(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.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) I’m not going to claim that I understood much of Pink Floyd: The Wall. I’m not even going to claim that I watched it attentively. But I can reasonably say that, even twenty-five years later, there hasn’t been a film quite like it ever since. A blend of animation and surreal live footage going into the mind of a rocker undergoing a mental breakdown, The Wall flips between reality, flashbacks and nightmares to present a delirious vision. As a musical, it barely features any conventionally spoken dialogue—much of the film consists of songs brought to life. As someone who (cough-cough, can I admit this?) has never warmed up to either Pink Floyd or progressive rock, I certainly didn’t listen to the film for its music—and the visuals became almost unbearable at times. Still, there are a few strong moments in the film, and it pains me to say that the fascistic imagery late in the movie seemed a bit too real for comfort. There’s also the whole “Another Brick in the Wall” sequence that acts as a dark highlight on the education system. This being said, I’m not sure I got any joy, entertainment or pleasure out of The Wall … nor did I expect the film to provide any. I suppose that those who are likely to listen to Pink Floyd will get more out of the film than I did.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) For a film often derided as “Harrison Ford among the Amish”, Witness does have quite a bit running under the surface. Its somewhat predictable story does hide a well-executed thriller with a few surprising moments and a fairly harsh tone throughout. It rarely makes any compromises when it comes to presenting the danger of its thriller elements: there is blood, numerous violent deaths, real danger for most characters and pervasive paranoia once the outline of the corrupt cops becomes clear. Harrison Ford is rather good in the main role, a policeman who seeks refuge with the Amish once he’s badly hurt and surrounded by people who want to kill him. The romance that emerges between him and another Amish woman is handled decently (I did not expect this much nudity…) and resolved in a somewhat atypical manner. Better yet is the climax, which sees the non-violent ways of the Amish overcome a dangerous man with a gun: the film does make a point of espousing the virtues of its subjects, and the consequent respect of Amish values help make Witness more than a curiosity piece even today.
(On DVD, June 2017) It’s a bit of a shame that The Warriors, as a whole movie, never quite lives up to the striking impression left by its first few minutes, as director Walter Hill quickly sketches a nightmarish vision of near-future-New York City dominated by colourful gangs and pervasive decay. By the time the gangs congregate and realize they can take on the Law, we expect a different film than the one that is revealed a few minutes later, as a small gang is framed for a prominent assassination and must fight their way from the Bronx to Brooklyn if they want to survive the night. This initial burst of cool gives way to a far more ordinary narrative, the episodes accumulating in-between the titular heroic gang and their morning salvation. As with such stories, the unlikeliness of characters appearing and reappearing defy logic, but then again The Warriors if far more about the rule of cool than plot logic. We are, after all, asked to cheer for gang members with unsavoury pasts (and, as one of the dumbest characters show, an uncanny ability fall for the most obvious honey traps). On the other hand, there is some kind of panache in seeing gangs listening to a single DJ able to move forces across the island. The 2005 “Ultimate Director’s Cut” heighten the parallels between the Warriors and Xenophon’s classic Ten Thousand tale, and heighten the link between the film and comic books. Still, neither of those changes are more than mildly amusing extras—they don’t add much to the core film. What still works about the film, however, is its stylish presentation. The dialogue isn’t particularly good, the characters are mildly repellent at best but The Warriors manages to remain interesting because it’s a blend of seventies insecurities and timeless stylistic flourishes.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) I’m not sure when Richard Linklater landed on my list of interesting directors. Probably by the time I got tired of writing, “you know, I didn’t really expect to enjoy this but…” about nearly every one of his recent films. Here, Linklater goes back to college in describing the first few days of his protagonist’s arrival on campus. Unlike other college movies (and much in-line with Linklater’s playful habit of playing with time in his films), Everybody Wants Some!! takes place nearly entirely before the beginning of classes, in-between our protagonist’s arrival at the house where his baseball team stays, and the first course he attends. The three days in-between are a charmingly plotless mixture of girl-chasing, parties, baseball practice and spirited conversations. There is a plot of sorts, but much of the movie feels like the pilot episode of a much longer series, delicately setting up plot threads but ending on an upbeat anything-is-possible note. Against every single one of my expectations (and keep in mind that my college experience was barely PG rated), Everybody Wants Some!! is immediately and steadily engrossing. The characters are likable, the situations have just enough nostalgia to be compelling and the dialogues are razor-sharp. Blake Jenner is blandly likable as the viewpoint protagonist, while Zoey Deutch is too cute for words as the eventual romantic interest and Glen Powell steals the show as the wizened sarcastic Finnegan. A terrific soundtrack wraps up everything nicely. Atypical and successful as most of Linklater’s movies now seem to be, Everybody Wants Some!! feels like an unexpected hit, even for those who have nothing in common for the early-eighties nostalgia it invokes.
