(On TV, July 2018) I may not be a big fan of the original Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (which has aged poorly in some respects), but I can certainly respect the fact that it dared tackle a then-difficult subject with some wit and poise. Decades later, we’re thankfully past the point where interracial relationships are scandalous—but that doesn’t mean that a race-switched remake had to go so strongly for dumb comedy. Of course, with Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, you get what you pay for. At least a pre-stardom Zoë Saldaña looks great in an underwritten role. To be honest, Guess Who isn’t so bad once you get past the sacrilege factor: Kutcher does have his charm, Mac is a strong presence, and the comedy is so strictly formula that it’s guaranteed to be acceptable for a wide variety of focus group members. (I jest, but at least one scene goes a bit farther than it needed to in having Kutcher tell a few racial jokes to a black audience, and them finding them pretty funny—at least until the last one goes over the edge.) The rest of the film is merely fine, and errs more often on the side of romantic comedy rather than racial commentary. Which is understandable enough given the soft-sell approach it takes. Every era gets the movies it deserves, and so the mid-2000s got their mostly innocuous race-relationship movie.
(In French, On TV, January 2015) Big-budget high-concept mimetic dramas are getting scarce on the ground at an a time where spectacle reigns at the box-office, but throw enough big names at a project and you may find a few surprises. This Spielberg-directed film stars Tom Hanks as a tourist who finds himself stranded within New York’s JFK airport after a coup back home. Laboriously trying to make sense of an unfamiliar environment, he eventually manages to learn English, earn a decent salary as a construction worker, romance a high-flying stewardess and accomplish his original goals. It may sound simple, but much of the film’s pleasure is in seeing it unfold in quasi-procedural detail. Tom Hanks is remarkable as the stranded tourist, learning how to adapt to his situation as best as he can. The supporting players are often good (Catherine Zeta-Jones plays The Girl with a nice touch of unpredictability, with a surprising conclusion to her arc) although some plotlines involving Stanley Tucci as an antagonist feel more caricatured than they deserve. Spielberg at the helm means that we get solid direction, with occasional flourishes such as the vertiginous pull-back shot that shows how crazy-large the terminal set was. I watched the film in French, which took away a bit of the film’s linguistic element but introduced a bilingual bonus when Zoe Saldana’s character comments that she goes to Star Trek conventions cosplaying as Uhura. (Saldana would go one to play Uhura in the 2009 film; in the original English version of The Terminal, she says that she cosplays as Yeoman Rand) The film’s ending does feel a bit downbeat, but not all that much: in the end, we still get an amazing robinsonade in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
(In Theaters, August 2014) At a time where superhero films are in real danger of being overexposed, it’s refreshing to see that Marvel Studios are doing their damndest to avoid resting on their laurels. Their “Phase 2” slate of movies has branched off in interesting directions so far, from quasi-improvised comedy (Iron Man 3) to far-out geekery (Thor 2) to almost-serious political thriller (Captain America 2) to an irreverent space opera with Guardians of the Galaxy. From a plotting standpoint, this ensemble-cast action caper isn’t anything new: we’ve seen more or less the same thing half a dozen times before from Marvel Studios alone. But from the 70s pop-fueled title card onward, it’s obvious that this is a successful attempt to stretch the envelope of superhero films in a new stylistic direction: bold, brash, colorful and with a clear emphasis on fun that feels refreshing after the stone-faced dourness of Nolan’s Batman trilogy (to say nothing of Man of Steel.) The result is never less than highly entertaining. Much of the credits for this success goes to writer/director James Gunn, who manages to ride herd on a good ensemble cast, a somewhat esoteric mythology, complex SFX-laden sequences and surprising pop-culture references (including pleasingly dissonant musical cues). With this film, Chris Pratt makes a strong bid for superstar status, while Dave Batista proves to be an unexpectedly gifted performer and Zoe Saldana shows why she rose so quickly to stardom. Guardians of the Galaxy was an insanely risky project on paper, but the result is pure blockbuster entertainment. Particularly exemplary are the film’s occasional moments of seriousness (tempered by un-ironic fun) and its satisfying coda which takes pains to deliver its payoffs and make sure that everyone is happy. Such crowd-pleasing instincts are a good way to ensure that the audience will come back for more, and a sign that Marvel Studios truly understand what business they’re in.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) If anyone in the world has earned the right to write yet another female assassin movie, it’s probably Luc Besson. Besson’s not a particularly gifted screenwriter, but as a director he did help popularize the female-assassin stereotype in movies such as Nikita. Colombiana is another riff on a familiar concept: As a young girl’s parents are murdered by a drug lord, she vows revenge and dedicates her life to becoming a killing machine. The story picks up years later as she nears her vengeance. The rest is simply a series of kill-sequences noisily arranged by director Olivier Megaton, from a script by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. While some of their previous collaborations such as Transporter 3 were terrible even by B-movie standards, Colombiana is closer to Taken in understanding the mechanics of the action-thriller genre and delivering the formula in an energetic fashion. It helps that Zoe Saldana has the lithe physique and feral intensity required by the role: Colombiana wouldn’t be as good without her intensely physical performance. The cinematography, at least, is a bit more ambitious than usual and the result is a slick action movie. It may not avoid a bit of stupidity around the edges, but it’s put together with some competence and doesn’t overstay its welcome once the overlong prologue is done. Big guns, big explosions, original executions all point a little bit too much as set-piece-driven carnography, but fans of B-grade action movies will understand the game being played here. The result is potable.
(In theatres, April 2010) Ensemble action movies are making a minor comeback in 2010, but sneaking in before The A-Team and The Expendables is this cheap, fast and grandly entertaining comic book adaptation. The Losers isn’t that good a movie: The limited budget sometimes shows (especially for those who remember the source material’s hyperactive globe-trotting), coincidences abound and the action set pieces seldom make sense. But those flaws are arguably what enables this film to be a fun throwback to the unapologetic Bruckheimeresque action movies of the late nineties. The set-pieces make up in eye-popping originality what they lack in coherence, while the quips fly fast and sarcastic. Thankfully for an ensemble picture, it’s the characters that bring The Losers above its B-grade material: Each one has a few things to do, and while Chris Evans and Zoe Saldana generally steal the focus away from Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s role as the leader of the bunch, Jason Patric has a surprisingly odd turn as the overwritten villain of the picture. Sylvain White’s direction is hit-and-miss, but there are a few new tricks here and while the picture moves quickly, it doesn’t lose viewers in a flurry of incoherent cuts –which is another thing that The Losers does better than the rest of its recent action movie brethren. Fans of the original comic book series will be disappointed to see that Andy Diggle’s geopolitical set-pieces have been toned down, pleased to note that the evil plot is completely different and generally amused to see dialogue bits, action moments and characterization details moved around: Most of what’s in this film follows the first two of the series’ five volumes, while the ending sets up at least another film in the series. Box-office results may not guarantee that (it’s the kind of picture that generally appeals to a very specific audience), but I would certainly welcome a bit more time with the characters and their globe-trotting vengeance.