(Third viewing, On TV, August 2017) Hmmm … how is it that no review of The Usual Suspects shows up on this web site? I recall seeing the film in the late nineties (at my grandma’s place, on regular TV, probably in French) and loving it. I also recall seeing it much later and still liking it a lot. And yet there are no reviews in my files. Bah, this gives me another chance to formally extol the film’s virtues. The Usual Suspects gets a lot of attention for a surprising ending, but it’s a movie that works just as well when you can anticipate the big twist. In between Christopher McQuarrie’s script and Bryan Singer’s direction, it’s made well enough that it has an unusually effective moment-to-moment immersive quality: you just want to see what will happen next, or bask in great dialogue, capable direction and terrific actors. Nearly everyone in the cast brings their best to their roles, from Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-winning role to Gabriel Byrne’s solid presence, Benicio del Toro’s oddball diction and great turns for Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin and Chazz Palminteri. The set pieces are well done, and for a movie that hinges on deception, there is far more truth to it than I remembered from previous viewings. A minor classic in the crime thriller vein, The Usual Suspects combines engrossing viewing with a deceptively dense story. It qualifies as one of the must-see movies of its genre.
(On TV, August 2017) In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to watch Sixteen Candles the day after Pretty in Pink—while the two films are different, there are enough points in common between those two Molly Ringwald-starring, John Hugues-scripted teenage romantic comedies to blur the edges between the two. Sixteen Candles, to its credit, does have a better premise—what if, in the hustle and bustle of a big wedding, the sixteenth birthday of the younger sister was completely forgotten? Much of the rest of the picture is conventional high school romantic comedy stuff, but the concept is clever and allows the action to be packed within a short period of time without feeling unnatural. To its distinction (shared with other Hughes scripts), Sixteen Candles is suggestive without being raunchy, and treats its teenage characters like full persons rather than archetypes. It’s far more respectable than other teen movies, although it doesn’t escape frowns for some terrible Asian stereotyping and a sequence with a drunk girl that would have nearly everyone justifiably pulling their hair in outrage today. Ringwald, once again, makes for a uniquely appealing teenage heroine, while Anthony Michael Hall is curiously likable in a potentially grating role. Pay attention, and you will see Joan and John Cusack show up in small roles. Sixteen Candles wraps up in a very likable fashion and while it’s not a particularly profound film, it skillfully made with enough charm to satisfy. But then again I’m not exactly the target audience for the film any more.
(On TV, August 2017) As far as girl-meets-boy high school movies go, it’s hard to find a more representative example of the form as Pretty in Pink. The script, by a classic-era John Hughes, is witty and clever while aimed squarely at the teenage set. The eighties atmosphere is strong without being overpowering, while Howard Deutch’s unobtrusive direction gets all the pieces moving in the same direction. Molly Ringwald definitely has a unique appeal in this film while Annie Potts also claims a few highlights, and this quirkiness has contributed to the film’s continued appeal even today—it’s from a familiar recipe, but not so bland as to be undistinguishable from so many other similar films. I can see the appeal of the film for a certain audience, even though I have to admit that I’m not part of that audience.
(In French, On TV, August 2017) Cinema often congratulates itself, and Nuovo Cinema Paradiso is an endearing example of the form, as a grown man attending a funeral is reminded of his early experiences at the local cinema and its memorable owner. There isn’t much to the film, but it’s well made and affectionate in this idyllic small-town portrait that is often so popular in nostalgia-fuelled fiction. Much of the expected elements are there—the surrogate father-figure to compensate for a single-mom family; the hated unreasonable clerical authority figure cutting out all the kissing scenes from movies shown at the theatre; the girl; and a hero with big dreams. It helps a lot that Philippe Noiret is very good as the cinema owner who gets to parent our hero. Otherwise, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso is handled with grace and style, just enough to wrap the film in fuzzy feel-good feelings. Not revolutionary, but handled well enough to be pleasant viewing … especially for confirmed cinephiles.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) As frustrating as it can be to write this, Live by Night should be a much better movie than it is. From afar, it looks like a solid crime epic, spanning years and going from Boston to Florida as a gangster juggles love, crime, social prejudices and warring crime lords. The historical recreation of 1920s Boston and Sarasota is often mesmerizing, Ben Affleck has proven himself to be a capable director and the film can rely on good supporting performers like Elle Fanning, Zoë Saldaña and Chris Cooper. In bits and moments, Live by Night works well: There are a few very good sequences as the bullet start to fly and antique cars go crashing down dirt roads. Seeing criminals sock it to KKK Klansmen is also a sure crowd pleaser. But as a whole, it doesn’t click. It feels long and occasionally meandering, as it tries to bring together a crime story with various other items than don’t necessarily flow well together. Has Affleck gone back once too often to crime drama? Or was the source novel by Dennis Lehane too sprawling to adapt to the screen? I’m not sure, but the frustrating result does no one any favours—especially not Affleck, who gets a dud after three back-to-back successes. Here’s hoping that his next project will be better.