Anchor, 1997 (2015 reprint) 304 pages, C$21.97 pb, ISBN 978-0385686037
In reviewing a book, it’s hard to give bigger praise than to explain why a book led to concrete action in the reviewer’s life. It’s commonly accepted that books that have the biggest impact lead to real changes in behaviour, to perceptible improvements in the reader’s life. But Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Wood has me thinking along opposite lines: What if a book’s ultimate success could be measured in carefully considered and embraced inaction?
I’m not sure Bryson himself would approve. After all, he has made his reputation as a writer by doing things and then writing about them. Best-known (if unfairly reductively so) as a travel writer, Bryson has proven himself an uncommonly polyvalent writer, notably by delivering a compulsively readable scientific vulgarization tome A Short History of Nearly Everything that floored me when I read it a few years ago. A Walk in the Woods is closer to a classical travel book, albeit with a twist—it’s all about hiking a few thousand miles not too far away from Bryson’s home.
The Appalachian Trail, should it need to be reintroduced, it a 3,000-mile trail that goes from Georgia to Maine, crossing rivers, peaks, valleys, roads and other features of the Eastern United States. Maintained largely by volunteers (with some assistance from the U.S. Park Service), it is attempted by thousands of people every year, even though a much smaller percentage (10–25%, depending on whom you believe) manage to walk the entire trail during the hospitable season. Bryson was 44 when we decided he’d attempt to hike as much of the trail as possible. The book is a journal of his experiences.
Newcomers to Bryson’s style will be quickly hooked by the authors’ breezy style, equally laden with fact as it can be compulsively funny. Bryson masters the art of delivering exposition with a comedian’s touch, and so A Walk in the Woods can drop lengthy passages about the U.S. Park Service’s fondness for building roads, the environmental collapse of the American chestnut tree or Thoreau’s conflicted feelings about nature and make it feel like highly entertaining reading. It helps that, in-between the delicious exposition, we get personal anecdotes about Bryson walking the trails, nearly succumbing to hypothermia, and the perils of walking alongside a vaguely disreputable friend.
Then, of course, there’s the minutia of long-distance hiking. Completing the Appalachian Trail means not falling prey to injuries, bears, dehydration, lost bearings, occasional murders and other annoying hikers. Bryson spares few details in telling readers about setting up camp in the wilderness, spending days without washing, being terrified by night-time noises, the shock of reintegrating civilization and the bare comforts of the trail for months on end.
(Those who came to the book by way of the Robert Redford movie will be happy to find out that while much of the book’s first half is adapted reasonably well to the big screen, the second half of the book is almost completely different, and feels far more interesting than the pat third act manufactured by the screenwriters. Plus there’s a lot more of Bryson’s delightful exposition to read.)
I started reading A Walk in the Woods still clinging to the notion that hiking the Appalachian Trail, as unlikely as it would be to arrange (“Hi Boss; I’m going for a walk… I’ll be back in a few months”) would be a pretty cool thing to do. By the time I was finished reading the book, though, Bryson’s meticulous description of what it implies had put me off the project forever. Hiking still seems like a great idea; hiking for a few days still sounds pretty good to me. But the 3000 miles, six-month odyssey from Georgia to Maine? Nope, no way, I’m good.
