(On Cable TV, May 2018) Sean Connery as an impossibly cool criminal masterminding a gold robbery from a moving train? All aboard! Adapted somewhat loosely from an early Michael Crichton novel, The First Great Train Robbery isn’t much more than a romp, but it’s a superbly executed romp taking us through the Victorian underworld and what was then cutting-edge technology. Not only is Connery terrific in the lead role, but he’s supported by actors such as Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down in a script from Crichton himself, who also directs and cleverly adapts his material to a far more entertaining tone with an upbeat finale. The pacing is uneven, with some lower-interest segments toward the middle of the film, but it picks up in time for a spirited final sequence that build and build until we’re running on top of a moving train, with stunt sequences that have palpable pre-CGI energy and danger. We’ve seen this kind of film before and since, but The First Great Train Robbery is executed well enough to be a fun film even today.
(Second or third viewing, On TV, January 2018) Whew. I remember watching Highlander in what must have been high school and thinking that it was an awesome movie. I’m not a teenager anymore, but I have to say that Highlander still carries a punch. No, it’s not the best movie ever. Yes, it has visibly aged and remains a film deeply steeped in the mid-eighties. But the rock video aesthetics of the film do lend it an enviable flair even today. The film may have wanted to portray the degeneracy of the time with its emphasis on heavy metal and entertainment wrestling as opposed to the nobility of an immortal Scottish highlander, but it works. Christophe Lambert has seldom had a more iconic role, and Sean Connery is perfectly used as a cranky mentor. (Clancy Brown is good enough as the antagonist, and so is Roxanne Hart as the love interest/audience stand-in.) The clever script is just good enough to earn our interest quickly, and develop the premise with effectiveness. Swordfights in modern rainy New York City? Bring it. Still, it’s director Russell Mulcahy who gives the biggest boost to the film by adapting then-unusual music video elements in service of a longer film—the impressive visuals are still striking (ah, that shattering-windows climax!) and the music is a strong component of the film. In retrospect, after numerous inferior sequels and a long-running TV show, there’s something about the admirably incomplete lore of the film’s premise. An immortal, a prize, a few big sequences signifying the progress of the quickening … it doesn’t take much more, and over-explaining it all rather ruins the experience. While Highlander does lose some of its appeal once viewers grow out of their teenage years, it’s still a good fantasy/action film, and a rather effective time capsule of the time. Just ignore the sequels.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) While Alfred Hitchcock remains an essential director even decades after his death, his individual films haven’t all aged as gracefully, and Marnie seems to have been more damaged than most by the passing of time. Part of it has to do with the absurdity of its premise; parts of it have to do with evolving social standards; parts of it have to do with now-outdated filmmaking. In narrative terms, Marnie not only piles on bits of silliness as premises, but also pushes the “psychologically damaged protagonist” angle pretty hard, with childhood trauma explaining aberrant behaviours in ways that haven’t been convincing in decades. But that pales in comparison to the ways the characters treat each other, with a marital rape sequence that pretty much kills any sympathy for anyone in the movie. Then there’s the atrocious has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed horse sequence in which a flurry of disconnected shots can’t quite convince us of a horse-riding accident. Take all of that (and a score of smaller annoyances), blend together and the result is barely palatable. While there is some coolness to seeing Sean Connery in a Hitchcock film (playing a much harder version of even his Bond persona), and Hitchcock is trying something more blatantly stylistic here, the result seems disjointed and unlikable even as a dark thriller. Tippi Hedren stars as the ice blonde, although Diane Baker is more striking as the brunette foil. Opinions differ as to what is Hitchcock’s best period (I’ll put my chips on 1954–1959), but as far as I’m concerned, Marnie is out of it.
