(On Cable TV, December 2017) Nearly twenty years ago, I had the misfortune of catching a free advance screening of Very Bad Things, a film so vile in its black humour that even a certain competency of execution couldn’t shake the stomach-churning reprehensibility of its subject matter. I bring it up because, for a horrifying moment, Rough Night seemed to be headed in more or less the same distaff direction, as a group of bachelorettes accidentally kill what they think is a male stripper and then try to cover up the crime. Despite the combined comic talents and good looks of comediennes such as Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer and Zoë Kravitz, the film seems intent of revisiting the same awful places—how are you ever going to get laughs out of that situation, with a guy bleeding to death on the floor? Fortunately, writer/director Lucia Aniello isn’t quite so sadistic and misanthropic, and as Rough Night advances, it ends up clarifying that the death was actually preemptive self-defence and so we can all have a good laugh about it. Whew. I have no qualms blowing part of the film’s third act revelations in those circumstances, as knowing how it turns out may help a few viewers make it through the film’s middle section. It will help that the actors are doing what they do best—Jillian Bell is the flamboyant centre of attraction, while Kate McKinnon brings a recognizable dose of absurdity to an eccentric character. Scarlett Johansson chooses to play her character as the level-headed one. In smaller roles, Demi Moore and Ty Burrell show up a sex-crazed neighbours. While the film does suffer from the usual excesses of contemporary R-rated comedies (far too much profanity substituting for wit or actual comedy) and loses itself in scattered subplots that could have been tightened up, my opinion of Rough Night at the end is far more positive than it would have been at the dull start or the far-too-violent middle. As an entry in the “girl comedies can be R-rated” subgenre that sprung up in the wake of Bridesmaid, it’s passable but forgettable.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) While Alfred Hitchcock remains an essential director even decades after his death, his individual films haven’t all aged as gracefully, and Marnie seems to have been more damaged than most by the passing of time. Part of it has to do with the absurdity of its premise; parts of it have to do with evolving social standards; parts of it have to do with now-outdated filmmaking. In narrative terms, Marnie not only piles on bits of silliness as premises, but also pushes the “psychologically damaged protagonist” angle pretty hard, with childhood trauma explaining aberrant behaviours in ways that haven’t been convincing in decades. But that pales in comparison to the ways the characters treat each other, with a marital rape sequence that pretty much kills any sympathy for anyone in the movie. Then there’s the atrocious has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed horse sequence in which a flurry of disconnected shots can’t quite convince us of a horse-riding accident. Take all of that (and a score of smaller annoyances), blend together and the result is barely palatable. While there is some coolness to seeing Sean Connery in a Hitchcock film (playing a much harder version of even his Bond persona), and Hitchcock is trying something more blatantly stylistic here, the result seems disjointed and unlikable even as a dark thriller. Tippi Hedren stars as the ice blonde, although Diane Baker is more striking as the brunette foil. Opinions differ as to what is Hitchcock’s best period (I’ll put my chips on 1954–1959), but as far as I’m concerned, Marnie is out of it.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I remember seeing at least a good chunk of The Birds as a kid, but I’m surprised to find out, upon revisiting it, that I like it far less than I’d thought. Oh, the basics of the movie are there: the suspense sequences involving the birds themselves are strong, and the dread of the film’s second half is still striking. Director Alfred Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense remains unquestionable, and it’s a testament to his skill that the film remains effective even when the scenes don’t make much sense from a logical perspective. You can recognize in this film the prototype for two or three subsequent generations of horror movies, even when these strike out “birds” for “zombies” in their scripts. Where The Birds doesn’t work as well is when it’s considered as a complete movie. The lack of an ending is as troubling as it’s meant to be, but it doesn’t offer much closure. It’s even worse when considering that the first half of the film focuses heavily on a romance (dramatic or comic remains open to consideration) only to trash that subplot once the birds attack and never really come back to it. This is all intentional—but even intentional frustration remains frustration. While The Birds may remain distinctive even today, it doesn’t feel finished from a narrative perspective. Even arguing that it’s not the point of the film isn’t much comfort. It’s true that much of what made The Birds special back then is now commonplace today: The electronic soundtrack and special effects are either substandard or invisible by today’s standards. Fans of the film will note that HBO’s The Girl recreates the making of The Birds in service of an effective suspense thriller in which Hitchcock is an unrepentant sexual harasser toward Tippi Hedren. Speaking of which, Hedren is as good as it gets as the icy blonde protagonist, while Rod Taylor is effective as the square-jawed protagonist. (If icy blondes aren’t your thing, then Suzanne Pleshette is the brunette for you). But even with flaws, The Birds remains an interesting film—the Hitchcock touch is obvious, and its lack of narrative satisfaction becomes daring at a time when everything is neatly wrapped up for mass consumption.
