(On TV, March 2017) As I’m watching Woody Allen’s filmography in scattered chronological order, I’m struck by how his works seems best approached sequentially—there are definitely phases in his work, and they partially seem to be addressing previous movies. Hannah and Her Sisters does echo other Allen movies—Manhattan (which I saw between watching this film and writing this review) in tone and setting, I’m told that there’s something significant about Mia Farrow’s casting, and there’s a continuity here between Allen’s nebbish hypochondriac and the rest of his screen persona. Absent most of those guideposts, however, Hannah and her Sisters feels a bit … slight as a standalone. It’s nowhere near a bad movie: the quality of the dialogue, twisted psychodrama of unstable pairings and Allen’s own very entertaining persona ensure that this is a quality film. But in trying to find out what makes this a lauded top-tier component of Allen’s filmography, answers don’t come as readily. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Hannah and Her Sisters does things that have since then been done more frequently—Northeastern romantic dramas about a close-knit group of friends and family? Might as well tag an entire sub-genre of independent dramas … at least two of them featuring Jason Bateman. Familiarity, of course, is trumped by execution and so Hannah and Her Sisters does go far on Allen’s script. Allen himself is his own best male spokesman, although Michael Caine and Max von Sydow both have their moments. Still, the spotlight is on the sisters: Mia Farrow is terrific as the titular Hannah, while Barbara Hershey remains captivating thirty years later and Dianne Wiest completes the trio as something of a screw-up. There’s a little bit of weirdness about the age of the characters—although I suspect that’s largely because Allen plays a character much younger than he is, and I can’t reliably tell the age of the female characters. It’s watchable enough, but I’m not sure I found in Hannah and her Sisters the spark that makes an average film become a good one. I may want to temper my expectations—after all, not every Woody Allen movie is a great one, even in the latter period with which I’m most familiar.
(On TV, March 2017) Issues-based thrillers aren’t always easy to watch, and there are certainly enough tough moments in Mississippi Burning to uphold this rule of thumb. But it’s also a thriller with a muscular anti-racism message that is also comforting given the atrocities portrayed in the film. The story of two FBI agents investigating the murder of three civil rights activists in rural Mississippi, this is a movie that pulls no punches in portraying the often-unbelievable racism of barely half a century ago. Quite a few buildings burn here, and the constant abuse suffered by the black characters is nothing short of revolting. While the film is certainly problematic in its white-saviour narrative, it’s also curiously frank in the way it embraces this aspect of itself: threatening, torturing and arresting unrepentant KKK members is the next best thing to punching a Nazi in the face in American cinema wish fulfillment, and Mississippi Burning certainly embraces this aggressive approach to the problem. Gene Hackman truly stars as a veteran FBI agent whose folksy bonhomie barely conceals a tough-and-violent approach whenever the chips are down. Contrasting him is Willem Defoe is a curiously straitlaced role as a far more by-the-book supervisor who nonetheless gets to let his wilder instincts run free in the last act of the film. Frances McDormand also has a good turn as an acquiescent housewife who nonetheless gets a few shots in. Far more interesting than the “social issues drama” moniker would suggest, Mississippi Burning turns into a vengeful police thriller toward the end, with satisfying justice being delivered in spades. The relationship to the true events that inspired the story is incidental, the black characters definitely taking second place to the white protagonists but, in the end, it makes for curiously compelling cinema. This being said, Mississippi Burning is exactly the kind of film that other effective anti-racism movies such as The Help are meant to complement: it’s part of the story, but not all of it.
