(On Cable TV, April 2017) Conan the Barbarian isn’t a great movie, but it does manages to achieve almost everything it aims for and still stands as one of the best movie adaptation of the classic barbarian fantasy subgenre. Arnold Schwarzenegger brings his considerable charisma to the title role—looking like he came from a Frazetta painting could have been enough, but he happens to be immensely compelling even with his limitations as an actor at the time. The film does take a while to get going: aside from the interminable prologues, it takes time until the band of adventurers is assembled and for the film to find its groove. After that, well, it’s straight-up fantasy escapism. While juvenile, there’s a certain honesty to the way the story strips itself down to id-driven violence and ravishing. My interest in barbarian fantasy being limited, I could only appreciate the success of the execution (and there has been quite a bit worse in that sub-genre) without being particularly moved. So it goes—I’m just glad, on some level, that the ultimate barbarian fantasy movie exists … and that it still stands as the definitive one thirty-five years later. (No, the remake doesn’t count.)
(On TV, April 2017) There’s no doubt that Crocodile Dundee has become a minor reference in the history of US/Australian relations, and part of it has to do with the utter simplicity of seeing a rough Australian bushman being thrust in mid-eighties Manhattan. While the film is rather dull in its first act, it finally clicks once the outback meets the streets of New York. The classic gags (“That’s a knife”) come from this middle section of the film, once past the bush prologue and before the film gets bogged down in an unconvincing romance. (This is one of those movies where, despite the happy ending, you basically give them six months together.) What doesn’t work so well is the simplistic plot—once you’re past the jokes, there simply isn’t much left in the movie. Worse yet is some of the dated humour (the transsexual jokes wouldn’t be tolerated nowadays.) and the agonizing pacing of the last sequence. While I’m happy I finally saw the movie that everyone talked about thirty years ago (echoed in pop culture since then), I don’t think Crocodile Dundee has aged well at all.
(On TV, April 2017) Steve Martin as a goofy-ish dad trying to weather the storm of his daughter’s upper-crust wedding is a guaranteed middle-of-the-road comic premise. So it’s not really surprising to see him in Father of the Bride undergoing an episodic accumulation of everything that can go wrong in planning a wedding, from trivial details blown up to gigantic proportions to bad weather to money matters. It’s all in the mandatory elements of such a premise, and Martin is a good sport for going through it all. This aspect of Father of the Bride isn’t surprising, and it’s best to ignore the cavalcade of coincidences and contrivances that power the script. I expected as much. On the other hand, what I didn’t expect was the gradual poignancy, in-between the goofy slapstick, of a father having to deal with the departure of his only daughter, giving her away to her new husband. While the opening monologue can be mistaken for a comic setup, there are some good heartfelt moments late in the movie as the melancholy of seeing his daughter leave the house finally hits our protagonist. It’s all the more surprising given that the film seemed perfectly happy operating in silly mode, with Martin mugging for the camera in-between familiar comic sequences. Father of the Bride is better than expected largely because it can catch audiences (and, specifically, fathers) unaware and defenseless. Call it a happy surprise.