(On Cable TV, July-August 2017) As Game of Thrones moves farther and farther away from the outline left by George R.R. Martin and closer to a conclusion mandated by contract renewals, its nature changes. This season has to make do with three fewer episodes than previous years, speeding up the rhythm to deliver spectacle in nearly every instalment. The plotting gets more conventional, the characters are all brought together (climaxing in a final-episode summit in which a good chunk of the main players are finally all face-to-face for the first time), and there’s a sense that the series is putting together all its pieces in place for the finale. It works on a breathless scene-to-scene basis, but don’t ask too many questions once the end of the episode arrives—much of the drama is predicated upon TV requirements rather than conventional logic. (For a show in which nearly everything was shown, Season 7 palms numerous scenes in order to set up dramatic reversals—most notably in the Sansa/Arya/Littlefinger arc.) Still, there’s a lot to like in the result, whether it’s dragons finally showing up for extensive action sequences, numerous call-backs to the accumulated history of the show’s characters, very funny fan-service, and some examples of ruthless justice long delayed. Who cares if this isn’t George R.R. Martin’s story any more … fans better brace themselves, because a conclusion is coming.
(On DVD, August 2017) Special-effects-based fantasy blockbuster movies aren’t anything new. They’re far more common nowadays due to various economic factors, but Ray Harryhausen’s career is a long list of striking pre-CGI fantasy blockbusters. Clash of the Titans is the last movie he worked on, and it remains a worthwhile film even today. It’s certainly not perfect, especially from a contemporary perspective: the tone has a mock grandiloquent style that is now more funny than impressive. The special effects, as numerous and sophisticated as they were at the time, are clearly limited in their effectiveness. The pacing occasionally flags, the actors often seem ill-suited for their roles and the limitations of special effects introduce some very weird constraints when it comes to editing and continuity. We have, in short, seen much better in the thirty-five years since then. But what Clash of the Titans still have is, for lack of a better word, charm. Its arch leaden dialogue, creaky special effects and earnest performances by some old-guard legends don’t work in the conventional sense but create a fuzzy aura around the film that makes it hard to criticize seriously. Partially aimed at kids (as shown by the too-cute mechanical owl), Clash of the Titans did leave a mark—I don’t recall seeing it as an entire movie, but I recall seeing bits and pieces of it in class as part of Greek Mythology lessons back in the late eighties. It may be worth watching it on purely conventional grounds now that better examples of the form exist (starting with the decent remake), we’re free to appreciate the original as its own thing. Release the kraken!
(On TV, August 2017) I really thought I’d enjoy Life of Brian more than I did. After all, I claim to have a fondness for British humour, iconoclasm, witty dialogue and absurd comedy—and Life of Brian has all of those in vast quantities. A creation of the Monty Python brain trust, it’s an affectionate poke at the story of Christianity, executed with surprisingly decent means as the film credibly recreates the usual atmosphere of biblical epics. Over and over again, the film uses this visual credibility as a mean through which to heighten the absurdity of its situations and dialogue—most notably in portraying a simple man getting tangled up in revolutionary politics and being mistaken for a profound messiah. But what, on paper, sounds remarkably funny only ends up being mildly amusing on-screen. Some of the less funny stuff (such as Ponce Pilatus’s speech impediment) is hammered until it becomes numbing, and the film does have a tendency to highlight its proudest moments rather than attempt to flow better. One of the consequences of coupling a serious presentation with absurd jokes is that there can be quite a lull between the jokes. As a result, I was more entertained than amused during the film, even though I kept recognizing how clever it was. I’m not saying that it’s a bad film—it’s quite successful at what it tries to do, and better conceived than most comedies. Transforming a tragic ending into an uplifting song number (that is still hummed today!) takes a mad genius … but it doesn’t mean that it will be successful from beginning to end. This being said, so many geeky references are made to Life of Brian than it remains practically mandatory viewing, no matter the effectiveness of the result.
