The Searchers (1956)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Searchers</strong> (1956)

(In French, On Cable TV, November 2017) As I dig farther away in the vault of classic movies I have never seen, there’s an entire section dedicated to westerns … a genre that has never interested me all that much. With The Searchers, another issue is that the film revolves around John Wayne, not an actor that I’ve liked a lot so far and who literally comes across as a creepy uncle in the opening moments of the film. Add to that a first act that makes Native Americans look awful and I was definitely struggling to make it through the film’s opening half-hour. What helped power through this bad start is some spectacular scenery, and seeing the comfort of a straight-ahead western gradually give way to a far more morally ambiguous plot. What, in a lesser movie, would have been a few days’ worth of adventures becomes a kick in the gut as the story stretches upon years, becoming a quixotic quest featuring a damaged hero. (I do like the theory that the girl is his daughter.) It leads to a dramatic riverbed confrontation that becomes the highlight of the film, and to an off-putting climactic sequence that doesn’t entirely condone what’s happening. The ending would have been coded as happy at the beginning of the quest, but comes across as bittersweet-at-best by the end of the film. Better yet, Wayne does play a rather bad guy here. I’m not sure that director John Ford had, in 1956, the tools or social latitude to make the film he wanted to make about revisiting common attitudes toward western tropes. The Searchers does make the best out of what it could say, however, and the result eventually won me over.

Lolita (1962)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Lolita</strong> (1962)

(On Cable TV, November 2017) I ended up reluctantly watching Lolita (Kubrick completionism…) over a few days, those days being in the middle of a national debate in the United States about the suitability of an Alabama senatorial candidate with a long history of pursuing teenagers. This did nothing to help me see Lolita more favourably, given its premise in which a middle-aged college professor ends up pursuing a teenager. Even the film’s explicit black comedy didn’t help matters, nor the almost arbitrary plotting choices made during the film’s second half. While there’s something semi-amazing in how a film from 1962 was able to tackle such a charged subject matter, the result, seen from today, seems to skirt around the issue to the point of having little purpose. The cinematography, fortunately, is crisp, and Kubrick’s directing skills shows through. James Mason manages to be incredibly creepy in the lead role, while I’m not sure what Peter Sellers was trying to do in some scenes. The karmic retribution of the story feels unsatisfying, although there is something highly appropriate in ultimately seeing a flighty teenager casually dismiss the lovelorn older man. Still, I don’t feel any better from having seen Lolita—subject matter notwithstanding, the plot doesn’t flow naturally and even pointing back in the direction of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel as justification for the narrative hiccups isn’t much of an excuse when Kubrick reportedly changed so much in his adaptation. At least I can check Lolita from the list of movies I still had to see, and never look back.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Streetcar Named Desire</strong> (1951)

(On Cable TV, November 2017) The reputation of A Streetcar Named Desire as a theatrical play is well known: Tennessee Williams’ dramatically complex piece features deep yet archetypical characters, plenty of delusions and confrontations, a shattering climax and enough opportunities along the way for actors to show their talents. Much of that is intact in the film, with the added appeal of a well-executed period depiction taking us in late-1940s New Orleans slums. The depth and unsaid elements of the script distinguish A Streetcar Named Desire from shallower entertainment, and despite significant self-censorship, the film does hold up quite well today in terms of characterization. But the most remarkable thing about the film (and the one reason why I consciously restarted watching the film after a distracted first attempt) remains the incredible clash of acting styles between Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. In a reflection of their respective characters, they each inhabit a distinct reality which comes across through acting styles. Leigh, as Blanche Dubois, is from the older theatrical tradition, emoting to the audience in a self-conscious fashion, lying to herself as much as to others. Brando, meanwhile, shatters the film’s overall atmosphere the moment he shows up, speaking plainly and harshly. He is a realist forced to live alongside a dreamer and the way they react to each other is preordained. While part of this clash comes from the evolution of cinema acting, another part of it is very conscious and helps reinforce the script as it shows the inevitable confrontation between both characters. That neither of them earns our sympathy is one of the reasons why we’re still watching sixty-five years later.

Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hot Shots! Part Deux</strong> (1993)

(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I remember seeing Hot Shots! Part Deux in theatres, first week of release, with a bunch of friends and then driving back home while upholding the time-honoured tradition of quoting the best parts of the film to each other. Nearly twenty-five years later, the film holds up pretty well, although it’s somewhat funnier if you have recently viewed its primary sources of inspiration such as Rambo III and Basic Instinct. (“I loved you in Wall Street!”) Unlike latter, less successful spoof movies, however, Hot Shots 2 works on its own as a comedy even if you ignore the parody: there’s wittiness to the script, physical comedy, much absurdity and wry references. The influence of early-nineties pop culture is strong and getting more esoteric by the year (“War … it’s fan-tastic” requires explanations today), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Charlie Sheen is very good in the title role, while Lloyd Bridges’ unhinged performance as a gaffe-prone president is endearing in the ways the current gaffe-prone president isn’t. It was a great decision for the film to abandon the flying satire of the first film and take on a slightly different military parody. Unusually enough for sequels that usually move on to a new love interest, the beautiful and hilarious Valeria Golino is back and the film does deals with her return in surprising narrative ways. Even today, the film remains very funny, and the presence of a few known actors in smaller roles (Miguel Ferrer, Rowan Atkinson, Richard Crenna) is a great bonus. At a tight 86 minutes, Hot Shots! Part Deux doesn’t overstay its welcome, and is probably best watched soon after its predecessor for even more spoofy fun.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Where Eagles Dare</strong> (1968)

(On Cable TV, November 2017) As far as war thrillers go, there’s something almost awe-inspiring in seeing Where Eagles Dare take on so many familiar thriller tropes and dance with them. Considering that the screenwriter is none other than once-best-selling novelist Alistair MacLean, the strength of the script may not be a surprise. Still, there’s a pleasant mixture of familiar elements handled well as the characters punch Nazis, confront a hidden traitor, set out to expose a double agent (through a remarkably good scene), fight their way in and out of a mountain fortress … and so on. The production techniques are dated, but the film keeps a certain interest largely based on its straight-ahead plotting. Seeing Clint Eastwood in a solid role also helps, although Richard Burton does have an unusual screen presence here. Where Eagles Dare is big-budget blockbuster filmmaking from another era, and while it certainly has its problems now, it’s an avowed crowd pleaser, and as a straight-ahead adventure movie, a bit of a change from the kind of self-important WW2 drama that now seems the norm.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fast Times at Ridgemont High</strong> (1982)

(On DVD, November 2017) Fifteen minutes in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I experienced a sudden and unexplainable feeling of nostalgia for malls as they existed in the nineties (with bookstores, record stores, movie theatres and other niceties that are being paved over by the march of digital progress) which is really weird considering that as a teenager in a small town, I spent nearly no time at all in malls until my twenties, and even then not that much. Such is the effectiveness of the film, given that it presents high schoolers as they navigate between school, home and the mall (usually as a workplace). It’s directed by Amy Heckerling, from Cameron Crowe’s first script (based on his own book as an undercover high-schooler) and it’s still a cutting, unflinching look at the teenage experience, even when bathed in movie magic. While billed as a comedy, it gets unexpectedly serious at times (such as with an abortion subplot that exemplifies a major betrayal between so-called friends) yet does not really dive deep into misery despite the protagonists’ reversals of fortune. The cast of the movie is amazing—not only does it feature solid performances by Sean Penn (as a stoner surfer hilarious far away from his current persona), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, and Phoebe Cates, it also features near-cameos by then-newcomers Nicolas Cage and Forrest Whittaker. Good characters, organic plot developments, an interesting soundtrack, and a cheerful refusal to bow to conventions help make Fast Times at Ridgemont High still interesting today even after thirty-five more years of teenage high school comedies. No wonder it’s become a cultural touchstone—and now I know firsthand what everyone is talking about, including the infamous poolside scene.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Lawrence of Arabia</strong> (1962)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I first watched Lawrence of Arabia in university, taking advantage of the selection of classic movies at the library. I recall being impressed at the scope of the movie, its cinematography and the train attack sequence. A re-watch twenty-five years later is amazing for different reasons: while the epic scope and cinematography remain astonishing (although, seriously, did this film need to be more than three hours?), I’m more interested by the complexities of the lead character as played by Peter O’Toole. T.E. Lawrence’s dramatic arc plays out in multiple dimensions, first transforming him from an underestimated drone to a full-fledged desert warrior, then a reluctant leader and then a disillusioned stranger. There are also the personal characteristics of the man: his implied homosexuality, his barely constrained thirst for war, and his masochism (“the trick … is not minding that it hurts”), all of them refreshingly portrayed by O’Toole in a performance that downplays major markers of conventional masculinity. It’s a war film with thrilling sequences, but it’s not particularly kind to the British for their treatment of their Arab allies after World War I. It’s a big, big story handled with skill by director David Lean and the technical qualities of the film are still astonishing fifty-five years later—aside from the typical Technicolor tint, the latest (2012) remaster of Lawrence of Arabia looks just as good on HD today than many contemporary features. Length aside, I still like it a lot … albeit for different reasons than twenty-five years ago.

