(On Cable TV, November 2017) While we cinephiles are all here talking about the death of original middle-budget movies (i.e.: non-sequels, non-comic book, non-franchise, non-superhero stuff), there are movies like Sleepless to remind us that even those movies can be underwhelming. It’s not that Sleepless is bad—it’s that it shows things that countless other crime thrillers have done better. Crooked cops, undercover heroes, internal affairs, large drug deals, threatened family members … and so on. Even set against the glitz of Las Vegas and with the combined appeal of Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan and Gabriel Union, Sleepless can’t really rouse itself out of complacency. It does get slightly better toward the end by resorting to semi-insane action movie tricks such as a car chase in a casino and a rather impressive car flip executed with ramping frame rates and a moving camera (no, seriously, it’s quite good and you even see it again later during the credits if you’ve missed it) but the vast majority of the film is as bland as it comes. Average dialogue, expected plot developments and middle-of-the-road direction don’t really help, even though Monaghan and Union are expected delights in their roles, and Foxx doesn’t do too badly either. Ultimately, Sleepless is the kind of crime thriller that works well enough as an evening’s distraction, but soon fades away as nothing more than an average genre title.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) For this newest entry in the Smurfs movie series, The Lost Village wisely dispends with the live-action angle to deliver an all-CGI adventure in which the Smurfette goes looking for a second Smurfs village. In some ways, this isn’t much of a departure from the two live-action films: it’s once again an adventure in which a few selected Smurfs go far away from the village, encountering various hijinks en-route. Once again, Gargamel is along for the ride, doing whatever he can to be a pest. It’s familiar, but it has the decency of being relatively well executed. Some of the jokes are actually funny, the animation is fine by contemporary standards, the creature design is often very cute (wait until you see that glow-bunny!) and the script has a decent amount of girl-power to it since it explores Smurfette’s character and eventually uncovers an all-female second Smurf village. The climactic funeral scene goes on a bit too long, but the rest generally holds together. The Lost Village isn’t particularly challenging, but it does have that Smurfs charm (that same one that the live-action films worked hard to sabotage via such things as testicular jokes) and won’t drive parents of the target audience to distraction.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) I think I’ve shopped at Tower Records once, while on a trip in Boston in 2005 or 2006, but as documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records plays out, describing the triumphs of the chain and its end at the hand of a changing retail landscape, I couldn’t help but flash back to the fate of Canadian chains Sam the Record Man (gone 2007) and HMV (gone 2017) and how I, even as a moderate music fan, enjoyed going to those stores. But the story specifically being told here is about Tower Records, the American chain that started in Sacramento in 1960 and grew to include a worldwide network of stores including iconic flagship locations in Los Angeles and New York. Told largely through interviews without an audible narrator (although some of the interviews sometimes break out of their structure and feature off-screen interjections), All Things Must Pass is an impressive documentary debut for Colin Hanks. The first half of the documentary is about the rise of the chain, and it’s great good fun: stores that were instantly popular upon opening, hijinks from young employees, various innovations from ground-floor people becoming corporate policies … it’s also a portrait of the music landscape for forty years, evolving through genres and styles. This fun first half inevitably leads to a considerably less amusing second half, as the music retail industry faces its digital reckoning in the early 2000s. Having run out of physical formats to upgrade, losing sales from inflated prices and being unable to compete with the convenience of online file-sharing platforms, Tower Records got stuck with heavy debts and dwindling revenue. Much of the last five years of the company are a swirl of things getting worse and worse, leading to the complete shutdown of the chain in late 2006. While All Things Must Pass doesn’t quite shy away from the various issues that destroyed the company (including brief mentions of bad management), it’s definitely an authorized history of the chain, meaning that it has