(On DVD, April 2017) Forty years later, there is still something remarkable about Dog Day Afternoon’s off-beat crime thriller. Based on a true story in a way that sets it apart from most formulaic fiction, this is a bank robber/hostage thriller with enough unusual moments to feel fresh even after four decades of imitators. The closest equivalent I can think of remains 2006’s Inside Man—down to the very New York feel of the story. Watching the film is a reminder of Al Pacino’s early explosive screen persona—there’s a good reason why the “Attica!” sequence will forever be part of his highlight reel. Otherwise, the stars here are the quirky screenplay (in which the lead hostage taker has numerous scenes outside the bank and a complicated personal life) and Sidney Lumet’s matter-of-fact direction. Dog Day Afternoon is a film of moments—not necessarily the predictable ending, but the way it still twists and turns familiar genre convention into something that feels real and credible. Witness, for instance, the incredible over-reaction to a single gunshot midway through the movie—a welcome change of pace after movies in which entire magazines of ammunition get emptied without as much as a shrug. It is, in other words, still a remarkably enjoyable film. It has become a great period piece, and little of its impact has been blunted by the usual Hollywood formula.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) The paradox of seeing big-budget big-screen adaptations of intensely fannish universes is that while there is a lot of material fit to be shown on-screen, there is also a ton of mythology to explain to non-fans. The better examples of the form manage to weave an accessible story atop a universe with substantial depth. The worst examples come across as a hodgepodge of inside jokes that require half a day of reading in order to grasp. Warcraft is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. The more than two decades of accumulated mythology can be felt in nearly every frame, but they often lead to choices that mystify non-fans. It doesn’t help that the main story is dull, and ends on an unsatisfying note that does nothing more than setting up the inevitable sequel. Otherwise, Warcraft does exhibit the usual characteristics of modern fantasy movies: Extensive in-your-face CGI, dynamic directing that can’t compensate for a thin story, an endless litany of invented names and minor characters, substantial self-importance, and an overall result that almost immediately fades in memory. I didn’t hate it, but neither did I like it—Director Duncan Jones doesn’t embarrass himself and must have learned a lot about effects-driven filmmaking, but he did better with his previous films. Otherwise, prospective viewers with no familiarity with the videogames should brace themselves for a torrent of new yet stale mythology—keeping track of the names, races, allegiances and largely undistinguishable characters can feel like a chore at times. Amazingly enough, this will count as an attraction for some people. I hope they enjoy the movie.
(On TV, April 2017) The trouble in watching some older well-known movies is realizing that while they were immensely popular in their time, they are nearly empty of anything interesting beyond their premise. (This is usually more obvious in older movies—for all of our complaining about newer films and how they all come down an assembly line, they can now depend on a wider variety of plotting clichés) So it is that Sister Act is purely formula-driven film, with easily predictable plot developments, a simple narrative arc and easily-digestible characters. After fifteen minutes, the film settles down into an incredibly familiar rhythm that it never escapes afterward. Whoopie Goldberg stars as a disreputable lounge singer who witnesses a murder and had to go in hiding at a convent. Her fallen persona makes for easy fish-out-of-water gags, but you can bet your three-act structure that they will all learn something from each other by the end of the story. Executed with all of the obviousness of early-nineties mainstream comedies, Sister Act makes sure to underlines every one of its jokes three times to make sure we haven’t missed any. It quickly becomes tedious. Goldberg is quite good in the lead role, but the film around her isn’t interested in wit or subtlety.
(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.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2017) While I can recognize that Footloose isn’t a great movie, it’s easy to be swept along by its charm, clearly-defined stakes and infectious energy. I happen to like the song itself a lot, and the clever opening sequence is a lot of fun to watch. Then it’s off to rural America, when a stranger, our protagonist, comes to town to bring some wholesome urban values in the Midwestern wasteland. As a treatise on blue-versus-red America, Footloose has a lot to say and did so decades before the US electoral map ossified to the point that brought you Donald J. Trump, president. But there I go tainting Footloose’s innocent fun with not-so-fun stuff. It’s far better to focus on Kevin Bacon’s career-making performance, the ludicrous chicken-tractor sequence, or John Lithgow’s turn as a persuadable preacher. Footloose, alas, does run out of steam a bit too quickly: the ending seems to peter out after resolving itself ten minutes earlier, not quite managing to deliver a decent finale. Still, it’s a fun movie with a bit of depth to offer regarding the rural-vs-urban divide. The music is also quite a bit better than that other early-eighties musical Flashdance.