Cry-Baby (1990)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cry-Baby</strong> (1990)

(In French, On Cable TV, November 2017) Iconoclast writer/director John Waters takes on the 1950s teenage musical comedy with Cry-Baby, and the result is just as proudly weird as anything else from his filmography. The satirical intent is obvious, but so is the affectionate attempt at recreating a lineage that goes from Rebel Without a Cause to Grease, perhaps beginning with Romeo and Juliette. High on camp, Cry-Baby endures today partially because it’s a send-up that doesn’t betray its inspirations, and because it features Johnny Depp in intentional teenage-idol mode. It’s not always interesting: the opening half does push far too much in the freak-and-geeks-are-the-true-cool-people direction, and there’s strong feeling of déjà vu throughout it all. The affection for the grotesque can be off-putting even to the most iconoclast audiences—Kim McGuire’s bravura performance as “Hatchet-face” is the kind of thing liable to make everyone uncomfortable even as the discomfort is the joke. (On a related note: Do read up on Kim McGuire for an amazing life.) Still, the film does pick up a bit of steam toward the end, with a spirited “Please, Mr. Jailer” number leading to a good court scene and a classic teen-movie climax. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s not a bad time at all. Cry-Baby’s French dubbed version combines the best of both worlds by thankfully not translating the songs, and adding a delightful layer of French slang over fictional Fifties teen-speak—I recommend the result to everyone who understands even a bit of French.

Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Johnny Mnemonic</strong> (1995)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I first saw Johnny Mnemonic in theatres, on opening week, fully aware of what it meant for the cyberpunk subgenre to have none other than William Gibson scripting a big Hollywood movie. The mid-nineties were a heck of a time for a nerd like me diving deep in the Science Fiction pool, studying computer science and finally meeting like-minded persons. Johnny Mnemonic was a bit silly back then, but it felt like the future. Twenty-two years later … it has aged considerably, to the point that its silliness has been transformed in a patina of endearing retro-futurism. The unquestioned assumptions of cyberpunk are now vastly more entertaining as a fever dream of a future that will never be, than the harbinger of something to come. The movie’s special effects are exceptionally dated, the sets look cheap, the all-dark cinematography is annoying, the story is dull but the pile-up of clichés is now more spectacular than annoying. Then there’s Keanu Reeves, far too wooden to be effective—while I still like his “I want room service!” speech that more reluctant heroes should have, there’s something cruelly accurate in the 1996 jape that the film was unbelievable because it asked viewers to think that Reeves’s brain could hold too much information. Still, despite its faults, the film has now become almost an artistic statement in itself. Mid-nineties hair-down Dina Meyer is terrific (despite playing a watered-down version of Molly Millions), Toronto’s Union Station lobby and Montreal’s Jacques Cartier bridge both show up as settings, and there are short roles for no less than luminaries Henry Rollins and Ice-T. I’d be curious to know what Gibson thinks of it as a retro-futurist piece, especially given that one of his first stories (“The Gernsback Continuum”) tackled that very topic at a different time. But then again, there’s my personal connection to the film and how it touched upon what I was thinking about in the nineties, how I was anticipating the future and who I hung with (down to one of the minor characters looking a lot like a friend of mine.) No matter why, I enjoyed watching Johnny Mnemonic again … even though I still wouldn’t call it a good film.

Before Sunrise (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Before Sunrise</strong> (1995)

(On DVD, November 2017) I came to Before Sunrise unusually, having first watched the middle (Before Sunset), then the end (Before Midnight) only to finish at the beginning of the Jesse and Celeste trilogy-so-far. This time, however, I knew what to expect: A time-compressed romance featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy at their most charming selves, having an extended conversation spanning relationships, philosophy and clever ideas. It worked well in the two latter movies and it works just as well here. This being said, I’m not sure I like Before Sunrise better than the others—it lacks the almost-real-time pacing of Before Sunset (with its masterful long shots) or the verbal pyrotechnics of Before Midnight’s most harrowing sequence. It also feels as if there are far more intrusions by third-party characters than in the other movies that focus intensely on the lead couple. But, as a first entry in the trilogy, it’s still special. Knowing how the story has unfolded afterwards, there is a profoundly ironic quality to Before Sunrise’s first scenes and dialogues, in which an old married couple argues in front of our protagonists and one of their first conversations is about jumping ahead “ten, twenty years” and being stuck in a marriage that “doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have.”  But Jesse and Celeste do have the same energy here than in later movies, and it’s a delight to just sit back and hear them exchange ideas and experiences just for the sake of it. Vienna is a good backdrop for that kind of not-so-aimless wandering (one of the final sequences of the movie shows us Vienna without Jesse and Celeste, to surprisingly poignant effect) and the entire film is quietly triumphant. I passed on Before Sunrise for more than twenty years, but it’s far better than it sounds on paper. But then again, I’m far more interested in writer/director Richard Linklater’s movies than I was before as well.