access to the founder’s inner circle and does not feature any of the critics that could talk about Tower Records putting small stores out of business, or comment on the more salacious rumours surrounding the management’s mistakes. (Two interesting articles: Forbes’ 2006 commentary, and a skeptical look at the documentary, with great comments.) Still, the people featured on-screen are interesting, the documentary flows nicely from one thing to another, and it does manage to create a longing for record stores. I’m not given to nostalgia, but I do miss that I can’t go to Montreal or Toronto and wander the floors of HMV’s flagship stores. I do miss the posters, the deep inventory of obscure genres and the experience of being in a place dedicated to music. I suspect that, sometime in the future, there will be an interest for virtual recreations of such stores, algorithmically tied into digital inventories of available music. Until then, there’s All Things Must Pass to give all generations a taste of what it was to be in a record store.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) I will vigorously defend the right of filmmakers to make the movies they want to make … but then again I will also defend the right of viewers to have the reaction they want to the movie they’re seeing. This is relevant to The Pledge insofar as director Sean Penn wanted to make a movie that upended the traditional conventions of a crime thriller. (Warning: Spoilers.) The point of the script—based on a novella significantly titled “The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel”—is to show that not all investigations end up finding the culprit, and some of the time this can be a mere stroke of luck (or bad luck). The ending doesn’t go for full bleakness by killing the killer without the investigator knowing about it, but such meagre comforts do nothing to save the protagonist from ending up a ruined alcoholic mumbling to himself about his failure. Such a downer ending, coupled with the grim premise of a child killer, means that The Pledge will never become a crowd favourite. There are plenty of vastly more entertaining and deliberately satisfying crime thrillers out there if you’re looking for that kind of stuff. On the other hand, there’s quite a lot to like in The Pledge despite its intentionally downbeat nature. Jack Nicholson turns in one of his last good performances as an out-of-persona retiring detective who comes to obsess about the murder of a young girl, and promises to her mom that we will find the truth. Director Sean Penn delivers a rather good movie, handled with some care and unusual flourishes despite insisting a bit too much on some elements at time. I also suspect that Penn is the reason why the film is studded with known actors in small roles, from Benicio del Toro’s early brief turn to people such as Hellen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Mickey Rourke in rather minor roles. There’s even an intriguing plot point midway through, as the protagonist spends his retirement funds buying a gas station in order to gather more information on possible suspects. The Pledge works much better when considered as a drama rather than a thriller: it places more emphasis on the cost of obsession (even justified) and less on the achievement of detection. Still, it is a kick in the gut and I can certainly understand why many won’t like that.
(On DVD, November 2017) For proof that “old-fashioned” in no insult, look no further than The Rocketeer, a glorious throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s and a highly enjoyable comic-book movie from a time well before the current glut of comic-book movies. If this film has a secret weapon, it’s charm. The kind of quasi-goofy, rather comfortable charm that you get with a morally upstanding square-jawed hero (Billy Campbell), a curly brunette heroine (Jennifer Connelly), a scenery-chomping villain (Timothy Dalton), a fun piece of technology (a rocket backpack!) and a voluntarily retro setting that pays affectionate homage to the best features of the era. Here we are at the heroic age of aviation, with Gee-Bees barnstormers, Hollywood glamour, Nazis lurking at the edges of the screen and Howard Hughes coming up with fantastic inventions. It’s certainly not challenging, but it’s a lot of fun. Director Joe Johnston has proven time and again his ability to deliver straightforward adventures, but The Rocketeer still stands as one of the highlights of his career. The special effects aren’t particularly good, but who cares when the script, and the film, have this scene-to-scene watchability that will keep viewers glued to the screen. A similar movie would probably do better today (The Rocketeer is definitely a spiritual ancestor to Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger), and as it turns out there are steady rumblings about a sequel any time soon. I’m looking forward to that.