Modern Times (1936)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Modern Times</strong> (1936)

(On Cable TV, April 2018) There’s an interest in Modern Times that goes beyond it being one of Charlie Chaplin’s best-known films. It was made in 1936, more than half a decade after Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films. As such, it does incorporate a soundtrack and even voices from time to time. But the Tramp character remains mostly silent, aside from a droll final song showing that voice could be used to make an impact even at that stage in movie history. Much has been said about Modern Times’ portrayal of industrialization and its impact on workers, and even today the film feels relevant in its critique, as well as the link it establishes between the capitalist establishment, the justice system and worker oppression. It even talks about unionization against corporate rule, imprisonment as an intimidation tactic and drug use, all of which are kind of amazing to see in a Hays Code film. There’s a lot of material here beyond the comedy routines, of which there are several memorable ones. As far as I’m concerned, Modern Times comes in just a notch below The Great Dictator in the Chaplin pantheon, with its politically engaged message, better tech credentials, hopeful finale and fine-tuned comic moments.

Greed (1924)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Greed</strong> (1924)

(On Cable TV, April 2018) Diving into classic movies is often best done in stages: some of it is accessible to modern audiences, some of it takes a little bit more work and sympathy and some of it will frankly bore the pants off casual viewers. Knowing this, I’m convinced that I have seen the reconstructed four-hour-long version of Greed far too early in my development as a classic movie fan. The back story is worth explaining: 1924’s Greed is widely acknowledged as one of the finest dramatic films of the silent era and a masterpiece for screenwriter/director Erich von Stroheim. But the 140-minute version that has been shown on-screen since the 1924 is reportedly a mere shadow of the 462 minutes of the lost original director’s cut. In 2012, however, film experts reconstructed a 239-minutes version of the film using the original script and photos taken during the production of the film. That reconstruction was the version I saw and, well, it maximized all of my issues with silent movies: The pacing is mortally slow, the use of photos (zoomed, cropped, panned) as placeholders for missing scenes is jarring and the new material did seem extraneous from the bulk of the story. It takes a lot to convince me to sit down to watch a four-hour movie, and Greed did not match that level of interest. This being said, I can see why this version would be interesting to someone already fascinated by the movie. Alas, this strikes me as Greed 201 rather than the 101-level lesson I’m ready to digest at this point. All of this being said, there’s quite a bit that I liked about even this interminable version of the film. The story is complex and strong, being adapted from a novel, and it does explore its central theme with the cleverness we’d expect from more contemporary examples. The writing of the title cards is a noticeable cut above most silent films, being sometimes reprinted from literary material. Gibson Gowland makes quite an impression as the protagonist of the story: it’s not a good impression (“punchable face” comes to mind), but his is not a good character either. Meanwhile, ZaSu Pitts looks like an alien with her wide eyes and unusual hairdo—hers isn’t a good-natured character either, and the drama she creates is tragic. Strong actors, a strong script and some really interesting period detail make for a film with definite strengths, but I have the clear impression that I would have enjoyed the cut-down version more. Thanks, TCM, I guess, for providing more than I needed—but I’ll get more out of the reconstructed Greed whenever I’ll be more familiar with 1920s cinema.

The Dark Tower (2017)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Dark Tower</strong> (2017)

(On Cable TV, April 2018) I’m not that familiar with Stephen King’s series (even though I’ve got most of it on my shelves, waiting for a sustained reading marathon) but you don’t need to be a fan to be disappointed by the low energy of this big screen The Dark Tower. Some of the film is worth defending: Idris Elba has never been less than interesting even in misfires such as this one. Matthew McConaughey can play evil very well. Some of the initial world building of the film is intriguing. There’s a great action sequence at the end. But beyond those things, The Dark Tower feels like a blend of several very familiar urban fantasy tropes remixed without much wit nor conviction. It does a poor job hinting at the grandeur of King’s series, and far too often goes back to familiarity when we’re here for the new and unexpected. I often complain about the Hollywood process that uniformizes whatever quirky source of inspiration comes its way, and that’s seldom as apparent as in here. Whatever may have been worthwhile in King’s source material is compressed in an extremely familiar three-act structure and plot moments that feel stolen from the past five years of YA urban fantasy. What’s left cannot be satisfying to audiences unfamiliar with King’s work nor his fans. The Dark Tower feels like a mess, and watches like one. Looking at the poor critical and commercial returns for the film, it’s fair to say that there will never be a sequel in that continuity and I’m not devastated by that idea.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Thor: Ragnarok</strong> (2017)

