(On DVD, February 2018) Neither of these opinions are particularly controversial, but here goes: I’m not all that fond of John Wayne, and I like the 2010 remake version of True Grit more than the original version. The first does not necessarily explain the second: While I find Wayne to be an unsympathetic actor, he’s at his best (and has often been cast) as an unsympathetic character. Here he gets to crow as Rooster Cogburn, a gruff and violent frontier lawman hired by a teenage girl to avenge her father. As per its title, True Grit is not a fun western, and the way it delves into the danger of the Wild West with its teenage heroine is markedly different from the adventures that often awaited typical young male western heroes. The location shooting is good, and the narrative has plenty of, well, grit to it. This being said, True Grit often veers far too close to average-western territory for me, losing my interest along the way. I’m not all that dismissive of the original when I say that I prefer the remake—moviegoing sensibilities evolving along the way, I found the remake more naturalistic and Hailee Steinfeld’s performance more interesting than that of Kim Darby in the original. Your own appreciation may differ.
(On DVD, February 2018) I’ve been revisiting enough Disney classics lately that I can’t even predict if I will like them after watching them in their original English from beginning to end (buying movies for kids does not mean that you’ll watch them like you watch other movies). I’ve been impressed, depressed and unimpressed by other Disney classics, so it’s a bit strange to say that One Hundred and One Dalmatians is … pretty much what I was expecting from childhood memories and consumption of tie-in material both as a kid and as a parent. It’s the story of a bachelor, a bachelorette, their dogs and what happens when an old acquaintance of hers becomes obsessed with harvesting puppy fur for a coat. It’s musically minded without being a musical, it features a lot of dogs and unfolds more or less like I remembered it. There are occasional flashes of outdated social conventions (the sexualization of antagonist Cruella DeVille is bothersome, although not as much as the extreme caricature in The Rescuers) and the usual stuff to tolerate in a film with many animal characters, but One Hundred and One Dalmatians hasn’t spoiled in the past few decades. I really liked the first few minutes showing “life before puppies” and more specifically the routine and courtship of a London-based song composer—there’s some charming stuff in there, and it tends to be forgotten when recollections of the film focus on the titular Dalmatians. In short, I’m satisfied by One Hundred and One Dalmatians and that’s already better than what I can say about other Disney movies of the same period.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Given Wings’ place in history as “The First Oscar-Winning Picture” (Lies! It tied with Sunrise, no matter what the Academy now says!), you could be forgiven to think that it would be a stuffy silent picture. The reality is that, proudly establishing the Oscar tradition, it’s a big-budget crowd pleaser of the first order, following three characters in war until the tear-jerking moment that makes it all worthwhile. Epic in length (the dialogue cards not helping, it’s nearly two-and-a-half-hours long) and spectacular in its depiction of WWI air combat, Wings still works rather well as a war movie. The narrative strings are familiar (hmmm, maybe “timeless” is a better word here) and the film, even in the late twenties, knew well enough to include a romantic triangle in the middle of its war story. Richard Arlen and Charles Rogers star as the airmen (with a short appearance by Gary Cooper), but the real star here is the original “It girl” Clara Bow, still remarkably fetching even ninety years later. There are a number of highlights to the movie—the air sequences are surprisingly good (much of the footage was actually shot from the cockpit), and there’s an impressive infantry sequence with plenty of perceived danger. Director William A. Wellman also gets a few choice shots on the ground as well—the Paris bar sequence is good enough to be emulated even today (viz; The Last Jedi’s similar glide through a gambling joint) and the special-effects-driven “bubbles” interlude marks an impressionistic moment in an otherwise well-grounded film. Reading about the film, it seems almost incredible that Wings (one of the first Oscar winners!) was for decades regarded as “a lost film” until it was found again in 1992. Now safely remastered in high resolution, it looks brilliant and further reinforces the idea that we’re living in a golden age of movie-watching, being able to see movies that even our parents and grandparents couldn’t see. I won’t try to claim that Wings is essential viewing for contemporary audiences (even my patience was tested by the running time), but it’s far more interesting than I expected from digging so deep in the Oscar archives.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Is it possible for a film to be so good as to become invisible? The 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility has, in adapting Jane Austen’s novel so well, become part of the fabric of pop culture. It launched an Austen revival that continues even today, it solidified the career of its director Ang Lee, netted Emma Thompson an Oscar-winning reputation as an actress and screenwriter and became a strong calling card for other actors such as Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry. It cleverly alters the plot and themes of the original novel for modern sensibilities, and delivers everything with an appropriate atmosphere of period detail. In short, it succeeds at being what it wanted to be. Alas, I was surprisingly bored through it all, and I suspect that much of the problem lies in the film’s own success. Since 1995, there have been an explosion of Austen-inspired material, and many of my favourite ones have remixed the material in ever-stranger ways, from Los Angeles-set From Prada to Nada, to Canadian-Indian musical Bride and Prejudice, to the unlikely mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies … and the list goes on. Going back to the unadulterated source material at a time when it has become such an inspiration isn’t necessarily dull … but it does feel overly familiar. I will also note that Sense and Sensibility is the film of film uniquely affected by mood—it doesn’t make much an effort to draw audiences in (the beginning is notably in media res), but rather relies on pre-existing sympathies and goodwill. If it so happens that you’re distracted or otherwise less than receptive … this may also be an issue. So: Good movie, muted impact—by creating an incredible legacy for itself, Sense and Sensibility may have dulled its own reception twenty years later.