(On TV, December 2017) I’ve always liked James Stewart, but after the one-two combination of The Shop around the Corner and It’s a Wonderful Life, he has now ascended even higher in my own pantheon of actors. It’s hard to resist the charms of his performance in It’s a Wonderful Life, as central as he is to the film’s success. After all, on paper it sounds like a snore: A man being shown (by an angel, no less) the impact of his life? Not promising. And yet, after a rough start that goes all-in on divine intervention, the magic starts happening as we follow Stewart’s character as he ages and develops. Writer/director Frank Capra was a veteran at the time of the film’s production and his skill is evident throughout. It’s a Wonderful Life has that elusive scene-to-scene watchability, as we can’t resist wanting to know what will happen next, even though we can certainly guess the outline of the plot before it happens. Much has been said about the film’s inspirational quality, and despite my skepticism the film does deliver on these promises—so much so that, midway through the movie, I paused it and made a difficult (but important) phone call that I’d been putting off for a while. All part of trying to measure up to James Stewart’s character. While I have issues with many of the film’s more maudlin moments (and suspect that I’m opposed to a few of its major themes), I’m rather pleased to report that It’s a Wonderful Life worked as well on me as it worked on several generations so far. Far from aging, it has become quite an amazing time capsule. Plus, hey, James Stewart.
(On DVD, December 2017) The best thing about For a Few Dollars More in following up A Fistful of Dollars is adding Lee van Cleef as a foil to Clint Eastwood’s Man with no Name. Eastwood is terrific, of course, but van Cleef is just as effective in his own way, adding tension and even more spectacular machismo to this sequel (the sequence in which they duel over a hat is quite good). The budget also seems more generous, allowing for a more fully realized version of a Western shot in Spain by an Italian crew. Sergio Leone’s direction remains just as effective, but seem more polished than in the previous film. It helps that the script is somewhat more complex than the previous film, allowing for more than a simple stranger-comes-to-town paradigm. The climax works well, and the watch motif adds another layer to the film. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s score and you’ve got a strong follow-up to the original western, and a stepping stone to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I really wasn’t expecting much from Yankee Doodle Dandy other than checking off a list of classic movies I should see, so imagine my surprise when I started to be honestly engaged in the film. Initially drawn in by the time-capsule aspect of the film (as a 1942 framing device leads us to late 1800s vaudeville, and then the birth of Hollywood musicals), I really started enjoying myself in-between the honestly funny comic routines inspired by state work and the birth of American musical movies. Academy Award-winner James Cagney (looking like a young Anthony Hopkins?) shows some serious skills in giving life to actor/composer/dancer George M. Cohan through some sixty-some years. By the time the film ends, we’ve been given front-row seats to a highly dramatized depiction of the evolution of American entertainment from theatre to movies, as well as a full biography ending with a striking piece of palatable pro-American patriotism both in topic matter and presentation. The re-creation of lavish stage spectacles is striking, many of the tunes are toe-tapping good and the film remains sporadically very funny even now. Add to that some directorial flourishes from Michael Curtiz (most notably a sequence charting the evolution of Cohan’s Broadway shows) and you’ve got the makings of an unexpected great movie that has appreciated in the seventy-five years since its release. I’ve been watching more older movies lately, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is the kind of happy discovery that will keep me going deeper into the archives.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) If Going in Style feels familiar from the first few moments, it’s not just your imagination: there’s been a glut of “old guys going wild” movies in the past half-decade, and they often feature the same actors. Alan Arkin can play old crusties like the best of them, and he almost reprises his The Stand-Up Guys character here to good effect. Morgan Freeman also reprises another character (from Last Vegas), while Michael Caine regrettably doesn’t go full Harry Brown as a pensioner seeking revenge. This is all very familiar stuff, going back to the idea that Hollywood, having maintained those great actor personas for decades, would rather reprise them (with laughter) than dare anything new. Still, under Zach Braff’s direction, Going in Style may be generic stuff but it’s well-made generic stuff. Even knowing where it’s going, the film plays at a pleasant rhythm, the expected set-pieces all falling into place in a comforting rhythm. The actors know what they’re doing, the audience know what they’re doing, and the critique of the excesses of modern American society is carefully kept to a merest whisper as so not to give anyone any ideas. Going in Style is as average as any other Hollywood release these days, but it gets back most of its points on actor appeal and rhythm of execution.
