(Second viewing, On Cable TV, October 2016) I saw The Deer Hunter decades ago, but couldn’t remember much other than the Russian roulette sequences. Watching it again reminded me why. As much as there’s a lot to like in the story of blue-collar workers being irremediably damaged by their Vietnam experience, the film is just too long and meandering to be as effective as it could be. The interminable wedding sequence springs to mind as the worst culprit here (boo, director Michael Cimino, boo) although there’s enough fluff elsewhere in the film to make the running time balloon even higher. At least the film is blessed with a few terrific performance, the best being a very young Robert de Niro as a quiet hunter, an equally young Christopher Walken as the one who goes crazy, and Meryl Streep as the object of their affection. Great sequences also fill the movie, but the connective material between them kills much of the film’s urgency, and takes away from the relatively straightforward plotting. The Deer Hunter’s then-daring portrait of soldiers as real people without glorifying war heroics doesn’t come across as clearly now, given the steps taken to humanize warriors in later movies. A classic for a good reason, The Deer Hunter is not a bad piece of work—although its emotional impact is bound to vary widely.
(On DVD, October 2016) Hollywood has a tradition of progressive message movies, but few of them have been as muscular as G.I. Jane. Nominally about the integration of women in US combat forces, this Ridley Scott action thriller quickly goes for a harrowing portrait of the SEAL training process, violent harassment of its heroine and a quick action mission to top it all off. Wrap everything in the American flag, well-shot military images, pulse-pounding music and it ends up being a recruitment video that incidentally has a female protagonist. Demi Moore was at the height of her fame in 1997, and part of the film’s power is seeing one of the lead female actresses of that time adopt the gruff aggressive mannerisms of the men she’s asked to surpass, shaving her head and proving her resilience by making a crude request to suck on an appendage she only metaphorically possesses. Against some expectations, it actually works. The military sequences are handled competently, and there’s just enough story wrapped around them to make it interesting. Moore is impressive (far more so than in the thematically linked A Few Good Men) and Scott is able to transform what could have been a preachy script into an effective propaganda piece for both feminists and militarists. It has aged surprisingly well.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2016) I’ve had Shadow of the Vampire on my radar on-and-off (mostly off) since 2000, but only recently managed to get ahold of it. A revisionist filmmaking comedy in which the crew of Nosferatu realizes that they’re dealing with a true vampire? Sounds good to me! My expectations may have been too high, though, as viewing the film quickly tempered my enthusiasm. Despite seeing John Malkovich and Willem Defoe in fine form in the two lead roles, Shadow of the Vampire quickly becomes over-stylized and under-entertaining. (The dull opening credits, spanning almost five of a 90-minutes film, should have been a tip-off.) Despite the potential of the film, it’s executed limply and without much of the pleasure we may have expected from the premise. I will acknowledge that my enjoyment may have been hampered by insufficient familiarity with the object of the metafiction—if I was more familiar with the original silent Nosferatu silent film, I may have gotten more out of its re-enactment. Still, there isn’t much in the result to compel ordinary viewers, and so I leave Shadow of the Vampire unsatisfied, with the shadow of unfulfilled potential.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I’ve been revisiting a lot of eighties classics lately, and this often means watching movies again for the first time in twenty-plus years. Not Gremlins, though: while I remember a lot of the film’s marketing (including the three “rules” of gremlins care and feeding), I had unexplainably managed to miss watching the film until now. I say “unexplainably” because Gremlins ends up being right up my alleyway and a quasi-classic after only one viewing. The anarchic mixture of horror and comedy rarely lets up once the film gets going midway through, and the second half is a gag-every-ten-seconds experience. Director Joe Dante successfully helms a film embarrassingly dense in practical effects, comic cues, dark humour and unbridled chaos. Despite the often sadistic humour (which helped usher in the PG-13 rating), it’s a lot of fun as a spectacle even if much of the connective tissue is dumb or irritating. The kitchen fight sequence is particularly good, making an action heroine out of an ordinary mom. Gremlins is compelling to watch (and I say this on some authority as I’m going through the often dull eighties greatest hits) and I’m now actively looking into watching Gremlins 2.
