(On Cable TV, December 2017) It took the Westworld TV show and a convenient showing of the 1973 film on cable TV for me to finally take in writer/director Michael Crichton’s original Westworld, but I finally saw it, nearly twenty-five years after Jurassic Park stole its best ideas. It’s definitely a period piece—the science-fiction elements are laboriously explained, the technology is straight out of the early seventies, and the style is, well, definitely retro. The relatively low budget of the film doesn’t help either. On the flip-side, there’s a straight-ahead quality to the park’s deranged-android mayhem that’s barely explained (and even then in an ambiguous way that may point to a computer virus) and hold up better than a longer exposition. Otherwise, Westworld is a rather threadbare thing from a plot perspective: tourist visits a park where robots make everything possible, enjoys himself until the robots go crazy, survives to the end once he dispatches a particularly obsessed robot. That’s it. Fortunately, there are highlights in the way it’s presented. Yul Brynner is positively terrifying as the robot gunslinger, showing an early take on the Terminator trope and providing much of the film’s suspense. As for the rest, don’t be surprised to be far more interested in the film’s first few world-building minutes than the rather more conventional rest of the film. Westworld is still worth a look, but it has already been greatly exceeded by its TV show adaptation.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) As I’m dutifully checking off my list of acknowledged film classics, I usually side with the critics in appreciating what generations of reviewers have seen in them. But there are exceptions, and Peter Bogdanovich’s Oscar-nominated The Last Picture Show is one of them. It’s not as if the film is objectively bad—it’s that it manages to be boring despite deaths, drama and sex scenes. It’s that it may be too successful in portraying the dead-end monotony of a dying town and what people do to escape it. The black-and-white cinematography makes it look even more lifeless, and the two-hours running time feels even longer. From a technical perspective, I found much of the film jarring—the cuts between angles are awkward and the editing is just as lifeless as the rest of the film. An impressive number of actors such as Cybil Sheperd, Jeff Bridges, Randy Quaid, Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman all show up in significant roles, but it’s Eileen Brennan who steals scenes as a very tired waitress. I still haven’t decided where the film is a success or not, given how I suspect that the whole point of it is to be as dull as possible in order to put ourselves in the character’s lives. I’m just glad that I made it out of there, and can now check off The Last Picture Show from my list of films to see so that I never have to see it again.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) Life is made of strange coincidences. So it is that I sat down to watch Get Out as the results of the US Senate Special Alabama election of 2017 were coming in, an election that offered as clear cut a choice between a typical candidate and a far-right activist with documented episodes of racism, sexism and pedophilia. A fitting backdrop to Get Out, which is a daring take on race relations by way of comic horror. While the starting point of the film may seem familiar—a young white woman takes her new black boyfriend home to meet her parents—the film quickly takes a turn for the bizarre and then the terrifying as the protagonist realizes that he’s in grave danger. To tell more about the premise is irresistible, as it encapsulates the nature of racial relations at a time when it’s not polite to be racist. To my dismay, I could recognize a bit of my own tics in the oh-so-subtle racism expressed by upper-class whites toward our protagonist. The horror elements get more and more intense as the film goes on, although they are partially defused by a comic subplot that seems to belong in another film. Daniel Kaluuya is good as the hero, but Catherine Keener and Allison Williams are far more interesting in their insidiousness. Writer/director Jordan Peele has some notoriety in comedy as part of the Key & Peele duo, but his eye and attention for detail as a filmmaker is terrific—Get Out has a pleasant amount of depth and craft in its details, with a script in which most lines (including the titular quote) have more than one meaning. It’s solid filmmaking and I was quite taken by the result despite taking in my own lumps as a left-leaning well-meaning kind-of-oblivious white guy. I suspect that my just-shy-of-enthusiasm reaction may have been helped along by the real-world events unfolding via my telephone screen as I watched the movie. As all hope seemed lost for our protagonist on-screen, electoral results suggested a comfortable lead for the worst candidate. But as the movie wrapped to a close and fortunes shifted for our protagonist, so did the electoral results, with the better candidate taking a comfortable lead right before the credits started rolling. The ongoing discussion about racism may take the form of an entertaining movie or a statewide election, but it needs to take place. Sometimes, the stars even align and you get both a great movie and an election result that feels like progress at the same time.
