Bloodsport (1988)

(In French, On TV, March 2018) What is there to say about Bloodsport? In one way, it’s a mildly famous film for introducing Jean-Claude van Damme to a wider audience, showcasing his martial skills in a film designed around such showcases. As such, there isn’t much to say about the film’s narrative qualities: They have been plenty of movies about martial-arts tournaments, and Bloodsport doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s all about providing a narrative excuse for fights, and if fights are your thing then the movie will deliver what you expect. As for me, I felt my attention wander away through most of the movie—I’m not a fan of that particular kind of martial arts, and there is little to complement the fighting. (Other Asian martial arts films usually have better plot or stronger visual/cinematographic ambitions. Not here—Bloodsport is as straightforward as it can be. This being said, I did like the short walk through the authentic pre-destruction Kowloon Walled City—that’s special, and unfortunately it’s roughly the only special thing about Bloodsport once you discount van Damme.

Coco (2017)

(Video on-Demand, March 2018) At a time when Pixar seems to have lost its way through endless sequels and Disneyfied substandard offering, it’s good to see Coco demonstrate that they can still deliver capable movies if they want to. While I had concerns that Coco, in tackling a story revolving around the Mexican Day of the Dead, would rethread territory already covered by The Book of Life, it turns out that both movies each have their own sensibilities and strengths—rather than repeating themselves, they would make a splendid double feature. Of course, Coco shows the advantage of having been produced by Pixar’s honed methods and gigantic budgets—the polish of the film is astonishing, its visual density is a wonder, and it’s not afraid to go for strong emotional beats even in a family movie. Some of the plot twists are familiar and predictable, but much of the film’s charm lies in the individual moments, sight gags, character quirks and imaginative detailing of the world of the dead. Music makes for an important part of Coco’s vision, and the result is quite satisfying. Also satisfying is the film’s attention to Mexican culture and how it portrays its best aspects in a way that can inspire others. Considering that it’s a film for kids that deals frankly with death, it’s good to see Pixar take creative risks again—the results are spectacular.

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

(On Cable TV, March 2018) With Annabelle: Creation, we’re now up to a sequel to a spinoff (Anabelle) to an adaptation (The Conjuring). That’s not quite a record (Scorpion King 4 has an antecedent chain that’s seven movies long over eighty years and three series) but it shows how much of a derived product we’re dealing with here. As such, my expectations for the film were low—Annabelle was deathly dull to begin with, so I expected the worst from this sequel. But if Annabelle: Creation isn’t a particularly good movie, it’s still quite a bit better than you’d expect. Much of this credit goes to writer Gary Dauberman and director David F. Sandberg, who spend much of the film’s first half-hour setting up an unusual setting for a horror film: An ersatz orphanage moving into a vast country house stained by a terrible tragedy. The sunny rural setting, coupled with the nature of the house, blends with the personalities of the six young girls, caretaker couple and a nun to create an extended familial atmosphere not unlike that of the original The Conjuring. It works fine until the standard horror shenanigans begin, with your usual demonic possessions, unspeakable death sequences and setups for later instalments of the series. Atmosphere counts for a lot in horror movies, and it’s what makes Annabelle: Creation stand out even when it had everything run against it. Still, let’s not pretend that “better than expected” is anywhere close to objective enjoyment—In most ways, it’s a completely average horror film that will work best on fans of the genre and few others. This being said, it doesn’t quite give a convincing answer to why they’ve felt it necessary to stretch out a good horror movie over a four-film franchise so far.

Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

(On DVD, March 2018) Frankly, I expected to like Honey I Shrunk the Kids a lot more than I did. But there is something right now in being a parent that stops me from liking kids-in-danger movies, and it don’t get worse than the idea of children being reduced to ant size and then losing themselves in their backyard. The sheer terror of being the dad who realizes what has happened, and what mortal danger he himself may pose to his kids, is only one of the reasons why I expect this film to be far more accessible to kids than their parents. It’s meant as a comedy, but I didn’t laugh a lot—it doesn’t help that as a special-effects-heavy film, Honey I Shrunk the Kids has aged poorly in an era of omnipresent special effects. Much of the FX shot are hopelessly dated, and it’s hard to ignore them when the entire film is built on a parade of such sequences. (They have also aged more poorly than SF&F spectacles of the same time given that they’re meant to portray the familiar in an extraordinary way—but we know what the ordinary looks like and every imperfection counts.)  Rick Moranis is perfectly cast as the absent-minded dad, but even his borderline charm (as in; easy to grate) can’t do much against a script that is based on heavy authorial intervention rather than organic plot development. Everything feels manipulated to give us a ride rather than make us believe in a story. Coupled to the child-endangerment block mentioned above, it means that sitting through the film is tougher than expected. Oh, it still does work here and there. The Bee sequence makes no sense (a bee that stays in a single backyard?) but looks better and reels more dynamic than other sequences. There’s a Lego brick segment that I had completely forgotten from watching the film as a kid. And there’s some mildly entertaining bickering between the kids. Still, I’m curiously put off by Honey I Shrunk the Kids—and I’ll be the first to admit that this is an idiosyncratic reaction that may not be shared.

Time After Time (1979)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, March 2018) I remember seeing Time After Time as a teenager and liking it quite a lot. A second viewing only confirms that the film is a surprisingly enjoyable time-travel fantasy involving no less than H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper travelling through time to late-1970s San Francisco. With Malcolm McDowell (as an atypically heroic protagonist), David Warner (as the Ripper) and the ever-radiant Mary Steenburgen as the modern foil for the Victorians visitors. The plot is a big lend of genre elements, but it’s a measure of the success of its execution that even the hackneyed “fish-out-of-water” moments don’t come across as irritating—it helps that Wells’ character is written as a smart person, and so is able to adjust to the environment as quickly as one could manage. The script gets clever in the last act, although maybe not quite as clever as it could have been—it scratches the surface of what’s possible with access to a time machine, but doesn’t really get going with the possibilities. (And I’m still mildly disturbed that one minor sympathetic character is allowed to die and remain dead because she wasn’t the main sympathetic character.)  Still, minor quibbles aside, Time After Time has aged well. The late-seventies San Francisco setting has become a nice period piece, while seeing Wells and Ripper face off is good for a few nice ideological exchanges about the nature of then-modern society. (We haven’t progressed very much in forty years.) Writer/director Nicholas Meyer went on write and direct two of the best Star Trek movies (II and VI) but I’m not sure that he ever topped Time After Time’s blend of suspense, humour and imagination. A strong cast, clever writing and competent directing ensure that Time After Time will remain a good solid genre choice for years to come.

The Book of Henry (2017)

(On Cable TV, March 2018) I approached The Book of Henry with overly lowered expectations—the critical drubbing of the film had led me to believe an unmitigated disaster, but the end result is merely dull and ludicrous. This being said, I admit to having watched the film in distracted circumstances (i.e.; reading news), meaning that if I had watched this in theatres with my undivided attention, chances are that I would have ended up hating the film with a passion. It really doesn’t start very well, as the film introduces wunderkind genius Henry and how he (at eleven) is the head of a household featuring a younger brother and a scattered mom. Henry is an engineering genius, an endless fount of trivia, an expert at theoretical psychology and a financial whiz. Nothing phases Henry except for a terminal cancer and the realization that the next-door neighbour is being abused by her step-father, an influential policeman. These things brought together logically (hmmm…) lead to Naomi Watts running around with a high-powered sniper rifle in the third act of the film. But there I go, making The Book of Henry more interesting than it is. Most movies ask for a bit of credulity in order to tell their stories, but The Book of Henry demands far too much credulity without even making cursory attempts at justifying it. The result thus becomes fit for laughter. Still, this isn’t even a bad film—it’s just a dumb one, executed with slick Hollywood professionalism but flawed at the onset. Hollywood has a lot of trouble dealing with smart characters, and super-precocious Henry is only the latest of them—at least the story has the sense to point out that Henry’s ultimately not infallible, but given that this comes in the final minutes of a film in which Henry is always right, it does feel like too little too late. It certainly doesn’t help disperse the overall atmosphere of The Book of Henry as a misguided idea that should not have been made. If industry rumors are correct, director Colin Trevorrow is already paying for it.