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) Watching some films from bygone days is almost an anthropological experience. Not just for what’s shown on-screen, but what led to what’s shown on-screen. Around the World in Eighty Days is one such curio, not only portraying the world of 1872 as seen from 1956 (84-year difference), but also telling us much about 1956 Hollywood from today’s perspective (61-year difference). The basics of the film are simple enough, adapting Jules Verne’s globetrotting adventure tale into a lavish three-hour-long spectacle. But it’s the way it is put together that captivates as much as the narrative of the story. Famously filled with cameos, Around the World in Eighty Days regularly grinds to a halt as then-famous faces grin at the camera to remind us that they’re in the movie. Of course, sixty years later, it’s hard to identify most of them unless you’re a dedicated movie buff: what remains are nearly incomprehensible skits revolving around famous people without us knowing that they’re famous people. (The Fernandel and Frank Sinatra examples are particularly egregious, except that Sinatra is still somewhat recognizable.) David Niven is good but occasionally inscrutable as the main character, while Cantinflas (wildly popular then, almost unknown now) is a revelation as Passepartout. Around the World in Eighty Days remains strange and kind of charming in its own way. What’s not quite so funny is the cavalcade of ethnic stereotypes that parade through the entire film. Nobody escapes unscathed, whether it’s the British (eccentric to a fault, and never willing to sacrifice tea in the middle of a crisis) or the Americans (frontier barbarians obsessed with electioneering) or any of the non-English-speaking nationalities. The Native-American segments are particularly tough to watch, but by no means the only uncomfortable moment in the movie. Still, the film moves with a decent amount of action, humour and scenery—while largely filmed on Hollywood studios, the production did spend a lot of effort to make sure that the details were correct, and did travel to foreign countries in order to capture establishing shots. The result is one-of-a-kind. I’d normally welcome a remake, except that a loose comedic remake was completed in 2004 and has since already sunk away from view so thoroughly that I still haven’t seen in on TV or any of the major streaming platforms after a year of searching. In the meantime, the original Around the World in Eighty Days remains available for anyone’s viewing pleasure, but if there’s a film that screams out for pop-up notes, it’s this one.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I’m not going to overstate how important 2001: A Space Odyssey was in my developing a taste for Science-Fiction, but it’s a movie that does show up a few times in my early memories. As a kid, seeing it in the early eighties when 2001 was still in the future, I remember seeing snippets of the film, being fascinated by it, disappointed that they didn’t show more of future life on Earth and rather confused by the whole thing. (My father, for all of his benevolence in allowing me to watch the movie, wasn’t much help in trying to make sense of it.) As a slightly older kid, I remember being told that the answers to the movie were in the Clarke novel. As a somewhat older teenager, I remember reading the book in the middle of a solid Arthur C. Clarke binge. I must have seen the movie again sometime in the early nineties because I have more recent memories than watching it as a kid, but anyway: Watching it now, nearly fifty years after its release, having read countless SF books and even written a few … is a different experience. I’m weirdly fascinated by the movie, for what it does well as for what it doesn’t, for the chances it takes and for the impact it has. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s insanely ambitious from a time when SF movies were not usually considered ambitious. (Keep in mind that 1968 is before the moon landing, before desktop computers, before CGI. The other big Science-Fiction movies of the year were Planet of the Apes and… Barbarella.) It’s still frustratingly ambiguous in terms of narrative, although reading the novel does help quite a bit making sense of it and relaxing enough to appreciate the rest of what the movie does well. I find it fascinating that it has both moments of intense cinematic poetry, while delivering a solid hard-SF thriller in its middle section. I’m more amused than annoyed at the way 2001 doesn’t say anything about its biggest mystery, but will babble on at lengths about the nuts and bolts of its setting. I’m still astonished at the quality of the special effects, the scientific verisimilitude of its middle section or the realism of its setting—all of which remains rarely equalled even fifty years later. Stanley Kubrick was a certifiable genius, and 2001 proves it as much as any other of his movies: just take a look at the million-year cut, the long segments without dialogue, the way even small details show how much the filmmakers cared. 