Hence my assertion that some of the best books are those who carefully lead us to a measured lack of action. Thank you, Bill Bryson, for curing me from that unrealistic notion—I’ll sleep better knowing that I do not, in fact, want to do this. On the other hand, I will read more of Bryson’s books…
(On Cable TV, June 2017) Ugh. Everyone knows that the risk in remaking a classic film is producing a remake so bad that it disappears without a blip. With Ben-Hur, the remake is dull enough that it self-erases from mind moments after the movie wraps up. Other than two standout sequences (the galley sequence and the remake of the classic chariot race), much of Ben-Hur is undistinguishable from so many other recent sword-and-sandal movies … and considering that there haven’t been that many of them, it’s already telling. But director Timur Bekmambetov’s strength is in strong visuals and action sequences, so the film only really comes alive during those moments—the rest is straight-up historical drama, loosely coupled with biblical content. At least it features a few largely unknown cast, the best of which (Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer) have reasonable chances of landing roles in better movies. At least there are a few action sequences to make things worthwhile: While overly and obviously CGI-ed, the chariot race is frantic and event-filled (too much so at times—longer shots would have helped), while the galley sequence is one set of nightmares piled upon others. I would seriously recommend fast-forwarding the movie until you hit those sequences—the rest can barely be recalled after watching the film.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) Movies often get a bad reputation as a sub-literate art form, especially when compared to prose fiction. But that narrow-minded view of cinema usually ignores a small but strong subgenre that portrays writers as authentic characters on-screen. Even ignoring films based on Stephen King fiction, there’s enough material out there from Wonder Boys to Stuck in Love to Genius (and others) to hold a writers’ film festival, and one of the newest additions to the corpus is The End of the Tour, which details five days in which Rolling Stone journalist (and envious novelist) David Lipsky interviewed novelist David Foster Wallace at the end of his promotional book tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky is played by Jesse Eisenberg in a likable and very Eisenbergian performance, but it’s Jason Segel who earns most of the attention by playing Wallace: Segel is better known as a goofy comedian, but seeing him in a strongly dramatic performance as Wallace is enough to demolish his usual screen persona. Shot in a very naturalistic fashion (i.e.; grimy, unglamorous, etc.) by director James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour focuses on the lengthy, literate, eventually contentious conversation between Lipsky and Wallace as they meet, share Wallace’s house, fly to promotional events, spend a day goofing off, compete for two women’s attention and come back home with loathing for each other. It’s not a very dramatic film, but it does have drama, and most importantly it allows the conversation to unspool at an unhurried pace. The portrait of a profile-writer journalist is revelatory as well, giving us uncommon insight into something rarely explored elsewhere. This, in short, is a movie about two writers, two intellects that can’t help but measure themselves to the other. It’s surprisingly compelling, occasionally profound and decently far from the usual formula fed by Hollywood. And it does so while having some Broken Arrow footage thrown in—if it gets better than this, please tell me how. I have a hunch that The End of the Tour will soon earn a place on the film curriculum of novelists and journalists, alongside other celebrated depiction of writers on the big screen.
