(On Cable TV, August 2017) It’s hard to accurately gauge whether an actor is smart from their screen performances alone. The best ones can play characters completely unlike themselves and we’d never know. But I have a growing suspicion that you can tell a lot about an actor by the roles they choose to play. Now, I won’t make any accusations about Will Smith (whom I still rather like a lot), but looking at a filmography that includes Seven Pounds and After Earth and now Collateral Beauty, I have to ask—is he even reading those scripts? Replace After Earth by the more respectable The Pursuit of Happiness and you would have an instant trilogy of manipulative faux-inspiring dramas that are so melodramatic as to court unintentional hilarity. So it is that Collateral Beauty is so ill-conceived from the start (something about a grieving man writing to Death, Time and Love, and then scheming co-workers hiring actors to play Death, Time and Love) that the first half hour plays as a farce despite itself, ridiculous while insisting otherwise. Things really don’t improve much during the last act of the film, in which two bigger revelations are dropped upon the audience, unfortunately earning nothing more than two big collective shrugs. Collateral Beauty is convinced that it has something profound and poignant to say, but it has forgotten to check whether audiences agree. I suspect that reactions will vary widely—as for myself, I’ve seen too many of those movies to be impressed. Now, I won’t make too much of Smith’s talents for script-picking considering that the cast also includes reliable performers such as Hellen Mirren, Edward Norton, Michael Peña and (to a lesser extent) Kiera Knightley. They may all have gone insane, but then again maybe I’m out to lunch on this particular film. Either way, I can only report that the result feels like a falsely profound tearjerker attempt. The premise seems so flawed that I’m not sure anything could have been done to rescue the result from unintended laughter. The twists won’t matter so much when it’s established early on that the movie stems from an inane place.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) What’s most fascinating about Suicide Squad isn’t that it’s a film that begs for mixed reviews … it’s that some of the worst things about it are usually strengths in other contexts. I like classic rock soundtracks a lot, for instance, but even I felt that the film was trying too hard by the time its third hit song started playing barely five minutes into the movie. I like exploding helicopters, but seeing three of them go down in a single movie was excessive (and who knew such crashes were all easily survivable). I’m a big fan of dense detail-rich editing, but even I was getting tired of Suicide Squad’s opening act, masquerading a dull exposition structure by plenty of fancy cuts. So it goes, on and on, for much of the movie. The script can’t commit to the idea of villain protagonists, and that’s how we end up with even more exposition to soften their edges. Will Smith takes over a film his character had no business taking over, leaving little to his co-stars of what’s supposed to be an ensemble cast. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn runs against nearly everything I usually like about the character, making her an oversexualized strumpet with the special power of … waving a baseball bat around? Jared Leto’s Joker seems self-consciously edgy for no good reason. And let’s not talk about Slipknot, because the film really isn’t interested in him. David Ayer’s direction may use CGI like crazy but can’t put all the pieces of this disjointed film together in a harmonious whole. Tonally inconsistent, the film tries for operatic gritty grandeur but ends up joking around CGI most of the time. Visually, moments of it are nice … but don’t quite amount to anything better than pretty pictures. There are rumors, to be clarified in a decade or so, that the production of the film was marred by reshoots, change of direction and a competitive editing process—who knows where the real problem was? What’s obvious is that Warner Brothers ends up with another ho-hum film in its attempt to compete with Marvel in presenting a coherent shared universe on-screen. I’m not saying that Suicide Squad is a disaster—Michael Jai Courtney here has his best role to date, while Viola Davis is having fun as Amanda Walker. It’s just too bad that the script never used her, or the squad, in ways most appropriate to their characters. As read here and there on fan forums, a far better conceptualized Suicide Squad would have seen supervillains going against superheroes for a noble goal, not fighting another generic super-monster like they do here. Frankly, go watch the “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer of the film again for a purer Suicide Squad experience.