(Video On-Demand, February 2018) I’ve heard Roman J. Israel, Esq. discussed as a fascinating character study wrapped in an underwhelming story, and that certainly has some merit as a description. The best thing about the film is Roman J. Israel, Esq. as played by the ever-capable Denzel Washington, a genius-level lawyer with substantial social interaction problems. Comfortable in his role as the rarely seen brainy half of a two-man small legal outfit, Israel starts having problems once his partner dies, leaving him to fend off in a hostile environment. Getting hired is difficult enough that he’s got to accept a few favours, but staying employed is even more difficult when his personality clashes with just about everyone in a top legal firm. Issues of romance, class, crime and legal ethics come to complicate this already challenging situation, but even with all its flourishes (and occasional action sequences), Roman J. Israel, Esq. seems to deflate as it nears a conclusion. I suspect that the film would have been more successful with a more upbeat ending. In the meantime, we are free to admire Washington’s portrayal, or its nuanced look at the life of an idealistic lawyer. Both Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo continue their streak of good supporting performances. Writer/director Dan Gilroy doesn’t meet the considerable expectations set by his debut feature Nightcrawler, but his follow-up remains a watchable effort and a decent showcase for Washington.
(On DVD, February 2018) I can’t say that I got much out of my first beginning-to-end viewing of Disney’s classic The Jungle Book. Do understand that the film was practically written in my DNA as a child—I must have seen the film in French at some point, but more importantly was deluged with related materials, read the original Kipling novel as a boy scout, and have since then seen bits and pieces of it and its live-action remake (in French) with my child. The plot? Utterly familiar. The characters? Even more so. What’s left? Well, at least two songs in their original glory: “The Bare Necessities” is an instant humming favourite, while “I Wanna Be Like You” reminded me of the catchy Big Bad Voodoo Daddy cover version. Otherwise, I know Mowgli and Baloo and Bagheera and the rest of the gang. It’s a fun movie. It’s occasionally long. The animation isn’t as good as some other Disney movies (you can see the in-between marks), but still works well most of the time. I’ll watch it again without too much boredom.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There’s something … off about this newest edition of The Mummy that exemplifies the worst in modern blockbuster movies. It’s not even worth comparing to the already classic 1999 film that perfectly blended comedy with adventure and introduced us to Rachel Weisz. It’s clunky enough on its own terms. Part of the problem is pitching the film as the first in the “Dark Universe” (nice logo!), an acknowledged copycatting of the MCU that is up to its third attempt to launch a shared universe of movies: We get glimpses of intriguing things, but the film keeps its best shots in reserve in anticipation of something else. Part of the problem is Tom Cruise, increasingly too old and too proud to play the same roles in the same way. Part of the problem is a script that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and suffers from a dull premise that can’t manage to tie everything together. It’s shorter to list the things that aren’t a problem: Sofia Boutella is (as usual) fantastic and alluring in her role as the villain mummy Ahmanet—sufficiently so, in fact, that she practically becomes the sympathetic protagonist to cheer for. Russell Crowe is enjoyable as Dr. Jekyll—the film can’t figure out what to do with the character, but Crowe’s hulking bulk is used to good effect. The plane crash sequence (as a few other scenes here and there) is well executed. Bits and pieces of the shared universe are admittedly cool—having classic Universal monsters interact and a secret organization to keep track of them isn’t a bad idea, even though The Mummy isn’t the best showcase for such a crossover event. Alas, there is so much boring stuff in the film that it struggles to keep our interest whenever Ahmanet isn’t on-screen—Annabelle Wallis is dull as the nominal heroine, and the various shenanigans regarding Cruise’s character and his relationship to death are really far less interesting than they should have been. And then there’s the ugly side of the script (a plane crash next to THE church required for the next plot point! Sandstorm in London?) and a hero we don’t really care for. Still, this is a big-budget action fantasy film, and there’s enough stuff in here to be worth a forgiving watch. I wouldn’t necessarily mind another Dark Universe film—The Mummy, after all, is better than Dracula Untold and I, Frankenstein. But after three false starts, wouldn’t it be time to put the idea to rest?
