(On Cable TV, February 2018) Any review of Swing Time risks being high on praise yet low in details, as much of the charm of the film lies in the dance numbers and physical performances from both Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. After what feels like an overly lengthy setup, the film starts heating up whenever Astaire meets Rogers and gets down to the dance moves. There’s undeniable charm to their shared numbers, and their technical proficiency is undeniable—even today, eighty years later, it still looks fantastic and a pleasure to re-watch. I’m torn on the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, though—while toe-tapping and technically far before its time with rear projection used as special effects, it does feature Astaire in blackface, and even making the segment a homage to Al Johnson isn’t enough to ease modern discomfort. Far less objectionable is “Waltz in Swing Time,” perhaps the finest footage of Rogers and Astaire together. While Swing Time itself may be slight (although it’s fun to step back in mid-nineteen-thirties Manhattan), the dance numbers are terrific, and that’s nearly all that matters.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) As much as it pains me to say so, I’m having a bit of trouble properly assessing Mr. Deeds Goes to Town given the existence of the Adam Sandler remake Mr. Deeds. It shouldn’t be this way—Gary Cooper is a far more likable performer than Sandler, and the Frank Capra-directed original is a far more mature piece of work than the lowbrow remake. Still, both movies follow the same structure to such an extent that even a few weeks after seeing the original (oops; I should write these reviews sooner!) the two of them are blurring together. I’m reasonably confident that Winona Ryder wasn’t alive in 1936, though, so here goes: Highlights of the original include a warm performance from Gary Cooper, as well as a fascinating look at mid-thirties New York City, a surprisingly contemporary look at the gossip media news cycle, and a funny montage or two. (One of Capra’s strengths, even from today’s perspective, is his ability to use montages effectively.) It all amounts to an amiable movie, even a heart-warming one … even though its impact may be blunted in those who have seen the remake. I liked it, and while Mr. Deeds Goes to Town clearly show why Gary Cooper was a star, it also shows why Cooper isn’t as fondly remembered as Cary Grant (who was far better at comedy) or James Stewart (a more relatable everyday man). It’s certainly worth a look, even for those who have seen the remake.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) It’s practically impossible to be an American political junkie and not know about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, given the film’s stature as a statement about the American political system and its iconic representation of James Stewart as a filibusterer. Curiously enough, though, I had never seen the film. Not so curiously enough, I had seen enough of James Stewart to be an unqualified fan of the actor even before watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That may explain why I spent most of the film in a buoyant joy, watching one of my all-time favourite actor in a film that, perhaps now more than ever, still resonates as an eloquent paean to the ideals of American-style democracy despite the messiness of its practice. It wasn’t necessarily perceived as such, though—If I believe the contemporary snippets quoted on the film’s Wikipedia page, the film was initially condemned for its cynical take on the corruption of the system, and the idealistic nature of its protagonist’s struggles. But while such an approach may have shocked well-meaning commentators then, it may strike contemporary viewers as healthy informed idealism today. Corruption is a natural enemy of governance at all times (now more than ever, considering a current presidential administration that spins off a new scandal every three days) but a healthy government has ways to fight back, and it sometimes takes just one person with the right ideals to make things happen. I still think that the film ends without a satisfying coda, that Stewart’s character is initially presented as too much of a simpleton, and that we don’t see nearly enough of Jean Arthur. On the other hand, Frank Capra’s film remains just as sharp and compelling today as it was—even the climactic filibuster sequence, with its near-real-time popular manipulation and reaction, still plays exceptionally well in this age of constant news cycle. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an acknowledged classic for a reason, and you don’t have to be a political junkie nor a James Stewart devotee to understand why.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Most reviews boil down to reasons why viewers would want to see a film (or not) and trying to comment on older movies usually filters that answer through a contemporary perspective: what would viewers enjoy (or not) from this film considering today’s perspective? For White Heat, the three main points are; a solid crime story, interesting period detail and James Cagney. White Heat presents the last years of a career criminal, as he gets arrested, goes to prison, escapes and hatches a new plan. The finale is explosive, with “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” still a reference for movie buffs. Still, the story itself is well crafted and Cagney’s performance is truly enjoyable. The psychodynamics of his character’s attachment to his mom is still rich fodder for crime movie inspiration, along with some femme fatale material, a police informer, a gripping prison mess hall scene and a steadily engrossing story. Nearly seventy years later, there is also a bit of fascination in seeing White Heat take on techno-thriller plot devices, notably in explaining the minutia of radio tracking. It all amounts to a solid and satisfying crime thriller that holds up even today.