(On Cable TV, January 2018) I’m still working my way through the Hitchcock filmography, and while I think that most of his classics are from the late fifties, there are still quite a few good movies from outside that timeframe. The case in point here is 1951’s Stranger on a Train, a tense and non-nonsense (yet deceptively layered) thriller in which two strangers meet and don’t quite agree to swap murders. The problems come when one of the two men does his part of the deal he thought he had … and then comes to collect. Shot in striking film-noir black-and-white, it’s a much-better-than-competent work from an acknowledged master of the form. Farley Granger and Robert Walker are good in the lead roles, but the star here is Hitchcock and the script, which steadily tightens the screws on the lead character with ever-increasing complications. The climax, set on a park carrousel, works well as a final set-piece, but the fun of the film is in seeing the walls close in on the lead character. Old but still a model for suspense films, Strangers on a Train is still worth a look—it doesn’t quite measure up to Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but it’s a solid film in its own right.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) I’m currently bingeing on classic movies, with occasional flashes of giddiness along the way as I (re) discover great movies along the way. I’m surprised at how much I just love Singin’ in the Rain. I had two or three minutes of doubt at the very beginning of the film, as the opening sequence takes on a grandiloquent tone that could be mistaken for earnestness rather than satire. Fortunately, the “Dignity, always dignity” sequence quickly set me straight as to the film’s real tone and intention. As with most of the Gene Kelly musicals I’ve seen, Singin’ in the Rain is a musical that celebrates that it’s a musical … and also recognizes that its audience has seen enough musicals to expect more. As a result, the tone is satirical, there are some spectacular set pieces and the result is optimized for maximum entertainment. Among the highlights is the early “Fit as a Fiddle” acrobatic number, which is eclipsed later on by the anthology-worthy “Make ’Em Laugh.” Gene Kelly is terrific, but Donald O’Connor is a great partner in dance, along with Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen to round up the cast. It certainly helps that the film is often laugh-aloud funny—never mind “Make ’Em Laugh” when there’s the classic “early talkie” sequence. (Which I dimly remembered from having seen at least this part of the film decades ago) Looking at Hollywood’s early-sound age is a great excuse to trot out excesses, and to have a lot of fun along the way. I’m certainly not alone in my love for the result, as Singin’ in the Rain earn an enviable spot on many best-of lists. It’s movies like this one that will keep me digging into film history, trying to catch what has charmed so many people since then.
(On DVD, January 2018) The culmination of the Man-with-no-name trilogy is spectacular, grandiose and … a bit too much. While the original film clocked in at 90 minutes, The Good the Bad and the Ugly takes thirty minutes before even introducing its three main characters. Painting with a far more ambitious brush, this instalment tackles war drama and a much grander scale, but somewhat confusingly goes back in time for a prequel. But who cares when Clint Eastwood is still iconic as the nameless “Good” protagonist, while Lee van Cleef still steals the show as the outright “Bad” protagonist, with Eli Wallach’s “Ugly” wildcard bouncing between the two. It’s the apotheosis of the Spaghetti Western genre, especially when Errico Morrcone’s iconic wah-wah-waaa theme kicks in. At the same time, it does feel like a lot. It’s fun to watch, but a certain ennui sets in when it becomes obvious that the film will not hurry from one set piece to another. Writer/director Sergio Leone’s style is a Leone-ish as it gets here, with careful editing and close-ups doing much of the work in creating suspense. An expansive cap to a remarkable trilogy, The Good the Bad and the Ugly doesn’t leave viewers hungering for more.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) There is a surprising maturity to Anatomy of a Murder that still resonates today, even as Hollywood has long grown out of the restrictions of the Hays Code and proved willing to depict crime in sordid details. To see this black-and-white late-fifties crime film frankly discuss murder, rape and the corruption of the legal process is a bit of a shock, and to see it headlined by James Stewart is even more interesting. Going through all the steps of a trial, this courtroom drama still works well because it’s brutally honest. The protagonist is a disillusioned cynic, the ending is unsettling and some of the frank language still feels daring considering the time at which Anatomy of a Murder was produced. There are plenty of other smaller reasons to like the film: Saul Bass’s title sequence; Duke Ellington’s music; Stewart’s darker performance; and the numerous references of interest to Northwestern Ontarians (just the other side of Michigan where the film takes place). As a legal thriller, it’s still absorbing like a good novel—despite the sometimes-unnecessary length of the film. Director Otto Preminger’s work is straightforward, but what’s often forgotten now is how ground-breaking his movie could be in simply portraying the truth of a complex murder inspired by real-life events. Anatomy of a Murder definitely holds up, especially for fans of legal fiction.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) Marx Brothers vehicle A Day at the Races, second in their MGM line-up, does feel a lot like the previous A Night at the Opera—individual set pieces for the Brothers, matronly role for Margaret Dumont, romantic subplot for the non-comedians Maureen O’Sullivan and Allan Jones, large-scale conclusion in a very public setting … it’s a formula, but it works even when it’s not as effective. Once again, I’m far more partial to Groucho’s absurdist repartee than Harpo’s silent act, but the result is decently funny, with a few highlights along the way: The musical numbers are actually pretty good (including pulling a harp out of a destroyed piano), even if the blackface sequence is hard to enjoy now despite the good rhythm of the song. Most of the comedy bits drag on a touch too long (or definitely too long for the “ice cream” sequence) but the charm of the Brothers usually make up for it. A Day at the Races isn’t quite as good as some of the previous Marx films, but it’s still watchable enough today.