(On DVD, February 2018) I partially grew up on seventies Disaster films (they were a popular staple of French-Canadian TV in the early eighties), and while I don’t remember a lot of about them, there is the occasional ping of recognition as re-watch them in middle age. My fuzzy memories of The Towering Inferno were a disservice to the film, which is quite enjoyable in its own bombastic way. Never mind the fascinating backstory to the film (two studios meshing together similar projects based on different books) when the end result brings Steve McQueen together with Paul Newman in a big cooperative battle of manly heroes. The film is long, but the leisurely opening act does set up a premise of fiendish promise: an enormous skyscraper, fire risks everywhere, and human failings exacerbating an already dangerous situation. It all culminates in a titular conflagration … and it works pretty well. There are a lot of familiar faces here, including O.J. Simpson as a security guard, Robert Vaughn in his usual evilness, and one last great appearance by Fred Astaire in an effective dramatic role. (He won an Oscar for it, properly understood to be about the rest of his career.) The film hits harder than expected, with plenty of sympathetic character deaths in addition to the expected reprehensible characters burning along the way. At times techno-thrillerish and at others always-getting-worse, The Towering Inferno does benefit from its mid-seventies vintage. The special effects haven’t aged well (mostly by limiting the way the disaster is portrayed—no CGI flybys of a burning tower surrounded by helicopters here) but the overall atmosphere of the film is fun. Far more successful than I expected to be, The Towering Inferno mostly holds up today … but be prepared for a long sit.
(On TV, February 2018) Back when I grew up, my TV universe was limited to about half a dozen channels, most of which I couldn’t understand very well due to my lack of familiarity with English. So my childhood culture pretty much depended on the whims of those three French TV networks, and it so happens that Brewster’s Millions was a favourite of theirs. I must have watched it two or three times before I was 15. I still remember bits and pieces of the film in French, which made a contemporary re-watch feel really weird (especially one line which doesn’t sound too bad in French, but whose original version is unprintable on a G-rated web site). Fortunately, Richard Pryor sounds much better than his assigned French dubbed voice, and revisiting Brewster’s Millions in English was more pleasant than I expected. The premise alone is still rich in possibilities: An inheritance game in which the protagonist must voluntarily blow through thirty million dollars in thirty days. It’s harder than it looks, though, and the film’s best moments are those in which sure-fired money-losing plans backfire, and make things even harder. Otherwise, Pryor clowns around with John Candy, flirts with the lovely Lonette McKee and indulges in a lavish series of fantasies by wasting as much money as possible. It’s not, frankly, that good a movie: it’s slight, doesn’t really touch upon challenging social issues the way some of Pryor’s work as a comedian did, and the entire plot is an exercise in contrived situations. Still, I had a good time revisiting Brewster’s Million, and it remains a mildly entertaining evening watch. It may be ripe for a remake, though…
(On Cable TV, February 2018) As someone who doesn’t react particularly well to the surly teenager archetype, I’m not surprised in the slightest to feel a bit underwhelmed by East of Eden, which features James Dean as a moody teenager trying to figure things out in a complicated setting with separated parents (one of them in hiding in a neighbouring town), sibling rivalry, overbearing religion, gathering clouds of war and difficult romance. It’s really not meant as a feel-good movie, and the slow pacing of the film doesn’t really help things along. This being said, there are a few things worth dwelling upon. Dean does have a certain magnetic quality to him, albeit so often repeated by other actors that it has been dulled compared to what audiences must have experienced at the time. The early-twentieth-century atmosphere of a small coastal California town is faithfully rendered in glorious colour, and there’s a sequence featuring a train and defrosting cabbage that’s quite impressive in its own right. Otherwise, I suspect that East of Eden will appeal most strongly to those with a built-in interest for historical family drama. Or to Dean enthusiasts, as one of only three in a far-too-short filmography.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There’s nothing new under the sun and that’s even truer when it comes to Hollywood movies, but it’s still a shock to see in It Happened One Night a template for the entire subgenre of romantic comedies as they’ve been made for the past eight decades. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert star as (respectively) a rich spoiler heiress and a suave roguish newspaperman stuck together on a bus ride from Florida to New York. Their initial animosity eventually become something else, which complicates an upcoming high-society wedding. We’ve all seen what happens because the basic structure of the film has been reused time and time again. Frank Capra’s direction is as sure-footed as anything else he’s done (and still rivals many modern directors), while the film’s pre-Code status makes it just a bit franker and just a bit more alluring than the following three decades of movies. It has aged remarkably well—Gable and Colbert have good chemistry, and the script is strong on dialogue and single moments. (Ah, that hitchhiking scene…) I’m not so fond of the third-act shift away from the bus, but it does lead the film to its climactic finale. As I’m discovering more and more older movies, the nineteen-thirties are earning a special place in my own version of Hollywood history—a decade where the basics of cinema had been mastered to a level still recognizable as competent today, and (for a brief period before the Hays code) increasingly willing to push the envelope of what was permissible on-screen. It Happened One Night still feels fresh and fun—I can see it being a hit with wide audiences even today.