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There are many reasons why I should like Tom Jones. It’s a comedy, set in convincing period setting, with twists and turns and quite a bit of naughtiness. It won the Big Oscar. It features Albert Finney as a simple-minded lad irresistible to the surrounding women, and it frequently breaks the fourth wall, begging the audience to acknowledge how silly it is. The opening sequence even takes on silent movie airs for laughs. It plays some dramatic sequences as comedy and some uplifting sequences for discomfort (such as the hunting sequence). But strangely enough, I had a hard time convincing myself to pay attention to the film. It feels lifeless, clunky, at times trying too hard and at others holding back on some of its potential. It’s unfortunate that I constantly ended up comparing it to the somewhat-similar Barry Lyndon (which is almost as funny despite being, well, a Kubrick drama) In some ways, I think that Tom Jones may have been made five or ten years too early: A lot of what it has to say (in libidinous terms, for instance, or in how to integrate comedy with period pieces) would be done more successfully in the late sixties, or in films such as Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975). As it is, it’s mildly naughty without being truly free to deliver on its promises and not quite sure where to push the comic envelope. It still won that year’s Best Picture Oscar, though, so what do I know?
(On DVD, February 2018) I have a long list of annoyances when it comes to movies, and at first glance Synecdoche, New York seems to hit an impressive number of them. It’s consciously made to annoy viewers, to revel in their darkest fears, to rush to the worst ending imaginable, to become self-involved in its own inscrutable metafictional games, to screw with expectations for no reasons. Coming from the reliably twisted mind of writer/director Charlie Kaufman, this is a film that jumps in-between high concept, dream sequences, a background apocalypse, characters taking each other’s roles, intense symbolism and decades of events compressed in barely more than two hours. It barely explains what it’s doing, leaving viewers to ponder and search for fascinating readings about the film’s means and meanings. Heck, the lead character may not even be himself. I have been infuriated by tamer movies. Adding to the potential disaster, the DVD version of the film does not have English subtitles, making my life much harder as I was watching the film in less-than-ideal audio circumstances. (I eventually found and read a copy of the script to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything important, and was relieved to find that I hadn’t.) But, for lack of a better expression, Synecdoche, New York worked its magic over me. The relentless gloom of the film quickly becomes a comedy, and once you accept that the film will make more emotional sense than a purely narrative one, it becomes a curiously enjoyable experience. The metafictional book-reading scene set aboard a plane flight had me laughing, which is not something I would have anticipated from a movie that features a greatest hits selection of every single fear that adults can have, from being estranged from loved ones, to progressive illness, to being made completely redundant, to not being forgiven, to surviving the end of the world, and so on. Gloriously ambitious, Synecdoche, New York is about everything. Phillip Seymour Hoffman turns in one of his great performances as the tortured hero, ably supported by cast as varied as Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan and Dianne Weist. Adding to the strangeness, Samantha Morton and Emily Watson are rather eye-catching here, which is really weird given that I usually don’t rank them particularly high on my own list of sex-symbol actresses. Ultimately, Synecdoche, New York’s unrepentant refusal to be ordinary is what sets it apart. I’ll leave viewers to decide if it’s best seen cold or not (this is not a movie that can be spoiled), but any second viewing should be done after gorging oneself with various commentaries, interpretations and lengthy analyses of the film. It’s incredibly rich material for discussion, and I’m as surprised as anyone to like the film as much as I did.