Black Mirror, Season 3 (2016)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Black Mirror</strong>, Season 3 (2016)

(Netflix Streaming, November 2017) If this third season of Black Mirror has a subtitle, it would be something along the lines of “bigger budget, growing up, branching out.”  After two seasons of almost unrelenting bleakness, Black Mirror uses this third season not just to keep doing what it’s done so far (i.e.: bleak near-future scenarios with horrifying twists) with better production values, but also branches out in dark comedy (“Nosedive,” scathing in its extrapolation of social media culture) and even a honest-to-goodness uplifting romance (“San Junipero”). Once again, the premises may be familiar to seasoned SF fans, but their execution is usually competent, and the final twists usually go far beyond expectations. Once again, the anthology format works well—there are a few Easter eggs that reference other episodes, but nothing to link them in cumbersome ways. The bigger budgets of this third season mean bigger talent names (including Joe Wright and Dan Trachtenberg as directors, plus actors such as Dallas Bryce Howard, Michael Kelly and Gugu Mbatha-Raw), longer running times (“Hated in the Nation,” at 89 minutes, is easily feature-film length) and more ambitious production values. Not all of the episodes work (“Playtest” and “Men Against Fire” are fairly standard, although their closing moments are very effective), but the series does reach a few high notes with “Nosedive” and the exceptional “San Junipero.”  Once again, the strength of the series is in its pure science-fictional approach in exploring the human failings exposed by high technology. Some episodes are relatively mundane (“Shut up and Dance” is barely five minutes in the future), while others really dig into a futuristic but plausible premise. Considering that these six episodes are merely the first half of what Netflix commissioned from series creator Charlie Booker, let’s keep our hope up that the fourth season will be just as good. One recommendation: switch the episode order so that you end up with “Nosedive” and “San Junipero” as a way to keep your spirits up and gain a better appreciation of what Brooker is trying to do now that he’s established Black Mirror’s reputation as nightmarish SF.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dead Poets Society</strong> (1989)

(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I must have seen Dead Poets Society on TV back in the nineties, and revisiting it today makes for a complex mixture of remembrance, rediscovery and mild mourning that Robin Williams is gone. There is a small but definite dramatic subgenre out there that could be called “inspirational teacher” movies (and once you lump mentors, coaches and grumpy old guys teaching young men a lesson in there, it becomes a rather large subgenre) and Dead Poets Society seems to be its flagship title. A throwback at the boarding academies of the late fifties, this is a film that glorifies English classes to an admirable degree. Poetry has seldom been so cool (well, maybe in 8 Mile) and the link between English literature and taking ownership of one’s life is unusual enough to be interesting. It helps that, having been conceived as a period piece from the start, Dead Poets Society hasn’t aged much in nearly thirty years. The only thing that makes the movie wistful is Robin Williams—at times, it seems as if half of the film’s appeal is “wouldn’t it have been cool to have Robin Williams as your teacher?” and the circumstances of Williams’ death since then do make the film even more poignant. (Alas, I suspect that it also gives his character a free pass on a few disputable choices … as the film says, “free-thinking at seventeen”?)  The atmosphere of the boarding school comes with a heavy dose of nostalgia that isn’t as unpleasant as you’d think. It all amounts to a decent film, even a powerful one for those who find that it has resonance over their own experiences. 

Heat (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Heat</strong> (1995)