(Video On-Demand, April 2018) I really wasn’t expecting Thor: Ragnarok to be anything more than a self-imposed completionist task on the way to Avengers: Infinity War. I found the first two Thor movies to be among the weakest of the MCU so far, both dull and imbued of their own nonsensical self-importance. Thor-the-character I liked largely because of Chris Hemsworth’s charm, and Loki is fine as one of the MCU’s most compelling antagonists, but the rest of the series was a chore—a small-town battle in the first film made for a poor high point, whereas the second film’s gleeful waddling in its own uninteresting mythology had me despairing about its self-referentiality. But a change of pace can do wonders, and it doesn’t take a long time for Ragnarok to highlight its difference. Under screenwriter/director Taika Waititi’s particular sensibilities, Thor become much funnier, much looser, and far more interesting. The ponderous visual atmosphere becomes influenced by rock music iconography, and a pitch-perfect use of The Immigrant Song makes for a showcase opening sequence that tells out that it’s fine to forget about the two previous movies. As a matter of fact, the opening of Ragnarok is so jolly, fast paced and self-deprecating that it made me worry that the film would be an insubstantial series of jokes without weight. But as it turns out, the film actually becomes more efficient once its charming hooks are deeply embedded: As the film builds its dramatic tension, the humour is balanced by action and drama and the result is quite effective despite almost completely destroying one of the MCU’s major settings along the way. It helps that Hemsworth meets a worthwhile match in Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie in terms of charisma—once you factor in Jeff Goldblum as an antagonist, Cate Blanchet proving that she can do darkly sexy and surprise appearances by a few MCU regulars, the film remains great good fun throughout. Waititi knows how to make a film that moves (his Valkyrie sequences are visually spectacular and innovative, which isn’t something we often say within the MCU), and the trip to another planet isn’t a distraction from the overall series. Ragnarok leaps over its limp prequels to become one of my favourite MCU films, which really wasn’t something I was expecting when I started to watch it.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sleeping Beauty</strong> (1959)

(On DVD, April 2018) Among the Disney Animation canon, Sleeping Beauty is way up there as a crown jewel—it’s spawned an authentic Disney Princess, making it mandatory for parents of young girls. Having an iconic villain in Maleficent (who had her own sympathetic spinoff film recently) also helped. The story is a classic, but, of course, the Disney version had to make a few changes to make it more palatable, and so much of the fun of watching the film from beginning to end (as opposed to the start-and-stop of toddler-watching) is seeing the various adjustments made to make the original fairy tale more palatable to family audiences. Most blatant is the readjustment of the timeline of the film to cover a much shorter time span—allowing the prince and princess to meet well before the events of their final kiss, and taking away some of the sting of “ewww, who does he think he is kissing someone without their explicit or even implied consent.”  From an animation standpoint, Sleeping Beauty has its highs and lows—in character animation, it’s as good as Disney (or anyone else) was at the time, although the use of some optical effects has really not aged well at all. What I do wonder, though, if the film’s influence on generations of fantasy writers—the final sequences is about a knight fighting a dragon and I’m almost certain that the iconography of that sequence has inspired quite a few prose fantasy writers. Otherwise, a close sustained viewing that avoid skipping from one highlight to another highlights that the three fairy godmothers really have issues to work out before they should be allowed to take long-term care of a kid … and that childproofing an entire kingdom against unauthorized yarn spinning is doomed to failure. Still, Sleeping Beauty generally holds up for those who don’t mind a bit of good old princess-being-rescued stuff.

Krull (1983)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Krull</strong> (1983)

(In French, On Cable TV, April 2018) What the heck is this?!  Krull has to be seen to be believed. I don’t think it could have existed at any other time but 1983, bathing in an unholy stew of Star Wars and Conan references, before everyone woke up and realized how bad of an idea it was. An incoherent, possibly insane blend of science-fantasy, Krull goes through the motion of creating an iconography without first making sure that it has some substance. As a result, the script feels as if it’s been thrown in a blender and half the sequences improvised on the spot. The special effects go everywhere and do everything, tearing apart the flimsy story underneath. The cherry on the sundae is seeing Liam Neeson in one of his earliest roles as a bandit—Neeson looked old and physically imposing even in his twenties. Reading about the complicated, almost disastrous production of the film reminds us of everything that’s wrong about big-budget movies cashing on sudden trends—aimless direction, outclassed filmmakers, incoherent production and no central vision resulting in everything being thrown on-screen. To be fair, Krull being bad doesn’t mean that Krull isn’t entertaining—the amount of work and insanity required to complete the project can be felt even three decades and a half later, making it curiously compelling to watch if only to see what else will come up to exceed the previous scene’s inanity. We don’t always watch movies because they’re good. Sometimes, we watch them because there’s nothing else quite like it.