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Hoo boy, Independence Day. I first saw it on opening day back on July 4, 1996, and the whole thing remains vivid in my mind, from the time (at my uncle’s farm, lying down in the muddy straw, doing mechanical repairs on a baling machine) that I decided that I was going to see the film that evening to my naively infuriated reaction to the film’s scientific absurdities and self-satisfied stupidity. (I used to have a nicely hysterical 1996-vintage review of the Independence Day novelization on this site, but I did the world a favour since then by taking it down when I purged some of my more juvenile content.) For years, Independence Day (or, eek, ID4) was my go-to reference for “dumb Hollywood SF movies” in my smarter-than-thou rants. I may not have matured much since then, but I’d like to think that I’m slightly less deliberately abrasive—I was bizarrely looking forward to re-watching the movie, and not just as an exercise in checklist-marking before watching the sequel. Upon re-watch, you can’t exactly mark me down as a fan of the film, but I think I’m better able to see its strength and place in history. Perhaps the best thing it did was update a classic SF trope for a new generation of special effects. The alien-invasion story has been done many times before or since, but Independence Day takes a refreshingly blunt approach to it, with a large cast of characters reacting in their own way, still-spectacular destruction sequences and plucky humans mounting a satisfying revenge upon the invaders. Independence Day still doesn’t make a shred of sense (I spent much of the first half-hour muttering, “no, that’s not how it would happen. That’s not how any of this would happen.”) but I will reluctantly admit that it’s clever. Clever in how it moves its pieces, clever in how it acknowledges that the audience is in on the joke (there are at least three moments in which the film cuts to something, except to reveal that it’s not what we’d expect) and clever in how it maximizes every single opportunity it has for spectacle or overwrought drama. I still think the presidential speech sucks. I still think that the dog should have died. The special effects are dodgy, but there are a lot of them. I still think that as a Science Fiction film, it’s a blunt instrument at a time where we could use more scalpels à la Arrival. But Bill Paxton, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith deliver persona-defining performances, the film moves at a decent pace once the throat-clearing ends, and writer/directors Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin understood what audiences wanted from a summer blockbuster. In some significant ways, it seems obvious that Independence Day revitalized movie SF for a few vital years, playing with new special effects technology and proving the box-office potential of the genre for a few good years. I’ll even go as far as identify the quasi-nostalgic hunger for an Independence Day-style movie experience as a driver for the 2010–2014 resurgence of alien-invasion movies, the best of whom were good SF movies in their own right. Over a sufficiently long time, I think that most critical opinions reverts to the mean (either a tempering of praise, or a softening of condemnation), and Independence Day illustrates this better than most other movies I can think of at the moment. While I may have been willing to burn the movie poster in a one-star rant back in 1996, by 2017 I’m okay with a measured middle-of-the-road three-star critical essay.
(On TV, February 2016) I have never played golf and I’m sure it’s a nice excuse to go for a walk, but the lengths through which The Legend of Bagger Vance goes to add a layer of mysticism to hitting a gold ball would be impressive if they weren’t faintly ridiculous. A very young Matt Damon stars as a golf prodigy damaged by his WWI experiences and recapturing his groove during a crucial tournament. Will Smith shows up as the exemplar of the so-called “Magical Negro” trope but makes it an endearing role through folksy sayings and unaffected demeanour. Charlize Theron has a decent role as a woman trying to save her father’s gold club from closing down and at least looks the part of a southern aristocrat down to the garter belt and stockings. Other than that, and notwithstanding the magical titular character, The Legend of Bagger Vance is very much a standard underdog sports drama, ending with just enough success to feel like a victory. It does feature of lot of material in which golf becomes a proxy for genteel life philosophy. Director Robert Redford is going for a quiet period film and does manage to feature some lush scenery along the way. But the result, for some reason, seems aimed squarely at those middle-aged (and older) men trying to rationalize their love of the game to whoever will listen. No wonder I caught the movie as it was playing on the Golf Channel!