(In French, On TV, February 2017) Maybe I’m seeing the wrong movies, but it seems to me that the large-scale adventure film is a lost art in Hollywood. Those seas of extras, trips through treacherous remote locations and against-all-odds stories seem to belong to another time. Maybe that’s for the best, considering the iffy colonial content of The Man Who Would be King. It’s one thing for noted imperialist Rudyard Kipling (a man of his time, and I’ll be forever grateful for The Jungle Book) to write a cautionary tale about two British soldiers becoming god-emperors in a forgotten part of the world; it’s quite another to see this story today through post-colonial lenses. The Man Who Would Be King does have the considerable benefit of a decent third act in which the so-called civilized men are punished for their hubris, but much of the film’s first hour plays uncomfortably, as white men scheme their way to an empire. Still, as a white guy, I have the implicit privilege of being able to picture myself in the lead role, and once I manage to do that, what’s not to like? Michael Caine and Sean Connery together in a single movie, with Connery sporting glorious handlebar facial hair! Shakira Caine (Michael’s wife) in a pivotal role! Christopher Plummer playing Kipling himself! The film does get substantially more interesting in the third act as the façade of the white men’s deception falls away with real consequences. The ending is very good and justifies the framing device. John Huston’s direction is clean and makes the most of the means available to pre-CGI filmmakers. With a scope and sweep that defies even modern films, The Man Who Would Be King is remarkable even today, and the slight discomfort that the first three-quarter of the film may cause to a modern audience is more than redeemed by a conclusion that must have been sobering even to the original short story’s Victorian readers.
(Second or third viewing, On TV, September 2016) Forgetting something isn’t usually a cause for joy, but forgetting enough of a great movie to make it possible to rediscover it as a great movie is an exception. So it is that I remembered enough of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to remember that it was a good movie, but not enough to spoil the moment-to-moment joy of watching it again twenty years later. A far more decent follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark than the disappointing Temple of Doom, this Last Crusade quickly fires on all cylinders the moment Jones Senior (Sean Connery in one of his most enjoyable performances) shows up to rival Jones Junior. The interplay between Connery and Harrison Ford is terrific (especially when Alison Doody’s temptress character is involved), and confronting the Nazis in their backyard is a great way to heighten the stakes. Steven Spielberg is also remarkable in his action-adventure mode, cleverly building up suspense and working his audience like a fiddle—the tank sequence alone is a masterclass in how to build an action sequence. Faithfully taking up the thrill-a-minute rhythm of the serials that inspired the first film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one of the good adventure movies of the eighties, and it still works remarkably well today. For best results, watch it soon after the first film.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) Sometimes, catchphrases stem from the unlikeliest places. So it is that Finding Forrester’s “You’re the man now, dog!” became an integral part of Internet meme history, which is really truly weird coming from such a staunchly classic inspirational film. Here, Sean Connery gets one of his last good roles as a reclusive author who discovers a brilliant but disadvantaged teen writer/athlete (Rob Brown’s debut performance). Much of the movie runs on autopilot, predictably portraying both men helping each other with their problems. There’s gratuitous antagonism provided by F. Murray Abraham, a cameo by Matt Damon, some basketball, romance with Anna Paquin and an attempt to make writing look really exciting. Finding Forrester blurs quickly with many other similarly themed films, although Connery’s presence is a bonus. The glimpse inside an elite high school can be interesting, the emphasis on literary matters will please a number of middlebrow viewers, and the movie does get points for not insisting too much on the protagonist’s racial struggles. Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say: Finding Forrester is the kind of inspiring story that Hollywood churned out by the truckload for decades, and while director Gus van Sant’s work is not exactly dull, it’s not particularly memorable either. Well, aside from the sight of Connery barking out “You’re the man now, dog!” once his protégé figures out how to type correctly. That’s still weird sixteen years later.
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2002) There is something awe-inspiring in the grandiose panache with which this movie flaunts itself. Continuity mistakes, logical flaws and nonsensical developments are swatted aside like irrelevant trivialities, allowing director Michael Bay full power to show incredible images on-screen. The camera moves, sweeps, pans, captures perfect moments and doesn’t give a damn about the words or the continuity. The Rock is as close as anyone has ever come to the ultimate action movie. I still find parts of it silly beyond words—but soon after I’m silenced by the boffo action sequences and the slick polish of the whole production. I love the characters (Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris are perfect), I love the direction, I love most of the one-liners and I love the explosions. Why should I complain about the rest? To see if you’re a real action-movie junkie, try watching only five minutes of the film. The first-generation DVD includes the film, and nothing else. But the movie is so good…