(On TV, May 2017) Innocuous but likable, Music and Lyrics manages to exceed the familiar average for romantic comedies, largely based on the strengths of its lead actors and the interesting backdrop in which the familiar rom-com situations occur. Hugh Grant stars as a washed-up popstar eking a living through royalties and small concerts in dismal places. When he’s asked to pen a song for a young and impulsive signer (Haley Bennett, playing a character that now seems like a slightly demented blend of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry), he comes to rely on an eccentric woman (Drew Barrymore, less bland than usual) to break through his creative block. The music-industry backdrop adds a lot to the film, especially in its high-comedy moments. Meanwhile, Grant and Barrymore work effectively together despite the fifteen-year age difference. Given those assets, it’s somewhat disappointing that the film can’t do anything else beyond relying on stock rom-com situations and false conflicts to juice up the drama. Even a mildly intriguing subplot about the female lead being the inspiration for a popular fictional antagonist eventually peters out to nothing much. Still, the film can coast a long time on its lead and backdrop, which helps make Music and Lyrics slightly more interesting than most of the other rom-com of the time. Give it a shot if you’re in that kind of mood.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2017) It says much about today’s Hollywood that we’ve come to crave solid crime thrillers as an alternative to the usually undistinguishable dreck that has come to dominate multiplexes. Hell or High Water is a throwback to the time when this kind of crime drama, solidly acted, put together with skill, eschewing formula and taking on social issues, was a fixture rather than an exception. Here, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers trying to stop a bank’s takeover of their family farm by robbing branches of that very same bank. The populist anger runs raw in this film, which only heightens the drama when an affable veteran policeman (Jeff Bridges, gritty as ever) chases them across the state. The result is very much like a modern western, with SUVs replacing horses as our antiheroes go rob banks in small cities. It’s a solid script by Taylor Sheridan (who’s improving from movie to movie), and David Mackenzie’s direction effectively manages to portray East Texas in a credible fashion. It’s also, refreshingly, a movie that cares for even its minor characters: There are two waitress characters in the film, for instance, and both of them (Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman) get a few memorable moments well beyond the usual “here’s your food, sweetheart”. There are no clear good or bad guys here, as viewers’ loyalties are tested and the film refuses a conventionally uplifting resolution. This being said, Hell or High Water does ends leaving a sense of satisfaction at the way the story is wrapped up, having taken us on a ride unlike most other big-budget movies out there. As a standalone movie, it’s crunchy good viewing. As an antidote to the current Hollywood orthodoxy, though, it’s nothing short of delicious.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2017) Perhaps the most remarkable element of Deepwater Horizon is how it constantly teeters at the edge of understanding. The dramatization of the 2010 disaster that contaminated so much of the Gulf of Mexico, Deepwater Horizon takes us deep in the oil-drilling trade, letting loose with a constant stream of jargon, high-tech equipment and specialized knowledge. We, civilian viewers, barely understand what’s going on, but we do just enough to follow. It’s in that strange twilight zone between befuddlement and cognition that, paradoxically, Deepwater Horizon earns its patina of authenticity—it’s convincing in its portrayal of what’s going on, but not so much as to perceptibly dumb down the material to everyone’s perfect understanding. It certainly helps to have archetypical blue-collar avatar Mark Wahlberg as the star of the film—he may play an electrician with a thorough knowledge of his field, but he still comes across as a relatable protagonist. It also helps that the film squarely takes aim at corporate villains in an attempt to create antagonists, and that the last half of the film is one succession of hair-raising sequence after another. Once the stuff starts blowing up (and it does blow up real good, as some would say), who cares about the finer details of negative pressure testing? Knowing what we already do from historical events, much of the film is a buildup to a terrible event and the suspense actually work well—when will it all happen? Is Kurt Russel’s character going to make it out of that shower? While there’s quite a bit to say about Hollywood’s long-running tendency to transform disasters and defeats into uplifting movies increasingly starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg, Deepwater Horizon actually works well on its own terms as a disaster movie. Never mind the unstoryable aftermath in which an entire ecosystem was disrupted for years—at least the initial events are spectacular enough to be shown on-screen with a decent amount of craft.