(On Cable TV, August 2016) The National Football League has wrapped itself so tightly in the American flag and associated values that attacking it seems outright blasphemous if not vaguely treasonous. So you’ll excuse Concussion if it carefully walks a line between denouncing the league and yet not offending any sensibilities. Transforming true events in a conspiracy thriller in which a lone brave doctor discovers the link between football and premature brain damage, Concussion pumps far too much drama in its structure. It works, but only to a point: While the middle third of the story is reasonably gripping, the first act leisurely establishes the endearingly nerdish personality of its protagonist, and the conclusion peters out without a clear triumphant moment to ease the lead character’s trials. As the headliner, Will Smith is actually pretty good: he credibly takes on a Nigerian accent and minimizes his natural cockiness in a role that only needs a fraction of it. It’s a refreshingly adult performance for an actor who has had trouble evolving his screen persona. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does good work in what is slightly more than a generic character, while Alec Baldwin still makes the most of his propensity to play antagonists … even when he isn’t. Football is America’s secular religion, and Concussion occasionally seems preoccupied by the need to pull its punches. The made-up conspiracy angle (with FBI raids! And car pursuits! And a miscarriage!) whimpers out, leading to an underwhelming conclusion that relies a bit too much on title cards. Concussion is not a bad film, but it does feel unfinished at times.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) Oh, what a mess. A problem with urban fantasy is the tendency to just keep stuffing the story with magic without pausing to reflect on whether it all fits together, and Winter’s Tale has a bad case of dumb world-building piled upon nonsensical mythology. There’s something about stars being people and not stars, something about Satan and his demon knights, something about having one miracle to spend in one’s lifetime, something about being amnesiac for a century… or whatever. It barely fits together even as a summary, let alone in the details. I’m told that the novel on which the film is based is far more coherent, so the blame here would go entirely to writer/director Akiva Goldsman, proving here that almost two decades of bad reviews since Batman & Robin can’t entirely be blamed on directors mangling his scripts. Interestingly enough, little of the film’s problems affect the actors in it: Colin Farrell is OK as the lead, while Jessica Brown Findlay is very good as the romantic lead despite being burdened with an awful role. Russell Crowe and Will Smith are curiously enjoyable as the villains of the story, despite (again) not making much sense as such. Jennifer Connelly looks lost in an underwritten role –one of the many issues with Winter’s Tale is that it jumps forward in time, but can’t be bothered to decide whether the circa-2014 story is a third act or an epilogue. (But then again, the film is so bad at math or elementary logic that in 2014, one of the non-magical characters should be 108 years old.) Interminable digressions help make the film feel even longer than it is, while fairly good production values can’t paper over the dumb script. It’s one of the defining characteristics of bad movies that whatever profound sentiment they try to express is met with eye-rolling and accusations of pretentiousness, but by the time Winter’s Tale last few moment try to smother viewers in a gelatinous gloop of unearned sentiment, you too will understand why the film is more laughable than interesting.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Con-man romantic comedies (con-rom-coms?) are, by now, such an established sub-genre (The Thomas Crown Affair(s), Duplicity, Confidence… and that’s from memory alone) that they can work on recognition rather than surprises, even if surprises are the point of the film. We already know that such con-rom-coms will end with the romantic leads driving off into the sunset, that we’ll witness elaborate triple-cross confidence tricks, that the entire thematic structure of the film will be the tension between greed and love, and the trust issues in all human relationships, whether they be romantic or criminal. So, when Focus comes along, it feels as if we already know how it’s going to play out, and a proper appreciation of the film can be boiled down to basic questions: Are the lead actors sympathetic? Is there some romantic chemistry between the leads? Are the confidence tricks interesting? Does the film hold our attention from one moment to the next? Fortunately, Focus succeeds even when it’s not being particularly original. The showcase sequence of the film, a high-stakes gambling sequence in a stadium luxury box, may not be original, but it clicks perfectly. The film’s two biggest assets are Will Smith, playing his usual brand of charismatic confidence (his best such role since Hitch, and a substantial return to form after the After Earth debacle), and Margot Robbie, making another serious case (after The Wolf of Wall Street) as to why she’s more than Today’s It Girl: her role is a tricky mix of deception, sexiness, vulnerability and mixed agendas, and she hits all of the right notes. With both of them playing off each other, Focus feels like an old-fashioned movie-star vehicle, far more worthwhile for its slick execution than any conceptual boldness. And it works. Sometimes, behind the analytical façade and the numerous references to trends and industry terms, the critic abides and simply repeats the obvious: it works.
