(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.
(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.