(TubiTV streaming, May 2017) Zombie movies often work as indictments of humanity, and Day of the Dead proves to be a particularly depressing example of the form. George Romero’s third zombie film takes place on a military base, sometime after the zombie apocalypse, as experiments take place to understand and control the zombie menace. This leads straight to particularly gory sequence of medical horror, combined with the usual tropes of humans being terrible to another even in the face of a mortal threat. Combine the two and you’ve got the makings of a particularly depressing zombie film, even by the glum standards of the genre. (Ironically, though, this is one rare zombie film in which a few survivors find a relatively peaceful situation at the end. Go figure…) If I was more of a gore-hound (and I really am not), I’d probably be enthusiastic about the inventive ways Day of the Dead shows zombies at their worst, and the unsettling cumulative impact of the medical experiments on the living dead. Some of the stuff is still good enough to make anyone wonder how they did that in a pre-CGI age. (The opening “Calendar” jump scare is top-notch.) The nihilistic plotting is far more depressing, though, with the situation inside the bunker growing bleaker by the moment. Day of the Dead is definitely a zombie film for subgenre aficionados—I’m not much of a zombie fan, and I found the film far too gloomy at times.
(TMN Go streaming, May 2017) I recall learning about Anne Boleyn and the dramatic imbroglios of her time in high school, and it frankly seemed far more dramatic than The Other Boleyn Girl’s overcooked yet dull melodrama. Despite the bright green dress on nearly every poster or cover of the film, the film is colourless both in visual richness and narrative effect. Despite high drama, a mad king, suggestions of incest, death and impossible choices, this is a costume drama that seems to rely too much on telling a sideshow rather than the big story. As much fun as it can be seeing Scarlett Johannsen and Nathalie Portman playing historical characters, The Other Boleyn Girl goes through the motions without engaging the viewer. It doesn’t help that even as it doesn’t succeed as a dramatized portrayal of events, it fails as a nominally accurate portrayal of real events—the list of historical issues with the film seems longer than the plot summary itself. It all amounts to a significant disappointment—made even worse by the richness of the historical material, which the film seemingly can’t use effectively. When classroom material is favourably compared to a movie … there’s a problem.
(On TV, May 2017) No, no, no, I will not have anyone rehabilitate, humanize or soften Margaret Thatcher. I won’t excuse the hardline regressive policies that set such a bad example in the eighties. But such is the bet placed by The Iron Lady, a biographical picture that uses Thatcher’s dementia-afflicted last few years as a springboard through which to fast-forward through her career, battling sexism and lesser minds along the way. To be fair, The Iron Lady isn’t always boring as it frames Thatcher’s career as flashbacks through an afflicting episode of dementia. Nor is Meryl Streep anything less than spectacular as Thatcher. Jim Broadbent is also quite amusing as an imaginary character who probably knows he’s imaginary. (Alas, this last sentence may cause more curiosity in the film than I’d like.) There’s also something quietly interesting in showing an “iron lady” as a frail old woman whose mind is fast slipping away. But even then, The Iron Lady can be a trying viewing experience for two big reasons. The first being that an episodic collection of scenes hitting the high points of a life doesn’t necessarily amount to a coherent narrative—the second being that for all of the daring in showing Thatcher as a doddering old woman, the film is firmly sympathetic to its subject, eliding or minimizing the lengthy list of valid complaints against her and her time in power. Margaret is always right, everyone else is a fool—and her resignation is forced by small intellects rather than a reflection that she’d gone on too long and too far. So there you go: The Iron Lady as a mirror of viewers’ feeling about a divisive historical character. The film itself is too flat to change anyone’s mind on the topic.
