(On Cable TV, April 2018) I’m really not going to suggest that 1990’s Flatliners was a terrific movie, but a recent look at it suggested that it remained watchable thanks to slick cinematography and the presence of a group of actors who have since gone on to successful careers. While it’s far too early to say if Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton or Kiersey Clemons will break out (Ellen Page is already a known quantity, although not quite as indispensable as she was in 2010), I have a feeling that the 2017 remake will not age well. For one thing, it’s almost terrifyingly dull to viewers of the first movie—it keeps the inherent silliness of the original premise, but doesn’t really do anything interesting with the rest of its potential. The cinematography is flat (although some of the CGI-enhanced out-of-body sequences have flair), the themes are underdeveloped, the characters are dull and not much of the film makes sense if you approach it without the original—by the time the lead character unveils state of the art resurrection equipment in a basement, it’s clear that the film doesn’t make sense, and can’t bring any style to the proceedings. Including the original film’s Keifer Sutherland for a two-scene cameo actually undercuts the remake’s effectiveness by reminding us of the original while doing nothing to improve upon it—ah, let’s dream of an alternate take where Sutherland’s character, twenty-five years later, would seek to warn a new generation about the dangers of their experiment! The original idea was a great concept brought down with plotting silliness yet raised by execution quality. Alas, this remake is just dull. Among the actors, I have reasonable hopes that Diego Luna and Kiersey Clemons will go on to better things … but somehow, I doubt that future audiences will see 2017 Flatliners’ casting as a reason to see it.
(On DVD, April 2018) Every entry in the Dirty Harry series has been a small but perceptible notch below the previous one, and Sudden Impact is no exception. By this time, the series has devolved in a near-parody of the character, as Callahan goes around shooting criminals and causing heart attacks with the film chugging along approvingly. It’s an excuse for Harry to get out of town, though and before long he’s out of the familiar San Francisco frame and stuck in a small seaside town where there’s a serious serial killing spree going on. Which brings us to the real story of the film, about a sexual assault victim taking revenge upon her aggressors, and Harry being dropped in the middle of that plot. In some ways, Sudden Impact is what happens when a serious (serious isn’t incompatible with exploitative) crime drama gets taken over by a franchise character tourist. Suddenly, Harry and his dog are in the middle of a story that could very well have been told without them. The clash is rather interesting to watch—at times, far more than taking Harry at face value as he gets a bigger gun, one less partner and even fewer enemies at the end of the film than at the beginning. Clint Eastwood is imperturbable as Harry Callahan—he also directs in a matter-of-fact fashion, and gives the lead female role to his then-long-time partner Sondra Locke, who’s actually quite intriguing in an unconventional way here. The result is misshapen, often ugly, not quite respectable and definitely another step down in the series, but those watching the Dirty Harry series box set will feel as if they got their money’s worth out of Sudden Impact.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) From our twenty-first century perspective, we routinely complain about remakes … but the truth is that the early decades of cinema were just as rife with movies being remade. Of course, back then they did have better excuses, as the state of the art in moviemaking kept progressing at a pace that would astound us today. Take the leap between the 1920 and 1941 versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: One of them silent, crude and garish while the latter one being more nuanced and controlled. Spencer Tracy delivers a truly good performance in both eponymous roles, relying on sheer acting (and hairstyling, and makeup) to distinguish between the two characters. The direction is more ambitious, the story a bit more sophisticated, the portrayal of evil not quite as comically quaint as in the previous film. As a result, the 1941 version can be watched today with far fewer obstacles between the film and the viewer—sure, the colour is missing … but not much more. Where the 1941 version suffers a bit, especially when watched as a double-feature with the 1920 version, is that it has fewer surprises to offer in telling the same story. In a way, that frees the viewer to appreciate the execution and Tracy’s more impressive performance largely bereft of prosthetics.
Eamon Dolan, 2018, 304 pages, $ 23.00US, ISBN 978-0-544-78976-0 2018-04-15
From 2001 to 2018, I was lucky enough to be a professional movie columnist for two French-Canadian magazines. My mandate was genre-focused, but as the years went by my column increasingly used simple movie reviewing as a launchpad to broader considerations about the evolution of the movie industry. In late 2016, to celebrate fifteen years of quarterly columns, I decided to ditch reviews for one column and spend 5,000 words taking a data-driven look at the overall state of movies as of late 2016, in-between online distribution, the evolution of blockbusters toward serials and the sheer amazing number of movies produced every year. If you’re curious and can read French (or feed the URL to the surprisingly competent Google Translate), you can read the column in its crime/thriller focus at Alibis, or its SF/fantasy variant at Solaris.