(On TV, February 2015) A particularly aggressive entry in the “inspirational drama showing the protagonist triumphing against nearly-impossible odds”, The Pursuit of Happyness gives a too-rare grown-up role to Will Smith as the father of a child who finds himself in desperate circumstances after losing his wife, his house, his savings and trying to take care of his son while chasing a near-impossible unpaid internship at a brokerage house. Eking a meager living on the streets of 1980s San Francisco by night, giving the impression of being a serious stockbroker candidate by day, the story comes from real-life events from businessman Chris Gardner’s life, but dramatically softens some of the harsher edges of the truth. (Sometimes in ways that don’t quite make sense: seeing a mother abandon her son is nigh-incomprehensible on film, but can be explained in the real story by the fact that he was the son from her husband’s affair.) Still, this is the kind of film that has no shame in exploiting whatever sympathy we may have for its characters, their brutal setbacks and their tiny triumphs. Smith is actually pretty good as a father trying to improve life for himself and his son –his performance feels free of his usual showboating tendencies, while allowing him enough opportunities to turn up the charm when necessary. It may help that his son his played by his real-life son Jaden Smith. The Pursuit of Happyness is occasionally asphyxiating in its desperation (the protagonist is so poor that every dollar counts) but fairly earns its final triumphs. It’s definitively praise to point out that the film could have been far more mawkish or sentimental, and that by grounding its story into small and often painful details, it keeps the usual fanfare at bay. It may not be pleasant viewing during most of its duration, but it amounts to a satisfying viewing experience.
(On TV, January 2015) The problem beyond movies that crank up their drama beyond a reasonable threshold is that they either become funny or annoying. Seven Pounds, to its credit, begins with a fascinating mystery: Who is this sad man, what has happened to him and what is he doing? As the protagonist’s actions are revealed, though, the overwrought drama kicks in. Are we being shamed in our loose morality by a fictional character so selfless? By the time the ending rolls by, even the most sympathetic viewers will spot at least two or three major holes in the plot, and it takes a lot of forgiveness to be moved by the film’s extreme sentimentality. Will Smith is actually pretty good in the lead role, stretching acting muscles seldom used during his career. Opposite him, Rosario Dawson is unexpectedly captivating, while Michael Ealy makes an impression in a small role. (One can’t say the same about Woody Harrelson, largely wasted in a generic role). Some of the details of the film are interesting, and Gabriele Muccino’s direction is handled with skill. Still, the impression left by the last few minutes of the film is one of increasing bewilderment, if not outright disbelief: By cranking up the dramatic stakes so ludicrously high, Seven Pounds undoes quite a bit of its careful quiet setup. I’m just not sure it deserves the ending it reaches for.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Reviews for science-fiction action thriller After Earth were downright hostile, and after seeing the result it’s not only easy to agree: it’s hard to know where to begin in reporting the on-screen disaster. It didn’t take a long time for the film to grate on my nerves: Never mind the “directed by M. Night Shyamalan” credit warning: the early scenes set in a far-future society multiply the implausibility, from window shades that don’t actually close to creatures that can (only) smell fear to some of the ugliest aesthetics imaginable. It doesn’t get much better once the plot gets in motion and that stupidity compounded by bad design lands two characters away from everything else. The script is terrible, and the direction isn’t much better: there’s little sense of energy or spectacle to the adventures of a young man racing toward survival. (Once upon a time, I defended Shyamalan’s directing skills even as his scripts worsened. Not anymore, and certainly not since The Last Airbender.) There isn’t much imagination on display regarding the features of this future earth (much of it “bigger and faster animals!”, ignoring the time required for evolution.) While it’s good to see Will Smith play a mature adult role, Jaden Smith doesn’t bring much as the lead –although it’s probably just as fair to blame both script and direction for his lack of affect. It all builds up to a snooze of a climax. Despite my own built-in liking for SF adventures, I found little to enjoy here, and considerable relief when the film ended.
(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.