(On TV, May 2017) Surprisingly enough for a forty-something man, I ended up liking Dirty Dancing quite a bit better than I expected … but I don’t expect my idiosyncratic reaction to be widely shared, or even comprehensible. The roots of my appreciation, paradoxically enough, go back to the history of American stand-up comedy: Ever since learning that generations of American comedians developed their craft in the so-called “Borsch Belt” of Jewish-dominated resorts nestled in the Catskill mountains, I’ve been fascinated by that kind of vacationing. Leaving New York, driving upstate to spend a week or two in a big isolated resort? Intriguing. So imagine my astonished reaction when I sat down to watch Dirty Dancing and realized that it was a trip back in time to this kind of vacationing. Never mind that I went thirty years without realizing that Dirty Dancing wasn’t an eighties movie set during the eighties—here, we’re back to summer 1963, with a rich Jewish family going to a Catskill resort for summer holidays. Never mind the romance between our innocent protagonist as the dancer played by Patrick Swayze—I’m here for the depicting of Borsch Belt resorts, fun at the lake, hiking in the mountain and Wayne Knight delivering a bad joke as the movie portrayal of stand-up comedians hitting the Catskill resorts at the beginning of their careers. Of course, there’s a whole other movie going on about a girl losing her innocence (and wow does this film get dark on the margins of its main plot) and Patrick Swayze being offended when someone puts Baby in the corner. My interest in that aspect of the movie was never better than lukewarm, but that’s the idiosyncratic part of my reaction to the film. Jennifer Gray is instantly sympathetic as the heroine, at least, and Swayze does manage to keep his character likable even considering their mismatched levels of maturity. As I’ve said—I don’t expect anyone else in the world to like Dirty Dancing for the same reasons I did, but that’s not the point … unless you want it to be that different people can like the same thing for wildly different reasons.
(Second viewing, Crackle Streaming, May 2017) I’m not sure anyone else will make the analogy, but having re-watched the original The Karate Kid shortly before Christine has put me in a frame of mind to call this John Carpenter horror movie the dark pendant of the kind of high-school comedy exemplified by The Karate Kid. At their heart, they are both teenage power fantasies about fitting in and gaining some kind of power over one’s social environment. The Karate Kid goes light in showing the way discipline, training and kindness can win over the worst bullies. But Christine … oh boy. Here, the path to power is destructive, based on an unholy romance with dark forces as exemplified by an evil car. Bullies are not gently beaten in submission as they are run over, dismembered or set aflame by a malevolent supernatural entity. It’s strong stuff (tying into deep American associations between cars and teenage rites of passage into adulthood), and it’s significant that Christine is focused not on the teenage nerd who falls in love with an automotive demon, but his best friend watching the consequent carnage. I remember liking the original Stephen King novel quite a bit, but director John Carpenter truly nails the filmed execution. From the self-assured prologue showing the origins of evil to the “Bad to the Bone” echoing stinger, Christine is a thrill ride. As befitting such an extreme premise (evil car?!?), it never settles for subtlety when over-the-top will do: Why not hit viewers over the head with a great on-the-nose soundtrack? Why settle for running over a bully when the car can escape from an exploding gas station and set its teenage target ablaze? Why settle for keying a car when the group of antagonists can smash it to pieces with sledgehammers? And why soft-play the disturbingly aggressive final sequence of a masculine bulldozer climbing atop a car strongly gendered as female? Christine doesn’t mess around when it comes to shocking the viewer, and it’s exactly that kind of go-for-broke audacity that sets apart ordinary B-grade horror movies from the great ones. My memories of seeing Christine in the mid-nineties weren’t spectacular, but this second look reveals a much better movie than I remembered. It’s playfully aggressive, well-crafted and has a few hidden depths once you start poking at it. After a steady diet of upbeat depictions of high-school life, Christine is just dark and just good enough to be a welcome antidote.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) I’m not sure what I was expecting from Awakenings—seeing Robin Williams as a doctor, maybe something along the lines of Patch Adams? What I did get was more than expected. The first half of Awakenings is good without being particularly striking: Here are patients immobilized by a rare disease; here’s an unconventional doctor trying a new radical therapy to improve their condition and break them out of their catatonia. When, against all odds, it works, it’s the film’s big triumphant moment: People are free to live again, experience the world and blossom against all odds. The film’s real kicker, however, happens when the therapy stops being effective, and the newly awakened patients are dragged back in catatonia. It does give to Awakenings an efficient dose of wistfulness, and a stronger “experience life before it’s taken away from you” message. Robin Williams is good and not overbearing in a more serious role than usual, while Robert de Niro turns in a respectable performance as a patient who comes out of catatonia before facing the prospect of sinking back into it. Awakenings may be best approached with low expectations—it’s not a great movie, but it’s noteworthy and far from being as sappy as it could have been. It’s not comfortable and works better because of it.