(On Cable TV, October 2017) Few movies ever reached topical relevancy as definitively as The China Syndrome, released barely twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident brought the film’s themes to the forefront of the public discourse. Nowadays, The China Syndrome still plays well, largely because it’s a solid thriller with a capable trio of lead actors. What viewers may not remember (or expect) from the film is how it acts as a great primer on newsgathering in the late seventies, with Jane Fonda playing an ambitious reporter, helped along by a cameraman/technician (a dashingly bearded Michael Douglas, who also produced the film), inadvertently records evidence of a dangerous incident at a nuclear power plant. Trade details aside, the film soon moves into solid conspiracy thriller territory as the characters do their best to go public before the incident reoccurs. The ending is dark, but not quite as bleak as I remembered it. Jack Lemmon anchors the conspiracy angle in reality. Convincing procedural details, either from the TV news angle or the operations of the nuclear reactor itself, keep the film grounded in the required realism. While the film’s surface sheen is clearly from the late seventies, The China Syndrome itself hasn’t aged all that much, and you could indeed imagine a remake that wouldn’t have to change much in order to remain relevant. Still, the 1979 version remains both compelling and reflective or its era. It is well worth a look.
(In French, On Cable TV, September 2017) If ever you’re in the mood for an action comedy in which a romance author finds adventure and love in South America alongside a dashing rogue, then Romancing the Stone should be your first pick. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it relatively well thanks to the lead actors and director Robert Zemeckis’s knack (even at that early stage of his career) for executing complex projects. Here we go from New York City to Colombia, evading government forces, drug lords and criminals along the way. Michael Douglas is quite good as the dashing adventurer, reminding us of his younger leading-man days. Opposite him, Kathleen Turner is not bad as a writer thrust in a series of adventures, loosening up along the way. There is nothing particularly novel to what Romancing the Stone is trying to do, and it can occasionally be annoying in how it goes about it (most notably in presenting the bumbling criminals who are supposed to be one of the two main sets of antagonists) but it does manage to become the adventure film it wants to be, with a good helping of comedy and romance to go along with the thrills. It occasionally fells long, and some of the limitations of 1984 filmmaking do show up from time to time, but Romancing the Stone remains mildly enjoyable even today.
(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) I definitely remember seeing Basic Instinct a long time ago (in French, given that I remember the crude final lines as the ridiculous “… comme des castors”) but I’d forgotten enough of it to be mesmerized by a second viewing. Even today, it remains a pedal-to-the-metal borderline-insane thriller, rich in violence and a degree of eroticism seldom matched since then. I ended up watching the unrated version (on a basic-cable movie TV channel … go figure) and it features three of the most graphic sex scenes I can recall from a Hollywood film—the Jeanne Tripplehorn scene alone is worth the watch. Not that the rest of the movie is dull—under the combined daring of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven, the film cranks up nearly every single exploitative dial to eleven. It throws in a car chase on twisty backroads because, well, why not? It throws another car chase through downtown San Francisco because, again, why not? When bisexuality and murder are the most ordinary elements of the story, that’s not even getting into the twisted psychos-sexual games played between the two characters. Michael Douglas is in peak form as a risk-addicted policeman, and while Sharon Stone is still remembered for the ice-cold danger she projects, I had forgotten how her character is balanced by some cute impishness. The interrogation sequence has been parodied endlessly, but remains no less effective today in seeing a lone woman defy half a dozen alpha males by sheer (or not-so-sheer) chutzpah. Basic Instinct is pure wilful exploitation, and that’s why it’s so remarkable. The murder mystery is almost besides the point—something that the double-ending practically dies laughing about. I still think it’s far too bloody … but that’s part of the film’s twisted fun. Morally reprehensible yet slickly executed, Basic Instinct almost looks even better twenty-five years later.
(On TV, December 2016) Both hilarious and a bit terrifying, Fatal Attraction’s story of adultery gone horribly wrong still rings as a cautionary tale thirty years later. Peak-era Michael Douglas stars as a lawyer who starts an affair with a dangerously obsessive woman (Glenn Close, more scary than sexy even in lingerie) and nearly loses everything in the process. The rather endearing term “bunny boiler” comes from this film, along with a substantial amount of reactionary emotions. Is it an anti-feminism tale, or the kind of story that men tell themselves in order to keep themselves in check? Who knows—what’s for sure is that this is as pure an erotic thriller as Hollywood was capable of turning out back then (I don’t think it can do anything like this any more)—the early sex scenes definitely have some heat to them, and the latter suspense moments do get ridiculously intense. With time, the lines that the movie draws for itself become blurry—a modern take would probably empathize more with Close’s characters. But, of course, such a modern take would quickly fade away—the point of Fatal Attraction’s enduring popularity is that it is extreme and black-and-white and scary and cautionary. Otherwise, why bother … and shouldn’t Hollwyood take note of that?
