(On Cable TV, December 2017) Any half-witted observer can see China barrelling its way to become the twenty-first century’s dominant hyperpower (helped along by the United States’ ongoing abdication of the role), and one supposes that this will eventually change movies from an American-dominated art form to a Chinese-dominated one. After financing many American movies, China is now producing its own blockbusters, borrowing a few western actors for marquee purposes. So it is that The Great Wall is the latest of those Chinese blockbusters. On the surface, it has certainly mastered the formula: Here is a spectacular adventure set against alien antagonists, celebrating Chinese achievements (i.e.: The Great Wall) and heroism. This kind of filmmaking is well in-line with many recent Chinese blockbusters, and the accumulated technical skill collected along the way is shown in a film that’s decently paced, features a number of fine set pieces and is visually competent. What’s more problematic are the film’s wasted opportunities and the inclusion of western actors as protagonists. While I don’t think the film whitewashes anything (if anything, the western characters have clear reasons for being there and acting the way they do, and are shown as generally less capable and definitely less honourable than their Chinese counterparts), it’s a curious case of a film made in China but using western actors in the lead roles—Chinese cinema is mature enough that shouldn’t have to rely on such crutches to gain entry to non-Chinese markets. This being said, theatrical distributors don’t listen to reviewers—they see Matt Damon and book the movie or not. Less happily, there’s a sense that the movie doesn’t quite know what to do with the actors at its disposal—despite being able to depend on Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Defoe, the film gives them perfunctory roles that don’t really showcase what they can do. Pascal does carry himself well for a relative newcomer to movies, but Defoe seems to disappear behind a dull role. Still, I don’t regret seeing The Great Wall at all—it’s a perfectly acceptable time-waster when wrapping up Christmas gifts, and it does have a handful of sequence worth putting down the wrapping paper. Politically, I suppose I should see the rise of China with a wary eye … but as a reviewer, I’m more tempted to see what else will come out of this new player on the blockbuster field.
(On DVD, September 2017) Every so often, Tom Cruise’s superstar stature and kooky personal peculiarities can make everyone forget that he can act. Fortunately, there are plenty of counterexamples throughout his career, few as hard-hitting as his performance in Born on the Fourth of July, as he goes from naïve high-schooler to disillusioned Vietnam veteran. Ably written and directed by Oliver Stone, this is a film that, in many ways, stands as a definitive statement on the experience of many Vietnam veterans—lured into service by idealism, wounded in combat, ostracized by American society. It’s not an easy film to watch, but Cruise is really good in the lead role and the movie acts as a witness to an inglorious period in American history that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a long movie, but then again it spans more than a decade in a young man’s life, and part of Cruise’s challenge is to portray both a naïve high-schooler and a grizzled veteran. Willem Defoe also shows up in a pivotal role. Born on the Fourth of July acts as a spiritual sequel of sorts to Platoon, and definitely ranks in the upper third of Stone movies.
(On TV, March 2017) Issues-based thrillers aren’t always easy to watch, and there are certainly enough tough moments in Mississippi Burning to uphold this rule of thumb. But it’s also a thriller with a muscular anti-racism message that is also comforting given the atrocities portrayed in the film. The story of two FBI agents investigating the murder of three civil rights activists in rural Mississippi, this is a movie that pulls no punches in portraying the often-unbelievable racism of barely half a century ago. Quite a few buildings burn here, and the constant abuse suffered by the black characters is nothing short of revolting. While the film is certainly problematic in its white-saviour narrative, it’s also curiously frank in the way it embraces this aspect of itself: threatening, torturing and arresting unrepentant KKK members is the next best thing to punching a Nazi in the face in American cinema wish fulfillment, and Mississippi Burning certainly embraces this aggressive approach to the problem. Gene Hackman truly stars as a veteran FBI agent whose folksy bonhomie barely conceals a tough-and-violent approach whenever the chips are down. Contrasting him is Willem Defoe is a curiously straitlaced role as a far more by-the-book supervisor who nonetheless gets to let his wilder instincts run free in the last act of the film. Frances McDormand also has a good turn as an acquiescent housewife who nonetheless gets a few shots in. Far more interesting than the “social issues drama” moniker would suggest, Mississippi Burning turns into a vengeful police thriller toward the end, with satisfying justice being delivered in spades. The relationship to the true events that inspired the story is incidental, the black characters definitely taking second place to the white protagonists but, in the end, it makes for curiously compelling cinema. This being said, Mississippi Burning is exactly the kind of film that other effective anti-racism movies such as The Help are meant to complement: it’s part of the story, but not all of it.