(On DVD, December 2017) There’s something oddly satisfying, in theatrically-inspired movies, in seeing the way the script piles on a series of interpersonal conflict in the first half, only to detonate them all in the second. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does it better than most, helped along by terrific dialogue from playwright Tennessee Williams, the dramatic intensity of Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles, and some able assistance from Burl Ives as the patriarch whose impending death forms the catalyst of all conflicts. Despite some surprisingly comic moments, this is a fairly heavy film, especially when all the emotional bandages are removed at the big conflicts within the small cast of character are allowed to explode. Despite some glaring coyness (the homosexual themes of the relationship between the lead male character and his mourned friend hay not be expressly mentioned, but they’re glaringly obvious), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof hits its dramatic peak in time for its third act, punctuated by a thunderstorm. Taylor is in fine form here, showing the extent of her dramatic range even as illness and personal tragedy befell her during the film’s shooting (her husband died in a plane crash midway through production, which had to be halted to accommodate her grief). The result is still worth a look sixty years later as a good example of what fifties dramas could be, even when hobbled by the Hays Code and social conventions of the time.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I usually like Kurt Russell and I usually like John Carpenter and I usually like Science-Fiction movies and it bothers me to no end that I don’t like Starman despite how it combines those three things. The problem with Starman isn’t as much that it’s made out to be a sentimental science-fiction movie, but the way in which it’s presented: Blunt, crude and incoherent. It uses the tropes of a science-fictional thriller without committing to them or trying to make them subtler, can’t be bothered about plot holes and remains unapologetically predictable. Whatever Big Moments it has can be seen coming far in advance, with an execution that can’t really patch over the ennui with charm. Carpenter may be part of the problem in presenting a love story using the tools he knows best—helicopter chases, government conspiracies and roadside violence. Russell is generally blank in a role that asks him to play perhaps the most overused cliché in SF: the extraterrestrial grand naïf gawking at the world and trying to figure out human customs. It goes exactly as expected. While I didn’t exactly dislike Starman, I didn’t find much to like either.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) It’s bad form for a reviewer to suggest that a film doesn’t live up to a wholly imagined alternative, but watching the first half of Table 19, I was struck at how the film seemed to work as a single-setting story. As various strangers gather around Table 19 of a lavish wedding’s reception, they gradually come to reveal their secrets and figure out the link between them. They all have backstories, quirks, aspirations and unfinished business—could all of this be resolved around a single table? For a while, Table 19 almost gets it as a stylistic exercise, as characters join or leave the table and their backstories are exposed. Then the film seems to lose interest in a potentially intriguing premise, and the action dissolves in far more conventional scenery-hopping. The second half of the film is far more conventional than the first, and even the combined charm and comedy of actors such as Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, Lisa Kudrow, June Squibb, Stephen Merchant and Wyatt Russell can’t quite rescue the film from dull mediocrity. Table 19 sadly leaves table 19 behind, going elsewhere in order to deliver a rather happy conclusion. It doesn’t help that some of the characters are too irritating to live—Merchant’s character, in particular, is annoying beyond belief and sabotages much of the film’s otherwise intriguing first half. Reviewers shouldn’t tell filmmakers how to make their movies, but this being said—I’s like to see a version of Table 19 in which the camera remains within a ten-meter radius of the titular table. Make it like a theatre piece, and the film may keep some of the intensity that it promised in its first half.
(On DVD, December 2017) Everyone knows Soylent Green’s big twist, but there’s a lot more to the movie than Charlton Heston’s panicked “it’s PEOPLE!” Firmly dystopian even when it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t take a long time for Soylent Green to showcase its nightmarish vision of an overpopulated New York in a world where the environment has been (entirely?) destroyed. Things are so bad that steak and vegetables are a rare delicacy, and where even good cops can’t help but pillage the apartment of a rich murder victim. Euthanasia has been ritualized, street protests are cleaned up by heavy machinery and there’s a clear twilight-for-humanity theme to the film’s atmosphere. Heston stars as a cop intrigued by the murder of one of the city’s elite, but much of the movie is one bad thing after another, all the way to a gut-punch of a conclusion that finalizes the grim fate of its protagonist through a happy montage earlier established to signify a Requiem. You can know everything about Soylent Green’s conclusion and still be impressed (in the most depressing sense of the word) by the film’s relentless grimness. Very loosely adapted from Harry Harrison’s classic genre SF novel “Make Room! Make Room!” (which doesn’t even feature the big twist of the film), Soylent Green gets more interesting the more you read about it, especially how Edward G. Robinson’s final performance ends with an elaborate death sequence (the actor died twelve days after filming). Firmly belonging to the “Science-fiction as a warning” school of filmmaking, Soylent Green is often rough and crude. But it does carry a certain impact that helps make it stand out even today. It’s clearly a product of the seventies, but I found it somewhat more interesting than it’s endlessly parodied twist would suggest.