(On DVD, April 2018) Considering how the first Dirty Harry movie made nearly everyone uncomfortable with how it glorified the vigilantism of its protagonist, there is something almost hilarious to see sequel Magnum Force try to distance itself from this position by pitting Harry Callahan against even worse rotten cops. From the first few moments of the film, with a credit sequence lovingly focus on the titular gun, it’s clear that this sequel regrets nothing and doubles-down on its assets. (Unsurprisingly, it was written by noted gun aficionado John Milius.) Here an entire group of killer cops is uncovered and while Callahan does get a few choice words about their methods, the film wants you to know and understand and appreciate that he’s nothing like those killer cops because reasons, that’s why. Or rather Callahan will gun down those that he determines to be bad rather than being told by some other guy. Or something. Perhaps it’s better to pretend that Callahan is the good guy and appreciate what he does in order to catch the designated bad guys. To be fair, Magnum Force does have its moments. The film isn’t as polished as the mean thrills of the original, but it does have Clint Eastwood (always an asset), Hal Holbrook as a no-fun superior antagonist, a detecting sequence that sees Callahan in a shooting contest with his enemies, and an interesting motorcycle chase climaxing on an aircraft carrier. The atmosphere of mid-seventies San Francisco is always worth a look even though the film itself is hum-drum. Magnum Force does build upon the first movie, though, so you might as well keep going through this one if ever you have the choice.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) There are stories that men tell each other in order to keep themselves in line. Don’t crush on crazy; don’t crawl inside the bottle; don’t run with criminals; don’t stray outside your marriage; don’t neglect your kids. Elementary life lessons, but worth repeating, often with maximal effect, in order to feel better about an ordinary life. When those morals are handled through genre methods, they become high-impact morality tales. Think Fatal Attraction. And if you give the story to a horror director like Eli Roth … well, you end up with something like Knock Knock, in which a good husband/dad finds himself powerless to resist the advances of two women when they show up at his doorstep when his wife and kids are away. What follows is a pair of steamy sex scenes. But what follows what follows is a merciless takedown of the man’s life using video and social media. The moral of the story here is clear enough: Destroy Facebook. Japes aside, does it work? Well, yes and no. Famously stoic Keanu Reeves is a curious choice as a good husband/dad, given that his innate reserve doesn’t really help him reach the emotional extremes required by the script. On the other hand, Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo are good picks as the ruthless temptresses—fortunately enough, since much of the Knock Knock’s credibility (or what passes for it given that it’s a quick-and-dirty exploitation film) depends on them—de Armas is particularly good, which explains why her career has taken off since then. Otherwise, though, the film does feel as if it doesn’t have enough depth to sustain its straightforward warning. It ends limply, in perhaps the tritest possible way. As a horror-erotic take on the home invasion genre, it sits uncomfortably between two very different genre—I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one (or fifteen) XXX-rated parodies focusing on the eroticism, and we’ve already seen an entire pure-horror home invasion subgenre come and go and come again. For Roth, who straddles the line between mainstream and extreme filmmaker, this is curiously tepid stuff—he’s obviously daring enough to feature two very explicit sex scenes, but the rest of the picture goes nowhere. As a result, Knock Knock doesn’t unnerve as much as it annoys, and that’s a fatal flaw in the kind of moral lesson it almost tries to be.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) There may have been dragons, aliens, global conspiracies and vampires in Fanny och Alexander but I’ll never know because it seemed that I slept a thousand nights during the film’s running time and yet things never seemed to change. This is director Ingmar Bergman reflecting upon his childhood in a small Swedish village, and so you can imagine that the film is low on spectacle—while there’s some heavy drama involving kids being abused by their step-father, and someone being burned alive in an attempt to escape, the film spends far more time creating an atmosphere (most notably around a rather lovely Christmas celebration). To be fair, there are ghosts and nudity and violence here, but most of them come rather late in a duration time for more than three hours—at which point I simply didn’t care about much else than making it to the end of Fanny och Alexander even through brief comatic episodes. So it goes when I’m placed in front of much European art-house stuff—I’m easily bored.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Gene Wilder was a fantastic comedian, and his presence elevated many of the otherwise unremarkable movies he starred in. Stir Crazy is, on many levels, a rather average film—two down-on-their-luck protagonists being jailed on some spurious charges and working their way out of there. But throw in Wilder and Richard Pryor in the lead roles and the film becomes much better than it feels on paper. Never mind the plot and how it ends up with prisoners entering a mechanical bull riding competition (!) when there’s Wilder’s character going in solitary confinement and emerging as serene as a man having come in touch with himself can be. Those moments, far more than the forgettable plot, are what sticks in mind after watching Stir Crazy. There is some similarity in tone here with the original The Longest Yard—kind of an underdogs-and-outlaws-are-cool outlook to unify otherwise very different films. Otherwise, there really isn’t much here to stick in mind, as pleasant as the film can be.