(Fourth viewing, On DVD, August 2017) I don’t quite understand why there isn’t already a review of Tremors on this site given that I’ve seen it so often and enjoyed it every time. But my search engine tells me there’s a big Tremors-shaped hole in my reviews database, so that gives me a perfect excuse to rave about one of my favourite B-grade movies. Tremors is not perfect, but it comes really close in its chosen monster-movie subgenre. After an introduction in which we’re promised thrills, then introduced to a few sympathetic characters, Tremors ends its first act by cleanly explaining the nature of its monsters and why they’re so dangerous. Thus having set up the rules, it then spends the next hour inventively showing its characters outwitting the creatures, while the creatures themselves show signs of intelligence. It’s vastly wittier than most other monster movies, with strong characters and a convincing sense of place. A good sense of humour balances out the horror, turning the film into an unusually accessible thriller by dint of a light-hearted tone. Kevin Bacon is terrific in the lead role, but capable supporting characters include Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McIntyre and practical special effects that still hold up more than twenty years later. Writer/director Ron Underwood achieved something special here. Never mind the much-inferior sequels—the original Tremors is a near-classic, well worth watching or revisiting.
(On DVD, August 2017) I’m always intrigued by movies that progressively gain attention by sheer word of mouth, and Triangle is one of those low-budget films that have steadily gained in popularity since its release. It regularly gets mentioned in mind-twisting movie recommendation discussions, can boast of a surprisingly healthy number of IMDB votes and sports at least half a dozen web pages explaining its ending. But does the hype exceed the material? As it turns out… Triangle is actually worth a look. As a group of acquaintances go yachting, they encounter mysterious phenomena and then an abandoned cruise liner. Once aboard, things get stranger and bloodier as a woman is attacked by a mysterious figure … and then turns the tables on her assailant. There’s a lean and mean rhythm to the film that works in its favour, and not just as genre entertainment—it’s a film that moves ahead quickly, which is often essential in the kind of closed-loop subgenre it has chosen. Perhaps the best thing about the film are the shock images (Those pendants! Those victims!) that suddenly suggest a vertiginously more complex film, ready to launch a thousand theories about what is happening. (Here’s my contribution: Three angles.) It gets into quite the mind-twister, and even though no theory explains everything, the film is sympathetic enough that it doesn’t really matter if there isn’t a perfect explanation. (And I write this as someone who prefers perfect explanations.) Melissa George is very good as the lead character as she becomes more and more damaged by the events of the film. Pre-stardom Liam Hemsworth briefly shows up in a minor role, but the star of the film is writer/director Christopher Smith’s taut screenplay and effective directing. I’m not sure if Triangle qualifies as a hidden gem when it’s still gaining word-of-mouth recommendations, but it certainly qualifies as a memorable film and one that deserves a look, especially for those jaded cinephiles searching for something unusual.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I thought that the fourth entry in the Underworld series was a promising step up—modern, relatively well-directed, with interesting action sequences and an interesting push in the future of the series. Unfortunately, fifth instalment Blood Wars is a return to worse form for an overwhelmingly dull series. While director Anna Foerster manages a few interesting images along the way, the script she’s using seems intent on stomping further on material than had become flat by the second movie. Vampires versus werewolves again?! Regrettably leaving behind recognizable urban landscapes in favour of increasingly fantasy-based locations, Blood Wars is either dull or silly depending on how much you care about the material. Shot in the same boring black-and-blue scheme, it has little to offer to set itself apart from its predecessor—although some of the Nordic snow-and-ice stuff is occasionally promising. Kate Beckinsale herself is noticeably older than in the archival footage shown from the previous films, but she can still rock a skin-tight bodysuit as well as anyone can. Elsewhere in the cast, only Lara Pulver makes an impression as a competing vampire—the rest of the characters are as interchangeable as they can be. Blood Wars doesn’t amount to much more than instantly disposable entertainment, but it has the distinction of being slightly above average for the series, somewhere around the first film but far better than the snooze-inducing second and third volumes. There will be another sequel, we’re told. I’ll watch it out of misplaced completionism, but won’t expect much.