Black Panther (2018)

(In Theatres, March 2018) Believe the hype. This seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in some ways one of the most original and important of them all—now that Marvel Studio has spent a decade perfecting its house style and establishing itself as a dependable entertainer, they now feel free (or perhaps forced, given the ever-present spectre of superhero fatigue) to strike out in new directions and literally diversify their offerings. So that’s how we end up with Black Panther, the first big-budget science-fiction spectacular largely helmed by black filmmakers, starring black actors, tackling issues of black interest and squarely set in Africa. The result goes far beyond even the most enthusiastic expectations: The afro-futurism of the film is simply gorgeous. The vision presented on-screen, from set design to costumes to high technology, is refreshing to the point of distracting from the plot from time to time. (Wakanda Forever! I’d love to spend more time there.)  The narrative supporting the film is decent as well, touching upon issues of interventionism, rebellion, succession and grief. (I got a lump in my throat at one particular line for reasons too personal to share.)  Even the original activist meaning of Black Panther gets integrated in the film, alongside other knowing nods and acknowledgments. As with Wonder Woman a few months ago, it’s really interesting to watch Black Panther and notice how it’s conceived from within another culture—wakandian customs and costumes are presented colourfully but not exotically, marking a significant switch from the majority gaze that often stains other depictions of African culture. It’s easy to understand why Black Panther, in the month between its release and the writing of this review, has already become a cultural landmark—there’s never been anything like this in big-budget cinema yet, and the role models that the film offers are far more interesting than what so-called black cinema usually offers. It certainly helps that the film doesn’t hesitate a single moment in embracing its chosen wakandian culture: African accents are a wonderful change from the norm, and the actors in the film are nearly perfect for their roles. Chad Bosewick is restrained but good as the protagonist, but others arguably get more demonstrative roles: Forest Whittaker and Angela Bassett are esteemed veterans, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita N’yongo are already stars, but Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright make a serious play for stardom here. (Wright’s character is a delight whenever she appears on-screen, which is saying much given how good the rest of the cast is.) Artistically, there’s a clear progression here for writer/director Ryan Coogler from Fruitvale Station to Creed to Black Panther: not only does his script manage to touch upon an impressive density of political topics, but his direction is able to benefit from the big-budget means at his disposal—witness the handful of lengthy one shots. As the whitest guy possible, I’m impressed and thankful that the film is both so empowering and so inclusive—after a long series of white male superheroes, it’s a relief to get to play into a different kind of imagination and an honour to witness someone else’s fantastic speculation. If that’s how Marvel Studio plans to stay in business, then they deserve to get more of my money.

Star Wars: Episode VIII— The Last Jedi (2017)