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Frankly, there isn’t much worth remembering about The Basketball Diaries than its cast and one dream sequence. One of those hard-hitting yet undistinguishable scared-straight stories of teenage drug addiction, this is a film that takes place in low-rent apartments, high-school classes, New York streets and basketball courts. It does have the good fortune of starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg, plus Juliette Lewis, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Rappaport and Ernie Hudson—a cast that ensures that interest in the film will remain as long as they are known. The other claim to fame for the film is the dream sequence in which the protagonist graphically commits a high school shooting—you can bet that in the years since, that kind of material is ever controversial. Otherwise, unfortunately, there isn’t a whole to note about The Basketball Diaries. It is a powerful anti-drug movie. It does talk about what teenage boys talk about. It is, in other words, not particularly unique in a world where dozens of those movies appear (and disappear without a trace) every year. But, OK, if you want to see a black-clad DiCaprio mowing down classmates, then this is the film for you.
(On DVD, April 2018) A lot of baggage has been attached to the Dirty Harry character over the years, from the politics of the film and/or star, to Clint Eastwood’s iconic presence, to catchphrases and situations that would be introduced in the sequels rather than the original film. But the original Dirty Harry is quite a bit better than its modern perception would suggest. Executed at a time when Hollywood was getting grimmer and harsher as a response to the freed shackles of the Hays Code, Dirty Harry is still faintly shocking for its violence and gritty portrayal of early-seventies San Francisco. As a madman terrorizes the city, it’s up to Harry Callahan (a more than impressive Eastwood) to bring order back to the city … by all means necessary. It’s hard, in the current environment questioning police brutality, to watch Dirty Harry and be swept up by cheers for the hero. There’s a basic disconnect now between what we expect of heroes and what the movie delivers—and I certainly hope that the gap grows even bigger as time goes by. Still, the film does stack things up in favour of its protagonist, either by making the antagonist pure evil, or making it clear that the situation around him demands such extreme measures. Better-directed by Don Siegel than you’d expect from an early-seventies crime thriller (including two rather effective helicopter shots), Dirty Harry remains captivating largely due to good plotting and a character compelling despite obvious flaws. Eastwood is extraordinary here, but it’s worth noting that his character is flawed in many respects—beyond the vigilantism, he clearly loses focus on a stakeout and allows a situation to get even worse. Still, the film brushes much of these things aside in an effort to streamline the film’s impact on its audience. (It also multiplies contrivances to explain why the suspect is allowed to go free on those damnable “technicalities.”) It’s certainly possible to disagree with much of the film’s message while being impressed by its impact, though, and ultimately that’s why Dirty Harry will endure even as it keeps being bothersome in its depiction of police violence.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) While I liked watching White Christmas, parts of the film don’t resonate given a different social context. I live in Canada. I’ve never been part of the military. There wasn’t a World War less than a decade ago. So when much of the film’s plot hinges on WW2 veterans making extraordinary sacrifices to save an inn managed by their former commanding officer, there’s a basic difference in worldview that takes a while to understand. Fortunately, much of the rest of the film works much better. Bing Crosby is a likable performer, Danny Kaye makes for a capable foil, and then there’s Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen to round off the main cast. The romantic repartee isn’t too bad, with the songs and dance number filling in the rest of the movie. It’s all quite amiable, especially once the film’s second half moves into the “let’s put on a show!” mode that allows full-scale musical numbers to be “rehearsed.” Fortunately, White Christmas does still work quite well as a Christmas movie, no matter where and when we come from.