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) I’ve got to stop watching movies based on TV shows I have heard about but never actively watched. Absolutely Fabulous has been on my list of things to watch for a while, but I thought I understood the premise well enough to skip ahead to the movie. Mistake… The issue is not in the basic concept (two lushes, barely reined in by a more responsible daughter) but in the in-jokes, call-backs and minor characters that pop up incomprehensibly to people who aren’t thoroughly familiar with the show. This understanding isn’t strictly required to follow along a plot that has our heroine pushing Kate Moss to worldwide sorrow and condemnation—but it gets grating when, every minute-and-a-half, there’s a palpable sense of missing something in order to get the most out of the film. It also really doesn’t help when the film heaps tons of cameos that are only understandable if you’re British and acutely aware of the London Fashion scene. Wikipedia can help only to a point—dissecting a joke is a good way to kill it. I’m not saying that the experience of watching the film was miserable—there are a few good jokes here and there, Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders are quite good in the lead roles, and Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness makes a striking debut as the reasonable granddaughter who keeps grinning at the madness her elders get into. But even the good laughs (such as an assistant revealing a lavish villa based on embezzling the lead character) would have been bigger had I been more knowledgeable of the show. Sorry, Absolutely Fabulous. It’s not you, it’s me: You’re fabulous, I don’t know you and let’s leave it at that.
(TubiTV Streaming, May 2017) The seventies in general were a good time for low-budget breakout features, and so there’s something exceptionally compelling in Assault on Precinct 13 despite its obvious limitations, excesses and diversions. It does capture a period atmosphere in which the inner city had become the new wild frontier, and transposing plenty of western tropes in an urban environment must have been far more shocking then than it is now. Not that the film is entirely normalized now—the “ice cream” scene is still viscerally transgressive today, and does much to establish that anything can happen in the film. The rest pits cops and criminals and gang members against each other, with unusual alliances emerging on their own. It works pretty well, largely due to director John Carpenter’s gift for staging action and creating suspense. The score also helps viewers feel put off by the proceedings, which is the point of the film—Assault on Precinct 13 is about how even the familiar streets can become a war zone. There’s a limit to how much you can like a film like that, but it’s not that hard to be impressed by the effectiveness of its gloomy intentions.
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2017) Ah, there it is—Superman, the granddaddy of the superhero genre. Has it aged well? Not really, but perhaps better than you’d think. Structurally, Superman doesn’t do anything truly different from countless other superhero origin stories—although it does take its own sweet time to get there, and even includes sequel-setup elements in the prologue (I had to pop open the DVD tray and double-check that I hadn’t accidentally inserted Superman II in the player, because I honestly did not remember Zod being part of the first film). What works is that, at times, the script does try to reach for something beyond the silly humour and into drama—either the missing-parent subplot, or romantic hijinks. That does keep the movie afloat now far better than the slapdash humour of much of the rest of the film. Nowadays, though, the script has serious tonal issues in-between its serious protagonist and silly antagonists: Gene Hackman is rather good as Lex Luthor, and I can’t say enough nice things about Valerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, but Ned Beatty is insupportable as a henchman too dumb for words, let alone supporting a so-called genius of crime. But so goes Superman, torn in-between actual artistic ambitions for its characters and a reluctance to see comic-book origins as anything but a big joke. Other issues abound. The ever-popular “Superman is a schmuck” theory is bolstered by more than a few sequences, while the ending sequence (with Superman going back in time) is still worth a disbelieving groan. On the other hand—and this is an important point—Superman manages to float above its worst flaws by virtue of honesty. It believes in its own protagonist and it does try to