(Fourth viewing, On DVD, August 2017) I don’t quite understand why there isn’t already a review of Tremors on this site given that I’ve seen it so often and enjoyed it every time. But my search engine tells me there’s a big Tremors-shaped hole in my reviews database, so that gives me a perfect excuse to rave about one of my favourite B-grade movies. Tremors is not perfect, but it comes really close in its chosen monster-movie subgenre. After an introduction in which we’re promised thrills, then introduced to a few sympathetic characters, Tremors ends its first act by cleanly explaining the nature of its monsters and why they’re so dangerous. Thus having set up the rules, it then spends the next hour inventively showing its characters outwitting the creatures, while the creatures themselves show signs of intelligence. It’s vastly wittier than most other monster movies, with strong characters and a convincing sense of place. A good sense of humour balances out the horror, turning the film into an unusually accessible thriller by dint of a light-hearted tone. Kevin Bacon is terrific in the lead role, but capable supporting characters include Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McIntyre and practical special effects that still hold up more than twenty years later. Writer/director Ron Underwood achieved something special here. Never mind the much-inferior sequels—the original Tremors is a near-classic, well worth watching or revisiting.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2017) While I can recognize that Footloose isn’t a great movie, it’s easy to be swept along by its charm, clearly-defined stakes and infectious energy. I happen to like the song itself a lot, and the clever opening sequence is a lot of fun to watch. Then it’s off to rural America, when a stranger, our protagonist, comes to town to bring some wholesome urban values in the Midwestern wasteland. As a treatise on blue-versus-red America, Footloose has a lot to say and did so decades before the US electoral map ossified to the point that brought you Donald J. Trump, president. But there I go tainting Footloose’s innocent fun with not-so-fun stuff. It’s far better to focus on Kevin Bacon’s career-making performance, the ludicrous chicken-tractor sequence, or John Lithgow’s turn as a persuadable preacher. Footloose, alas, does run out of steam a bit too quickly: the ending seems to peter out after resolving itself ten minutes earlier, not quite managing to deliver a decent finale. Still, it’s a fun movie with a bit of depth to offer regarding the rural-vs-urban divide. The music is also quite a bit better than that other early-eighties musical Flashdance.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) It seems unfair to overly criticize a film like Cop Car. At its core, it’s nothing more than a simple low-budget film that tries for something specific and achieves it successfully. As two boys somewhere in rural Midwestern USA discover a seemingly abandoned cop car and start goofing with it (driving it on the back roads, playing with the equipment it contains), they barely realize what they’ve stumbled into. It gets much worse. As they discover a man tied up in the trunk and as the film intercuts with a crooked sheriff getting rid of a body, it’s clear to us (but not to them) how much trouble they’re into. Kevin Bacon isn’t bad, but doesn’t shine as the corrupt policeman. As a small-scale rural thriller, Cop Car sets up its elements and plays with them, steadily increasing the suspense until the end. There’s an intriguing mismatch between the crooked-cop thriller and the playful nature of the two boys having a grand day out (you don’t have to be a gun enthusiast to wince at the dangerous weapons handling shown here), up until the bullets start flying and they realize the danger they’re in. But for all of the low-budget charm that Cop Car can show, it’s not quite the film it could be. The plot is noticeably thin and the pacing even worse, leading to a film that feels too long even as it merely squeaks by 90 minutes. It also back-loads its story so that by the time everything happens in the last few minutes, it seems to end far too quickly to provide proper closure. While Cop Car ends up being a calling card for director Jon Watts (who’s moving on to no less than a new Spider-Man movie), it’s not quite good enough to reach viewers outside its chosen genre.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the strength of their cast, so it’s a relief to see that nearly everyone headlining Crazy, Stupid, Love is at the top of their game. Steve Carell anchors the cast as a recently-separated middle-aged man seeking lifestyle counsel from a capable womanizer, but he’s surrounded by more great performances by a variety of known names in a variety of large-and-small roles, from Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon and Ryan Gosling, alongside newer names such as Jonah Bobo and Analeigh Tipton. Veterans Tomei and Bacon are hilarious to watch in small but effective roles, but Gosling is particularly noteworthy, charming his way through a character that could have been immensely repellent in less-capable hands. After focusing on the protagonist’s attempt to recapture some of his male seductive powers, Crazy, Stupid, Love soon expands into a mosaic of romantic subplots, occasionally palming a few cards in order to deliver a few almost-cheap twists along the way. No matter, though: it leads to a relatively pleasant conclusion despite the overused (but subverted) graduation-speech plot device. Such genre-awareness is a crucial component of Crazy, Stupid, Love’s moment-to-moment interest: Beyond the well-used soundtrack (including a striking usage of Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La”), the sharp dialogue and the snappy direction, Crazy, Stupid, Love is just a joy to watch: so much so that even the tangled subplots and tortured twists seem cute rather than annoying. And that, one could argue, is a measure of the film’s success.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) For years, I wondered missing out on Flatliners had led to an embarrassing omission in my movie-going culture. Hadn’t this film earned some interest as a science-fiction film? Didn’t it star a bunch of actors who went on to bigger things? Wasn’t this one of Joel Shumacher’s best-known movies from his earlier, better period? The answer to these questions is yes… but the film itself seems a bit of a letdown after viewing. Oh, some things still work well, and may even work better than expected. Of the five main actors, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Oliver Platt have all gone on to big careers –with poor William Baldwin being left behind. Schumacher’s direction is backed-up with Jan de Bont’s impressive cinematography: the visuals of the film may not make much sense, but they evoke a modern-gothic atmosphere that remains distinctive even today. The high-concept of the film remains potent, with genius-level medical students voluntarily defying death to investigate the mysteries of the afterlife. Unfortunately, all of these elements don’t quite add up satisfyingly. The jump from the high concept to the characters’ personification of those concepts is weak, and the contrivances become almost too big to ignore. The idea of atonement being closely linked to death is powerful, but the way this variously follows the character is more difficult to accept. (As Platt’s character knowingly remarks, those without deep-seated traumas will end up with some fairly silly phantoms.) There is quite a bit of repetitive one-upmanship in the way the plotting unfolds, and Flatliners sadly goes too quickly from provocative idea to ordinary morality. Still, it’s easy to argue that the film is worth a look: Roberts, Sutherland and Bacon look really good in early roles, and the visual style of the film is still an achievement twenty years later. There are some good ideas in the mix (witness the visual motif of “construction” -reconstruction, deconstruction- underlying nearly each scene), the portrait of intelligent characters interacting is charming and some of the suspense still works surprisingly well when it doesn’t descend in silliness. There are a few films that qualify as “minor classics” of their era in time. While Flatliners certainly won’t climb year’s-best lists retroactively, it’s a film that remains more remarkable than many of its contemporaries. I don’t regret seeing it… and I may even have liked to see it a bit earlier.