(On TV, March 2017) The real treat in Suicide Kings is watching Christopher Walken as a clever mob boss, kidnapped, amputated, slowly dying but able to turn the tables on his naïve young kidnappers. As a Tarantino-inspired crime thriller with a mixture of darkly amusing dialogue and bloody criminal action, it’s a movie of its time, which is to say a quasi-nostalgic throwback for those who haven’t already seen it. Walken is quite good in a quasi-peak performance. Props also go to Johnny Galecki as a young man who gets far more than he expected, and Denis Leary as a loquacious mob enforcer. Unfortunately, while the story of a kidnapping going awry generally work well enough to keep our interest, the overall result does feel underwhelming given the assets at its disposal. Some of the direction doesn’t quite flow, some plot beats make as much sense as a runaway eighteen-wheeler and the dialogue either works or doesn’t. At its best, Suicide Kings is decent methadone for Tarantino withdrawals. (One of the advantages of rediscovering movies that felt tired in their time is that, sometimes, you do want more of the same years later.) At its worst, however, it’s a tired pastiche without much of the flair, wit or pacing of its inspirations.
(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) Hmmm. My memories of Robin Hood: Men in Tights weren’t particularly good to begin with, but revisiting the movie more than twenty years later doesn’t do it any favour. The only reason why I’m not incensed about it is that there’s been plenty of terrible spoofs since then, even if you mercifully forget all about the Friedberg/Seltzer abominations. The truth is, Mel Brooks has a few unfortunate tendencies and while his best movies manage to avoid them, they’re nearly all on display in Men in Tights. The worst has to be a directorial vision that allows characters to mug for the camera, fully cognizant that they’re in a dumb comedy. That’s how we get quizzical glances, broad self-aware performances, pauses for laughter and blatant hamming. See, I’m funny! Is the unspoken assertion here, allowing viewers to shout back, “No, you’re not!” It harms the film even more when the pacing is slack enough to anticipate the next joke—the best spoofs usually move along at rocket pacing, layering jokes in background and almost never letting the audience in on the jokes. Here, there are basically honking signals, spotlights and subtitles to point viewers at the humour. Brooks himself shows up in a self-congratulatory sequence that quickly turns unbearable. Cary Elwes was a good choice for Robin Hood given a pedigree that included The Princess Bride … unless you’ve just watched The Princess Bride and was reminded of a kind of brilliance so lacking here. Isaac Hayes and Dave Chapelle do okay with what they’re given, but the only actors who escape from the mess with some decency are Roger Rees as the sheriff (hamming it up like Alan Rickman, but not mugging for laughs as terribly as other actors) and Amy Yasbeck, whose red mane is a compelling character in her own right. On the big scale of spoof comedies, the bottom has been lowered time and time again by Friedberg/Seltzer, and if Men in Tights is quite a bit better than those (by sheer virtue of actually attempting jokes), it’s still mediocre compared to the ZAZ classics or even Brooks” best. It should do if all you’re looking for is an amusing evening film, but given that my low expectations weren’t even met, I’d hazard that you’d be better off watching or re-watching other spoofs instead.
(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) I was wary of revisiting The ’burbs: what if it didn’t measure up to my good memories? Fortunately, I shouldn’t have worried: As a comedy, it’s still as increasingly anarchic as I recalled, and the film has aged relatively well largely due to director Joe Dante’s off-beat genre sensibilities. Baby-faced Tom Hanks stars as a driven suburban man daring himself to spend a week at home doing nothing. But his holiday soon turns to real work as he starts obsessing over his neighbours and, egged on by friends, suspecting them of the worst crimes. Set entirely in a quiet cul-de-sac, The ’burbs still has a few things to say about the hidden depths of suburbia, dangerous obsessions and the unknowability of neighbours. It’s also increasingly funny as actions become steadily more extreme—by the time a house blows up in the middle of the climax, it’s clear that the movie has gone as far as it could go. Corey Feldman (as a fascinated teenager treating the whole thing like a reality-TV show), Bruce Dern (as a crazed survivalist), Carrie Fisher (as a voice of exasperated reason) and Henry Gibson (deliciously evil) are also remarkable in supporting roles. The “burbs may take a while to heat up, but it quickly goes to a boil and remains just as funny today.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) Sometimes, watching popular hits from decades past is enough to make you wonder what they were thinking back then. Some movies don’t age well, and for all of the box-office dollars that Flashdance accumulated in 1983, a lot of it just feels silly today. The premise itself seems like a jumble of words, as a welder-by-day and burlesque-dancer-by-night dreams of becoming a professional dancer. The only thing standing in the way of her dreams in a pre-YouTube era is an admission to a dance school. Much of the film is spent on the way from dream to reality, frequently interrupted by music videos. That last part isn’t much of an exaggeration: Director Adrian Lyne clearly aped then-new format of music videos in blatantly stopping the film for musical set pieces, hand-waving them as performance art in a burlesque club. It works up to a point, until we get exasperated that the simplistic story isn’t going anywhere. This focus on music videos is obvious from the wall-to-wall hit soundtracks—alas, it’s all early-eighties pop, which sounds terrible today. At least Jennifer Beals is very likable at the lead—she’s quite a bit better than the movie surrounding her. Flashdance is also notable for bringing together filmmakers who would then go on to have big careers, particularly producers Bruckheimer/Simpson and screenwriter Joe Ezharas. If you’re not watching from a historical perspective, the film is a dud—the story is linear, the interludes too frequent and the romance is bolted together out of narrative convenience. There are far better movies from 1983, and they have all aged much better than this one.