(Second viewing, On TV, January 2018) I saw Judge Dredd in theatres back in 1995, accompanied by a good friend who had already seen the movie and was looking forward to my “wow” reaction at the cityscape revealed early in the film. My reaction to it then is pretty much my reaction to it now—the first half of the film has some worthwhile world building before disintegrating in a forgettable Sylvester Stallone action film—and very little of the movie has anything to do with the original Judge Dredd comic book. (But that’s why we got Dredd in 2012.) Another viewing twenty years later highlights the clumsiness of the adaptation attempt—the film isn’t smart enough to execute the satirical vision of the Dredd comic book, so it comes across as silly most of the time. Still, there is some effort here in trying to create a future (as dark and nonsensical as it can be) and it’s that effort that sustains the film during its first act, and then again at the beginning of its third. Otherwise, though, don’t hope for much. Stallone is his humourless self here (not contributing in the slightest in the film’s satirical potential), while Armand Assante does his best as a featureless antagonist and Rob Schneider is intentionally annoying as a sidekick. Diane Lane and Joan Chen aren’t too bad, though, but that’s a relative assessment when the plot has so little use for them beyond the obvious. We now know that the production of the film was troubled by an ongoing argument between Stallone and director Danny Cannon, each of them pulling in a different direction. The result, sadly, is still with us—worth a look for some of the production values, but definitely not as a cohesive science-fiction film and even less so as a Dredd adaptation.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) My knowledge of silent movies is cursory, and so Nosferatu (1922) is now the oldest movie I have ever seen so far, beating out 1925’s The Lost World by three years. It certainly looks and feels old—while, by the late thirties, movies had already acquired much of the grammar they’re using today, this 1922 effort feels rougher. Overacting is almost de rigueur in a silent film with bad image quality, and the intercutting of text and action doesn’t flow very well. Still, the genre origins of Nosferatu (which adapts the broad strokes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to a point where copies of the film were ordered destroyed after a lawsuit) means that there is a story to follow, and a few thrills along the way—the film may be close to a hundred years old by now, but seeing Nosferatu (legendarily played by Max Schrek) rise from his coffin, plank-straight, is still effective even now. Fans of Dracula will focus on the numerous deviations from the book, but the film is still good for just a bit more than historical interest. A film with a bizarre, baroque history, Nosferatu is now in the public domain which explains why it’s freely available online … and often shown by budget-conscious TV stations. Long may it continue to haunt nighttime programming.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) So, it’s January first and what better way to start the movie-seeing year than with the latest instalment of the reliably ludicrous Fast and the Furious franchise? The Fate of the Furious doubles down on the increasing madness of the series, which means that the film starts with a street race in which the protagonist’s vehicle catches fire well before the finishing line and ends with a face-off between fast cars and a nuclear submarine. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. Once again, we’re back in the world of high-end cyber-espionage, with street racers saving the world through various heroics. There are even plot twists, what with series protagonist Vin Diesel flirting with the dark side by dint of manipulation. The character motivations don’t always make sense, the action beats are far-fetched and the plot is an excuse to get from one set piece to another, but that’s the price to pay for seeing Jason Statham joining the good guys, spectacular action sequences and enough self-assured movie mayhem to remind us why this mix of comedy, action and outright absurdity works so well. The most interesting sequence comes midway through the movie, as the newest self-driving technologies and the ever-rising possibilities of hacking combine to make New York a playground for vehicular mayhem, all the way to making cars rains down from above. Great stuff, and a series highlight. Otherwise, what you get is what you’ve been getting since the series pivot Fast Five: attractive actors, beautiful cars, big dumb (but savvy) action, globe-spanning locations, a focus on family that now approaches self-parody and enough dangling threads that sequels aren’t just possible, but expected. (Although the most recent news out of the franchise are of feuds that don’t bode well for the entire cast returning.) I’ve been a fan of the franchise since the very first one (although the second film sorely tested my faith) and The Fate of the Furious hasn’t changed my mind. Bring on Fast Nine…