(On TV, April 2017) This may be the first (and so far only) English-language review of the French TV documentary Le monde secret de la petite brique Lego. Being in the middle of a Lego rediscovery, I’m tracking down the most unlikely exposés about the topic, and this 90-minute special found its way through a French TV channel broadcast to the Saint Pierre and Miquelon Island and made available by my cable provider here in the Ottawa area. Who would have thought? In any case, much of this documentary is not particularly revelatory if you’re already an Adult Fan of Lego—it covers familiar bases (the design of sets, the marketing strategy, the educational applications, the adult fandom, the brickfilms, and so on) but it has the particularity of doing it from a very French perspective, avoiding many of the familiar touchstones of English-language Lego fandom. So it is that we get to look inside Nexo Knights set design through French designer Frédéric André (with a fun kids-testing segment and a solid-gold look at the Lego master set vault), discuss online Lego fandom with Hothbrick.com’s Will and talk about the realities (ie; bargain-hunting) of Lego collecting with adult fan/father Gilles, among many other purely French examples. The overall tone is sympathetic to Lego and its fans (but who doesn’t like Lego?), and while one or two inaccurate details had me raising my eyebrows, much of the documentary is solid from a factual point of view. From a French-Canadian perspective, the lack of captioning was not an advantage—French on both sides of the Atlantic diverges more than English does, and European French tends to be far more verbose than American French. Still, as a uniquely French look at a global phenomenon, Le monde secret de la petite brique Lego is decent enough as a TV documentary, and offers a few things that even gold-standard Lego: A Brickumentary didn’t.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) At a time when streaming media (and I include recording cable TV movies on a DVR to be streaming) has taken over physical media as a way to see movies, I think that two factors can motivate a physical media purchase: Beauty and replayability. Is this something that’s worth seeing in high resolution, over and over again? Fortunately, Kubo and the Two Strings makes the grade on both aspects. From a visual perspective, it’s never less than astonishing. The mixture of stop-motion and CGI provides both the physicality and the scope required for telling an epic fantasy story. The wizards at Laika have done it again in raising the bar of what’s possible on-screen. But what makes Kubo and the Two Strings their best movie since Coraline is the sustained interest of the plot. While not groundbreaking, the Japanese influence on the film is a refreshing change of pace, and there’s enough in the film to hold our interest from beginning to end. (Paranorman ended much stronger than it started, while The Boxtrolls was dull throughout). Once you’ve got exceptional visuals and a decent plot, the rest takes care of itself. Unusually melancholic for a kid’s feature, Kubo and the Two Strings may be best appreciated by older children … and their parents. For everyone else, though, it’s a powerful demo disc for high-definition TVs. You will want to see this one more than once.
(On TV, April 2017) Robocop 2 doesn’t have the best reputation, and it’s easy to see why: It almost entirely re-creates the thematic points of the first film, sometimes in more entertaining ways but never quite going beyond what had been settled in its prequel. Worse yet, the script doesn’t quite know what to do with its most daring ideas (such as the underage killer) and puts them all away during its last act, dumbing down everything to a fairly dull combat sequence that keeps going and going. This being said, there are a few interesting moments in this sequel (The body horror, the over-programming interlude, etc.)—in fact, some of those moments are good enough that a truly decent remake would pick and choose scenes from the first and second movie to be able to create something much stronger than the result of either film. But we have what we have on-screen, and the best thing we can say about Robocop 2 is that it’s more of the same, except not as smart. The violence remains excessive, the special effects have a charming 16-bit quality, the humour isn’t always well-handled and director Irvin Kershner can handle the mayhem efficiently, even though he can’t elevate the material like Paul Verhoeven did. Belinda Bauer is deliciously evil as an amoral psychologist, Wanda De Jesus has a small role and Peter Weller is fine as Robocop, even though the scripts frequently asks him to step out of character. As a sequel, it’s passable … but viewers are advised to avoid the dreadful third installment.