(On DVD, June 2017) Back in the nineties, if you wanted to win Oscars, there weren’t better strategies than going big in the way Legends of the Fall goes big. Take a western, throw in a war drama, then a prohibition subplot, then keep going so that the love complications span decades, involve numerous horrible deaths and settle into some kind of American-frontier bromides. (Plus, add as blatant a case of Chekhov’s gun as I can recall.) It seems cynical, but it does work: The film has uncommon scope and sweep even as it lines up a different subgenre every thirty minutes or so. It helps that it can depend on the reliable Anthony Hopkins as an opinionated patriarch (even though his later appearances in the film can cause unintentional hilarity) and cusp-of-stardom Brad Pitt in the bad-boy role … and Aiden Quinn as the son trying to be socially respectable. Opposite the men, Julia Ormond plays the object of three brothers’ affection, with Karine Lombard showing up briefly to provide a distraction. The stereotypes flock and accumulate in the film, but they sort-of-work, especially if you have a soft spot for American-frontier epics. Legends of the Fall may not be subtle, and it may not be innovative, but there’s something respectable in its blunt-force approach to a moderately respectable tear-jerker.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) I had reasonably high hopes pure fantasy film Tale of Tales—it’s Italian, based on lesser-known fairy tales rather than familiar stories, and it seems to have a decent-enough budget to do itself justice. Then there was the film’s rating, easily aimed at adult audiences. Before long, we start understanding why: As the film adds up cruel deaths, raw desires, nudity, unpleasant plot developments and a fair heaping of violence, it’s clear that Tale of Tales is not in the comfort business, nor does it particularly care if you’re feeling put-off by the results. But then there are other issues: The three tales don’t appreciably feed off each other, they end without much in terms of denouement and they’re often pointlessly cruel like only classic fairy tales could be. The topline cast is impressive (in-between John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones) but their roles are often repellent or cut short, which stands for the rest of the film in many ways. It really doesn’t help that the film clocks in at more than two hours, far too long for the stories being told. Tale of Tales, in other words, is not just dull and long—it’s mean-spirited, unpleasant and empty of meaning. This is not a good combination, no matter one’s initial expectations.
(In French, on TV, June 2017) Sometimes, we’ve grown so accustomed to the parody that we’ve forgotten what the original looked like. If your idea of 80s cop action drama dates from Last Action Hero, then go back to Tango & Cash for a look at what the pure ridiculous source material could look like. To be fair, it’s not as if Tango & Cash takes itself seriously—there’s already a bit of self-parody built in the film, and the results, as seen from nearly thirty years later, are often nothing short of ridiculous. There’s Sylvester Stallone, fooling no one by wearing glasses that don’t seem to serve any purpose. But then there’s Kurt Russell, chomping scenery as another loose-gun policeman. It takes place in Los Angeles, of course. It covers quite a bit of male bonding between two headstrong partners. It’s bonkers in the most asinine action-movie ways, such as sending two cops in jail, and them allowing them to break out. To be fair, the prison sequence is the film’s highlight—the subsequent investigation back in the world pales in comparison. Tango & Cash is a bit of a mess, which can be explained if you read about its troubled production history. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly entertaining one, except in bits and pieces. At least Stallone and Russell are both quite good in their characters, with a showy supporting role for Jack Palance and pre-stardom Teri Hatcher. Tango & Cash is a must-see for whoever is interested in the history of buddy-cop movies, but let’s not pretend that it’s anything essential for everyone else.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) If you’ve been longing for more machine guns and explosions in your western classics, then this Magnificent Seven remake is just for you! I kid, but not much: Rather entertainingly updating the 1960 classic for contemporary audiences, this remake crams a lot of gunplay, explosions and heavy gunfire in the result. Under the veteran eye of director Antoine Fuqua, this Magnificent Seven sports lush cinematography, vivid action sequences, a pleasantly diverse cast and a tighter script. To its credit, it doesn’t try to ape the original as much as play around with its basic structure and characters. Our lead character now had a personal connection to the antagonist that works rather well, Denzel Washington makes the role his own rather than try to ape Yul Brynner, and Chris Pratt doesn’t even try to be Steve MacQueen in a similar role. The images are more spectacular, the action is far more intense (at times, bodies drop like flies to a degree that feels excessive) and the script is cleaner. While The Magnificent Seven remake will never become a classic, it’s a decent enough reinterpretation and an entertaining shoot’em-up western in its own right.