Tampopo (1985)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Tampopo</strong> (1985)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, April 2018) My maternal grandfather is an unlikely reference in any review of a Japanese movie. After all, he wasn’t what we’d call a movie buff. He was a simple man, a farmer, someone far more interested in watching hockey games on Saturday nights than discussing anything that went beyond his experience as a rural Quebecker. But as a teenager, when I worked on the family farm for the summer, watching Saturday night hockey wasn’t an option and so we relied on whatever Radio Canada was showing as Saturday evening entertainment instead. Many times, this meant James Bond, Star Wars or other Hollywood escapism. But there were exceptions, and so I distinctly recall watching Tampopo with my grandfather, and him not only sticking around for much of the film, but audibly chuckling at some of the sequences. Considering that Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is a vertiginously foreign movie that constantly references other genres, this is something of an aberration. But here’s the thing: For all of its ironic vignettes about food wrapped by a framing device that adapts the archetypical “stranger comes to town” Western plot template into a quest to rebuild a widow’s noodle restaurant (!), Tampopo is incredibly accessible … and funny. Everybody eats, and so whenever the film takes a break from its main story for a short sketch about people eating, it’s easy to be swept along for the ride. As a teen, I was immediately taken by the metatextual opening sequence in which a gangster in a white suit harangues other moviegoers for eating loudly. A re-watch as a middle-aged man unlocks even more of the film’s content, as the references to samurai or cowboy movies are better appreciated (it is, after all, famously called a “ramen western”) and the film goes on to touch upon other genres such as yazuka films. The film is uneven, as sketch movies are, but the main plot is unexpectedly captivating, and downright charming in the way it’s willing to procedurally explain what distinguishes great ramen from an ordinary dish. While fearlessly Japanese, Tampopo is also universal, and has a lot going for it for seasoned moviegoers even if it feels effortlessly captivating by base audiences. You couldn’t find a better illustration of that than my grandfather and I watching the same movie with the same amount of fascination.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Ghost and Mrs. Muir</strong> (1947)

(On Cable TV, April 2018) I think that what I enjoy most out of my data-driven method to watching classic cinema is approaching movies completely blind other than knowing that “a lot of people have watched this.”  That’s how I end up watching films that may not sound interesting, but end up being surprisingly enjoyable. Hence The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a film that sounds terrible from a simple premise (“Widower moves into a seaside house, ends up forming a relationship with the previous owner’s ghost”) but ends up being unexpectedly captivating, and even somewhat fresh even seventy years later. The magic of the film isn’t in its premise but in its execution, with the lovely Gene Tierney turning in an impeccable performance as a widower looking for a fresh life on her own, and especially Rex Harrison as a crusty sea captain having lost little of his lust for life even in death. The first unremarkable few minutes are competently made, but the film takes a life of its own as soon as the ghost makes his appearance. Harrison’s near-parodic take on a sea captain is charming, and the film seamlessly shifts gear from suspense drama to romantic comedy, complete with rather witty dialogue. Then there’s another shift as a live romantic interest shows up, setting up a dramatic triangle that provides much of the film’s third quarter. Then it’s off to another seamless shift into romantic drama, with a last act that takes surprising leaps forward in time, and completes with an incredibly satisfying conclusion. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has too many rough edges to be considered an all-time classic (some of the dialogue is pandering, and many of the dramatic twists are implausible at best—the last act is particularly problematic), but it’s highly enjoyable and has more than a few pleasant surprises in store for modern viewers. Charming and surprising, it has aged admirably well and represents, even today, an exemplary example of 1940s Hollywood cinema.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Picnic at Hanging Rock</strong> (1975)

(On Cable TV, April 2018) Sometimes, the real terror comes from not knowing. So it is that Picnic at Hanging Rock first shows itself as a period drama following the disappearance of a few teenage girls in the Australian Wilderness, but ends up being an unnerving quasi-horror film in which there are no answers and no relief. The visual polish and atmosphere of the film will feel familiar to fans of director Sofia Coppola’s work—I was feeling moderately pleased to find the similarity, but then read that Coppola explicitly based the look and feel of a few of her movies on this one and was suitably humbled. Suffice to say that contrast between the carefree nature of the girls at the beginning of the movie and the lurking horror that gradually follows the disappearance of a few of them ends up being one of the film’s driving contrasts. Ably re-creating a historical period seldom seen in films (1900 rural Australia), Picnic at Hanging Rock is a treat to watch and a nightmare to contemplate. Few movies deliver as few answers to their central mysteries. Here, girls disappear and the focus becomes on what happens in the aftermath of that disappearance, never to dwell on the possible reasons for their fate. It’s profoundly unsatisfying and that becomes the point of the film—we feel just as cheated of a release as the characters. (An answer of sort is to be found in literary sources, but the author’s concluding chapter feels too ludicrous to be satisfying.)  I may not like director Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock very much, but I can’t help but respect the power of its intentions—and I almost consider it the best film that Sofia Coppola didn’t direct.