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) Some movies hold up better than ever, but Heaven Can Wait isn’t one of them. The problem isn’t with the period detail, Warren Beatty’s performance or any of the 1978-specific aspects of the film. The problem is the annoying way in which its premise is executed. Beatty plays a lunkheaded football player who dies before his time and is sent back to Earth as a rich man with ongoing problems of his own. But what could have a sprightly fantasy ends up dragged by a script as dumb as its protagonist. Our dimwitted hero has trouble accepting that his football player body is gone, and keeps insisting that he’s going to play the SuperBowl anyway. The movie eventually obliges, in one of the most blatant instance of contrived plotting ever put on film. But the way from Point A to point B is made even worse by the moronic character, adding empty minutes to a film that should move much faster. There is a particularly egregious five-minute scene in which our protagonist laboriously recaps the film for the benefit of a friend, leaving viewers gnashing in exasperation. If the movie was reaching for a grand message on life and its preciousness, it’s more than muddled by the protagonist’s bull-headed insistence on not changing a thing. The body-switching aspect is more painful than amusing (see above about the stupidity of the script) and the laughs are few and far between in what’s supposed to be a comedy. If you haven’t seen it yet, Heaven can Wait can definitely wait.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2017) If the original Jaws was at the top of good movies and Jaws 2 is at the bottom of good movies, then Jaws 3-D is at the top of bad movies (and I’m told that Jaws: The Revenge lies at the bottom of bad movies.) It dull, gimmicky, familiar, forgettable and not terribly interesting. Whatever interest the basic theme-park premise might have held in 1983 (and I suspect that even then, people made comparison to Westworld) is completely gone now that other movies (Piranha 3D and 3DD, cough-cough) have more or less recycled the premise. We know what’s in store: big shark, multiple deaths and a plucky hero saving the day (this time with a grenade). The addition of 3D elements (since Jaws 3-D came out in the middle of the early-1980s 3D revival) is often ridiculous seen on a flat screen, clearly showing the technical and artistic limits of the approach at the time. It’s sort of fun to see a young Dennis Quaid thrown in the mess, but that doesn’t really make the film any better. Se it if you must, but you may not remember it the day after—there’s not much of interest here.
(TubiTV streaming, April 2017) In talking about Elizabethtown, it’s almost essential to talk about aliens and angels. Aliens, because the leading theory to explain what happened to writer/director Cameron Crowe between Jerry Maguire/Almost Famous and Elizabethtown/Aloha is that he has been replaced by an alien with imperfect understanding of human behavior. Elizabethtown professes to be about life, love, laughs and other wholesome sentiments, but even from its first five minutes, it seemingly takes place in a reality with limited similarities to our own. Reading the late and lamented Roger Ebert bring in angels to explain the behavior of the female lead character is a testimony to how far we have to go in order to even make sense of the film. I’m usually good to mention one or two particularly dumb moments in my capsule reviews, but Elizabethtown has so many nonsensical bits that it would take too long to do them justice. Orlando Bloom is sort of bland but still effective as the grieving suicidal lead, while Kirsten Dunst is bubbly as the entirely improbable love interest. “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was invented to discuss Elizabethtown as one of the few rational responses to such a character. I could go on and on about how the film may be a fever dream or a fantasy written by aliens whose only exposure to humanity has been through romantic comedies, but Elizabethtown is frankly just that weird. It even becomes oddly endearing after a while, once it’s clear than anything goes here. The Free Bird/Firebird sequence is amusing (if, again, directed so poorly as to be ludicrous), there are a few laughs here and there and odd resonant piece of dialogues. Alec Baldwin shows up too briefly as a Big Boss, while I always enjoy seeing Judy Greer and Jessica Alba even in minor roles. Still, Elizabethtown seems to belong in a category of its own, a blend of outsider and performance art, perhaps. In that light, I’d be doing a disservice to tell you not to see it.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2017) It would be easy to be too hard on Jaws 2 for not being as good as its predecessor. But given that the predecessor was one of the most famous movies of its era, helmed by a young and hungry Steven Spileberg, it’s not a dishonor to say that Jaws 2 is merely a competent blockbuster film. It doesn’t mess with the formula set by the first movie, what with its sadistic shark steadily cranking up the death count, and a third act largely set on water. There’s a nearly-interesting bit about Roy Scheider’s character being driven mad by the same situation happening all over again, but that’s largely avoided in the last third of the film. Less interesting is the film’s insistence on featuring teenage characters as protagonists and shark chum—part of the first film’s appeal was its adult nature, and targeting it to teenagers does smack of commercialism. Even as a step down, though, Jaws 2 holds up decently today. Cut away some of the dumbest, most overdone sequences (including the final shark fry, but also the shark-versus-helicopter moment) and it’s still a reasonably good blockbuster film. Ultimately, though, it avoid greatness, and that’s part of the game in coming up with a sequel.