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) I was impressed to see how, even seventy years later, there is still such a strong narrative drive to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and how well it balances character development with its plot. It helps that the film quickly sets up its core characters. Humphrey Bogart is fine as a downtrodden American willing to do whatever it takes to barely survive in Mexico, but the film’s highlight is Walter Huston (the director’s father) as an immensely likable grizzled prospector. Meanwhile, Tim Holt does serviceable work at the character who is tempted by various moral choices. With such good characters, the plot comes alive as our protagonist find a way out of a backwater Mexican town to explore a mountain for gold. That they find it so quickly only sets up more difficult choices later on, as gold fever grips the characters and paranoia sets in. Notable for having been shot on location, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of those (surprisingly rare) black-and-white movies that I wish had been shot in colour, given how much importance the setting takes. In other areas, however, the film hasn’t aged a bit: the dialogue is still sharp, the plot generally unpredictable and the actors do fine work with the dramatic arc they’re given. Writer/director John Huston did exceptional work and the result still speaks for itself.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) I was surprised to find out that the original Universal Monster movie The Mummy is such a restrained piece of work. Eschewing easy scares and thrills, this surprisingly romantic film seems to run long even at 73 minutes, relying on repeated full-face shots of Bela Lugosi as Imhotep to carry much of the movie. It’s not bad, but it moves surprisingly slower than you’d expect. The brute-force stereotyped Egyptian flavour feels comfortable, but in-between the laborious exposition and the pauses for romance there is a lot of time to contemplate the way the film doesn’t move forward very quickly. At least Lugosi is convincing as the Mummy, and Zita Johann still looks surprisingly good with longer curly hair. As someone who saw the 1999 remake in theatres and immediately liked it a lot, I’m satisfied to have finally seen the original … but I’m not going to claim that it is anything other than a film of its time.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Despite James Stewart’s considerable charm (and here he has the chance to play as pure a young romantic lead as he ever got), it took me a while to warm up to You Can’t Take it with You. Despite an eccentric cast of characters, it takes a long time for the comedy to truly take off. Fortunately, this happens midway through, as an explosive sequence is followed up by a rather amusing courtroom sequence. That’s when director Frank Capra feels freest to truly unleash the madness of his characters, and what it means for the plot. Less successful is the film’s last act, which focuses on more manners moral lessons (it’s right there in the title), lessening the film’s laugh quotient but ensuring that it would present an easy moral lesson fit for the film to win that year’s Best Picture Oscar. This being said, the film is not a chore to watch even today. James Stewart is always good, of course, while Lionel Barrymore is unusually sympathetic as the patriarch of an oddball family and 15-year-old Ann Miller makes an impression as the family’s dance-crazy daughter. The film’s mid-point highlight is good for a few laughs, and even easy moral lessons can work well in wrapping up a satisfying viewing experience. As a checkmark for best Picture completists, it’s an odd but not a bothersome entry.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Even fifty-five years later, How the West was Won remains a singular viewing experience. One of the few narrative movies developed for the three-projector surround “Cinemax” process, it’s a western with an ambitious narrative scope (follow the development of the American west through four stories spanning generations of a family) and an impressive technical polish. From the first few moments spent flying over mountainous landscapes, the quality of the picture is breathtaking (especially given the 2012 digital restoration of the film)—on a modern HD display, the flattened widescreen film looks crisp and colourful like few others of the period. Moments later, as we get away from the landscapes and nearer to characters, we get to see the flip side of the film’s technical imitations when presented on a dingle screen: Almost all of the action is centred in the middle third and the camera never gets closer to the characters than waist-up middle shots. Any lateral movement makes the fisheye lensing of the film blatant, and the impact is jarring enough to remind us that we are, after all, watching a technical novelty. Fortunately, the film is suited well to mid-size fragmented viewing: Each of the four narratives runs between 30 and 45 minutes, allowing for breaks. Thematically, the film does have a few hurdles to overcome: The opening narration mentions “taking back the land from nature and primitive people,” setting up both the film’s very American manifest destiny narrative and a repellent treatment of native-American characters. Fortunately, the film avoids some of the worst excesses of the genre: while “the Indians” are treated as the enemy in one of the film’s signature action sequences, Native American are treated more kindly in other segments featuring white character willing to deal fairly with them (and the terrible consequences of breaking those promises). Each segment is generally enjoyable, all building up to a closing action sequences. The first, “The Rivers,” features an older James Stewart as a likable river runner encountering settlers and features a