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2017) Much of Varsity Blues’ first half seems to be about Texas High School football and how it drives people to do crazy things. Elevated to the rank of a local religion, high-school football as shown in the film becomes an excuse for the worst excesses, its players venerated to a dangerous level. (While I’d usually be quick to tsk-tsk the craziness of teen football worship, hockey season has reminded me that high-school hockey is just as venerated in Canada and leads to much of the same kinds of excesses chronicled here.) It’s good material, but it was to be done much better by 2003’s Friday Night Lights. The football stuff all leads to a climactic game, the likes of which have been seen in nearly every single sports movies of the past century. Far more interesting is the other high-school movie going on at the edges of the football movie, in which various seniors contemplate their future. James Van Der Beek is likable as the protagonist, Jon Voight plays the villain remarkably well and Ali Larter owns the infamous whipped-cream bikini scene. Tonie Perensky also has a striking hot-for-teacher scene that further shows how Varsity Blues gets more interesting the farther away it gets from the football field. It ends up as a somewhat generic high-school movie, with a few highlights along the way.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2017) The first Guardian of the Galaxy was a gamble and a welcome surprise, providing a rare example of colourful space adventure with likable characters and a seemingly effortless sense of fun. This sequel provides more of the same, except that it’s even more self-assured and perhaps a bit more rigid in the way it presents itself. Why mess with a formula that works? Once more, we get the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe blend of humour, action and visual spectacle, with an impossibly colourful palette and a smirking attitude. The film begins with a strong credit sequence in which a big action scene is played in the background while classic rock makes a comeback alongside a choreographed ballet of mayhem. Afterwards, much of the film is spent getting to know Star-Lord’s dad and further team-bonding exercise. Under writer/director James Gunn’s guidance, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 plays well, although the formula is more expected this time around. Characters seem to behave in more expected ways, and the film isn’t afraid to lean on its own biggest strength. The visual aspect of the film is a wonder to behold, completely giving itself to the idea that space opera should be big and bold and rainbow-coloured. Chris Pratt makes for a likable lead, but actors as varied as Zoë Saldaña, Dave Bautista and Kurt Russell (plus Bradley Cooper’s vocal performance) bring much to the proceedings. Despite the massively post-processed nature of a film that’s nearly entirely special effects from beginning to end, the actors end up being the film’s biggest asset: much of its charm is in seeing these characters interact and play off each other. Otherwise, the film isn’t entirely successful—Making Yondu a sympathetic father figure is glossing a bit over several mass-murder episodes, and there’s a sense, especially toward the end, that it has extended its third act a bit too long. But all told, this remains an exceptionally enjoyable blockbuster film, slickly made and able to deliver exactly what it intended. Recharge the Zune, and let’s see what’s on Vol. 3.
(On DVD, December 2017) The bad news is that The Time Machine isn’t particularly faithful to the H.G. Wells novel, but the good news are that the film is at its most fascinating when it does diverge significantly from the source material. While the film suffers a partial lobotomy in not really taking an interest in Wells’ social-class parable about the Eloi and Morlocks (instead presenting the Morlocks as straight-cut monsters) and isn’t geared toward the melancholic far-future envoi of Wells’ narrative, it does make up for these deficiencies by strong period content. Diverging from the novel in order to update our Victorian-era protagonist on the evolution of the twenty-first century up to the film’s release, The Time Machine touches upon both World Wars and a nuclear holocaust, inserting them where the original novel could only imagine. The film being from 1960, this means that we get twice-filtered atmospheric content, as we look at the late 1950s look at Victorian England look at the far future. Whew. It may be scientifically indefensible (I rather liked the way our protagonist ends up in 1966 right on time for a nuclear war … and then outruns a lava flow) but it is interesting in its own way. Director George Pal concocts an entertaining blend of SF concepts, then-ground-breaking special effects and intriguing set design. Rod Taylor makes for a likable square-jawed hero, while Yvette Mimieux is fetching enough as promoted-to-love-interest Weena. Special-effect evolution aside, this 1960 version is significantly better than the dull 2002 remake.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I’m usually a forgiving audience for older movies—I’m getting into the mindset of forgiving the limitations of the time, and it certainly helps that what has survived until now is usually what deserves to be seen again. But even this patience has its limits, and I could feel it being tested during Little Shop of Horrors, an ultra-low-budget Roger Corman effort that seems memorable more for outrageousness than quality. Reportedly shot over two days for a paltry five-figure budget, Little Shop of Horrors makes up for its limited means through high invention: What if it was a comedy about a carnivorous plant? Of course, comedy is subjective and black comedy even more so—to me, Little Shop of Horror is more grating and mean-spirited than anything else. It is, I’ll concede, memorable: In addition to the ludicrous premise, Jack Nicholson shows up in a manic Jim Carreyesque performance as a masochistic dental client. Still, even at a running time of merely 72 minutes, the film is more of an ordeal than I had expected. Much of its contemporary popularity can be explained by how it’s in the public domain, and was later adapted as a musical and then another bigger-budget movie. As itself, though, Little Shop of Horrors is not as much fun as it could be.