Spartacus (1960)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Spartacus</strong> (1960)

(On TV, April 2018) The fifties were big on sword-and-sandal epics, and Spartacus is in many ways just another link in the chain that goes from, at least, Quo Vadis (1951) to Cleopatra (1963). That it happens to be a Stanley Kubrick film (directing a script by the equally legendary Dalton Trumbo) is almost immaterial—Kubrick famously disliked the end result, and reacted to his experience making the film by staying as far away from Hollywood as possible for the rest of his career. Still, there’s a lot to like here, starting with Kirk Douglas’s spectacular performance as Spartacus, or Laurence Oliver sparring with him as Crassus, or notables such as Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov (back in sandals!) Tony Curtis or Jean Simmons in other roles. Trumbo’s script is quite good (the “I’m Spartacus ! ”scene lives on) and the execution does live up to Kubrick’s exacting standards. As historical epics go, Spartacus is one of the better ones, and it warrants watching as more than a historical reference.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Atomic Blonde</strong> (2017)

(On Cable TV, April 2018) We’re at the tail end of eighties nostalgia now, but I won’t complain if it brings us as finely crafted action movies as Atomic Blonde. Set against the inevitable fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this is a deliciously retro piece of work that nonetheless embodies 2010s attitude and filmmaking prowess, with Charlize Theron once again burnishing solid action credentials as an English spy trying to stabilize a dangerous situation where no one can be trusted. She is intensely credible as a capable heroine, holding up against waves of assailants: Atomic Blonde’s centrepiece sequence is an impossibly long sequence in which she fights her way out of a building against countless assailants, a virtuoso demonstration of what’s now possible with personal trainers, audacious directors, seamless CGI and clever techniques. This sequence is made even better by how it leaves visible marks and bruises on the heroine, dramatically reinforcing the realism of the sequence even in a generally fantastic film. (David Leitch directs, solidifying his resume after John Wick.) Other actors also impress, from an increasingly credible James McAvoy as an action star, to Sofia Boutella playing a very unusual “soft” role going against her established screen persona. (We’re really sorry to see her go.)  John Goodman and Toby Jones help complete the triple-crossing framing device that fully plays out Cold War mythology tropes. A terrific new wave soundtrack helps complete the package, adding much to the film for those who even dimly remember the late eighties. Aside from its intrinsic qualities, Atomic Blonde is also a further salvo in how the eighties are being digested into mythology, ready to be re-used as second-generation pop-culture elements. Even if you don’t care about that, Atomic Blonde is a solid action movie fit to make any cinephile giggle with joy at how well it works.

The Graduate (1967)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Graduate</strong> (1967)

(On TV, April 2018) The problem with being a generation’s defining statement is that it may not be as compelling to other generations. Contemporary accounts of The Graduate clearly show that it struck a nerve with the baby-boomer generation then coming of age alongside the film’s protagonist. But watching it today doesn’t carry the same message. While Dustin Hoffman ably embodies that generation’s desire to rebel against their parents, his particular struggles seem to belong to the late sixties. Strangely enough, it wouldn’t take much to retell The Graduate today—the big social plot threads are still more or less relevant and technology hasn’t changed much along the way. It doesn’t feel as dated as some of its contemporaries, yet the film simply doesn’t feel all that striking. You can easily imagine a low-budget dramedy telling more or less the same story, but there’s no way that such a film would become the monster hit that it was back then, at a time when “New Hollywood” cinema was waking up from its post-Hays Code stupor. Does it still work today? Well, yes, in its own offbeat way. The film’s first half is surprisingly funny for a film with a reputation as a romantic drama, although the second half really brings the laughs to a stop. It’s remarkably amusing to see firsthand what pop culture has been parodying or sampling for fifty years—you can find echoes of The Graduate in everything from Wayne’s World 2 to George Michael’s “Too Funky.”  Hoffman shows his unusual gifts as an actor, while Anne Bancroft is unforgettable as Mrs. Robinson. Simon & Garfunkel provide the score, which is one of the things that most clearly date the film. Still, it’s worth a middling look today—but maybe not for itself as much as for the impact it had.

Solyaris [Solaris] (1972)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Solyaris</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Solaris</strong>] (1972)

(On Cable TV, April 2018) It doesn’t often happen that watching “the original” makes me appreciate “the remake” even more, but Solyaris is not a typical film. It took me a surprisingly long time to get to it, considering that I have written for Solaris-the-magazine since 1997 (yes, the name comes from the Stanislaw Lem novel, which I read back in the nineties), and my page on Solaris (2002) Explained has achieved a surprising level of popularity. But Solyaris-the-original is a product of the Soviet film industry. It’s maddeningly opaque, slow, philosophical and emotionally flat to a degree that appears excessive even to an ultra-mild-mannered person such as myself. It’s more than two-and-a-half-hours long and feels considerably longer, not helped along by credulity-straining sequences in which we follow a car driving through Tokyo for a few minutes. (You think I’m making this up, but I’m not.)  The set design of the film is straight from the garbage bin of Soviet industry, with a few striking images but little consistency from room to room. I could go on and on, but let’s admit a few things: I’m not watching the film as if it was 1972. Back then, I would have been almost de rigueur to praise Solyaris for its intellectual take on Science Fiction tropes, refreshingly devoid of special effects and heavy on human psychological exploration. The alien nature of the Soviet film production would have been fascinating and writer/director Andrei Tarkovsky’s quirky choices would have been like no other in recent history (well, other than 2001: A Space Odyssey). But this is 2018 and we’ve seen quite a number of good-to-great SF movies in the decades since then, all able to balance well-paced ideas with outright entertainment. In fact, the key piece of evidence is Solaris-the-remake, which manages to cover the ideas of the original (and add a few more) while chopping more than an hour from the running time. The remake actors are significantly better, the set design is coherent, the SF elements are used intelligently and the pacing is incomparably faster. Plus there’s Steven Soderberg at the helm of the remake, meaning that the result does approach cinema-as-art. Watching the remake was challenging, but watching the original is just a chore. Is it unfair that a remake would improve upon all aspects of the original?

Ultimo Tango a Parigi [Last Tango in Paris] (1972)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ultimo Tango a Parigi</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Last Tango in Paris</strong>] (1972)

(On TV, April 2018) I’m usually a good sport about watching movies that predate my birth—the world has moved on since then, some have not aged very well but it’s important to put them in context and appreciate them for what they were trying to do at the time. This being said, appreciating a film for its artistic intent is not the same thing as liking a film that goes out of its way to be unpleasant, and so I find myself quite willing to dismiss Last Tango in Paris out of hand from 2018’s perspective. The story of a so-called erotic drama between two strangers meeting in a Paris apartment, this is a film that delights in the more sordid aspects of human nature, adultery and domination being part of the package. Writer/Director Bernardo Bertolucci has his own obsessions, but they’re not necessarily fun to watch. Maria Schneider is cute enough (especially with curly hair) but Marlon Brando is a significant obstacle to any enjoyment of the movie. Shot at a time when Brandon was halfway through his slide from the energetic young man of his first performances to the bloated mess of his later years, he’s suitably repellent here, with balding head, expanding gut, aggressive attitude and twice the age of his co-star—hardly the sex symbol that an “erotic drama” would call for. Much of the events throughout the film are unpleasant, with a number of unbearable moments along the way. By the tragic ending, we feel relief that it’s finally over. I’m not a good audience for the kind of drama that is Last Tango in Paris, so I shouldn’t be surprised if it was such an ordeal to watch. 

History of the World: Part I (1981)

<strong class="MovieTitle">History of the World: Part I</strong> (1981)

(On TV, April 2018) Ugh. There was a time in my life when I rather liked Mel Brooks’ later phase (i.e.: Anything past the mid-seventies) satirical comedy. I still think fondly of Spaceballs despite a strong suspicion that I like it because of Star Wars more than anything else. A recently re-watch of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, however, had me severely downgrading the film. With History of the World: Part I, I have to face the facts: More of Brooks’s wild comedy is a miss rather than a hit. Oh, I still like bits and pieces of it. The fourth-wall-breaking is fun, the Busby-Berkley-inspired music number is a really good and I really can’t fault Madeline Khan in anything. But the rest of the film … oy vey. It really starts on the wrong foot with a caveman sequence going straight for lower-common denominator stuff, and much the rest of the film seldom rises above that level. Jokes are regularly run into the ground, the humour is usually puerile and the production values (at the notable exception of the musical number) look as if few people actually cared. It shoots in all direction but only manages to hit a few targets. I’m not sure what happened in the late seventies for Brooks’s stuff to fall so flat, but we’re stuck with the results.