satisfying revenge arc. “The Plains” culminates in an attack on a settlers’ convoy. “The Civil War” is just about what you expect, while “The Railroad” builds to an astonishing stampede and “The Outlaws” features a wide-screen train robbery sequence. Not everything is likable, though. For a film that features a middle segment set on a Civil War battleground, nothing is said of slavery. Manifest Destiny is taken as holy writ, all the way to 1962’s highways. But for a piece of white-American propaganda, How the West Was Won is perhaps more nuanced that it could have been. The treatment of Native Americans isn’t as one-sided as it could have been, and the film seldom shies away from the harsh conditions that settlers endured, from bandit attacks to meaningless war conscription to children seeing their parents die in a buffalo stampede. Still, I suspect that most viewers won’t remember the details of the plot as much as the flattened Cinerama experience. I never thought I’d say it, but here goes: If you have one of those otherwise-useless curved TV screen, How the West Was Won seems like the one movie taking advantage of that format.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) After seeing the critical savaging received by The Emoji Movie (“One of the Worst Movies of All-Time” ran a typical piece), I was pretty sure that approaching the film with sufficiently lowered expectations would be enough to ensure an average viewing experience. But despite a few mildly interesting moments, The Emoji Movie turns out to be just as bad as the critical consensus determined. Part of it has to do with an instinctual rejection of a fad bandwagon: While emojis have their place and are not going anywhere, The Emoji Movie is as instantly dated as any film can be, making obvious references to contemporary businesses, current technology and social mores of the moment. It would have been incomprehensible five years ago, and is likely to feel unbearably dated five years from now. But let’s not pretend that flash-in-the-pan prejudice can solely account for the film’s bad impression. The nonsense world building also has much to do with it—the film is bad enough without any technological knowledge (I’m not sure the screenwriters understand the definition of a firewall), but the metaphors (trolls inside the phone?) don’t make sense even for non-technological audiences and the inner contradictions become even worse throughout the film. The Emoji Movie is also terrifyingly lazy in its plot development and thematic concerns, having a character creating an apocalypse and then being congratulated for stopping it. It doesn’t further help that the characters are dull, the jokes are easy and the overall imaginative depth of the film is superficial. Compare this to any Pixar film and you can see how inferior the result is. To be clear: The Emoji Movie is not worth burning down a DVD to prevent it from ever being seen again … but it’s not a good film.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) I enjoy reading Wikipedia pages of films I’ve just seen, and from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I learn about the delightful expression “psycho-biddy,” a forgotten subgenre of horror thrillers featuring older women spawned by the success of this film. I also learned about the ongoing feud between co-stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, which does add quite a dimension to the end result as two sisters come to possibly fatal conflict in a film presented as hard-edged thriller. Saddled with two useless prologues, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? really gets going fifteen minutes in, as the situation becomes clear: A disabled former actress, practically held hostage by her sister, a bitter and resentful former child star who escalates the horrible actions required to keep control over the situation. Joan Crawford has the likable role, but it’s Bette Davis who sticks in mind as the psychotic Baby Jane, layers of caked makeup not concealing a complete breakdown. The black-and-white cinematography is pretty good, although the ending is one or two whiskers away from satisfaction. The film feels a bit too long and scattered with half-hearted subplots, but it still has an impact—Fifty-five years later, aged actresses seldom get roles as interesting as those in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the plot is still nasty enough to resonate even today.
(On DVD, February 2018) I’m hit and miss on most musicals, but so far I’m three-for-three on Gene Kelly directed musicals (plus an honorary mention for On the Town) including the sometimes maligned Hello, Dolly! I’m not saying that it’s a perfect film or even on the level of Singin’ in the Rain: The romantic plot between the film’s two leads is unconvincing, some numbers are dull, Barbra Streisand is arguably too young for the role, the first half-hour is barely better than dull and the film doesn’t quite climax as it should (the biggest number happens long before the end). But when Hello, Dolly! gets going, it truly shines: Walter Matthau plays grouchy older men like nobody else before Tommy Lee Jones; Barbra Streisand is surprisingly attractive as a take-charge matchmaker suddenly looking for herself; the B-plot romantic pairing is quite likable; the period recreation is convincing and the film’s best numbers (the parade, the restaurant sequence) are as good as classic musicals ever get. As with other Kelly movies, it’s a musical that understands its own eccentric nature as a musical, embracing the surrealism of its plotting and the most ludicrous aspects of its execution. It’s awe-inspiring in the way ultra-large-budget movies can be: the parade sequence is eye-popping and the hijinks at the restaurant are a delight. Seeing Louis Armstrong pop up to croon his own take on Hello, Dolly! in his inimitable voice is a real treat. It doesn’t amount to a classic for the ages like other musicals, but Hello, Dolly! Is still a heck of a lot of fun even today, and it’s quite a bit better than what the contemporary critical consensus has determined.