2001 remains a cultural fixture for a reason, having invented, codified or popularized a bunch of the clichés largely associated with Science-Fiction by the general public. I’m struck by how there’s something in this film to appeal to a wide variety of viewers, both as the very prosaic level, and at a more metaphorical one. More narrative-driven viewers will appreciate having read the book for hand-holding through the roughest patches of the narration. More trippy viewers will be happy to be taken for a ride. (And I think that having read the book is one way to watch the movie as both kinds of viewers.) I’m not going to say that 2001 is the perfect SF film, or even among my top favourite ones. But it’s still a rich experience with a lot to offer, and that makes it almost just as good today as it had been for the past five decades.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) I remember reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four during high school and being bleakly depressed for the rest of the day. I’m pretty sure we saw clips of the movie in class, but not the entire film. As it turns out, Nineteen Eighty-Four itself is just about the most straightforward adaptation that anyone could have made of the novel. The high points are all there (even down to the device of having the protagonist keep a diary as a way to insert voiceover narration), the atmosphere is bleakly industrial and the film, at times, seems to have emerged straight from the dreary post-war years in Britain, all bathed in dusty grays and dirty browns. It is also powerfully depressing to a degree that I had almost forgotten: By the time the film discusses removing fundamental biological imperatives as a way to further control the masses, we’re way past most of the nicest dystopias out there. (In fact, Nineteen Eighty-Four makes most post-apocalyptic stories look positively cheerful in comparison.) John Hurt is both bland and good as protagonist Winston Smith—Richard Burton is more lively as voice-of-authority O’Brien. Writer/director Michael Radford did an exceptional job putting Orwell’s genre-defining vision on-screen. But, as faithful as the film can be to the novel, it’s also limited by that faithfulness. Having seen Brazil, I know which bleak dystopia I prefer.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) Why does it seem so hard for Hollywood to make an R-rated action comedy these days? I may be selectively misremembering things, but it seems to me that every halfway promising action comedy screws things up by throwing far too much crassness, gore and unfunny material into the mix, until even the good bits are drowned out by the bad ones. The case in point here is CHiPS, another unsuccessful attempt to bring an old TV show to the big screen. To be fair, there are a few things to like in the result. Michael Peña is fantastic in a super-organized horndog role, stealing scenes as he reliably does. Co-star Dax Shepard (who also co-wrote and directed) is far less successful, playing an abrasive screw-up that annoys more than he amuses. While the plot (revolving around uncovering crooked cops) has some heft to it, it often becomes far too violent (witness: graphic suicide-by-throwing-oneself-out-of-a-helicopter, graphic decapitation, graphic amputation of a lead character’s limbs) to remain fun as a comedy. While some mature content is fine, CHiPS often overplays its hand into something repellent in what isn’t supposed to be a gross-out comedy. Fortunately, the stunts and action scenes are generally solid despite being hyperactive—knowing Shepard’s fondness for cars (as seen in Hit and Run), it’s easy to understand why he’d take on CHiPS as an almost-passion project. There are a few known faces (David Koechner, Maya Rudolph and, of course, Kristen Bell as Shepard’s wife) in minor roles. The sunny Los Angeles setting is used effectively, and doesn’t revisit overly familiar places. Alas, the script does feel lazy, especially once it takes up running gags that aren’t funny the first time and then proceed to grow increasingly exasperating through repetition. The result is not particularly good, although it does have some better moments thanks to Peña and the action scenes. Still, especially as compared to not-so-distant examples of the form such as 21 Jump Street, it’s disappointing.