(On TV, October 2016) The tale of Carrie and its remake is almost identical to the one of every other classic horror film and their remake. The remake is usually faithful to the overall structure of the story, but strips away most of the original’s rougher edges and leaves a shorter, slicker but generally featureless remake. Updating the references usually doesn’t mean much for the overall film (who cares if it’s uploaded to YouTube?), while the overall better technical credentials usually mean a less bumpy viewing experience. Seen back-to-back with the original, this Carrie remake is most notable for considerably speeding up the languid pacing of the original: despite being a minute longer, it often feels more evenly interesting than the original, with fewer digressions and dead moments along the way. (Witness the way two scenes featuring the other girls are combined early on as an illustration of how today’s scripts are far more efficient.) While the film is said to go back to Stephen King’s original novel, there’s no doubt that the original film is the template on which this remake is built. Chloë Grace Moretz isn’t bad as the titular Carrie, while Julianne Moore brings considerable credibility to the mother’s role and Judy Greer gets a more substantial role than usual as the sympathetic gym teacher. Kimberley Pierce’s direction is much flatter than the original, though, which helps this remake rank as technically better but far more forgettable.
(On TV, October 2016) The original Carrie has become a pop-culture reference, but watching the film nowadays is a reminder of both how good Brian de Palma could in his prime, but also how far more fast-paced movies are nowadays. Especially teen thrillers. (The remake, which I saw immediately after this original, clocks in at half an hour shorter despite keeping most plot pieces intact.) I’ve read the Stephen King novel too long ago to faithfully evaluate whether the film is faithful to the novel (I think so), but the main draw here is the way de Palma injects some movie magic in even the simplistic framework of a teen horror movie. Witness the long shots, the split screen, the editing…. It all comes together during the infamous prom sequence. Sissy Spacek is very good as the titular Carrie, sympathetic despite ending the film as a homicidal maniac. John Travolta shows up in an early role. Otherwise, it’s a fair period piece, often far too long for its own good, and overly dramatic in portraying its central mother/daughter conflict—culminating in an overlong climax. Carrie still works thanks to great direction, and the seventies atmosphere is good for a few nostalgic throwbacks.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I thought I’d like Joy more than I did. I may not like director David O. Russell’s penchant for re-using the same actors and relying on improvisational acting rather than structured plotting, but he can usually be counted upon for solid enjoyable films, as well as a few moments de cinéma in-between the more prosaic material. At times, Joy certainly plays to his strengths. As an inspirational story of a woman who rediscovers a talent for invention and takes herself from misery to success, it’s the kind of film that ought to work in most circumstances. At time, various snippets of the film make fantastic vignettes. The scatter-shot nature of the first’s first half is held together by a willingness to blur reality with soap operas, whereas the story takes a marked turn for the better midway through as our protagonist is introduced to the world of shopping via TV networks. But other things work against the film: If you’re not as much of a Jennifer Lawrence fan as Russell appears to be, then it won’t be as effective. What’s worse is the film’s surprisingly blunt messaging about pursuing dreams and being inventive: By the third or fourth time the film beat the same message over and over again, Joy becomes actively irritating about its own themes. It’s surprising to see a veteran director like Russell bump up against this kind of on-the-nose scripting—it certainly undermines the rest of the film. By the time the protagonist has a final face-off with business enemies and ex-partners, Joy feels more exhausting than anything else. Despite the good actors and the feel-good message, Joy feels too leaden and too initially unfocused to be as good as it could be.
(Second viewing, on TV, October 2016) I practically never went to the movie theatre as a kid (I didn’t miss it much, and from my parents’ perspective, I can now understand that it was too far, too expensive and too complicated), but I did see E.T. The Extra Terrestrial in theatres and still remember bits and pieces of it. (Most notably Elliott’s initial encounter with E.T.) Later on, the movie became an object of semi-fascination given the time it took to make it to home video, the green VHS cassette and so on. Still, I hadn’t revisited the film in thirty-four years (!) and watching it now kid send me back into a mild trance of nostalgia. I know that some of it is enhanced—the version of the film I watched this time around is the 20th anniversary “walkie-talkie” edition, meaning that whatever spectacular special effects that seem to hold up so well were likely sweetened with CGI. Still, never mind the personal history or the alternate versions: Much of the core of the film is just as good today as it was in 1982, and much of the details seem even better today. E.T., much like Poltergeist, has become a time capsule of kid-centric eighties suburbia and Steven Spielberg’s skills as a director remains obvious in the way the scenes are meticulously built. The story itself is basic to an extent that allows Spielberg to focus on execution rather than plotting. The seams often show in weirdly atonal shifts (the drunk school sequence, the horrifying intrusion of white suits in an ordinary home) but they’re usually quickly patched up by finely observed details and charming performances. As an older viewer, it’s hard to miss the religious symbolism toward the end of the film, or bemoan the simplicity of the story. But those don’t quite capture the magic of the film’s execution, which gets away with flaws that would doom less gifted directors. It’s well worth a look today as one of the most Spielbergian movies in Spielberg’s filmography.