(On DVD, December 2017) Iconism doesn’t get any starker than seeing Clint Eastwood anchor this Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western in A Fistful of Dollars. As “The Man With No Name” walks into town to drive an archetypical plot, this is as stripped-down a western as you can find. There’s only the laconic hero, villains to be vanquished and innocents to be protected. A measly budget led to a laser-like focus on the film’s core strength, bolstered by Leone’s impeccably sense of style and Eastwood’s star-making performance. It certainly works as an exercise in machismo, explaining its enduring popularity even today. Numerous set-pieces help develop Eastwood’s legend as much as his character, including an improbable but strong climax featuring bulletproof armour. Leone’s sense of direction is distinctive even without much of a budget at his disposal, grand landscape shots eventually leading to expressive close-ups that have now passed into parody. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s now-familiar score (although without the “wah-wah-waaah” flourish, only present in the third film in the series) and you’ve got the making of a genre classic. It’s rough and crude, but focused and strong.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My issues with big Hollywood musicals (especially in their classic pre-seventies period) are simple. They feel interminable, often because (being frequently adapted from endless Broadway musicals) they take narrative breaks during their songs. The song starts and unless it’s a toe-tapper, it’s just as possible to go get a snack and come back in time for the conclusion of the song, at which point nothing will have changed. When the musical is good, it usually gets better toward the end as there is (finally!) some dramatic movement. So it is that much of My Fair Lady is underwhelming, especially at first. The Pygmalion plot being presented piece by piece, we frequently have to stop in order to let the characters have their say and present themselves. Audrey Hepburn is cuteness personified as a coarse commoner being groomed into becoming a passable member of London’s high society, while Rex Harrison is his own brand of fun as a highly self-confident phonetics professor. The film’s big insight that manners make the woman is cogently put, but it does take a while to get there. The film does get better midway through, as the comedy of manners training finally takes off and the female lead is tested in her introduction to high society. The subplot about her family does drag, and My Fair Lady becomes less interesting the more it remembers that it had to deliver a romance in addition to the class comedy. But ultimately, the charm of the lead actors eventually wins out on the way to a predictable conclusion. The film can be watched today and only feel slightly stuffy—the period setting does help a lot in breaking the film out of its production date. While I’m reasonably satisfied with the end result, I still wish it would have been shorter.
(In Korean with French Subtitles, On TV, December 2017) I’m writing this review some time after seeing The Good, the Bad, the Weird, having had the time to catch up on its inspiration The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in the meantime. Spaghetti Western here leads to Kimchi Western (director Kim Jee-woon’s own expression) as we get a horse,-trains-and-motorcycles 1930s adventure across the Manchurian Steppe during the Japanese occupation. If that sounds like an unusual blend of intriguing elements, then sit down and appreciate the show—The Good, the Bad, the Weird is deliberately unlike anything else, and the trip is worth the time. Jee-woon is a hyperactive kind of director, and so his take on western movies jumps and shoots and races furiously across the desert, set-pieces following each other in a madcap race that will make viewers as exhausted at the title characters. Much of it works well, but not all. I’m not much of a fan of “the weird” (much as I wasn’t a fan of “the ugly”), although Lee Byung-hun is great as “The Bad” and Jung Woo-Sung is also quite likable as “The Good.” The kinetic action set-pieces are exceptionally well-made, and updating the western setting to the 1930s allows for the use of motorcycles alongside more traditional western elements. As a curiosity, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a fine discovery. I’m not entirely convinced that the film is as good when stripped of its novelty element—the dramatic beats are familiar, the lulls in-between the set-pieces are considerable and I’m not sure that the film best maximizes the elements at its disposal. Still, it is fun to watch and unusual to contemplate. If this is what we’re going to get in an increasingly globalized entertainment marketplace, then I’m all for it.
(On TV, December 2017) “There are a lot more Nazis here than I thought” applied to a surprising number of political headlines in 2017, but it’s still a valid commentary on The Sound of Music. While everyone remembers Julie Andrews skipping through the Alps, first-time viewers of the movie may be surprised at the number of Nazis in the film and how prominently they figure in the film’s third act. This being said, much of the film’s first half (and at nearly three hours, it’s a very, very long film…) is indeed about Judy Andrews and singing in the Alps. (Weeks later, I’m still unaccountably humming “Do [e], a deer, a female deer…”) I’m hit-and-miss on musicals, my biggest gripe being that the pacing on musicals grinds to a half during songs. The Sound of Music is a near-perfect example of that issue: The film moves glacially even during spoken segments, and whenever the music starts, well, you can take a break. This being said, it’s not a bad film—Andrews is quite good, and so is Christopher Plummer in the lead male role. The dramatic component becomes more urgent in the film’s Nazi-infested second half, reflecting (some of) the von Trapp family’s real-life story as they escaped Austria to sing in allied countries. It’s a generally good time, although I can best imagine repeated viewings of this film as background noise.