(On Cable TV, September 2017) I suppose it was only a matter of time before the Marquis de Sade became a romantic figure for our so-called enlightened age, portrayed as fighting the true monsters of social righteousness. Yeah … have they even tried reading de Sade’s stuff? Of course, having Geoffrey Rush in the lead role helps a lot in making de Sade’s sympathetic … and measuring him to even-worse antagonists is just stacking the deck unfairly. At its best, Quills is a meditation on freedom of speech, and how obscenity (from a writer) isn’t quite as bad as outright demonstrated sadism (from his jailers). It’s generally OK at portraying this point, although I really was not pleased with the death of a character during the film’s third act—it seemed cruel even in a film built around cruelty. Executed with some competence, it does celebrate the written word no matter its medium or intent and as such gets some mild built-in interest. Still, it’s Rush’s performance that’s most interesting here, and director Philip Kaufman’s handling of difficult material that becomes efficient to the point of invisibility. Quills is really not supposed to be historically accurate, so any criticism in this direction becomes relatively moot. Fans of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novels will be happy to see his name in the end credits—before becoming a best-selling author, Fforde was a film crewmember and he worked on movies such as Quills.
(Second or third viewing, On DVD, September 2017) I’ve been on a semi-streak of American space program movies lately and revisiting The Right Stuff was practically mandatory as a bookend to Apollo 13. Adapting Tom Wolfe’s superlative docufiction book, writer/director Philip Kaufman’s film is epic in length (nearly three hours) and clearly in myth-making mode as it draws a line leading from cowboys to astronauts by way of test pilots. It’s a long sit, but it’s filled with great moments, enlivened by a surprising amount of humour and a joy to watch from beginning to end. It helps that it can depend on great performances, whether it’s Ed Harris as a clean-cut John Glenn to Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, among many other known actors in small roles. It’s an astonishing ensemble cast for a wide-spectrum film, though, and it manages to compress quite a bit of material in even its unusually long running time. As a homage to the space program, it remains a point of reference—even the special effects are still credible. Despite a generous amount of dramatic licence (including the infamous Liberty Bell 7 incident, now thoroughly debunked thanks to the 1999 recovery of the capsule), the film seems generally well regarded when it comes to historical accuracy. From our perspective, it credibly humanizes yet mythologizes the test pilots who were crazy enough to go atop rockets when they were known to explode shortly after launch. It’s a stirring bit of filmmaking for viewers with a fascination for technological topics and the history of spaceflight, and it has aged rather gracefully. I loved the movie when I first saw it (in French, on regular TV interspaced between ads) and I still love it now. As suggested above, The Right Stuff is an essential double feature with Apollo 13, and both movies even feature Ed Harris in pivotal roles.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) on the one hand, there isn’t much in Invasion of the Body Snatchers that hasn’t been done elsewhere. The idea of seeing neighbours becoming alien is pure paranoia fuel, and it’s exactly the kind of stuff that leads to remakes (2007’s rather dull The Invasion), uncredited rip-offs or overall spiritual successors. Still, what it does here is done well, whether it’s Donald Sutherland’s eccentric protagonist, Brooke Adams as a decoy heroine, the steadily mounting sense of tension or the various set-pieces. Plus, hey, there are minor but solid roles for Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy. Late-seventies San Francisco is worth a look no matter how long it’s been, the special effects aren’t bad (wow, that mutant dog!) and director Philip Kaufman knows what he’s doing in steadily cranking up the tension. The paranoia grows throughout the film, and perhaps the best thing about it is that its third act does not shy away from consequences or magically resolves the increasing bleakness of its plot. Frankly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ ending is still very effective—and is likely to remain so even as modern studio-driven movies desperately try to avoid anything that may upset audiences.