(On Blu-ray, March 2018) So the newest mainline Star Wars movie is out and wow is it interesting. After criticisms that The Force Awakens was a carbon copy of A New Hope, here comes The Last Jedi, seemingly determined to outdo The Empire Strikes Back and undercut expectations at every turn. Never mind the mind-warping idiocy of the premise (space bombers requiring gravity? A space chase in which they need fuel to keep going the same speed? Why is this so dumb?) when the entire movie, from plot points to one-liners, seems determined to shake up the Star Wars legacy. Consider the repeated undercutting of the heroic male as represented by Poe. Consider the savaging of the idea that Rey’s parentage was important. Consider Luke as a reluctant mentor. Consider the silly humour of “general Hugs” or the milking sequence, at odds with the series so far. Consider the script, replete with dialogue along the lines of “I didn’t expect that,” “I assumed, wrongly,” “let the past die,” “It’s time for the Jedi … to end.”  Heck, simply consider the misdirection in which a steam iron is momentarily made to look like a new ship. Most of the plans hatched in this movie are near-complete failures. Dozens of plot arcs launched in The Force Awakens are cut shot here, usually unceremoniously. The ending is the bleakest in the series so far, even in acting as a counterpoint to The Empire Strikes Back. This is no mere accumulation of coincidences: Official interviews confirm that there was very little overarching plotting for the trilogy—writer/director Rian Johnson was able to go wherever he wanted with this film, with little regard to the intentions of the previous film. Considering that, it’s easy to understand why a number of Star Wars fans were infuriated at the result—it certainly doesn’t fulfill expectations, and arguably destroys quite a bit of the Star Wars mythos in the process. On the other hand … for jaded viewers who have been contemplating a yearly Star Wars franchise unable to take risks, this is a welcome shot in the arm. It’s worth reminding everyone that the trilogy isn’t complete—there may be retractions and further revelations to build upon the earthquake seen here. It’s all very interesting, which wasn’t necessarily something to be said about The Force Awakens (although it was one of the strengths of Rogue One). It helps that the film itself is reasonably made, although with significant issues. At nearly two hours and a half, it’s too long by at least fifteen minutes—the last act in particular feels like an afterthought after the climactic throne room confrontation. The idea of Canto Bight is far better than its execution, and while cutting off dramatic arcs in unexpected fashion is intriguing, it’s also frustrating—the case example here being the somewhat unceremonious end for Captain Phasma. The special effects work is fantastic, the Porgs aren’t as annoying as expected, and the actors aren’t bad either—among the newcomers, the ever-interesting Laura Dern makes a good impression in an unusual role, while Kelly Marie Tran brings a bit of welcome diversity (not simply in ethnicity, but also in class) to the usual cast. Mark Hamill makes the most out of his acting repertoire, while Adam Driver is a bit more than an angsty antagonist this time around. Still, the star here is the plot and its willingness to go against expectations. I’m not entirely happy with the results, but I’m far more interested in seeing where the next episode will take us than I was at the end of The Force Awakens. I’m still bothered by a lot of the world building, but, eh, it’s Star Wars after all. Plausibility doesn’t factor in.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

(On DVD, March 2018) Surprisingly enough, I had never seen Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as a kid … and I’m almost glad I hadn’t, because few other children’s movies have such a naked contempt for their audience. (Needless to say, it’s adapted from a novel by famous misanthrope Roald Dahl.)  As a result, the film is almost more interesting for adults than for kids—my favourite aspects of the film was the madcap “the world’s gone wild for golden tickets” news footage from the first half, and then Gene Wilder’s spectacularly sarcastic performance as Wonka in the second half. “Bad kids versus super-snarker” would be one possible alternate title. For a 1971 film, it certainly delivers on high concept imagination: The wild world of candy is pushed to its conceptual limits, and the special effects are often surprisingly good. Still, much of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory depends on Wilder and his oddball sense of humour. I audibly laughed at a few moments, from the computer sequence to the teacher scenes to Wonka’s literary allusions. Wilder’s performance in incarnating eccentric trickster Wonka is terrific—no wonder it became a reference. What’s particularly likable about the film is how it’s really not afraid to hop between moods as needed—the tunnel sequence is just as creepy as it ever was, and yet it fits in-between the far more light-hearted rest of the film. (It probably plays much better on a second viewing, as it becomes a pushed-to-eleven example of Wonka’s deliberate eccentricity. While the musical numbers are hit-and-miss (“The Candy-man” is a classic for other reasons) and the ending is a bit abrupt, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a surprisingly good time for those who haven’t yet seen it.

