantic comedy that even tries it should be laughed out of the room. This being said, I suspect that there’s still a good future left for this nearly-twenty-five-year-old romantic comedy. It’s cute, charming, generally unobjectionable, features animals and a sunny California background. Oh, and a young Uma Thurman as the “attractive” one, at least compared to Garofalo. The mid-1990s sheen of the film is pleasant, especially when multiplied by the unthreatening conventions of the era’s romantic comedies: If Hollywood history is any guide, there will be a greater timelessness for those movies than grittier, more depressing fare. This being said, let’s not overstate things: The Truth about Cats & Dogs is more an exemplar of the romantic comedy genre than a specifically good movie by itself. Garofalo herself has semi-disavowed the film in recent years, in keeping with her more intellectually ambitious persona. Still, it’s fun and breezy and not every movie has to be a hard-bore denunciation of current social ills.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) On the one hand, Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is an imaginative, clever, exuberant fantasy film. On the other, it’s the kind of film that appears severely limited today by circa-1988 technology: it swings for the fences, but doesn’t have what it takes to pass muster today. It’s also a story of the one-thing-after-another variety, meaning that the picaresque structure may not feel as if it’s tied up together. Still, it’s good fun to see John Neville justifiably hams it up as Munchausen, along with such notables as Sarah Polley, Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman and Robin Williams in grander-than-life roles. The fantasy between reality and fantasy here is thin, and I’m not too sure that it makes the most out of this quality. Still, as part of Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” after Time Bandits (which I didn’t like all that much) and Brazil (which is an all-time classic), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ranks as a solid, um, average. I like what it’s trying to do, I appreciate that it was almost impossible to accomplish back then, but I’m not all that enthusiastic about the results.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I’m not always a good audience for period drama, but Dangerous Liaisons is something else. At times, and at first, it feels like top-class smut, as two obscenely wealthy members of the French aristocracy scheme the seduction of innocent women for nothing more than carnal stakes. There is quite a bit more nudity than expected (especially from Uma Thurman) and the dialogue is first-class. Behind the fine manners, elaborate costumes and lavish historical recreation lies a pitch-black comedy of cynical matters. John Malkovich are Glenn Close are superbly reptilian in their power games—Malkovich in particular is perverse in the best sense of the word. Familiar faces abound, including baby-faced Keanu Reeves and Peter Capaldi in minor roles. But what begins as comic debauchery soon turns to more serious matters, and by the time Dangerous Liaisons ends with death and dishonour, the ending has been amply set up by the journey. Knowing the origins of the story as an epistolary novel turned into a theatre play and then a film, the big-screen adaptation proved adept in incorporating the best elements of its complex DNA—letters end up being essential plot devices, the razor-sharp dialogue is as good as it gets, and the film manages to achieve a few authentic purely cinematic moments, either during the opening “dressing up for war” montage, or the ending sequence collapsing cause and effect of three separate scenes. Unusually for a historical drama, Dangerous Liaisons is fun to watch—either aghast at the character’s actions, or nodding along as those awful people get their comeuppance at the end.
(In theatres, February 2010) The trailer for this film was unremarkable, so it’s a small surprise that the film itself proves just fine. No in terms of plotting, which blends “kid with a fantastic origin” with “quest!” and explicitly takes on the good old plot-coupon approach to second-act plotting. Not in terms of verisimilitude, when some of the dumbest material actually makes it on-screen in what looks like a summer camp that no one would enjoy. No, the chief saving grace of this adaptation of the first Percy Jackson & The Olympians book is in the way it adapts Greek mythology to a modern-day context. Part of this package are seeing a bunch of known actors in small roles: While Pierce Brosnan is OK as centaur Chiron and Sean Bean is credible as Zeus, it’s Uma Thurman as a leathery Medusa and Rosario Dawson as luscious Persephone that get all the attention. They are barely enough to make us ignore more fundamental details about the film’s world-building, and how it doesn’t exactly hang together gracefully. It’s a good thing that it’s Chris Columbus who directs the film, because it makes the clunky first-act plot similarities with Harry Potter easier to dismiss. But then again, the fun of the film is in the details, not the overall plot. A few good action sequences, complete with top-of-the-line special effects, finish off a package that is, all things considered, a bit better and more fun than anyone would have thought.