(On TV, November 2016) There have been many great movies about Vietnam, but for all of the respect I (and others) have for Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter or Full Metal Jacket, I think that Platoon is better than all of them in giving us a cohesive soldier’s view of the conflict, without necessarily building up to a larger metaphorical point. (Apocalypse Now happens in parallel with Vietnam, The Deer Hunter is about the scars it left and Full Metal Jacket is a collection of great sequences with a threadbare link between them.) Oliver Stone writes and directs from his own experiences, and the result has an authenticity that’s hard to shake off. From the first few moments when our protagonist (Charlie Sheen, baby-faced, sympathetic and humble) steps on the ground and sees the haunted veterans, it’s obvious that this is going to be a wart-and-all portrayal of the conflict. By the time our protagonist hooks up with the local drug users, we’re clearly far from pro-war propaganda pieces. Platoon is also canny in how it sets up a conflict between two senior soldiers (one, played by a suitably intense Willem Defoe, trying to be civilized about an uncivilized situation, and the other, played with even more intensity by Tom Berenger, surrendering to the madness) that compel our protagonist to choose a camp. Terrifying combat sequences all build up to a natural conclusion to our viewpoint character’s war experience. Lauded upon release, Platoon is no less effective thirty years later—largely because it sticks close to its own authenticity and doesn’t try to make more than what’s already a significant point about the combat experience.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2016) I’ve had Shadow of the Vampire on my radar on-and-off (mostly off) since 2000, but only recently managed to get ahold of it. A revisionist filmmaking comedy in which the crew of Nosferatu realizes that they’re dealing with a true vampire? Sounds good to me! My expectations may have been too high, though, as viewing the film quickly tempered my enthusiasm. Despite seeing John Malkovich and Willem Defoe in fine form in the two lead roles, Shadow of the Vampire quickly becomes over-stylized and under-entertaining. (The dull opening credits, spanning almost five of a 90-minutes film, should have been a tip-off.) Despite the potential of the film, it’s executed limply and without much of the pleasure we may have expected from the premise. I will acknowledge that my enjoyment may have been hampered by insufficient familiarity with the object of the metafiction—if I was more familiar with the original silent Nosferatu silent film, I may have gotten more out of its re-enactment. Still, there isn’t much in the result to compel ordinary viewers, and so I leave Shadow of the Vampire unsatisfied, with the shadow of unfulfilled potential.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) I really wasn’t expecting to like this film as much as I did. Or even, having recently seen a friend die of cancer, to like it at all. But The Fault in Our Stars prides itself on being quite unlike any of the other cancer movies out there in telling us about two teenagers meeting at a cancer support group. The sarcastic dialogue and caustic gallows humor that follows is almost immediately charming in its own way, with both Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort being likable teenagers stuck in terrible situations. Heartwarming without being cloying, merciless without being hopeless, The Fault in Our Stars makes much out of depressing material – it’s an enjoyable and funny film about something terrible and sad. The stars motif is interesting, the comic set-pieces are memorable, and Willem Defoe brings an element of mystery, then frustration in the mix. The script is on-point and if the film does feel a touch too long during its Amsterdam segment, it’s ruthlessly curt coming back from it as it destroys expectations. Telling you more about the film would be a disservice; take a look and enjoy it for yourself.