(On TV, October 2016) Trying to convince someone to see this tepid crime comedy about a mother/daughter pair of con artists quickly takes us to the tawdry: How about twentysomething Jennifer Love Hewitt playing up her cleavage? How about Sigourney Weaver in a lace bodysuit? No? Yet Heartbreakers’ most playful moments are spent playing the naughtiness of its premise (entrap the mark in a marriage, then create an affair and get half his wealth in a divorce settlement), so it’s not as if this is coming out of nowhere. What’s perhaps most disappointing, though, is how restrained the film has to be in order not to offend the masses, play against its stars’ persona and avoid an excessive rating. As such, Heartbreakers often feels like a big compromise, torn between sexiness and prudishness. If it felt free to cut loose with more nudity and explicit references, it could have been better; had it restrained itself and refocused, it could have been better as well. In its weird middle-ground, though, Heartbreakers often feels as if it doesn’t know what to do. Much of the plot points are predictable long in advance, with the conclusion dragging on much longer than it should (past the point most people will care, actually). Weaver’s extended fake-Russian shtick drags on for much longer than advisable, while Hewitt’s prickly romance subplot feels like the same plot point repeated five times. Bits and pieces of the film are amusing: Ray Liotta isn’t much more than adequate, but Gene Hackman cuts loose as a frankly despicable man who falls prey to the protagonists. While the film is a bit too good-natured to be unpleasant, it’s not much more than a mediocre comedy. You’ll smirk a few times, but Heartbreakers could and should have been much better.
(On DVD, October 2016) As a film, The House Bunny may work best as a showcase for Anna Faris’s comedic charm than anything else. Taking on campus sorority comedy via a disgraced playboy bunny forced to find a way for herself, this is a film that doesn’t aim too high and seems content with executing its own goals modestly. As it confronts beauty with authenticity, the script laboriously moves through synthesis, antithesis and synthesis is a measured fashion, most plot points perceptible long in advance. Despite the all-inclusive ending, there’s still something uncomfortable in the film’s first half, as playboy-centric beauty seems to be promoted as the ultimate goal. Fortunately, Faris is likable enough as the ditzy heroine to keep the film enjoyable no matter how far away it gets into its short-lived promotion of superficiality. The characters making up the underdog sorority rescued by the protagonist are fun (with particular props to Emma Stone in a pre-stardom role and Dana Goodman for boldly throwing herself in a hilarious character). The moral lessons of the film are deeply muddled (one suspects that giving a supporting role to Hugh Hefner himself is enough to blur whatever good intentions The House Bunny may have about an empowerment message) but the various laughs that the film gets, often through sheer mugging, are good enough to forgive many other transgressions. The House Bunny may be confused, but it is good-natured and, like its animal namesake, is cuddly enough to like despite its flaws.
(On DVD, October 2016) I’m not sure anyone was actively campaigning for a historical re-evaluation of Marie Antoinette (who never actually said “Let them eat cake!”), but she proves to be an irresistible subject for Sofia Coppola’s sympathy-for-the-devil approach. (Dovetailing in her latter The Bling Ring) Portraying a sympathetic young woman finding herself way over her head in the French royal court and the subsequent French Revolution, Marie Antoinette scrupulously ignores the less appealing aspects of the queen’s history (ending well before her execution by the guillotine, for instance, or ignoring the political role she eventually assumed) in favour of a poor-girl-lost routine. While lavish in its recreation of 18th century royal court (with numerous scenes filmed in Versailles itself), Marie Antoinette makes a play toward contemporary sensibilities through an aggressively modern soundtrack and a few deliberate visual anachronisms sprinkled among the pomp and pageantry of royal France. Contrary to some expectations, it actually works: it’s remarkably easy to empathize with a young girl forced to become the queen of a nation, even as she finds refuge in amusements more appropriate for her age, and then motherhood as a way to escape expectations. While it’s probably not a good idea to look upon Marie Antoinette as an accurate history lesson (Read Wikipedia’s entry for a complementary view of the character), it does plunge viewers in a very different time and place, with lavish sets and costumes to reinforce the strange conventions illustrated by the script. Kirsten Dunst is very good as the titular character, with some good supporting performances by Jason Schwartzman (as the meek Louis XI), an atypical role for Steve Coogan (as diplomatic counsellor) and a short but striking turn from Danny Huston. Even those who don’t fancy themselves fans of period pieces will find something to like in Marie Antoinette’s off-beat sensibilities and its compassionate portrayal of a reviled historical figure.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) There’s something to be said for consistency in evolution, and so the best thing to say about Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is that it should make fans of the first film happy without necessarily re-threading its plot. Here, our new-parent homeowners (now expecting Child #2) have to deal with a sorority moving next door, further complicated by the fact that if the girls may be unbearable as a sorority, they’re not unsympathetic on their own or in their overall objectives. It predictable escalates, especially when the party wildcard of the first film (Zac Efron, still remarkably likable) is brought back by one side, and then the other. While the film takes a few minutes to bring together its three subplots, it predictably escalates to tit-for-tat aggression and a ramp-up to a big ultimate party in which everything gets solved. The R-rated humour is rarely subtle or refined, but the film does earn its share of smirks and smiles. Seth Rogan plays Seth Rogan, while Rose Byrne is once again very funny. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is not particularly refined filmmaking, but it works at being a crude comedy. Given the suburban ending, though, I wonder where else the series can go from there.