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) It seems odd that, for all that editing is essential to movies, I still hadn’t watched anything on the subject. But here’s Edge Codes to satisfy this sudden thirst. A Canadian documentary largely produced and shown to satisfy Canadian Content requirements for national cable channels, Edge Codes nonetheless remains a fast-paced, lively and informative overview of the history and practice of movie editing, featuring a number of critics, filmmakers (George Lucas) and editors (Thelma Schoonmaker!) intercut in-between illustrations of the practice. Much of writer/director Alex Shuper’s documentary is presented as a history of editing, opposing early on the American goal of seamless editing contrasted to the conscious emotion-begging editing style of Soviet cinema. Years later, the French New Wave brings its own innovations, followed later on by the impact of music videos on the editing grammar. Technological progress is also examined, as manual cutting is replaced by digital tools. The last quarter of the film gets more abstract as broader considerations of editing practices are examined. Many examples illustrate the film’s theses, including some of the most famous editing moments of film history from Eisenstein’s carriage-on-the-steps to Soderbergh’s The Limey. The documentary being already thirteen years old, it’s no surprise to realize that much of the examples given date from the late nineties … but who’s complaining when Run Lola Run, Memento and Out of Sight remain such striking movies even today? Wrapped within a speedy 75 minutes, Edge Codes is a great documentary that probably slipped underneath every cinephile’s radar. While I wasn’t too happy to see that the version shown on MEncore was a 16:9 blow-up of the 4:3 original (cutting information at the top and bottom, and muddying the picture quality to near-standard resolution), the film itself is compelling enough to overcome those issues.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I’m not always a good audience for period drama, but Dangerous Liaisons is something else. At times, and at first, it feels like top-class smut, as two obscenely wealthy members of the French aristocracy scheme the seduction of innocent women for nothing more than carnal stakes. There is quite a bit more nudity than expected (especially from Uma Thurman) and the dialogue is first-class. Behind the fine manners, elaborate costumes and lavish historical recreation lies a pitch-black comedy of cynical matters. John Malkovich are Glenn Close are superbly reptilian in their power games—Malkovich in particular is perverse in the best sense of the word. Familiar faces abound, including baby-faced Keanu Reeves and Peter Capaldi in minor roles. But what begins as comic debauchery soon turns to more serious matters, and by the time Dangerous Liaisons ends with death and dishonour, the ending has been amply set up by the journey. Knowing the origins of the story as an epistolary novel turned into a theatre play and then a film, the big-screen adaptation proved adept in incorporating the best elements of its complex DNA—letters end up being essential plot devices, the razor-sharp dialogue is as good as it gets, and the film manages to achieve a few authentic purely cinematic moments, either during the opening “dressing up for war” montage, or the ending sequence collapsing cause and effect of three separate scenes. Unusually for a historical drama, Dangerous Liaisons is fun to watch—either aghast at the character’s actions, or nodding along as those awful people get their comeuppance at the end.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I’ve been curious about Lottery Ticket all the way since seeing its trailer back in 2010, but it took until now to finally have a look at it. Having done so, I’m not going to pretend it’s anything more than a hood comedy featuring high financial stakes, as a young man with a variety of issues wins a gigantic jackpot and has to hold on to his ticket for the next three days. Most of the time, Lottery Ticket plays according to the standards of so-called black comedies: depiction of ghetto life, stereotypical humour, threats of thuggery and so on. That it takes place near Atlanta rather than in Los Angeles isn’t particularly important. As such, what you get with Lottery Ticket is roughly what you can expect from it. It could certainly use more tweaking, though: there’s often a tonal mismatch between the silly comedy of the protagonist’s entourage with the more violent scenes that come later on, or the middle section that deals in lavish excess. The jokes are merely fine, the film does indulge in its own depiction of the male gaze given its treatment of female characters, and there is little doubt as to what role each character has to play in the plot. At least there are known faces in the mix. While rapper Shad “Bow-Wow” Moss is featureless as the protagonist, Ice Cube has a small but important role as an ex-boxer, Terry Crews has a typically very funny small role as a reluctant bodyguard, and Leslie Jones shows up for a line or two. Lottery Ticket isn’t a particularly memorable or significant film, even as the black comedies subgenre goes, but it’s likable enough to be watched without too much effort.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2017) I’ve grown soft on some of the movies I loved to dislike back in the nineties (see: Independence Day), but as it turns out, Waterworld is just as dumb now than it was back then. From the first moments, the idiocies accumulate quickly, and it’s hard to remain immersed in a Science Fiction movie when you keep muttering “no, no, that’s just stupid” every thirty seconds or so. Soaked dystopia Waterworld desperately tries to make audiences believe in a world entirely covered with water, in factions repeatedly meeting on a featureless ocean, in scarce resources being expended wildly, in … oh, forget it. But there’s more to the annoyance than nitpicking the film to death: it really doesn’t help that Waterworld’s action sequences are so repetitive, either taking place on water or in rusted-out low-imagination post-apocalyptic environments. The film is dull and blurs in trying to recall specific moments. Costner himself is almost a caricature of his own stoic persona, and there’s added irony in contemplating that the film largely takes place on a sea over the American west … that’s right: Westworld is another Costner western. If the film does show most of its then-record breaking budget on the screen, it’s not particularly exciting nor engaging. Sure, Jeanne Tripplehorn is always interesting and sure, it’s OK to see Dennis Hopper ham it up as a villain made to scare kids but … really? Now that I’ve watched Waterworld again, I’m ready to go another twenty years (or more) not thinking about it.