(In French, On TV, March 2017) on the one hand, Matilda is a good-natured story in which an adorable little girl manages to overthrow oppression and find true motherly love. It has a unique comic sensibility, great use of narration, a quasi-whimsical feeling and a strong performance by Mara Wilson, with a just-as-likable turn by Embeth Davidtz. Director Danny DeVito occasionally inches close to Tim Burtonesque territory in the way he’s willing to twist reality into an impressionistic version of itself. On the other hand—and I’ll acknowledge that this may be an idiosyncratic reaction—I have a really hard time with child abuse stories these days, especially when the targets of the abuse are young girls. For all of Matilda’s heartwarming ending, whimsical moments and sense that the heroine is never really in jeopardy, I was never quite able to open up to the film. The emotional abuse of a bright kid ignored by ungrateful adults (including parents) is almost too much to bear and that feeling never quite went away during the movie, stopping me from enjoying it all that much. This is one of those films that may be best appreciated upon re-watched, confident in how it’s going to turn out.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) Horror is about execution, and movies like Don’t Breathe prove it. On paper, it sounds like a borderline-reprehensible dirty little home invasion thriller, with bad people (thieves) running against an even worse opponent (a not-so-disabled veteran). There’s a scene late in the movie that reads like a gratuitous shock fit to sink an entire film. But on-screen, thanks to director Fede Alvarez, the film works far better than expected: the tension runs high, the direction calls attention to itself and the pacing is uncommonly effective. There’s a very good long tracking shot as the thieves explore their target house that cleanly establishes the geography of the place, even as it stops to focus on details that will become essential later on. The contrived premise feels far less unlikely when presented on-screen, and the turkey-baster scene becomes a nasty piece of primal revulsion. Perhaps best of all is the feeling that underneath the shocks and violence, it’s not an entirely meaningless journey—the survivors earn their fate with a dash of eternal anxiety. Alvarez is a gifted director, but I can’t wait until he lets go of his lowest instincts and tackle a more ambitious film. Elsewhere in the movie Steven Lang is a force of nature, while Jane Levy eventually becomes the anchor of the film. It amounts to a small surprise of a thriller. Horror fans may want to note that in-between Don’t Breathe and Hush, there seems to be a mini-trend of well-executed disability home-invasion thrillers.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Contrarily to most of the movies I’m revisiting recently, I didn’t have very fond memories of Robocop. For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been remembering as an overly violent, implausible, mean-spirited piece of exploitation. Having grown older and given it another chance, however, I’m forced to be more positive upon second viewing. Oh, I still think it’s overly violent, implausible and mean-spirited (the last of which makes the first two characteristic feel even worse) but I can now appreciate that it has quite a bit more on its mind than the average action SF movie. Its preoccupation with industrial decay, man/machine relationships and corporate corruption still ring as relevant today (even more so than its recent remake), adding considerable depth to the film. It’s also, thanks to director Paul Verhoeven, a finely crafted piece of entertainment—fast, darkly funny, cleverly presented and relentless in achieving its vision. Some of the special effects are dodgy today (especially ED-209), although much of the practical stuff remains well done. Peter Weller is fine in the lead role, but special posthumous mention has to be made of Miguel Ferrer as an actor who aged exceptionally well—his character here is young and brash and detestable, but by the end of his career Ferrer had grown in his unusual features and could play a fearsome leader. It all adds up to a notionally respectable result, even though the cynicism of the film is still a bit too dark for my taste. With this second viewing, I update my appreciation of Robocop upwards and note that at a time when I’m happy when a revisited film holds up to my good memories, it’s rare that I like it even more twenty years later.