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) I really wish I had a better reaction to report regarding the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad. It is, after all, a recognized classic of fantasy filmmaking, influential over the written genre and a landmark of sort for a generation of moviegoers. It is obviously a big-budget studio tentpole picture decades before such things became codified in the Hollywood DNA: Executed in colour at a time when such things were rare, it features a lot of special effects (including the first uses of chroma key/bluescreen technology), imaginative fantasy creations and a big wide epic scope. Unfortunately, I found the film aimed a bit too young, and some of the resulting tone to be juvenile. Also, and this is really a compliment to the film, much of The Thief of Bagdad feels very, very familiar—you can see its influence over a whole sub-genre of Arabian fantasies, from Disney’s Aladdin to the Prince of Persia series … and that does lend a tough atmosphere of déjà vu to the entire film. It proved duller than it should have been, and that’s really not what I was anticipating.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There are actors that elevate the material they’re given no matter the genre or how many years later you see the result, and so while Key Largo is in itself a perfectly serviceable thriller, having Humphrey Bogart in the lead role certainly doesn’t hurt. At times a small-scale thriller in which various people are trapped in a Florida hotel during a hurricane (showing its theatrical origins), the film eventually opens up to a boat-set finale. In another classic pairing with Bogart, Lauren Bacall plays the dame in distress, with strong supporting performances from Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. Director John Huston keeps things tight and suspenseful as characters are forced to interacting in a small setting—you can see the influence that the film had over some of Tarantino’s work, for instance. Key Largo is not particularly remarkable, but it does have this pleasant late-forties Hollywood studio sheen, meaning that you can watch it and be assured of a good time.
(On TV, February 2018) There are Disney movies that leave me indifferent, but few of them feel as irritating as Robin Hood. It shouldn’t be like that—I grew up with a lot of Robin Hood paraphernalia, and I rather like the idea of playing with the classic Robin Hood story with animal archetypes. But knowing about Robin Hood and watching Robin Hood are different things—for viewers used to Disney’s ability to entertain whole families at once, Robin Hood seems far too clearly aimed at younger kids, with stand-in child characters taking a lot of time and the overall film pitched to a much lower common denominator. Then there are other annoyances, some of whom may not apply to others. As a rather proud taxpayer, I was really disappointed to see the film take on a quasi-Republican take on “all taxes are evil”—if, like others have claimed, Robin Hood was incredibly influential, then we have a single film to blame for both furries and libertarians. Maybe all copies should be locked up and designated dangerous. OK, I kid, but not too much—there’s a lot of caricatures going on in Robin Hood, and they all aim for a young and impressionable age. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the result, and part of it may be due with familiarity with the source material and the consequent lack of anything “extra” from the film to make it even better. Other, similarly familiar Disney movies usually had something more (songs, witty repartee, quality of animation, even sheer odd psychedelic sequences) that went beyond my childhood memories. Robin Hood doesn’t, and that’s why it feels so flat when it’s not being actively irritating.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Things change, people evolve and standards move … but in James Dean’s case, he remains etched in perpetuity in three movies, of which Rebel Without a Cause remains the most iconic. Dean, modern audiences are told, exemplified the new American teenager of the 1950s: cool and lost and identifiable to teenagers while being vaguely threatening to older audiences. Younger audiences then lapped it up, of course, and we ended up with an icon made permanent thanks to his undue death. From a modern perspective, though, Rebel Without a Cause remains a film of its time, and Dean is rather irritating. His then-new detachment has become annoying moping by the 2010s, and his style has been taken on by so many better actors that, at times, Dean seems to be playing an exaggerated version of James Franco. I’m being too harsh, and yet I’m stuck at how much I don’t buy into the Dean mystique now that I’m middle-aged and contemplating a near future in which my own kid will be a rebellious teenager. Rebel without a Cause, to be fair, does work now as a time capsule of mid-1950s Californian suburbia. As a teenage drama, the stakes of the film are relatively low, with an emphasis on generational disconnect rather than outright confrontation. What’s more, what the Dean hype doesn’t quite tell you is that Dean’s character in the film is more confused than detached—he’s trying to do the right thing, but the world is stacked against him and the not-so-cheery ending makes that clear. I don’t think it has aged all that well—the rebelliousness did anticipate the sixties (explaining the film’s appeal to baby boomers) but seems rather old material today when endless teen-TV series are looking at the same material, except with far more complexity. Rebel without a Cause remains an essential film if only to understand Dean’s appeal, but it’s not exactly terrific on its own for modern audiences.