(On TV, October 2016) Here’s an interesting factoid that may make you feel unbearably old: It’s now been longer since the release of Stand by Me in 1986 (30 years) than the span of time between the film and the events it depicts in 1959. Nostalgia sneaks up on anyone, even movies consciously built around that emotion. Stand by Me is now best remembered as “that non-horror Stephen King adaptation”, focusing on an affectionate novella published in Different Seasons (a book that also spawned The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil). It’s a movie about kids, but the somewhat sombre framing device makes it a film for adults, and most notably baby boomers born around 1947 like King. As a look at the life of a young teenager in 1959, it luxuriates in a recreation of the era, complete with a near-perfect period soundtrack. It’s not much of a plot-driven film: The goal (“walk to the dead body”) is stated early on, and much of the film becomes an episodic string of events until the end. It even throws in a gratuitously disgusting fictional vignette that ends abruptly to protests. Much of the film’s charm comes from its young actors. Other than Kiefer Sutherland as a bully, Stand by Me does feature an extraordinary group with Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell. Remarkably enough, you can watch the film without being overwhelmed by the actor’s age—other than Sutherland, who already looks like himself, it’s as they are different persons. As a reflection of another era, Stand by Me unabashedly plays up the nostalgia to good effect—the liberties taken by the young character would be horrifying today, even though it’s hard to argue against the dangers they do face along the way. It ends up being a remarkable piece of cinema, still effective today, much later and for entirely different audiences.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I’ve complained about this before, so feel free to tune out as I once again complain about the disappearance of the bid-budget realistic thriller in today’s spectacle-driven cinema. A movie like The Firm, adapted from John Grisham’s best-selling novel, focusing on realistic elements and featuring a bunch of well-known actors would be a much tougher sell twenty years later. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot more to like here than in an umpteenth dull fantasy movie going over the same plot points. While I don’t claim that The Firm is a work of genius, it’s a solid thriller aimed at post-teenage audiences. It did pretty well at the box office, and it’s not hard to understand why in-between good actors such as Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, a bald Ed Harris, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Holly Hunter working at their peak (with surprising appearances by pre-Saw Tobin Bell as an assassin and Wilford Brimley as a notably evil character) and a story that needles both organized crime and government. The thrills may not feel pulse-pounding by today’s standard, but the film makes up for it through semi-clever plotting, a good handle on the revelations of its material and protagonists sympathetic enough that we’re invested in them rather than the action itself. If I sound like a cranky old critic bemoaning the state of current cinema, it’s largely because The Firm is both an exemplary piece of early-nineties filmmaking and a contrast to today’s similarly budgeted films. It’s got this particular pre-digital patina, a serious intent and actors being asked to actually act throughout the film. I’m not as pessimistic about 2016 cinema as you may guess from this review, but I could certainly stand a few more of those movies today.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I would like to be more enthusiastic about The Stanford Prison Experiment. After all, it’s a well-made film, soberly discussing a striking experiment in human nature. The real-life Zimbardo case study has bewildered generations of psychology students in showing the innate potential for abuse in everyone—a film stickling relatively closely to the facts of the events is close to a public good. But, as unfair as it can be to judge a film of the merits of another, it turns out that the Zimbardo study has already inspired a number of movies, and my memories of 2001’s overtly fictional Das Experiment are still good enough that this more reality-based take on the film feels like a rethread. It’s not fair, I know: The filmmakers behind The Stanford Prison Experiment probably intended to deliver a factual chronicle of the events fit to remain a reference. Instead, their mild-mannered take on the subject feels more perfunctory than anything else. The sober re-creation of its 1970s setting is absorbing, and the way the events quickly spin out of control is still as dumbfounding as anything else. If you haven’t read Philip Zimbardo’s excellent account of the events, or even if you have, then the film should be fascinating. Still, I have the nagging feeling that it could have been a bit better.