(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I distinctly recall seeing Heat on video in the late nineties, but couldn’t find any review of it anywhere in my archives. Oh well—it’s a good excuse to revisit one of the best crime movies of its decade. As it turns out, I had forgotten a lot about the film and had the pleasure of rediscovering it again. Sure, I remembered the dinner conversation between de Niro and Pacino. Of course, I remembered the downtown LA shootout. But it turns out I didn’t remember half of it, and nearly nothing of the rest of the movie. Long but impressively dense, Heat compares well to the best of Hong Kong crime cinema in showing policemen and criminals as two sides of a similar coin, and finding humanity in stock characters. It’s a sprawling story with roughly a dozen subplots, and I have a feeling that it would best be presented today as a Netflix miniseries rather than a movie. Still, what we see on-screen in slightly less than three hours is mesmerizing enough: A convincing take on mid-nineties Los Angeles, featuring a variety of characters with rich lives. The script has moments of street poetry, and the action sequences hit hard. It surely helps that the casting of the film is amazing. Beyond having Robert de Niro and Al Pacino as co-leads, the cast is rich down to small roles played by then-obscure Danny Trejo and Natalie Portman. Take a look at the cast list and see Val Kilmer, Jon Voigt, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichner, Tom Noonan, Hank Azaria, Henry Rollins, Jeremy Piven … it just doesn’t stop. Still, Pacino and de Niro get most of the glory here, with roles seemingly tailor-made for them—their dinner face-off is crackling good, and still exceeds the entirety of their movie-long reunion in Righteous Kill. Pacino is particularly in his element here, and his verbal excesses match the script. (Fans of TMZ will recognize that the “GREAT ASS!!!” meme/clip comes from here.)  Otherwise, it’s Michael Mann’s show. While I’ve found many of his more recent movies to be pretentious, overlong and underwhelming, Heat is where nearly everything he’s got is used at its best advantage. Los Angeles looks brilliant, the direction is weighty in a way that matches the film and the actors all do their utmost best. I can quibble about a few lengths (especially late in the film, with a drawn-out final face-off), but I find that my first-viewing appreciation of the film has been replaced by a much more positive assessment after this re-watch.

A Cure for Wellness (2016)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Cure for Wellness</strong> (2016)

(On Cable TV, November 2017) There are at least two movies in A Cure for Wellness: The first is terrific, and it shows an impressive blending of modern concerns and gothic horror, as a young corporate executive goes to a secluded health retreat in Switzerland where old secrets accumulate in a deliciously over-the-top fashion. It’s the set-up half of the film and it gets increasingly engaging, what with writer/director Gore Verbinski delivering top-notch atmosphere. It’s a frequently beautiful film to gawk at, and there is a precision to the images that confirms his intent to crank up the tension. Seasoned viewers are liable to love it all, especially as known horror signifiers are used to good extent. Sadly, jaded viewers also suspect what comes next: a far less interesting second half in which some mysteries are explained, many are ignored (or dismissed as good-old hallucinations) and the film keeps going well past the two-hour mark. While A Cure for Wellness is narratively conventional, the third act is stuck trying to make sense of the entire film, and doesn’t quite rise up to the challenge. The coda is particularly disappointing, leaving far too many things up in the air. Other inconsistencies annoy. Dane DeHaan is perfectly suited for the unlikable anti-hero of the first half of the film, but he can’t quite make himself or his character sympathetic enough in the second half. Jason Isaacs is fine as the antagonist, but Mia Goth is generally dull as the heroine. Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography remains exceptional throughout, but Justin Haythe’s screenplay is simply a framework. It’s a shame that the film isn’t edited more tightly—there are not reasons why it should be as long as it is, especially given the straightforward script. Still, there’s a lot to like in the film’s best moments, whether it’s an announced nightmarish visit to the dentist, a claustrophobic visit in a water tank, or various bits of body horror and hallucinations. I was reminded of Crimson Peak in that this is a simple gothic horror story told lavishly—except that Guillermo del Toro knows how to layer depths and ensure that the details are consistent, neither of which are particularly solid in this case. A Cure for Wellness does get a marginal recommendation, but mostly for its first half and mostly for horror fans—it doesn’t quite manage to go farther than that for other audiences.

Black Mirror, Season 2 (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Black Mirror</strong>, Season 2 (2013)

(Netflix Streaming, November 2017) Well, if you’re feeling too optimistic about your life, the world or what humans are capable of doing to each other with a little bit of technological help, have fun with this second season of Black Mirror (including the unusually bleak “White Christmas” special). If the first season left you with nightmares, this one won’t be any easier to stomach, with “White Bear” and “White Christmas,” in particular, being particularly able to give you fits of guilt at being part of the human species. “White Bear” talks about our capacity for righteous indignation and how rage can become an entertainment experience (hilariously enough, the credit sequence plays like a hideous making-of), while “White Christmas” simply points out how eager we are to enslave even ourselves. But I summarize too much: part of the pleasure of Black Mirror’s twisted effectiveness is finding out that what we think we see on-screen isn’t what’s really happening. Better production values and bigger names (such as Jon Hamm and Oona Chaplin in “White Christmas”) help make the show even better. Still, there’s more to Black Mirror than simple bleakness. Episodes such as “Be Right Back” show that series creator Charlie Brooker is also able to touch upon more complex emotions than simple revulsion. But then, of course, you have “The Waldo Moment” which, in its critique of cheap populism, rather depressingly anticipates that a buffoon could in fact be elected in a position of power. After the way the first season’s “The National Anthem” proved stomach-churningly prescient, maybe someone should keep tabs on what Charlie Brooker has in store for Black Mirror’s third season…