(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) It had been a very long time since I had watched Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and while some of it stuck (Large Marge, obviously, but also a chain-pulling gag that’s sadly not visible in the widescreen version) much of it hadn’t … and that’s not even talking about the ultra-whimsical vision of the film. Paul Reuben has a checkered history by now, of course, but time softens all scandals and it’s certainly possible to watch this big-screen feature without too much baggage. It helps that the film is so joyously eccentric, from the opening Rube Goldberg machines to the final flip into metafiction. In-between remains, well, a road movie leading to a Hollywood satire. What a program. While Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure may not be strictly hilarious, it is steadily odd and charming at once. It’s a movie almost entirely without peers—a rare quality whether we’re talking about 1985 or 2017. Paul Reuben is unique as Pee-Wee Herman, almost perfectly matching Burton’s vision for the film. It makes for a strong first feature for Burton and one that has aged remarkably well since then.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2017) Direct-to-video American Pie series spinoff Band Camp is not what we’d call good … but it does follow the basic elements of the series from which it’s inspired. Tad Hilgenbrink turns in a Stifleresque performance as, indeed, Stifler’s younger brother, proving just as mischievous as his role model and ending in Band Camp as punishment. What follows is a typically neutered version of an American sex comedy: heavy on juvenilia and humiliation, low on actual nudity or eroticism. It’s crude and innocuous at once, happy to wallow in low jokes and idiot plotting. As background noise while doing other work, it’s almost perfect—you just need to perk up once in a while whenever Eugene Levy shows up as a camp counselor or whenever something funny threatens to happen (it seldom does, but it’s important to give the film a chance). It may or may not be noteworthy to remark that twelve years after its release, you practically can’t find any known name in the cast—for all that I liked of Crystle Lightning’s presentation as an uncommon ideal of beauty, much of the film’s cast has since, at best, peaked in TV shows. But such is the life of a direct-to-video film—Band Camp wouldn’t have a tenth of its current awareness had it not been branded as part of the American Pie series. One the flip side, I’ve seen much, much worse before.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) I went in the Friday the 13th remake with low expectations, conditioned by half a dozen horror remakes on what to anticipate. Generally speaking, the result does not disappoint—for best or for worst, this remake is roughly equivalent to the many other horror remakes of the time: slick production values, buffed-up young leads, adherence to the iconography of its predecessors but not much in terms of wit, soul, humour or anything but mechanical suspense. It’s a rote exercise, singularly uninteresting if you’re not already a convinced horror hound. The death grip that genre conventions hold around the film’s throat makes it impossible to become anything but a pale imitation of a celebrated predecessor. The only area where this Friday the 13th holds surprise is, curiously enough, in its depiction of nudity—while the ’80s horror originals usually came with a generous side order of nudity, most 00s remakes usually didn’t. But this one is the exception, maybe too blatantly so—by the time the characters themselves comment each other on their splendid bodies, it doesn’t matter if we agree with them. Alas, there’s a lot more violence than flesh here, and it quickly blurs into the usual exasperating fights with predetermined outcomes. Saddled with an overlong prologue, mechanistic structure and stomach-churning glorification of its villain, Friday the 13th isn’t worth much more than checking off a box on some completist cinephile list. It’s dull and there are many other better horror movies out there. But then again, I already suspected that going in—I got what I was expecting.
