There was grumbling back in 1994 when “The Fugitive” got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It was a fiercely competitive year—the film's rivals included “In the Name of the Father,” “Remains of the Day,” “The Piano” and the ultimate winner, “Schindler’s List”—and it was widely assumed that “The Fugitive” had been been granted the token “popular” Best Picture slot as a sop to regular folks who preferred escapism to heavy historical drama. It was a thriller based on a beloved but not particularly deep TV series, it starred action-adventure king Harrison Ford, and it wasn’t making statements about anything.
I watched "The Fugitive' again last night for the first time in years and it didn’t seem like the weak link at all. It's as finely crafted an example of its specific subgenre—“wronged man tries to clear his name”—as you’re going to find. It’s as much sheer fun as “Casablanca,” “All About Eve,” “The Sting,” “Annie Hall” and “Rocky,” all of which won Best Picture over more superficially “serious” competition by embodying excellence without seeming to flaunt it. It glides across the screen like a falcon waiting for the right moment to dive.
You can honestly say of this film by writer/director Macon Blair that they don't make 'em like they used to. "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" is an American independent film from the 1990s that just happens to have been released this year.
The stakes are small compared to what tends to happen in American movies now; the story is rather slight; the filmmakers pay closer attention to the small details of character interaction than to the fine points of plot. The whole thing is mainly situational: we get to watch the heroine, Ruth Kimke (Melanie Lynskey) as she reacts to having her house broken into and follow along as she decides to locate and punish the people who did it with help from an oddball neighbor (Elijah Wood's Tony), who's enamored with morning stars and nunchucks.
I keep forgetting the title of “A Cure for Wellness” and calling it “The Color of Despair.” It’s an accurate mistake.
As directed by Gore Verbinski ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," "The Lone Ranger"), this film about a New York financial wiz (Dane DeHaan) getting trapped in a creepy Swiss clinic wants to be sickly-dreamy horror epic. It’s a black-and-white movie done in color. The stark photography by Bojan Bozelli creates pools of blackness and acres of negative space. Jenny Beavan’s retro-gothic costuming and Eve Stewart’s production design favor ash, bone, eggshell, curdled cream, and shades of green ranging from bile to moss. If you could nick a David Fincher film’s throat, hang it upside down, and bleed it for two days, it would look like this movie. As a fetish object, it’s impressive.
“To be trustworthy is not more important than seeming to be trustworthy.” That line from “Beat the Devil” is delivered by Peter Lorre, of all people—a marvelous character actor but never one cast for his innate trustworthiness. And that’s the joke. “Beat the Devil,” a 1953 film about a bunch of disreputable people scheming to take control of uranium deposits in British colonial Africa, is a movie that always knows exactly what the joke is. And it’s often a funny joke that lands with a sting.
Directed by John Huston from a screenplay co-written with Truman Capote, this curiously laid-back film, which is being re-released to theaters this week in a new digital version, has been described by critic Dave Kehr as “the birthplace of camp.” I’m not sure camp is the correct word for what “Beat the Devil” is, but we might as well just go ahead and accept it in the spirit of a self-aware, often self-deprecating movie that’s filled with characters who always feel emboldened to make up whatever story they wish and represent themselves and their motives however they see fit, and even filch each other’s words when it suits them. Several times in the film you hear a character trot out a particular observation or turn of phrase and then hear it repeated by another character who was there when they said it, in a different context, as if they just made it up on the spot.
Toward the end of "John Wick: Chapter Two," a supporting character states that the hero, an emotionally tortured assassin, is addicted to vengeance. Well, yeah—now that you mention it; he’s only been killing people by the bushel for nearly four hours’ of screen time, first to avenge the murder of his dog and the theft of his car, then to redress a betrayal by a crime lord who helped him in the first film and now calls in a favor that Wick can’t refuse.
But the act of mentioning Wick’s revenge addiction makes it funny, and it turns what might've been a somewhat full-of-itself sequel into something faintly mysterious, at once kidding and not-kidding. That’s the Wick trick in a nutshell: making a combination drive-in exploitation flick and arthouse deconstruction of same, while handing academics literary and aesthetic cues like trays of canapes at one of those fancy parties that the hero always transforms into a bloodbath. This sequel to the sleeper hit "John Wick" is the kind of movie that turns subtext into text constantly, blatantly yet playfully, stopping just short of winking at the audience (although on at least one occasion a character actually does wink, at such an angle that the gesture nearly seems directed at us). As Wick gets drawn out of retirement again, coerced into taking one last job and then double crossed and set up as a target, others compare him to the Grim Reaper, describe him as the devil's emissary and the boogeyman, and contextualize him in mythology. At one point another retired assassin who now tends pigeons on a roof—a la Forest Whitaker in Jim Jarmusch's beguiling yet inexplicably almost-forgotten Zen action flick "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"—gives Wick a gun with exactly seven bullets before leading him to an “Angel Heart”-looking elevator and telling him he's starting his descent into hell. (The retired assassin is played by Sir Laurence Fishburne, star Keanu Reeves' mentor from the "Matrix" films, so of course he savors every line like brandy.)
"Sleepless" is one of those movies that needed to be a lot better or a lot worse to make much of an impression. This story of a Las Vegas police officer trying to recover his kidnapped son from bad guys is frustratingly not-terrible. The action sequences, the characterizations, the performances, all could have come together to form a dandy example of what used to be a called a B-movie: a genre film that doesn't have much money to play with but compensates with ingenuity and style. And yet "Sleepless" somehow quite never gets to that level. Its rare moments of quality only make the rest of the movie—a mishmash of conspiratorial plotting and close-quarters fistfights and gunfights—seem lamer. As directed by Baran bo Odar (2010's "The Silence") and scripted by "World Trade Center" writer Andrea Berloff, this remake of the 2011 French film "Sleepless Night" is funny sometimes but not funny enough, exciting sometimes but never exciting enough, and inherently emotional (mainly due to the hero's anguished desire to save his son) yet never willing to run with the emotionalism and turn into a full-blown action melodrama.
Sticking closely to the French original, "Sleepless" starts in the middle of a car chase, with Las Vegas police detective Vincent Downs (Jamie Foxx) and his partner Sean Cass (T.I.) stealing a massive shipment of cocaine from drug dealers working for local crime boss Rob Novak (Scoot McNairy), who supplies a local hotel and casino owner named Stanley Rubino (Dermot Mulroney) with party favors for his high-rolling guests. The bad guys kidnap Vincent's son Thomas (Octavius J. Johnson) to get the drugs back.
** S P O I L E R S ****
"Can you even see me?"
The French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) asks that question of Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) in the opening section of the World War II thriller "Allied." The two are in German-dominated, Vichy-controlled Casablanca, pretending to be husband and wife in the presence of Nazis that they'll eventually kill in cold blood for the greater good of the Allied cause. She's responding to Max telling her that she looks beautiful—not once, but twice. She appreciates the compliment, but she needs to know, is he really seeing her? Good question. What does "her" or "him" even mean in a film like this one? "Allied" is built around two impossibly good-looking people who live their professional lives as blank slates, secret agents who might or might not be sincere or faking it at any given moment, and whose every tiny gesture might hide an agenda hidden inside yet another agenda. At that point in the story, it seems as if Max really is seeing Marianne. After an initial dance of detachment, which sees the two chastely pretending to reignite a physical relationship interrupted by the husband's international travel, they've started sleeping together, disregarding the tradecraft rule that agents pretending to be lovers should never actually become lovers.
"Can you even see me?" she asks.
"Not really," he says.
Matt Zoller Seitz
Film critic and filmmaker.