Blow Out (1981)

(On Cable TV, March 2018) I hadn’t seen Blow Out in at least thirty years, so it’s funny to see what sticks and what doesn’t—my childhood memories of seeing the film (in French, on broadcast TV “prestige” Saturday evening showing) included the ending shot and the “animated film” sequence but little else. I think I learned of the Chappaquiddick political scandal after watching the film, which is really weird in retrospect. Watching the film as a seasoned thriller fan, I was a bit more impressed by director Brian de Palma’s ability to create suspense and memorable sequences through directorial audacity. John Travolta is surprisingly good (and young!) as a sound-effect technician who ends up embroiled in a political assassination conspiracy—with no less than an even younger-looking John Lithgow as an effectively creepy antagonist. Blow Out moves quickly and doesn’t have too many dull moments. While some character motivations are suspect (as in; the protagonist seeing the heroine again for no other reason that she’s attractive) and the coincidences in the plot defy credibility, but de Palma knows what he’s doing (just watch that opening shot) and the look at exploitation filmmaking at the eve of the eighties is simply fascinating—the period feel of the era’s technology, complete with tapes and physical cutting, is now one of the film’s biggest strengths. The ending is a downer, but it’s almost entirely justifiable through the film’s atmosphere and thematic resonance. Blow Out remains a remarkable early-eighties suspense movie that clearly owes much to the conspiracy thrillers of the seventies.

Barbarella (1968)

(In French, On TV, March 2018) It seems to me that Barbarella was a cultural reference when I was much younger, but it has since then waned in popularity and influence. Oh well; merely being reminded of it was enough to get me watching, especially given how it played late at night on a French “classic TV & movies” channel. While I’m normally a strong advocate for watching movies in their original language, Barbarella does have a certain flavour in dubbed French—Jane Fonda’s Barbarella has a lovely slight English accent, and the French dialogue does remind us that the film was directed by French writer/director Roger Vadim. It certainly starts with a bang, as Fonda disrobes during a groovy credit sequence and, disrobed, receives mission instructions from the president of Earth. None of what you’ll see in the movie looks like anything else: Barbarella sure looks like peak sixties with surreal imagery in service of a nominally science-fictional story. It barely makes sense either on a narrative or a visual level, but it sure does have atmosphere to spare. Unfortunately, the lack of an engaging plot, cohesive visuals or anything approaching craft of execution does mean that the film becomes less and less interesting as it goes on. While the initial appeal of a science-fiction erotic comedy is good enough for a hook, the film never exceeds the results of its opening sequence. It’s curiously restrained for a French film of the sixties, further contributing to the film not fulfilling its opening promises. Sure, it’s interesting to see Marcel Marceau in a speaking role, or watch Anita Pallenberg vamp it up as an evil queen … but the film does very little with what it has to play with, and the result turns from promising to dull to annoying as the film goes on. Even at 98 minutes, it feels long and disconnected. Fonda does act and look fantastic as the titular heroine, the music is interesting (witness the origins for Duran Duran’s band title) and the shoestring-budget acid-trip production design is still worth a look. (There’s a straight line from Barbarella to The Fifth Element in terms of costume design, and it shows.)  There are a few quick laughs (the tail thing getting stuck in a door), some of them guilty (Barbarella overloading the orgasmatron.) But the film hasn’t survived particularly well—to say that’s dominated by the male gaze is a strong understatement, and I suspect that the film is now more embarrassing than exhilarating to older audiences. I’m reasonably happy that I have finally seen Barbarella … but I can’t bring myself to recommend it.

A Lot like Love (2005)

(On DVD, March 2018) About as generic a romantic comedy as it’s possible to put together, A Lot like Love is familiar and forgettable, but not necessarily terrible. Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet do well as a couple that repeatedly meets over a seven-year period, eventually discovering that they belong together through personal failures and growth. The nineties sequences already feel nostalgic, not to mention the early dot-com era material. Kal Penn shows up in a small role, as does Kathryn Hahn in a very brief and early role that nonetheless adds to her later persona of playing sex-crazed characters. The episodic, time-skipping structure of the film is equally interesting and frustrating, as we know early on that romantic frustration will be maintained until the story catches back up to present time. On the other hand, the film is decently scripted (witness the mini-romances going on in the background during the seven years of the story) and can depend on capable leads. Sure, the various plot threads are predictable but seeing the film from a perspective twelve years later, it’s a reminder that Hollywood studios have gone almost entirely out of the mid-budget romantic comedy genre. Seeing the film in 2018 is almost inevitably less repetitive than having seen it in 2005 … by lack of similar examples. Still, let’s not fool ourselves: A Lot like Love remains a generic romantic comedy, and it fades away as soon as the final credits roll. You won’t begrudge the time spent watching it … as long as you don’t have a big queue of other movies to watch.

The Best Years of our Lives (1946)

(On Cable TV, March 2018) There have been a lot of World War II movies, but comparatively fewer post-WW2 films. Released in 1946 and taking a look at the struggles of servicemen coming back home after a long time abroad, The Best Years of our Lives surely qualified as a “social issues” movie when it came out. Fortunately, it does capture the dynamics of the moment well enough to be worth a look even seventy years later. Of our three protagonists, one is an older man coming back home to adult kids and a senior banking job; another is an ex-soda jerk struggling to go back to lower-class jobs after a rewarding tour as a bombing navigator; a third (played by a real-life amputee) sees his disability as a disqualifying factor in his relationship. All three interact in various ways, break established patterns and reveal themselves to have been changed by their experience. Of note here is Harold Russell, an amputated non-actor delivering a performance so impressive it won no fewer than two Oscars. (Nominated in the Supporting Actor category but expected to lose, the Academy gave an honorary Oscar to Russell … only to see him win the competitive category as well.)  Fredric March is also quite likable as the visibly older man reintegrating a comfortable position. It does have the quirks of a mid-forties film, but the drama is solid, generally palatable to a modern audience (including a daring-for-the-time subplot of a married man justifiably leaving his wife) and still well-observed even today. The ripped-from-headlines nature of The Best Years of our Lives has aged very well in a credible depiction of an overlooked facet of history and the result is surprisingly good even today.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

(On TV, March 2018) Do American movies ever get as angry as does The Grapes of Wrath? Squarely taking on injustice in Dustbowl-Depression era, the film follows a family forced away from their Oklahoma fame and led to seek work in California fields. It really doesn’t go well for most of the movie, as the “Okies” family encounters death and capitalist exploitation at every turn, only reaching satisfaction of sorts in the hands of a decent government program. While definitely softened from the original Steinbeck novel (including reordering episodes around to provide a good ending), The Grapes of Wrath is still a scathing denunciation of the free market in a time of need. It’s almost continuously infuriating as the protagonist family gets knocked down again—fortunately, the stirring ending manages to make things a bit better, delivering a memorable speech about the resiliency of the people (and the importance of being there to right wrongs) as an epilogue. Visually, the black-and-white quality of the film’s images reinforces the poverty of their surroundings, washing out any colour in a muddle of despair. Still, director John Ford knew what he was doing, and the film is still powerful even today. Consider that The Grapes of Wrath was a major production by a big studio … why is it that movies never get as angry as this one, even at a time when social disparities are ripe for criticism? 

The Player (1992)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, March 2018) I first saw The Player sometime in the mid-nineties and fondly remembered it as a good satire of the Hollywood system. Seeing today, now that I’m venomously better-informed about moviemaking, is almost better than a first viewing. Tim Robbins stars as a studio executive who, harassed by an unknown person, comes to accidentally kill a screenwriter. The rest of the film is about avoiding detection even in the face of persistent investigators. Writer/director Robert Altman has rarely been funnier as he (somewhat gently) skewers the Hollywood machine, portraying nearly everyone as self-absorbed jerks capable of the worst. Back in 1992, much was made of The Player’s nonstop parade of cameos—twenty-five years later, it’s turned into a game to spot people whose fame has considerably waned a quarter of a century later, or non-actors Hollywood royalty whose face were never that well-known in the first place. The film does begin on a very high note with a complex seven-minute shot that neatly introduces a bunch of narrative threads and characters. It spends a remarkable portion of its first half-hour lining up joke after joke even as it gradually builds up its premise. The rest of the film isn’t as constantly funny—The Player does take its plot seriously after a while, and the detective subplot isn’t particularly high on satire. The last few minutes, however, do go back to the satire, with an amusing movie-in-a-movie and a killer last few lines in which, well, “forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”  While I don’t think I’m quite as bullish about the movie as when I first saw it, I still like it quite a bit.