I offer the preceding paragraph not as puffery (after all, budget cuts being what they are, both of these columns have since been shut down and I am now that most pitiable of creatures; an unemployed movie reviewer) but as feeble credentials in considering Ben Fritz’s The Big Picture, which takes a step back from box-office grosses to take a look at the state of the cinematic art, or rather how the industry is remaking itself in the image of what moviegoers are now willing to pay for.
Fritz and I may have been looking at the same topic (and we did reach some similar conclusion), but I’m just a schmuck with Internet access, whereas he’s a movie financial correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, with impeccable industry sources and a privileged perch overseeing every Hollywood twitch. He was also willing to delve deep in the leaked emails from Sony, using those as a surprisingly effective way to give life to his overall thesis.
His book, in short, argues that Hollywood (i.e.; the “big six” studios that release the big-budget movies that dominate the global box office: Disney, Fox, Sony, Warner, Universal and Paramount) has been seduced by the bigger-is-better mentality. It now refuses to directly produce movies that are not assured hits (as much as those can be predicted) and is constantly doubling down on the examples set by previous box-office records. If Hollywood releases mid-budget movies not tied to existing universes, it’s usually because they bought distribution rights from the picture’s true owners—they will not, by themselves, finance a wholly original new creation. (The high-profile exceptions, such as Dunkirk, rather prove the rule—Warner Brothers has an ongoing relationship with screenwriter/director Christopher Nolan largely based on his success adapting the Batman franchise to the big screen.)
The exemplar that Fritz uses in demonstrating his thesis is Disney. Earlier than anyone else in town, Disney realized that not taking creative risks meant not taking financial risks. Acquiring everything popular under the sun (such as Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar) was only a part of a strategy that also involved strip-mining its own back catalogue for live-action adaptations of animated movies, and hopefully making sequels to those movies as well. The counterpart of Disney’s acquire-and-regurgitate strategy was Sony (formerly Columbia)’s steadfast support for middle-budgeted movies developed in-house, under the watch of influential producer Amy Pascal. It worked until it didn’t, and as Fritz details (largely through the emails leaked from Sony’s own system), it only took a bad run of movies for Sony’s corporate investors to demand change, and for Sony to follow the leaders in financing only sure returns on investment. In Hollywood, nobody is chasing after mere millions dollars in profits—anything less than billions is a career-ending disappointment.
Much of it has to do with the gatekeepers not necessarily liking their own products—whereas, at a time, legendary figures in Hollywood studios loved movies as much as they did business, the new corporate structures values management prowess first—artistic interest is entirely optional. As a result, not only has Hollywood completely abandoned the idea of making art for art’s sake (even for definitions of art that limit themselves to “tell a good story”), but the traditional one-of-the-money-one-for-the-art barter system is also disappearing.
This has a number of visible consequences on the movies that are offered to audiences. Never mind the sequels, the spinoffs, or the reboots—once franchising rules the game and movies merely become another element in a multi-pronged multimedia strategy, it’s clear that whatever makes movies special is also negotiable. Forget about definitive shocking endings when there is always the possibility of another episode a few years later. (See: Avengers: Infinity War) Forget about directors taking control of the medium when they are merely hired to execute a studio strategy with the minimal amount of fuss. (See: Ron Howard and the Solo debacle.) That also explains why so many young directors fresh out of an independent low-budget film are hired for massive tent-pole pictures: studios are hiring people they can boss around. (See: Josh Trank and the Fantastic Four trainwreck.)
If there is a glimmer of hope in this business, goes on to explain Fritz, it’s that at a time when studios have abandoned cinema as they’ve perfected it, others are picking up the pieces. Digital filmmaking and post-production has lowered the cost and obstacles to make a professional film. Now, digital distribution of movies is also changing the landscape: Independent producers can shoot a film modestly, and release it widely to mainstream audiences on streaming platforms. Many of the Oscar-nominated movies of the past few years (which we’ll use loosely as a yardstick for artistic achievements, cynical quips be damned) have benefited from such arrangements. Additionally, distributors like A24 are doing well picking out good movies on the festival circuit, streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon are bidding high to distribute trickier projects, while social media discussions are changing the traditional marketing circuit.
Which is saying that, as much as the current situation is terrible compared to the past (and about to get worse as the number of major Hollywood studios is expected to get smaller—Disney is purchasing Fox, and Paramount is perennially on the list of acquisition targets.), it’s not quite as bad as we think. It remains to be seen how long the current model is sustainable—there’s been a few signs of franchise fatigue recently, and it wouldn’t take much more than a handful of box-office bombs to change things forever, à la Musicals crash of the 1960s.
It’s also an open question (muses this former reviewer) as to whether the recent shift toward massive global blockbusters has replaced cinema as we know it, or is merely a super-category imposed on top of the existing ecosystem. Movie theatres have evolved to take on the blockbusters, but in sheer number of movies produced every year and the general quality of the best of them, we’re still seeing an active art form. (Now that TV series are picking up movie storytelling and adapting it to a much longer running time, it’s also arguably allowing movies to focus on the core strengths of the medium without trying to stretch things over too long a running time.) Hollywood decoupling itself from movies may be the best thing to happen to the art form.
As we wait to see how things will shake out, I can’t recommend The Big Picture enough as an intelligible guide to a messy period for movies. Fritz knows his topic, writes clearly and can back up his thesis with telling examples. The book wasn’t just a pleasure to read—it’s also a resolutely modern book, in the best sense of the term, in how it’s willing to let go of the past in order to better talk about the present and the future of movies. I found it invigorating, and I suspect it’s going to become a reference text to anyone who’s trying to understand the way Hollywood is transforming itself at this point in time. I’ve been recommending it left and right, and I’m glad to include it on my shelf of essential books about Hollywood.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) According to my notes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the oldest movie I’ve ever watched to date. While I wonder at the idea of a movie that has travelled in time nearly a hundred years to be watched today, I’m also tempted to put Science Fiction fan beanie on my head to point out that, of course, a genre film is more durable and memorable than then-contemporary drama. Genre is fun, genre is interesting and genre, all things considered, travels pretty well through time. The basic Jekyll/Hyde story, after all, is a pumped-up illustration of the duality within all of us, torn between our basest instincts and our better natures. Here we have John Barrymore (grandfather to Drew Barrymore, if you want another link between then and now) playing both lead roles: an upstanding citizen who, thanks to scientific experiments and hilariously ill-advised nudging by his future father-in-law, sees his inner beast unchained and free to act badly. One aspect of watching a 1920 film trying to tackle debauchery is the curiously tame nature of the excesses (ooh, an ankle) and yet the film does manage to make its point come across clearly. The hideous transformation of Jekyll into Hyde is well handled through prosthetics and makeup, and the rest of the film is decent enough. I’m not that charmed by the entire film—as with other silent movies, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seems to last forever, exhibits only a rudimentary understanding of modern cinematographic grammar and is simply too foreign to be watched transparently when the title cards brutally remind you that there’s an entire audio dimension missing. Still, I’m still impressed that this nearly hundred-year-old artifact can still be watched and make us care about the story it has to tell.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Nobody expected the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes reboot to be worth anything after the increasingly campy tone of the first series or the dumb 2001 remake. So it’s a surprise to conclude, after watching War for the Planet of the Apes, that the new trilogy has managed to exceed all expectations to deliver one of the finest, most sustained film series of the decade so far. After nailing a surprisingly realistic tone for the first film in the series, the two others managed to head in the same direction. It helps a lot that the series has been a high-water mark for CGI character creation: Entirely digital “Caesar” is a memorable character with numerous emotional moments and the film is nearly flawless in how it portrays him on-screen. The trilogy tells how humans cede the planet to apes and this third instalment describes the final battle of the changeover, with enough perfidious humans to make us feel better about the succession. (If there’s a theme to this decade’s finest Science-Fiction, it’s that from robots to apes, humanity is ready to accept that we may be supplanted by something more human than itself.) Writer/director Matt Reeves leads the film with a sure hand, adding depth and sentiment to what could have been a noisy spectacle. War for the Planet of the Apes wraps up the trilogy in a way that almost makes us feel not asking for one more for fear of tainting the impact of the three films so far. Who could have expected that only a few years ago?
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Perhaps the best thing about 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood is how it doesn’t feel like a 1938 film at all. You can credit the colour for that: One of the first big movies shot in Technicolor with decent image detail, it’s visually distinct from other movies of the time and would remain so for nearly two decades as colour took until the early sixties to truly become the standard. As a result, the film does feel as if it’s from the 1950s, something that director Michael Curtiz’s fast narrative pace helps support. The fantastic Errol Flynn plays the lead part with bravado and wit—the sequence in which he first confronts the enemy in their castle could be transposed with few modifications a modern superhero movie. Olivia de Havilland is nearly as striking as Maid Marian, but let’s be honest—this is Flynn’s film. The other reason why The Adventures of Robin Hood still feels so modern is that it has been endlessly re-used in other modern movies. Nearly every take on Robin Hood (notably the 1973 Disney version, 1991 Kevin Costner vehicle and 1993 Mel Brooks parody) has been inspired by this one, often to the point of re-creating scenes. It does make for a film that can be readily re-watched today with a considerable amount of fun, especially for audiences (kids, for instance) where black-and-white could be an obstacle.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) The term “gaslighting” seems to be everywhere these days thanks to the truth-denying efforts of the current US administration, so why not go back to the source that named the issue? Fortunately, there’s a lot to like in Gaslight beyond the terminology—this story of a woman being deceived and endangered by her husband remains a really good thriller today. Ingrid Bergman is as attractive as ever as the heroine, while Charles Boyer handles the transformation of his character from attractive stranger to an abusive husband very well. An 18-year-old Angela Lansbury shows up in a small role. The film’s cinematography is notable in that it gradually transitions from a brightly lit romance to a stark chiaroscuro Gothic (or noir) thriller as the story evolves. The suspense is gripping, and the use of mystery does help propel the narration forward. Director George Cukor is best-known for comedies, but he was equally adept at adapting novels to the screen and Gaslight is a perfectly acceptable thriller. There were a fair number of women-in-domestic-distress thrillers during the 1940s but Gaslight holds its own against most of them.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Yee-haw, little doggies! No, wait, what’s the appropriate expression for a cattle drive? Get it ready because Red River is a western focusing on a very long trip from Texas to Kansas, driving cattle to the market. Beyond the various obstacles along the way, we have a rivalry between an older man (John Wayne) and a younger man. The dramatic tension is obvious and developed in a straightforward fashion, but Red River remains a memorable western largely due to its scope and clean directorial style from Howard Hawks. Wayne is better than usual as an unsympathetic lead confronting his adopted son throughout the picture. As a western, it doesn’t try to reinvent the form, although the focus on a cattle drive is a bit unusual. (Sadly, the usual Native American prejudices are along for the ride). Those who don’t like westerns won’t necessarily be convinced by Red River, but the film does have its share of thrills for genre fans.
(In French, On Cable TV, April 2018) The mid-seventies really weren’t a cheerful time for popular entertainment in general, or New York City in particular—Hollywood was still churning out reactions to being unshackled from the Hays Code, whereas NYC was experiencing unprecedented levels of crime. People wanted quick and simple solutions, and so a vigilante character stepped in, incarnated by Charles Bronson. Death Wish itself has spawned so many imitators—the basic story is visceral and easy enough to do on a low budget—that it does feel dull by today’s standard: The story moves along at a plodding pace, and the film feels long even at 94 minutes. Bronson is too old (and far too menacing) to play the part, but who cares—it’s the idea that counts, or more specifically the fantasy of taking complete revenge upon irremediable criminals. It would be easy enough to regret the normalization of revenge fantasies in pop culture (so much so that the 2018 remake of Death Wish passed along almost unnoticed in theatres) but that’s shouting at a horse long after it has left the barn. What matters most is the film’s keystone place in the landscape of mid-seventies cinema, and how it acts as the apogee of a dark-gritty-violent trend that would create an appetite for escapist fare along the lines of Star Wars. In many ways, there’s no need to see the original Death Wish—it’s been redone so often since then that it’s almost superfluous.
(In French, On Cable TV, April 2018) If you thought that having seen the 2003 remake of The Italian Job negated the need to see the original, think again, because the original is about twice as inventive and ten times as cool as its remake. It’s off to a roaring start as its protagonist (played with impeccably charm by Michael Caine) gets out of prison and straight into London’s Swingin’ Sixties: In-between the cool car, cool clothes and entourage of beautiful women, he’s living the dream and sharing it with us. The film gets more ordinary as it explains the subsequent caper and assembles the team of specialists to see it through. Noteworthy is the script’s emphasis on a primitive form of computer hacking, as traffic signals are trafficked as part of the caper by a computer expert (played by no less than Benny Hill). Cool scenes abound (“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”), culminating in a demented car chase through Turin featuring three of the original Cooper Minis and a spirited singing of “Getta Bloomin’ Move On.” The only real flaw of the film comes at the ending, which famously ends on a literal cliffhanger and deprives the audience of a truly satisfying ending—although it does trade it for a heavy dose of irony. It doesn’t matter all that much, as The Italian Job remains great good fun from beginning to end. Heck, writing about it makes me want to watch it all over again.
(On DVD, April 2018) Third entry in the Dirty Harry series, The Enforcer is clearly running on autopilot, much of the film being a copy of previous material bordering on self-caricature. Callahan himself is introduced in gosh-wow fashion, first ending a liquor store robbery through excessive property damage, and then having a few regressive choice words about affirmative action once he’s asked to participate in a board to hire female police officers. (One of them is assigned as his partner. You can imagine the rest.) Once reassured that we’re dealing with the stock image of Harry Callahan, the film then goes through the motions of a stock plot involving domestic terrorists and half-heartedly ties it to a criminal project. There’s a detour through black militantism that feels just this ride of outright racism, although it’s often hard to distinguish between the series’ reactionary bend and the overall attitude of the time. The result, though, remains a half-hearted success at best—while the atmosphere of mid-seventies San Francisco is interesting, the film itself is by-the-numbers and leans too heavily on violence and dispensing of its most interesting character as a motivation for Callahan. Every film in the Dirty Harry series is a bit worse than its predecessor, and The Enforcer starts straddling the line between acceptable and forgettable.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) I have dim memories of watching Quo Vadis as a kid (especially the last shot of the film) but watching it now is more an exercise in historical Hollywood than an enjoyable viewing in itself. Historically, Quo Vadis was the first big success of an era in film history where Hollywood headed to Rome in order to film epic movies on a smaller budget. You can see the result on-screen with a lavish production with countless costumes, credible historical re-creations and an ambitious Bible-related subject matter palatable to international audiences. Quo Vadis is a deep dive in Roman history in the decades when Rome fought the newly popular Christianity. It’s not particularly historically accurate, but it does revel in the imaginary imagery of the era, combining swords and sandals and political/religious conflict alongside a big dash of family melodrama. It’s tedious and impressive at once, especially when you try to keep up with the very large cast and equally long running time. It does help that the film features actors such as Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov, alongside captivating actresses such as Deborah Kerr and Marina Berti. A long list of notables had small roles among the cast and crew, but the film’s biggest impact was financial, both in terms of revenues (it reportedly saved MGM from bankruptcy) and legacy (it paved the way for very similar epics). It’s not quite as good as many of the films it would spawn, though: the highlights are few and far between, while the film’s connection to the bible is tenuous at best. It does make for an impatient viewing experience—well-known but not particularly enjoyable, Quo Vadis is a bit of an imposed viewing … unless you like that kind of thing, of course.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) I’ve been watching so many high-budget movies (both new and old) lately that I had almost forgotten the particular pleasures of ingenious low-budget films. The small discoveries best exemplified by Canadian production Radius, for instance: An intriguing premise that makes the most of a limited budget in featuring unknown actors, next-door settings, an intriguing mystery and a premise that seeks to make the most out of its concept. The subject matter is grim enough that the film doesn’t exactly qualify as fun (an amnesiac discovers that everything that comes within a small radius of him dies instantly, except for a mysterious woman able to neutralize this effect), but there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing the film gradually illustrate then explore the consequences of its premise. As is tradition, the setup is quite a bit better than its resolution—by the time we’re down to the answers, a great deal of the infinite possibilities of the film’s first half-hour has evaporated to one single story, and it’s not quite as good as anything we may have imagined. Revealing an extraordinary secret about the characters also means robbing the film of its everyday man quality, to its detriment. The ending also takes the easy way out in addressing the problem, cutting off a number of grander-scope possibilities. Still, there’s no denying the ingeniousness of the low-budget approach (being Canadian watching a film shot in Manitoba means recognizing very familiar house styles and small-town settings) as well as some particularly well designed set pieces, such as the hospital sequence in which the characters have to surpass themselves not to be too far from each other. Radius isn’t a great film, but it does make for relatively entertaining genre material and a further entry in the “clever Canadian SF&F” ledger.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) It’s never a good sign when you look askance at the screen and wonder why a specific creative choice was made. I’m not here to bury Despicable Me 3, which is more or less in-line with the series (including the Minions spinoff) so far: it’s a serviceable new entry in the franchise, not quite as interesting because it needs to move forward. If the three little girls were the heart of the first film, and the character of Lucy was the comic highlight of the second film, this film feels forced to expand the family a little bit and get an eighties-themed villain. And that’s when the askance glance at creative choices comes in: Gru’s new brother isn’t particularly funny, and neither is former child-star villain Balthazar Bratt. In fact, they’re so perfunctory that it’s easy to feel disappointed when it becomes clear that, yes, this is the direction in which the entire third film will go. The girls are relegated to the background, Lucy doesn’t get much to do and we’re stuck with a pair of new characters that are clearly less interesting than the filmmakers think. Oh, there’s still enough fast-paced comedic action to keep things interesting (although the amount of Minion stuff is appropriately kept in check) but the film suggests that the series is on a path of steadily diminishing returns, creatively speaking. Of course, finances trump creativity in this blockbuster age of film, so you can reliably expect Despicable Me 4 in three to four years. So it goes. No amount of askew glaring will change that.