(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I first saw Lethal Weapon 3 on VHS in the mid-nineties, and while I still remembered a few things (the armour-piercing climactic shootout, the great “let’s compare scars” romantic scene), I had forgotten much along the way. (I do remember much of the promotional chatter surrounding the film and its sequences involving the destruction of a construction project, and the co-optation of a planned building demolition.) In retrospect, Lethal Weapon 3 still marks a transition between the buddy-cop movies of the late-1980s and the overblown action movies of the mid-1990s. The Lethal Weapon series straddle both, of course, and watching this third instalment is like plunging back in a sadly neglected subgenre: Sunny Californian action with plenty of laughs, dubious moral foundations and an overall sense of conscious excess. I miss those kinds of movies where every stunt is an attempt to be even bolder and bigger than the previous one (although Lethal Weapon 3 has its best action sequences well before the climax). I miss the banter between charismatic leads such as Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. (Most of all, I miss the time when you could watch Mel Gibson and not have to account for his personal issues.) I miss the anything-goes nature of plotting where just standing on the street could lead the characters to an armoured car heist and then on to a corruption scandal within the LAPD (and a hockey game sequence because why not?). What I don’t miss is the casual police brutality played for laughs and some of the coincidental nature of the plotting. Still, Lethal Weapon 3 generally works. Including Renee Russo as a true romantic partner for Mel Gibson’s character is a welcome development, and even Joe Pesci is acceptably annoying. While the result isn’t much more than a competent example of the subgenre, it holds up compared to other movies of the series, and the kind of film it intends to be.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) Whenever I tackle an older film, I usually curse my lack of knowledge of the era and my imperfect understanding of the context surrounding the film. But in the case of In the Heat of the Night, I’m actually proud and thankful that I don’t have a deep understanding of the pervasive and violent southern racism that the film portrays. Built around a murder mystery in small-town Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night is really an issues drama, as a competent police officer from Philadelphia is semi-voluntarily asked to help with the investigation. The legendary Sidney Poitier stars as “They call me Mister Tibbs,” a gifted cop whose skills are dismissed by the locals due to his skin colour, and who gets into increasingly violent confrontations with those who wish he’d go away. The murder mystery is perfunctory, but it definitely takes a back seat to the social issues illustrated throughout the plot. Thankfully, there is some good character work along the way that helps make the film more than simply a moral lesson—The protagonist has significant flaws (pride, mostly) that are pointed out by other characters, and the lead sheriff’s (Rod Steiger) evolution from stone-cold racism to honest admiration is handled organically. Colourful minor characters help establish the torrid atmosphere of a southern town in the middle of a heat wave. Competent filmmaking, headed by director Norman Jewison (a Canadian, one notes), make much of the film look and feel just as compelling as it was back then. From a contemporary perspective, much of the movie, and the locals’ reaction to the protagonist, defies comprehension and almost approaches caricature—I’m glad to live in a world where that stuff isn’t as acceptable any more. In the Heat of the Night is a Best Picture Oscar winner and it’s easy to see why—even today, it blends genre entertainment with a strong social conscience, through compelling performances and good production savviness.
(On TV, November 2017) One of the problems of approaching a movie education by going backwards in time is that you see the end before the beginning. You end up watching the revisionism before the classics that are being revisited, and actors at the end of their career paying homage to themselves at their prime. It usually makes sense in the end, but the first impressions can be strange. So it is that while I’m impressed by The Shootist’s approach to the last few days of a legendary gunman (John Wayne, in his final role), I can’t help but feel that I would have gotten far more out of the movie had I seen it after watching the dozens of essential westerns and John Wayne movies. Not only is The Shootist about a gunslinger counting down the days until cancer kills him, it’s explicitly about the end of the Far West as a distinct period—it takes place in a city where automobiles are starting to displace horses, water and electricity are changing the nature of living, and where civilization doesn’t have much use for killers, even righteous ones. The film explicitly ties itself to Wayne’s legacy by using clips from his previous movies as introduction to his character, and there’s an admirable finality to this being Wayne’s last role. I found myself curiously sympathetic to his gruff character, and easily swept along the plot even through (or given) I’m firmly in favour of modernity over the western. Other small highlights can be found in the film—Ron Howard plays a callow youth who learn better, Lauren Bacall looks amazing and there’s even Scatman Crothers in a minor role. Under Don Siegel’s direction, the atmosphere of a city entering the modern age is well done, and there’s a genuine melancholy both to the film and to Wayne himself as they contemplate the end of eras both social and personal. I’m not quite so fond of the specific way the film chooses to conclude, or the various action highlights that seem perfunctory as a way to alleviate what is essentially a contemplative film. But even as I head deeper in the Western genre, I think I’ve found its epilogue in The Shootist.