(On TV, December 2017) There are movies that seem to exist outside their own running time, movies that everybody knows through quotes, call-backs, references, parodies and (now) memes, quite independently from actually being seen. I’m not sure I’d seen The Wizard of Oz completely from beginning to end until now, but that hardly seemed to matter in a world where its quotes are clichés, its characters iconic and at least two novels (which I’ve read) are directly based on it. It’s become a cornerstone of American fantasy fiction, and actually watching it only reinforces why: Even in 1939, The Wizard of Oz is a dynamic, literally colourful example of how to deliver a fantasy movie. It’s got invention (although this may not be as clear to contemporary audiences force-fed decades of imitators), a certain amount of wit, a vivacious performance by Judy Garland, and a tremendous amount of competence in delivering a slick escapist fantasy story by way of a movie musical. It simply doesn’t feel like a film from the thirties. While its rhythm is unequal and some section of the film feel role by sheer virtue of having become clichés, The Wizard of Oz is still must-see cinema—see it to understand why it’s become such a cultural mainstay.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) When watching older movies, it’s natural to assume certain parameters. Aside from the occasional noir movie, themselves neutered by the restrictions of the Hays Code, most films from the fifties are presumed to be fairly soft—neutered in themes, gentle in approach, straightforward in presentation. The Night of the Hunter has endured because it is most definitely not those things. Anchored by a strong menacing performance from Robert Mitchum (in a role that clearly anticipates his turn in Cape Fear), the film soon disposes of its central female character, then turns its attention to mortal child endangerment. What’s more, director Charles Laughton applies nightmarish expressionist style to its hard-core thriller plot for a surreal experience that has as much to do with sheer style as substance. A popular and critical dud upon release, The Night of the Hunter has grown in stature since then for obvious reasons: it’s a film ahead of its time, precise in its impact and still quite impressive to take in.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, December 2017) I’m not sure if I first saw Mortal Kombat in theatres or on VHS (probably theatres, and probably because there was a girl involved), but after twenty years the biggest memory I kept from the film was its soundtrack. (I kept the CD in heavy rotation in my late nineties playlist.) Watching it again shows a film that has visibly aged, but perhaps not as much as I had feared. The early-CGI special effects are clearly dated, showing a lack of sophistication and restraint that calls attention to the effects rather than their usefulness. The dialogue is not particularly good, and the plot is a serviceable way to get characters moving from one action set-piece to another. On the other hand, the actors are likable: Robin Shou is terrific once the action starts, Christophe Lambert gets a great excuse to play a cackling version of his own persona, and one of the few things I did remember from the movie was Bridgette Wilson’s film-long progression from ponytail-headed tough professional to curly-haired blonde kitten by the time the film ends. Visually, director Paul W.S. Anderson made a splash with this Hollywood debut and much of the film still holds up decently well even after the wave of arthouse martial arts movies of 1999–2009 from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Hero. While I acknowledge that a heavy dose of nostalgia in a big factor in re-watching Mortal Kombat, I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I’d be by the result.
(On TV, December 2017) It’s hard to watch Stalag 17 and not think about the fetishization of history. Like it or not, World War II drama has grown more and more ponderous over the past decades, to the point where a World War II movie is presumed to be all about gravitas and serious considerations of the terrible cost of war. It wasn’t always so, though, whether we’re talking about the blockbuster WW2-themed action adventures from the seventies (The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare) or, even closer to the war itself, a film like Stalag 17 that spends a lot of time in silly comedy before getting down to the thriller business. Early parts of the film, such as the white-line painting sequence, really wouldn’t feel out of place in an Adam Sandler movie. Keep in mind that Stalag 17 is based on the real-life experiences of its writers (filtered through a Broadway play adapted on-screen) and so presents the full range of humour and horror of German POW camps—not the almost idealized portrayal of later writers with an indirect knowledge of events. As such, Stalag 17 uniquely captures in time a historical truth of sorts, then wraps it up in entertaining thriller mechanics about uncovering an informant and helping a marked prisoner escape. William Holden is quite good as the resourceful but unjustly accused protagonist, while Don Taylor plays the other lead engagingly. Writer/director Billy Wilder has a long and varied filmography, and his Stalag 17 is still quite entertaining to watch, even as its closeness to the subject does give it a now-unusual quality.