(TubiTV streaming, June 2017) One of the unexpected pleasures of watching older movies is the occasional ping of recognition as the film matches childhood memories. In the case of Return of the Living Dead, I wouldn’t exactly call it a happy memory: I recall my parents discussing a movie (while we were in the family car, waiting for the ferry to take us to Grandma) in which a cloud fell on a city transforming them all into monsters (!!!). (I wouldn’t call my parents movie buffs, but our family got a VCR early on, and made frequent visits to the video store.) My not-yet-teenage brain couldn’t deal with horror movies back then, and I must have half-slept that night. More than thirty years later, well, I look upon Return of the Living Dead with something of a horror fan’s jaded perspective. I can’t help but know the backstory of the split between Night of the Living Dead’s creators and how Return of the Living Dead compares to Day of the Dead, which was 1985’s other big zombie movie. There are plenty of things to say about both of them—how Return of the Dead is far more light-hearted than Day of the Dead, and yet ends up with a total body count, whereas Romero’s much darker and gorier film allowed three characters to survive. If force to choose, I’ll pick Return of the Living Dead as my favourite of the two despite mildly traumatic childhood memories: In between the metafictional references, the sudden gratuitous nudity, the jokey tone, the compelling soundtrack, it just seems like a far more likable and memorable film. The acting may not be particularly good and the story logic is dubious at best, but the fun is there thanks to writer/director Dan O’Bannon, and it’s not necessarily an obstacle to horror: The basement zombie sequence is as terrifying as any scene in Romero’s movies, and it doesn’t depend on gore effects for impact. As a putatively grown-up adult, I’m also reminded by the movie, more than most others, about how I’ve gone from horror-averse kid to someone who occasionally gets paid to write about horror movies from an analytical perspective. But then again, thirty years is a long time.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) There’s no denying that watching a 1960 western nearly sixty years later is not as immersive an experience as it was back then—our standards for what we consider naturalistic cinema have changed a lot, and the genre conventions of westerns have evolved accordingly. Many of the actors of the time are now dead, and a few live on as legends. This being said, The Magnificent Seven remains an interesting movie today largely because it was a superlative experience back then. The lavish production values still impress today, and the unusual script (avowedly based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) remains intriguing today. But more than that, the movie stars such acting superstars as Yul Brynner (cool and terrific, even with his hat on), Steve MacQueen (playing up his rebellious persona) and assorted notables such as Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn in smaller roles. From a story perspective, the film isn’t particularly complex—there’s a long and relatively enjoyable first half in which the band of seven is gradually assembled, followed by a first and then a second showdown with the gang holding a village hostage. It’s not much, but it’s enough to get to the essence of the tough-guy western that this is meant to be. Brynner is nothing short of spectacular in the lead role, with MacQueen providing a good foil for him. Even today, The Magnificent Seven can be watched with some interest—although there are more than a few lulls here and there.
(On DVD, June 2017) In the pantheon of Disney animated features, The Rescuers stands somewhere below the average—not terrible, but not a classic. It comes from the middle of the Disney Dark Ages, and shares with its contemporaries a number of not-so-encouraging issues: The animation is rougher (with plenty of in-between marks, and cheats such as a still-picture credit sequence in order to minimize nonessential animation) and the story is significantly darker than most other Disney movies. It’s dark enough, in fact, to be bothersome, what with an abandoned, perhaps abused kid in need of being rescued by our titular mice. There’s also a badly sexualized antagonist, and too many cute animal sidekicks in a story build around animal characters. Fortunately, there’s enough here and there to carry the movie: Despite some overlong self-indulgent moments, the lead characters of Bernard and Bianca are quite good, and the idea of an international rescue operation run by mice is cute enough to be cool. If you let go of the darkness and tension (perhaps by watching it a second time), some of the set-pieces work well enough, with enough danger and adventure to distinguish themselves. In the grand scheme of Disney movies, The Rescuers takes from The Aristocats’ style and gives to The Princess and the Frog’s bayou setting. It’s a bit less than solidly average, but it’s not bad … although it may be best for older kids.