(In French, On DVD, November 2017) In-between 2007’s Halloween and House of 1000 Corpses, I’m zero-for-two when it comes to Rob Zombie films, and I’ve gathered enough to suggest that it’s not going to get any better. Given that Zombie both writes and directs, there’s no looking around for the films’ real creative force: it’s all his. Alas, the grimy trash aesthetics may work fine on rock music, but they’re nothing particularly compelling as movies. Once you’ve seen one crazy hellbilly family, you’ve seen more than enough, and House of 1000 Corpses doesn’t really distinguish itself from scores of just-as-awful other horror movies. Zombie’s predilection for non-sequitur inserts may be colourful, but it’s just another element in a self-insisting goulash of horror clichés that don’t accumulate as much as they overflow messily. I found it remarkably easy to dismiss House of 1000 Corpses, not as a horror movie or a gruesome comedy, but simply as a furious ball of nonsense meaning nothing. The relentless assault on sensibilities is more exasperating than unnerving, and it doesn’t help that the film doesn’t have a drop of innovation in it: all the way to the final kill, it’s just more of the same, executed in a jumble. There are a few known actors in minor roles (including Walton Goggins and Rainn Wilson) but nothing worth a look for any viewer who doesn’t already identify as a gore-hound.
(On DVD, November 2017) There is something almost instantly comfortable in the way Clue sets up the clichés that make up its initial premise: the 1954 New England manor setting; the thunderstorm outside; the various characters taken from classic crime literature; the knowing butler (“I buttle, sir”) and, of course, Murder! The rest is just pure fun, as various mystery clichés are confronted, dropped, turned upside down and played with. Who knew that the brutal death of a singing telegram girl could be so funny? And yet—Clue, with savvy dialogue, knowing references to its board game origins, daring performances and decent physical comedy, hits whatever we’d expect from a talky comedy—writer/director Jonathan Lynn clearly knew what he was doing. Tim Curry is fantastic as the butler, growing more and more frantic until he hits a sustained high note of manic exposition (“Too Late!”) that is hard to forget. Alongside him, Coleen Camp is poured in a maid’s low-cut blouse, Lesley Ann Warren looks a lot like Susan Sarandon and Michael McKean delivers a sleeper performance that builds and builds until the end. It’s best to watch the film as a comedy first, and as a murder mystery as a distant second, as the film offers three contradictory endings to explain it all (the final one is most satisfying). Clue isn’t a great movie, but it’s definitely a good comedy, and its minor cult movie status is well deserved.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) A cliché isn’t necessarily a cliché if it’s in the film that came up with it in the first place. So it is that pointing at Cool Hand Luke as a big bunch of familiar prison-movie moments is useless, given that it made up half of them and competently executed the others. It’s not subtle, though: first-time director Stuart Rosenberg doesn’t miss an opportunity to go for Christ symbolism whenever possible, and the mirror-glasses thing also gets a lot of play. Otherwise a paean to resisting authority, Cool Hand Luke is notable mostly for Paul Newman’s performance (echoed at the end of the film) as a rebellious inmate unable to quietly do his time. It evolves in a fairly standard prison picture, although the chain-gang aspect gives it a slightly different flavour. It’s not a cheery film, although individual moments may appear more encouraging. George Kennedy appears in a dramatic performance that got him an Oscar but may surprise viewers familiar with his more light-hearted roles. One of the film’s standout sequence has to do with a woman lasciviously washing her car in full view of a convict gang—it’s so over-the-top that it gets a laugh or two. Otherwise, Cool Hand Luke is memorable for the bluntness of its execution, and for depending on Newman as its narrative anchor. It doesn’t quite feel as fresh as it must have been at the time, but keep in mind that 1967 was at the cusp of two very different eras…