(On TV, March 2017) A modern take on the Cinderella story seems like a sure-fire premise—how difficult would it be to screw up? But as A Cinderella Story proves, there are no certitudes in life, especially in movies. Landing with a thud even by teen-movie standards, this film can’t be bothered to care about the main elements of the Cinderella myth, limps along without much grace and frequently becomes irritating rather than entertaining. Hilary Duff isn’t bad as the heroine of the tale and Regina King does manage to get out of a meager role with her dignity mostly intact, but the rest of the cast can’t do much to save a lifeless script with little in terms of style, charm, wit or grace. Jennifer Coolidge is particularly ill-served as the wicked step-mother: despite doing her best, her character is actively unpleasant without the panache we’d associate with the best incarnations of wicked step-mothers. The male cast is largely forgettable—although Simon Helberg does make an impression for a few scenes. At a time when there are a few serviceable versions of the Cinderella story floating around (including 1997’s Everafter, which wasn’t that good and yet still better than this), I can’t imagine a situation in which A Cinderella Story would be preferred over any other version. It mishandles great material and ends up delivering an instantly forgettable result.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2017) From its first few off-beat moments, It’s Kind of a Funny Story finds strong kinship in the kind of modest teen dramedies adapted from novels that would become so popular in the 2010s. The literary origins of the script make for a more unusual premise and issues (namely: depression and institutionalization) that hit harder than the average teen movie. Keir Gilchrist is fine as the mostly-mopey protagonist, a depressed teenager who voluntarily checks into a psychiatric hold after a suicide attempt. It doesn’t spoil anything to say that he gets better over the course of the film, encountering friendship and possibly love along the way. Zach Galifianakis in fine form is the wildcard of the story, while Emma Roberts is cute enough as a likely love interest counterbalancing Zoe Kravitz’s more superficial false flame. Otherwise, it’s a movie perhaps more notable for the fractured way in which the first half-hour is handled, leading to a more conventionally heartfelt conclusion. It’s good without being great, although it does hold up decently as a teen drama. Likable, hopeful, occasionally good for a few laughs, It’s Kind of a Funny Story lives up to its title but don’t expect much more.
(On DVD, March 2017) Going into Romeo + Juliet, I only knew two things: I usually like director Baz Luhrmann’s work (I usually love the first half-hour of his movies); and I have a lot of trouble with Shakespearian dialogue. Despite my best intentions, I bounced off hard from the recent contemporary reimagining of Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing: my brain can’t process that language even with subtitles to help. In that context, Romeo + Juliet’s central conceit, to reimagine Shakespeare’s best-known romantic play with the same dialogue but in a mid-1990s Californian-ish context with warring crime families using fancy guns rather than swords, seemed like courting trouble. Fortunately, Luhrmann’s typical verve was enough to get me over the initial hump. The opening sequence of the movie not only indelibly imprinted IN FAIR VERONA in my mind, but was stylish and action-packed enough to get me interested in the (more sedate) rest of the film. Leonardo di Caprio is fine as Romeo, while Claire Danes makes for a fair wide-eyed Juliet. Able supporting presences by actors such as John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite and Harold Perrineau (plus a very young Paul Rudd) complete the already wild portrait. Add to that Luhrmann’s usual energy and visual flair and the Shakespearian dialogue becomes far less important—knowing the basic beats of the classic story means that we’re free to appreciate the adaptation rather than the words, and so Romeo + Juliet comes alive. While much of this energy dissipates in the latter half of the film, there are enough elements of interest in the modernization of the story (complete with car chases, helicopters and news media commentary) to keep watching until the end. As pure piece of style, this is a film that is both precisely dated in mid-nineties aesthetics yet timeless because of them. It’s breathless, witty, just sappy enough to qualify as a true version of Romeo and Juliet, and an experience in itself. Maybe I’m getting ready to take another look at Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing…