(On TV, March 2017) The law of diminishing returns is fully operative in discussing The Pink Panther 2, second in a reboot series starring Steve Martin as Inspecteur Clouseau. Much of the surprise of the first movie is gone, replaced by an expansion of the story that, to its credit, doesn’t try to ape the first film too much. Here, a genius thief named The Tornado is stealing precious artifacts around the world—it’s up to a team of criminal investigators, including Clouseau, to catch the villain. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and as the investigation goes to Rome and then back to Paris, The Pink Panther 2 struggles to remain interesting. It pains me to say that, as much as any movie with Aishwarya Rai is like a little bit of sunshine, she doesn’t bring much to the movie—and neither do reliable performers like Alfred Molina or Andy Garcia. Even returning players such as Jean Reno and Emily Mortimer aren’t given much to do … although John Cleese may be a little bit better as Kevin Kline’s replacement. Few of the gags in this sequel are as inspired as some of the ones in the first movie, and while the rather good conclusion also does much to focus the film’s impression, it does come a bit too late to be truly effective. Eight years later, it does seem as if the Steve Martin Pink Panther reboot series ended there and I’m not seeing anyone bemoaning that fact.
(On TV, March 2017) The dangers with slapstick comedies are numerous. Badly handled, they become juvenile, offensive, repetitive and annoying. Well-done, preferably combined with other kinds of humour, slapstick can bring a lot of energy in a comedy. The Steve Martin remake of The Pink Panther doesn’t avoid the worst pitfalls of its subgenre, but it generally succeeds more than it fails, and crucially gets significantly better toward the end. The point of the movie is the character of Inspecteur Clouseau, often bumbling, usually disaster-prone but (this is important) someone who can eventually piece together the mystery in the end. So it is that the first half of The Pink Panther accumulates all of the problems of slapstick. It’s brought down to a kids’ movie worst-common-denominator level, has little subtlety or wit, keeps doubling-down on gags that aren’t funny in the first place and often skirt discomfort at the physical violence of some jokes. Clouseau’s antics are more likely to make audience cringe than laugh. But here and there, we can see signs that the film knows what it’s doing. A few recurring gags and over-the-top madness combine to have a cyclist crash into a newsstand that then explodes, earning the first laugh of the film and reassuring us that the filmmakers are truly going for excess. As the movie goes on, we get to understand its sense of humour better and succumb (at least occasionally) to it. The ending, during which Clouseau pieces everything together in a dazzling sequence of deductions, does quite a bit to endear us to the movie, even as flawed as it is—it’s one thing to have a completely incompetent hero, but it’s much better to see them pull it together in the end. Martin is decent as Clouseau—my memories of Peter Sellers as the original Clouseau are so far away that I don’t have a lot of material for comparison, but he sells both the verbal and the physical comedy. Meanwhile, Jean Reno has a rare (and imposing) clean-shaven role as a sidekick, Kevin Kline has the sadistic-boss role wrapped up, Emily Mortimer is unusually cute as the romantic interest (she gets two or three of the film’s best scenes) and Beyoncé Knowles shows up in a bid to be taken seriously as a comic actress, with middling results. Jason Statham and Clive Owen also very briefly show up in too-small roles. The Pink Panther isn’t particularly good, but it is occasionally effective, and its dedication to slapstick makes for an unusual entry in today’s comedy styling.
(On TV, March 2017) As a filmmaker spends an entire movie being confronted by fame and the way fans bemoan his “earlier, funnier movies”, it’s hard not to read Stardust Memories as Woody Allen’s own commentary on his career at the time. Despite his noted denials that the film is autobiographical, it’s clearly influenced by his experience, even as a funhouse version of it. The scenes in which he’s bombarded by one request after another remain brutally effective as a distillation of what life as this level of celebrity must be. There’s quite a bit of Hollywood satire as well, as the studio keeps meddling with his latest work and as nearly everyone (even aliens) seem to agree that his earlier movies were funnier. As to whether Stardust Memories is good…. Well, the movie is acknowledged as divisive among Allen fans, and it’s easy to see why: shot in black-and-white, jumping seamlessly from reality to fantasy and from present to past, it’s both a meditation on fame and a film about romantic choices. It’s self-reflective, maybe self-indulgent and there’s a melancholic quality to the movie that coexists with the various jokes. There’s even some contempt for the audience to make thing even more layered. I found it interesting but not gripping: I certainly laughed unexpectedly at a few spots (and I’m not talking chuckles or grins, but real barks of laughter), which is more than I can say about most so-called comedies out there. At the same time, this is obviously not just a comedy, and given that I’m still piecing together a coherent picture of Allen’s career, I feel reasonably confident in saying that I don’t yet have all the information I need to process Stardust Memories to its fullest extent. I’ll give it a cautiously positive rating so far, subject to revision whenever I’m able to speak knowledgeably of Allen’s early and mid-career.
(On TV, March 2017) There’s an exceptionally tricky balance at the heart of What About Bob? that would have been easy to mishandle. Making a comedy about a blatantly annoying protagonist taking down a respectable professional sounds terrible as a premise—how to balance the humour and the darkness? Fortunately, this is a movie with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss as assets, and a pretty good sense of structure in the way the script is put together. The initial impression are that the patient (Murray) is an annoying pest while the psychologist (Dreyfuss) is a competent family man. But as the story progresses, things start shifting. Our annoying pest proves resourceful, kind and entertaining. Our competent psychologist turns out to have issues of his own, alienating much of his family. (Along with a crucially-important couple of neighbours). When the two clash, the patient progresses and the psychologist regresses, all the way to an explosive climax. What About Bob? wouldn’t be what it is without the combined acting talents of its lead (with Julie Hagerty turning in a small but very enjoyable performance as the voice-of-reason.) To its credit, it also becomes funnier as it goes along—the first thirty minutes are a bit too awkward and off-kilter to be truly enjoyable, but the film ensures that it becomes more and more acceptable to laugh along as it progresses. While I’m not sure that What About Bob? is a classic, it has aged pretty well in the past 25 years, and manages to play with some tricky material.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) If memory serves me right, I saw Jurassic Park on opening night, which happened to be my last day of high school classes. A fitting anecdote for a movie that pretty much redefined the modern blockbuster, with top-notch special effects, near-perfect direction by Steven Spielberg and iconic performances that are still references even today. Revisiting Jurassic Park nearly twenty-five years later is not unpleasant. The movie holds up far better than most of its contemporaries—the blend of practical and digital effects is still largely effective and the pacing of the movie remains exemplary. In-between Sam Neil, Laura Dern, peak-era Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough (not to mention Samuel L. Jackson in a minor role!), the movie benefits from an embarrassment of thespian riches. Still, the star here is Spielberg—Other than Jaws (which I’ll revisit soon) I’m not sure he’s directed a better suspense film than Jurassic Park—the T-Rex sequence is an anthology piece, but the Raptor climax is really good, and there’s something justifiably wondrous about the first glimpse at the dinosaurs (ba-ba-baaa, ba-ba). Ironically, the thing that dates the film most are the glimpses at the computer screens—the CGI itself, save from some imperfect compositing, is still pretty good. It helps a lot that the script is so slick at what it does—from the “Mr. DNA” exposition sequence to the great way in which the script improves upon Michael Crichton’s original novel (which was quite a bit more scattered and needlessly dark), David Koepp’s work on the script remains exemplary. Jurassic Park is the complete package: great lines, great actors, great direction, great scenes, and great special effects. It remains a landmark for a reason, and could be the best movie of 1993 if it wasn’t for that other Spielberg film Schindler’s List. Two near-perfect movie in a single year: peak-Spielberg time.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) It’s sad when capable actors are stuck with dull material, and The Wedding Planner is a case study in how that happens. Here, the always-appealing Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey (in the early rom-com phase of his career) do their best with a script that combines dumb situations with uninspiring dialogue. Their natural charm (plus good contributions from the always-interesting Judy Greer and Justin Chambers) is just about the only thing that keep the film together as it moves through the usual story beats of the romantic comedy formula. The first half-hour is quite a bit better (as in; interesting, less predictable, quirkier, looser, hotter) than anything that follows—it eventually becomes a romantic comedy so cynical that it practically forgets about the romance, so preoccupied it is with ritually moving its plot pieces through the expected episodes leading to the climax. The Wedding Planner is not much of a comedy and it’s not much of a romance either—at best, it does the strict minimum, lets its stars carry the film and calls it a day. Too bad.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) The first 1984 live-action La Guerre des Tuques was a major cultural touchstone for French Canadians of my generation. “La guerre, c’est pas une raison pour se faire mal !” (“War isn’t a reason to hurt each other!”). I first saw it at school, because that was the movie you showed to a crowd of bored kids during the winter. It certainly had its share of magic: seeing kids “build” a gigantic fort during their winter holidays was the most awesome thing we could imagine, and the gut-punch of the climax (hint: the book’s title is “The Dog That Stopped the War”) was good enough to make everyone cry. Nearly thirty-five years later, the release of an animated 3D remake took full advantage of this nostalgic feeling: Not only was Snowtime! marketed in Quebec as heavily as any other Hollywood blockbuster, it came with its own extensive line of toys, plush figures and such. For a market as small (6 million, give or take) as French Canada, it was hard to avoid the film’s marketing footprint. But nearly 200 word in this review, we still haven’t talked about the film itself and that’s nearly inevitable given that it is so … average. While seeing it in English strips it of its French-Canadian dialogue (even though officially the film is listed as an English-language production … go figure), there’s a bit of small-rural-town romanticizing in the way this remake is presented. Characters are hammered in distinctive archetypes (action figures, anyone?), the story is handled linearly and big chunks of the film seems to have gone through the big filter that makes nearly all animated movies the same. But there’s worse in the very nature of making this an animated movie: For one thing, seeing a massive snow fort isn’t as impressive as a whimsical digital creation as a real live fort. Then there’s the CGI dog: for all of the advances in technology and artistic skill in animating a CGI dog, it’s never going to get as visceral a reaction as a real life dog. Now, I will freely acknowledge that my memories of the original La Guerre des Tuques are probably enhanced and polished by the fact that I haven’t seen the film in three decades. It’s highly likely that I’d be disappointed by the original if ever I watched it again. But the CGI remake, as entertaining as it can fitfully be, doesn’t quite capture the imagination as live-action can. This being said, I’d be churlish not to recognize the qualities of the film—the animation style is quirky enough to be interesting, the character beats are often unconventional and it does recapture most of the essence of the original down to its heavily pacifist message. It was also a resounding success not only in French Canada but in the country as a whole—It ended up being the year’s most widely-seen Canadian film of 2015, grossing 3.4 million dollars along the way (2.8 million of that in Quebec alone, plus another 1.2 million in France). Not bad, not bad … and you can count on grouchy old guys like myself to complain about it not being the original.
(On TV, March 2017) The first ten minutes of The Karate Kid—Part II do something very obnoxious and then very interesting. It starts with a TV-show-style recap of the previous episode (ugh), but then follows-up by delivering the epilogue that the first movie so clearly lacked. Then, in the next ten minutes, it draws up a fantasy of a quiet summer spent chilling and training … only for adventure to beckon. From that moment, it’s off to exotic Okinama (actually Hawaii, but the change of scenery is significant) for an adventure in foreign lands, flipping the agency of the story from the younger protagonist to the older one. As a “here’s what I did during my summer vacations” story, it’s pretty good despite odd missteps along the way: the ending is ridiculously overdone, with elements that wouldn’t pass muster even in a less demanding kid’s movie. (I was particularly disappointed by the whole “let’s lift a beam” shtick, and even less convinced by the subsequent “I will run away and threaten a girl” follow-up. Still, the charm than made The Karate Kid is mostly intact, and this sequel at least has the advantage of not redoing the first film’s plot verbatim. Much of the strengths of the film can be traced back to likable performances by Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, even though the latter’s character does lose a considerable amount of mystery as his history is detailed. Still, as a sequel, it’s decent enough—not quite as iconic at the first movie, but worthy of being watched by fans of the first film.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) The secret of romantic comedies isn’t that hard to piece together. Give us likable protagonists and a competent execution, and who cares if you’re telling the oldest story in the world? Of course, it’s nice if you can set the plot in an interesting environment, add witty dialogues, showcase some directing style and depend on good actors. Fortunately, Wimbledon manages to get all of these right. From casting Paul Bettany as an aging tennis player, to Kirsten Dunst as a top contender, to setting the story over a Wimbledon tournament, to funny dialogue (including worthwhile voiceovers) and directing flourishes, Wimbledon cleverly combines underdog sports comedy with romance and the result is surprisingly good … even for those who know next to nothing about tennis. The film quickly zips by, carried by the charm of its leads and Richard Loncraine’s sure-footed direction. There are issues with the film (it’s clearly told from the male lead’s point of view, often marginalizing the agency of the female character) and a few longer moments, but generally speaking Wimbledon is a big bowl of unassuming romantic comedy, unsurprising but satisfying nonetheless. I like it quite a bit better than I expected from the plot summary and found myself more engrossed in the characters than I thought. Not bad. For more ridiculous fun, follow this film with 7 Days in Hell as an absurdist Wimbledon chaser.
(In French, In theatres, March 2017) Disney’s been on a roll in adapting its own animated classics to live-action lately, but the surprise is how consistently solid the result have been. They clearly understand their own material, and if the result tends to be unsurprising by design, there’s something to be said about delivering exactly what viewers are expecting. So it is with Beauty and the Beast, a film not designed for today’s kids as much as it’s aimed to everyone who has flipped over the original film at any time in the past twenty-five years. Emma Watson stars but does not impress as Belle—she plays the character like about a dozen other actresses her age would, and that’s good enough without being particularly impressive. The point of the film isn’t the human actors, though—not only is there a lot of CGI here, but the nearly-overwhelming set design takes center-stage early on and doesn’t let go. The tunes are the ones you remember (curiously enough, I like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” a lot, but it’s “Belle” that I hum most often.), and the “Be Our Guest” number is spectacular enough to be compared to then-ground-breaking original. I still don’t particularly like the story, even though much care has been spent explaining and justifying its least convincing elements. Having seen the French version, I can’t speak about the voice acting of the furniture (now here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write when I woke up today) but their characters are surprisingly sympathetic—this remake wrings all possible pathos out of their plight until the final moment. For Disney, this is a success: the kids will love it (although it’s a bit too dark for younger children), the parents will be reminded of the original and there’s enough to see to make things interesting to everyone else. Of all of Disney’s various live-action remakes so far, I think that this is the one that has the best shot at displacing (but not eclipsing) the original—it’s not that different in tone, and manages to update the weaknesses of the original without neglecting to play up its iconic elements. Time will tell—and I say this as someone who dislikes the idea of remakes supplanting the originals.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) The trouble with re-watching classics is the tension of judging whether it’s still a classic. I first saw Pulp Fiction, like every twentysomething at the time, in the mid-nineties on VHS—a good friend had brought it home and took delight in seeing me react to specific moments in the movie, whether it was the infamous watch speech or the “Garçon!” time-fixing moment. I filed away Pulp Fiction as a great movie and didn’t think about it. Now that I’m consciously re-watching big hits of the nineties, though, the question was: Did Pulp Fiction hold up, once past more than twenty years of imitators, Tarantino’s evolution and popularization of what (non-linear storytelling, witty dialogues, etc.) made it so special back then? What I clearly had forgotten about the movie was how long it was—at more than two hours and a half, the film is a daunting prospect, and the non-linear structure means that there’s almost an entire unexpected act added to a normal running time. Pulp Fiction, admittedly, doesn’t have the impact of surprise: Tarantino’s shtick is a known quantity by now, and seeing his characters go off on lengthy tangents isn’t surprising, nor seeing full sequences play in nearly real-time. The fractured chronology is still effective—I guarantee that even twenty years later, you will remember a lot of the film’s individual highlights … but not necessarily in which order they’re placed. I had near-verbatim recall of much of the John Travolta storyline, quite a bit of Bruce Willis’s segment (how could I forget the taxi driver, though?) but not much of Samuel L Jackson’s act. Fortunately, the dialogue still works, the dark comedy still feels solid, the cinematic flourishes (from “square” to the dance sequence to Harvey Keitel) still work very well and the movie still impresses by the mastery of its execution. It’s daring, sure, but it’s more importantly put together nearly flawlessly. Pulp Fiction has been endlessly imitated over the years, but it remains a solid best-of-class representation of its own subgenre. It’s well worth a revisit, especially if it’s been a while and yet you’re sure you remember most of it.
(On TV, March 2017) It’s a good thing that director John Landis knows how to have fun, because otherwise there really isn’t much to An American Werewolf in London in terms of plotting. Young man gets bitten; young man contemplates the horrors of turning into a werewolf; young man dies. There’s the plot right there, but don’t get angry at the spoilers because this is not a movie about plot. Thanks to jolting dream sequences, sympathetic characters, a good dose of off-beat humour and the kind of why-the-hell-not filmmaking that disappeared after the eighties, An American Werewolf in London is an experience more than a story. The pacing picks up considerably after the first half-hour, if only because the main character gets hallucinations and dream sequences that allow for Nazi werewolves and sustained conversations with a dead decomposing friend (Griffin Dunne, far more interesting than the rather dull protagonist). Jenny Agutter is cute as a British nurse with a thing for lost American tourists, but the true nature of her role is looking sad in the film’s last moments. Otherwise, An American Werewolf in London is about the kind of genre horror practised so joyously in the early eighties. The humour of the film is undercut by the downbeat (but inevitable) ending. The pre-CGI transformation effects remain mildly impressive even today, while the soundtrack has a not-so-sly succession of “Moon”-titled songs. The abrupt ending does feel unsatisfying, but so does the end of a roller-coaster—it’s not the point of the experience.
(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.
(In French, On Cable TV, March 2017) My allergy to muddy family dramas remain just as pronounced, as a viewing of The Squid and the Whale confirms. Writer/director Noah Baumbach takes a small budget, some quirky ideas, well-known actors and a heartbreaking subject as the basic elements of an eighties-set drama in which two boys react badly to their parents’ ongoing divorce. It’s more of a darkly amusing drama than a somber comedy: While the humour is there, much of the film is intensely depressing. At least there are great performances along the way. Jesse Eisenberg turns in a nuanced performance, while Jeff Daniels is fantastic as a deeply flawed, yet oddly captivating father. Laura Linney doesn’t get as good of a role as the mother (given that the film is largely written from the elder son’s unsympathetic perspective, she doesn’t get the best role in the ongoing mess) while Anna Paquin merely … shows up as a student with a deeply inappropriate relationship. Much of the film is mumbled through domestic scenes of heartbreak and aimless fury, set in intellectual-class New York intelligentsia. It’s not fun, but it ends up being more absorbing than you’d expect considering the flawed characters, super-16mm cinematography and life-goes-on ending. The Squid and the Whale was less painful than expected, which actually stands as outstanding praise in this case.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) As geek culture becomes mainstream culture, it’s inevitable that hitherto ultra-specialized areas of geek obsession would be explored and presented in documentaries accessible to general audiences. So it is that Fanarchy! delves into the trend of fans making movies to parody/replicate/extend their favourite media properties. Fan-fiction isn’t anything new, of course (by nature of its topic, Fanarchy! barely mentions how written fanfic, slash or otherwise, has a history now dating back nearly fifty years) but being able to show clips of the results can make for an entertaining film, breaking up the talking heads with examples of the form, with animated interludes as bridges between sections. Interviewees include Star Trek actress Denise Crosby (given her role in producing predecessor documentary Trekkies), has-been internet talkback pioneer Harry Knowles, pro critic Leonard Maltin, and fan filmmakers such as Maya Glick, Vic Mignogna and Chris Strompolos. Fanarchy! is interesting, but by remaining so enthusiastic about its subject, it can’t help but remain prisoner of its own fannish bubble and lack a critical perspective about it. While the film cogently explains how and why fans can’t help but play with their favourite characters and stories, bemoaning the lock-down of such stories by large companies, that viewpoint seems limited at best. I’m predictably old-school when I opine that the real creative revolution remains creating original characters and stories rather than using someone else’s labels. Ah well. People who are allergic to fandom (something that describes me about half the time) will also have a hard time with the Comicon-friendly fannish triumphalism that permeates the film. But Halifax-based writer/director Donna Davies clearly knows to whom she’s selling this film, and they’re probably not interested in questioning its premise. Once you’re willing to play along, Fanarchy! is interesting enough—perhaps repetitive in its second half, but handled with some energy from beginning to end. Even at a time when most of the movies mentioned are available on YouTube, there’s a non-negligible pleasure in hearing someone guide us through the vast landscape of fan-films and show us (without buffering!) some of the most interesting examples of the genre. Fanarchy!, interestingly enough, is a co-production between some of Canada’s biggest movie cable channels—while the film is widely available in Canada, it may be harder to track down anywhere else. (As a Canadian, one of the nice things about government contributions to the arts is seeing tax dollars and subsidies being directed to sympathetic purposes.) One warning, though: The closed captioning on the film is terrible, with homophones often substituting for the real words.