explore what it means to be Superman. It tries to ground itself in-between its flights of fancy, and the seventies period details now looks deliciously retro rather than dated. It also helps that, beyond Margot Kidder being good as Lois Lane, Christopher Reeves is fantastic both as Clark Kent and Superman—his performance as one is unlike the other: far more than making us “believe that a man can fly”, Superman’s greatest achievement is making us believe in the difference between superhero and alter ego. Director Richard Donner had enough experience to do justice to the script using what was available at the time—while the film’s special effects now look amateurish, they still make their point even today. Superman is still a big grab-bag of various qualities and problems, but it can still be watched with some pleasure today. If nothing else, it’s not gratuitously dour or dark like some of the latter representation of the character, and I believe that it will endure decently because of that uplifting tone. Cue the theme music…
(TubiTV Streaming, May 2017) At first glance, there is no way I thought I’d like Suspiria. I abhor most slasher films; my rare contacts with Italian giallo films have been unpleasant; and the thought of another movie with a psycho cutting down young women in garish detail is enough to make me queasy. But after actually watching the film, I’ll concede that Suspiria at least commits to its grand-guignol madness. Long before American Horror started leaning on a self-aware shtick, Dario Argento pushes the limits of his barely coherent premise into showy set-pieces. Colourful to a degree that’s not even close to subtle, Suspiria keeps one-upping its murderous set-pieces to the point of nearly approaching abstract art: The first big horror sequence of the film ends with a body being hung/thrown through a skylight, and another woman being killed by the glass debris. Terrible, but weirdly successful at once. Don’t look for a tightly plotted story—Suspiria is about the atmosphere more than narrative, and that atmosphere starts early on—even a relatively innocuous airport arrival sequence is made instantly dreadful by the use of red lighting and an oppressive synthetic score. Suspiria isn’t the kind of film that you’d show to anyone sane, but it’s weirdly respectable in its own way. It commits to its madness and doesn’t pull punches in the way it follows its set-pieces to the end. The Technicolor visual styling of the film is impressive even forty years later, and the dreadful quality of its nightmarish atmosphere makes it an interesting film even for those who want nothing to do with psycho-slasher horror films.
(In Spanish with French Subtitles, On TV, May 2017) I don’t like Pedro Almodovar’s work quite as much as most movie critics, but I will, at least, grant that his movies are quite unlike anyone else’s. They don’t stick to the formula, they’re willing to portray quirky characters undergoing unimaginable trauma, and they readily reach for uncomfortable situations that would feel extreme in other contexts. Trying to give a plot summary of Carne Trémula to someone used to the standard Hollywood three-act structure would earn wary stares and audible derision. Even while watching the film, it’s sometimes hard to avoid a few well-placed “Oh, come on!” But there are rewards to the whole mess, and it’s a kind of experience that’s strange and universal at once, with actors going far beyond what is expected of them in more ordinary cinema. Javier Bardem is very good here in an early role, which Penelope Cruz gets a small but merciless role. Less familiar actresses such as Francesca Neri and Angela Molina also get good parts to play in a small but intense cast of characters improbably linked together. The film’s Madrid backdrop is unusual but does not obscure common themes. I don’t think anyone will be comforted or conventionally entertained by Carne Trémula … but it’s certainly, like most of Almodovar’s movies, a memorable experience.
(On TV, May 2017) Twenty-seven years later, I still remember the ads for Arachnophobia and especially it’s “thrill-omedy” neologism, coined at a time when hybridizing horror and comedy was still a daring concept. We’re far more familiar with the form nowadays, and that does play a part in appreciating the movie today: While some of the film’s methods seem a bit obvious now, the general concept is more easily accepted and the substance may seem more accessible now than in 1990. Arachnophobia, from its title, makes no pretension about what it means to be: a scare-ride for people who are even slightly disturbed by spiders. As the volunteer (and designated) spider-catcher in my household, I’m not really the prime audience for the movie … but I can recognize that it makes a decent effort to be entertaining. While the first half-hour is too long, the rest of Arachnophobia works well as a B-grade comic thriller. Jeff Daniels is suitably sympathetic as a doctor who gets far more trouble than he expected in moving his family from the city to the countryside, while John Goodman is remarkable as a slightly disturbing and incompetent exterminator. Arachnophobia is not a great movie, but it doesn’t have to be. See it with Eight-Legged Freaks for a good spider-movie double feature.