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) In my ongoing understanding of Hollywood history, I’m not sure I’m all that keen on the decade-or-so that led from the end of the Hays Code to the beginning of the new blockbuster populism. The bleak years between those two eras were dark, grim, unsparing and they still carry along their own particular brand of ickiness. So it is that Midnight Cowboy gives us John Voigt as a young Texan would-be hustler freshly transplanted in New York City, and Dustin Hoffman as a conman friend of convenience that falls critically ill along the way. It takes place in late-sixties New York, sometimes in rich penthouses but usually in squatted apartments, dirty streets and disreputable bars. Our dull-witted hero gets his illusion shattered, and even a final escape to Florida proves fatal for one character. For modern viewers, envelope-pushing films such as Midnight Cowboy (which did win an Oscar and thus remains part of the canon even today) present a challenge: While the film brought something new to cinema, helped launched the careers of Voigt and Hoffman and normalized serious hard-hitting drama about the American underclass. Nowadays, such things are far more common, and Midnight Cowboy looks a bit dull compared to what has followed. It doesn’t help that such films are, by their very nature, almost impossible to enjoy in a conventional sense. You take in the drama, reflect on it but never have to see the film again. It has the good fortune of being competently made, though, and that goes a long way in ensuring that it remains watchable, if only as a period piece. But it is bleaker than bleak, and it could have been remade almost verbatim as an early-eighties AIDS story. But of course, and this may be one of Midnight Cowboy’s selling point still—modern studios would never develop such a film: too bleak, not enough superheroes, no chances at a franchise or shared universe. Hollywood may have evolved but it may not have advanced.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) The R-rated women-behaving-badly subgenre is now well defined: It may have started its latest streak with Bridesmaids, but there’s been one or two of them per year since then (Bachelorette, Bad Moms, Rough Night, etc.) and the sub-genre is becoming less and less remarkable with every new example. And yet, properly handled, they can allow female comedians to show what they can do once they’re unleashed. So it is that the single best reason to watch Girls Trip is Tiffany Haddish, taking a big character and making her feel even bigger. (Documentary accounts of Haddish’s personality suggest that she was a perfect fit for the role.) Compared to her, even seasoned performers such as Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith feel ordinary. Still, Girls Trip is decently entertaining—while it’s easy to quibble about its most outrageous moments, its wall-to-wall bad language, its occasionally repellent attitude, it does feel free to try anything and everything, getting a few chuckles along the way. It’s also difficult to appreciate, from my privileged white-guy perspective, how vital such a film must feel to a particular audience. It’s interesting to note a few moments here that would not attempted had the movie featured a cast of a different ethnicity—I’m specifically thinking about a prayer scene that feels organic even to the outrageous characters. So carry on, Girls Trip, for bringing something less frequently seen to the big screen, becoming a surprise box office hit and making Haddish an Oscar-presenting comedy superstar along the way. When everybody gets their own big-screen wish-fulfillment comedy, everybody wins.
(On TV, April 2018) I’m not sure about you, but when I was a boy attending French Catholic Grade School, Easter was a season during which we were all herded in the auditorium and shown one of two movies as put on the flickering projector: Either “the story of Jesus” (which I think was 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told) or The Ten Commandments. So, watching this again thirty years later … is almost an ordeal, although not necessarily for artistic or atheistic reasons. No, in order to understand why The Ten Commandments is a bit of a bother these days, just look at the four hours running time. I understand that epics need to be long in order to be epic … but four hours is a long time. It also doesn’t help that it’s such a familiar story—If you want a zippier take, then 1998’s animated The Prince of Egypt zooms by at 100 minutes (with songs!), while much better special effects and actors can be found in 2014’s 150-minute Exodus: Gods and Kings. This being said, I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that the 1956 version isn’t worth a look. I mean: Yul Brynner as Ramses and Charlton Heston as Moses? Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton wish they could be Brynner and Heston. Plus let’s not underestimate the appeal of Anne Baxter and Yvonne De Carlo. But most of all, what’s in The Ten Commandments and not in Exodus is the sense of the sacred—I may lean toward atheism, but I think that a sense of awe and wonder is a requirement for the story of Moses. Awe is what The Ten Commandments delivers in spades, augmented by the arch melodrama so typical of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic films. Sure, it may sound silly and look even worse compared to today’s realistic aesthetics, but it does work on a level we can’t quite understand. The parting of the Red Sea sequence remains a yardstick even despite the unbearably dated special effects because it’s done with so much conviction that modern CGI spectacles can’t even compare. The script could use quite a bit of trimming, but keep in mind that in 1956, audiences couldn’t be happier to get four hours of spectacle for the price of their movie tickets. The word “epic” is often overused, but it’s strikingly appropriate for the large-scale sequences with a literal cast of thousands, offering all-real images that remain impressive even today. Watching the film as broadcast on ABC for decades, I also enjoyed the sense of participating, once again, in a ritual of sorts. It may be long, but The Ten Commandments is worth the trouble.