(On TV, July 2015) For all the flack that 2000-2010 Matthew McConaughey has received for his lengthy string of undemanding roles in romantic comedies, it’s easy enough to forget that he was really, really good at it. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is as good a showcase for him in that mode as any of the other films in that sub-genre. Here, A Christmas Carol crashes into rom-com conventions as McConaughey plays an unrepentant womanizer taught the error of his ways via three helpful ghosts on the eve of a wedding. As with many films trying to mix familiar genre premises with high-concept premises, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past works best as its wildest (the scene where the protagonist meets his past girlfriends “in bulk” is the highlight), and worst when it’s saddled with obligatory emotional beats, or realise it actually has to deliver a romantic payoff beyond the jokes. So it is that the film is an inventive delight when McConaughey acts as a bad-boy or when the ghosts take him through a tour of his romantic life. It’s not so enjoyable when it has to go through the motions of the typical foreordained romance, or the dramatic scaffolding required to get to the triumphant ending. But the film does make an impression: Emma Stone is nothing short of hilarious in a pre-stardom role, while Michael Douglas is slick-smooth as the kind of mentor every mother warns her son about. Noureen DeWulf, Anne Archer, Lacey Chabert and Robert Forster also make good impressions in smaller roles. Still, the script is a bit hit-and-miss as its better moments are saddled with more obvious ones. In other words, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past should have been a bit better with the elements at its disposal, and occasional signs that it’s capable of much better. But even as it is, it’s an impressive showcase for the kind of persona that Matthew McConaughey enjoyed in his rom-com heyday.
(On TV, June 2015) Some good movies just slip by unseen, but the beauty of endless reruns is that sooner or later, they come back. So it is that I was able to catch up on old-fashioned thriller A Perfect Murder, adapted from classic Hitchcock thriller Dial M For Murder but more than good enough on its own. The first few minutes all pile up the mini-revelations, as a woman (a young-looking Gwyneth Paltrow) is revealed to be having an affair with a man who is further revealed (by her husband, no less) as being a career con artist who’s probably up to no good. A deal is made; money for murder for money, the husband paying the con man to get rid of his wife so that her inheritance can shore up his bad investments. It’s already twisted, but there’s more to come, with murder and suspense aplenty. Michael Douglas can play the wealthy heavy like no others, while Paltrow looks suitably vulnerable as the heroine of the film. Director Andrew Davis keeps things moving, the film has that pleasant mid-nineties sheen and the suspense sequences do have a classic quality to them despite the odd eruption of blood. It amounts to a decent time, perhaps a bit overlong but not outrageously so. A Perfect Murder remains a thriller in the classical mode, and that’s not an inconsequential advantage at a time where we seem to have moved a bit too much beyond the classical.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Michael Douglas may be getting older, but can still play a terrific villain and while Beyond the Reach will forever struggle to be seen by more people, it does offer Douglas in fine form as a rich man convinced that the rules don’t really apply to him. When a hunting trip turns sour and a man is killed by accident, the antagonist and his hunting guide come to engage in a deadly game. Jeremy Irvine is ordinary in the role of the poor hunted protagonist, but it’s hard to hold his own against a splendidly magnificent Douglas. Otherwise, Beyond the Reach features good cinematography of the Mojave Desert. (We can almost feel the heat coming from the screen.) It ridiculously falls apart at the end, with a coda as ludicrous as it seems detached from the rest of the film. The direction is occasionally off, especially at the beginning –almost as if director Jean-Baptiste Leonetti couldn’t figure out if he was going for an indie drama or an escapist thriller. There’s a fine line between stripped-down and enigmatic, and Beyond the Reach initially doesn’t quite know where it is. Things get better once our two main characters are in the desert and money faces down wit. It almost certainly could have been better, but in the meantime there’s always another fine Douglas performance to behold.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) The modern drive to transform movies into non-stop spectacles means that middle-of-the-road character-based comedies such as And so it Goes are often forgotten among so many other viewing choices. And that’s too bad, because they often offer satisfying acting performances by well-known names, gentle humor, quiet pacing and heartwarming conclusions. There isn’t, to be clear, anything new or challenging in And so it Goes: Michael Douglas stars as an embittered real-estate agent drawing back into his shell after a series of setbacks. Fortunately, there’s Diane Keaton as a lounge singer widow to draw him out of his shell, alongside a number of other supporting characters including an estranged granddaughter. We all know where that kind of story is going, and that’s part of the charm. Veteran director Rob Reiner isn’t interested in flash, and the unspectacular result might have been better, but it goes down nicely given appropriate exceptions. The focus of And so it Goes on older leads, addressing similarly-older audiences, is not a bad change of pace, even though there’s a pervasive feeling that the film should have been quite a bit more than what it is.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) Hollywood is growing old alongside a significant proportion of its audience, so it’s not surprising to find more and more movies aimed at older audiences. Suffice to say that Last Vegas is at least better than The Expendables series is confronting how yesterday’s superstars can go gently into semi-retirement. Focusing on four older men coming to spend a wild weekend in Vegas to celebrate one of their own’s nuptials to a (much) younger woman, Last Vegas soon turns to debauchery of a gentle kind, winking in The Hangover‘s direction without quite committing to such outrageousness. It’s sort-of-hypocritical to see stars like Michael Douglas and Robert de Niro (both of whom married significantly younger women) espouse the rightness of marrying age-appropriately, but when the object of their affection is the astonishingly good-looking Mary Steenburgen (still seven years their junior, one notes), it’s hard to complain that much. It helps that the film has a middle-of-the-road comic sensibility, amusing without being outrageous, and carefully pacing its development to gently lull viewers to a surprise-free climax. Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman provide able supporting performances in filling an aging brat-pack. De Niro sort-of reprises his tough-guy persona (De Niro scholars are already talking about the self-referential second half of his career), Douglas oozes a slightly-oily charm, Kline does fine comic work, while Freeman is fun just being Freeman. Director Jon Turteltaub faithfully directs a decently-structured but timid script, and Vegas’s attractions do the rest. Last Vegas doesn’t amount to much, and that’s probably the point: this is mass-market comedy aiming older, and there’s no need to be bold or outrageous when nostalgia and gentle chuckles will keep the target audience happy. So it goes that the film is light entertainment, almost instantly forgettable but decently pleasant while it plays.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) In the hands of HBO and Steven Soderbergh, made-for-TV movies clearly aren’t what they used to be: Here, with Behind the Candelabra, we get nothing less than two top-notch actors delivering a love story set against the flamboyant backdrop of Liberace’s career. Michael Douglas is a surprisingly good Liberace (embracing the skill and the generosity but also the pathos of the man), while Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, the (much) younger man who was his lover between 1977 and 1981. (If the film has a flaw, it’s that Matt Damon is considerably older than Thorson was at the time –this softens much of the tension that an accurate portrayal of the story would have given.) The doomed love story may be predictable, but it’s well-executed to make it dramatically interesting. The two main actors are also fearless in their performances, openly embracing (and demonstrating) the romantic relationship between their characters, but there are plenty of scene-stealing cameos elsewhere in the film, whether it’s Dan Ackroyd playing a mousy manager, or Rob Lowe’s plastic-faced surgeon/dealer. From a directing standpoint, Soderbergh delivers his usual brand of audience-riling iconoclasm, making the most out of his budget and crafting a film that’s more engaging than many of his last few colder efforts. But the star of the show, frankly, are the set dressers, makeup artists and costume designers that bring to life the famed excess of Liberace’s work and personal life. The camera moves through a lavish re-creation of Liberace’s homes, dwells on his spectacular stage outfits and convincingly recreates his performances. It’s -to take up a theme of the film- a grand show, and it’s easy to just enjoy the film for its moments of comedy and pure surface sheen. There’s more to Behind the Candelabra, of course: a reflection of that type of content that TV (well, HBO) audience are willing to embrace, a bit of a late screed against the unfairness of repressing one’s sexuality, a look at the way the rich and powerful can sculpt other people… this is a Soderbergh film, after all, and there’s a bit more behind the surface. So it is that we’ve come to this: A pretty good film, with big-name stars and impeccable technical credentials, delivered by TV. Given that I’m an HBO subscriber, I can only applaud this.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) It’s hard to watch Falling Down (a movie which, for two weeks in 1993, dominated the North-American box-office) without reflecting on the evolution of movies over the past twenty years. Director Joel Shumacher’s film has become both a period piece of life in Los Angeles during the early nineties, and a reflection of the kind of films we don’t really see in big cineplexes any more. As Michael Douglas plays a proverbial “angry white male” driven mad by the pressures of modern life, Falling Down targets annoyances but does not indulge in the glorification of vigilantism. The lead character is to be pitied more than to be admired, something that the conclusion makes sadly clear. The indictment, in-between on-the-nose symbolism and a little bit of speechifying, is equally spread between victim and aggressor. Douglas’ clean-cut character is a relic of the fifties unable to cope with the chaos of the nineties, but his downfall is party his own fault. Not entirely interested in being thriller but a bit too action-packed to be pegged as a pure character study, it’s hard to imagine Falling Down being released widely in 2012 and earning strong box-office success. The past twenty years, after all, have seen Hollywood shift gears from movies to spectacles: The big screens of the cineplexes, now that alternate distribution mechanisms are well-developed, are for overblown thrills and sure commercial bets: A modern-day Falling Down, absent a wildly popular star as once was Michael Douglas in 1993, would most likely be an independent feature, released on DVD after some success on the film-festival circuit. On the other hand, things have also changes for the better the moment you stop talking about movies: Los Angeles doesn’t have as big a smog problem as it did in 1993, and its gang violence problem is quite a bit better as well. Thankfully, much of the film still resonates now thanks to interesting flawed characters and an endearing outraged earnestness. Who’s to say that only one bad day is the only thing standing between our normal selves and falling down?
(In theaters, September 2010) As someone who’s on record as writing that the original Wall Street was “the definitive film of the eighties”, it goes without saying that I had been dreading the idea of a sequel: why mess with quasi-perfection? As seductive as the idea was to revisit those characters in the context of another financial meltdown, there’s no need to say that the idea of a sequel was entirely useless. After seeing the film, I still feel the same way: While director Oliver Stone’s film (he didn’t write it, curiously enough) is a lucid treatment of the 2008 financial crisis and has some interesting things to say about the shared hallucination that are today’s financial markets, it merely plays on the existing Wall Street brand and quickly becomes bogged down in a superfluous romantic drama featuring perhaps the blandest young couple in contemporary cinema. (Shia LaBeouf’s continued acclaim remains a mystery to me given his lack of on-screen personality, but he’s a charismatic powerhouse compared to Carey Mulligan.) With serial numbers filed off, Wall Street 2 is a lucid high-stakes drama skillfully dramatizing a difficult subject… but as a sequel, it lacks some oomph and magic. Still, occasionally, it shines a bit brighter than usual. One fascinating facet of the film’s direction is the blatant use of infographics to illustrate what the characters are saying, reflecting the way our world has become far more abstract since 1987, to a point that we even think in information being presented as computer graphics. While Gekko’s character has been considerably softened (a good creative choice, given the character’s age and his prison experience), Michael Douglas’ august performance still makes him one of the film’s chief attraction –to say nothing of a delightful cameo from another character in the Wall Street universe. What may be missing from the film, however, is the kind of dripping popular outrage that keen observers of the recent meltdown have felt at the way corruption, sociopathy, greed and sheer criminal behaviour are endemic in the financial sector. Wall Street 2 never gets angry the way the original did, and seems content to play with money as long as the right people get some. But wouldn’t that, in itself, be the most damning indictment of our times as seen from 1987?
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2007) I’ve often maintained that this film should end up being the definitive film of the eighties, and another look at it just confirms my suspicions: It’s ageing really well, with just enough period detail to make it look grounded (ah, mid-eighties technology…) while the film itself is driven with a solid grasp of contemporary filmmaking techniques. The dialogue is delicious, Michael Douglas’s Oscar-winning Gordon Gekko is a fantastic antagonist, the narrative drive of the film just keeps going… oh yes, this film holds up well even today. Even the blank characterization of Charlie Sheen works well up to a point, since the character is supposed to act as our stand-in for the film. Less successful are the lacklustre performances by the two female stars of the film, neither of whom do much to distinguish themselves in underwritten roles. Writer/Director Oliver Stone’s audio commentary is spectacular, informing us about the making of the film, the problems that Stone had in dealing with the actors, reactions to reviews of the film and a deeper look into the thematic intentions of the film. (Hint: It’s all about fathers.) Unfortunately, the documentary featured on the disc is a bit long, relies too much on clips from the film and covers some of the same ground as the commentary. But otherwise, the DVD is an excellent showcase to a great movie.