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2018) Some movies are events more than movies and The Cloverfield Paradox is one of those—the events surrounding the film’s release are far more interesting than the film itself. To recap: third in a series of increasingly incoherent anthology movies somehow revolving around the word Cloverfield and the quest for corporate profits, the film once known as The God Particle was retooled to fit in the Cloverfield series during shooting, bought from Paramount by Netflix and released online mere hours after the first broadcast of its trailer during Super Bowl XLI. There has never been such an instant release of a mid-budget Hollywood film before (other Netflix originals were long in the making, and marketed traditionally), and that is the very definition of hype. Alas, when you strip away the hubbub and take a look at the film itself, what’s left isn’t much more than a disappointing space-station horror film. Even by the low standards of the sub-genre, The Cloverfield Paradox is less than it should have been: the plot is fairly dull, the subplots barely make sense and—adding insult to injury—the film features an explanatory broadcast explaining that once technical mumbo-jumbo is achieved, anything and everything can happen without explanation, not just in this movie but others as well. The crazy thing is that even as dumb a manoeuver as this may work: There’s a sizeable Cloverfield fandom out there, and it seems dead-set on rationalizing even the laziest half-hints provided by series producer J.J. Abrams. For clear-headed viewers, the scam is obvious: despite the elaborate ARGs and the mythology hints and the nonsense mystique of “The Mystery Box,” this is all a bunch of nonsense loosely tied together without purpose, taking advantage of the nerdy OCD trait of creating connections when there are none. The Cloverfield Paradox is about slapping a label on a substandard product and selling it at twice the expectations. The irony is that if it had been released in its original formulation, The God Particle could have been a pleasant low-expectations surprise. I do feel sorry for actors as talented as Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Daniel Brühl, doing their best but stuck in a nonsense film. Moment of directing also shine, but they’re quickly buried under the film’s internal contradictions and incoherent plotting—from a technical perspective, The Cloverfield Paradox is a s slick as any mid-budget Hollywood production. But I almost hope that Bad Robot has pushed too far with this second off-label Cloverfield product—now that the modus operandi of tying spec scripts to a blurry mythology is clear, the Cloverfield brand has been tainted as a low-end product. A fourth entry, Overlord (no telling what it will be named once it gets out) is planned for later in 2018. We’ll have a better idea by then how sustainable is that marketing model.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2018) As I watch more and more movies from the sixties and seventies, it seems to me that the characteristic grittiness of the seventies was as much of a reaction to the breakdown of the Hayes Code (and associated social conventions) as anything else. Suddenly free to show the world is as much unpleasant detail and harsh language as they wanted, filmmakers went far overboard and the result speaks for itself. (The tendency corrected itself in the late seventies with the rise of the audience-friendly blockbuster, but that’s a thesis best discussed elsewhere.) Serpico clearly redrew the classic template for most undercover-cop movies, delving deep into matters of police corruption through the eyes of an idealistic young police officer played by the explosive Al Pacino. (Sadly, the worst consequence of catching the film on a French channel is losing Pacino’s distinctive voice.) The film feels grimy and ugly, set during New York’s increasingly desperate period and reflecting the exploitative atmosphere of the time’s films. It’s still rather good, but some of the atmosphere can feel overdone at times. Pacino himself is very likable, which helps in navigating the bleak moral landscape of a police force thoroughly corrupted by a culture of graft and payouts. It’s not quite as violent as expected, but the atmosphere does help in creating an atmosphere in which the worst can always be expected. Sidney Lumet’s direction is solid enough that the film only feels a bit too long today—and much of that length is due to sequences that have been redone so often that they feel like clichés today. It may not pleasant, but there is an undeniable atmosphere to Serpico that still resonates.