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) Any half-witted observer can see China barrelling its way to become the twenty-first century’s dominant hyperpower (helped along by the United States’ ongoing abdication of the role), and one supposes that this will eventually change movies from an American-dominated art form to a Chinese-dominated one. After financing many American movies, China is now producing its own blockbusters, borrowing a few western actors for marquee purposes. So it is that The Great Wall is the latest of those Chinese blockbusters. On the surface, it has certainly mastered the formula: Here is a spectacular adventure set against alien antagonists, celebrating Chinese achievements (i.e.: The Great Wall) and heroism. This kind of filmmaking is well in-line with many recent Chinese blockbusters, and the accumulated technical skill collected along the way is shown in a film that’s decently paced, features a number of fine set pieces and is visually competent. What’s more problematic are the film’s wasted opportunities and the inclusion of western actors as protagonists. While I don’t think the film whitewashes anything (if anything, the western characters have clear reasons for being there and acting the way they do, and are shown as generally less capable and definitely less honourable than their Chinese counterparts), it’s a curious case of a film made in China but using western actors in the lead roles—Chinese cinema is mature enough that shouldn’t have to rely on such crutches to gain entry to non-Chinese markets. This being said, theatrical distributors don’t listen to reviewers—they see Matt Damon and book the movie or not. Less happily, there’s a sense that the movie doesn’t quite know what to do with the actors at its disposal—despite being able to depend on Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Defoe, the film gives them perfunctory roles that don’t really showcase what they can do. Pascal does carry himself well for a relative newcomer to movies, but Defoe seems to disappear behind a dull role. Still, I don’t regret seeing The Great Wall at all—it’s a perfectly acceptable time-waster when wrapping up Christmas gifts, and it does have a handful of sequence worth putting down the wrapping paper. Politically, I suppose I should see the rise of China with a wary eye … but as a reviewer, I’m more tempted to see what else will come out of this new player on the blockbuster field.
(On DVD, December 2017) on the one hand, it seems to me that the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird is structurally lopsided. It spends a lot of time on a trial in which a black man is accused of sexually assaulting a white girl, but that’s not the beginning nor the end of the story, which spends even more time watching over three kids as they grow up in an absurdly racist Southern town with their loving father. In modern terms, this would be a non-starter: the script would be rewritten to emphasize the trial, everything else shuffled to the side. But this is not a modern film and it’s not meant to be a trial movie—it’s adapted from a slice-of-life novel in which the trial is important but hardly the point of it all. To Kill a Mockingbird being shown from the kids’ perspective, it even comes as a clever reframing of a classic story through a slightly alien perspective. But Harper Lee’s adaptation aside, the film’s single biggest asset is Gregory Peck’s impeccable performance as impossibly virtuous attorney Atticus Finch. Not enough good can be written about Peck and his role—it’s the kind of award-winning performance that doesn’t just impress but inspire us all to become better persons. He carries the rest of the meandering movie by virtue of being a terrific dad, a righteous lawyer … and (the movie takes great care to point out) a terrific marksman able to put down a rabid dog with a single shot. Never mind the whimper of a conclusion (featuring no less than an already old-looking Robert Duvall)—the rest of the film is fine, but Peck is extraordinary.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) It takes a long time, indeed a very long time for The Shop Around the Corner to come alive. Set in Budapest (perhaps daringly, given the way World War II was going on at the time), mostly in a downtown shop, this is a film about the timeless concept of differences between inner and outer selves, as a salesman falls for the written words of a pen-pal who turns out to be his insufferable co-worker. (If this is familiar, consider that the film was very loosely remade as You’ve Got Mail in 1998.) Margaret Sullavan plays the pen-pal, but it’s James Stewart, in all of his youthful likability, who steals the show as the salesman. Stewart’s character is terrific, and only he could manage to make audiences fall for his mixture of competence, arrogance and good intentions. But it takes a while for the film to come around to its romantic climax—first, we have to learn far more than we’d ever imagined about the inner workings of a Hungarian shop before getting to the dramatic engines of the film. It builds steadily, however, and hits the right notes right on time for the Christmas Eve climax. Definitely a film of its time, and yet still accessible today, The Shop Around the Corner warrants a look, especially as a Christmas movie.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I’ve been meaning to go back to the Marx Brothers comedies, decades after seeing and loving Duck Soup. Fortunately, these eighty-year-old movies are still holiday fixtures, so I’m back with the Marxes starting with A Night at the Opera, the first of their MGM movies after leaving Paramount and being led to a more audience-friendly format. Sadly, the connective material that MGM imposed remains the weakest part of the film—who cares about a romance between two dull secondary characters, other than it provides the backdrop against which the brothers run wild? Plots are necessary, but it’s the individual comic sketches that make A Night at the Opera so memorable. Whether we’re talking about Groucho’s verbal pyrotechnics, the famous stateroom scene, the anarchic finale set among a malfunctioning theatre stage … or even the surprisingly engaging bit of piano-playing, this is a film of scenes and sequences. It doesn’t all work (I’ve never been much of a Harpo fan) and often overstays its welcome, but much of A Night at the Opera is still very funny today.