(In French, On Cable TV, July 2018) Perhaps the most noteworthy detail about Black Christmas is the date at which it was produced—1974, four years before Halloween (to which it has a clear kinship) would popularize exactly the kind of film that Black Christmas is both in subject matter, attitude and technique. Some of the filmmaking is limited by its low budget, but most of it reflects almost shot-for-shot the kind of films that slasher horror filmmakers would churn out for years after John Carpenter’s success. A made-in-Canada success story, Black Christmas does feel in advance of its time, although it certainly does not escape from its own subgenre. This being said, there are performances here by Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea and a young Andrea Martin, plus an energetic directing style from Bob Clark. Unusually (and unsatisfyingly) enough, the film does not reveal the identity of the killer nor punish him, reinforcing its futility. Alas, the flip side of anticipating the slasher subgenre is that it can and does feel like more of the same … which doesn’t help if you don’t like the kind of movie that it launched.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) When they say that The Bride of Frankenstein is one of the best sequels ever made, they’re not kidding: Even if the original Frankenstein is not a bad movie, it’s so familiar that it can feel underwhelming. While the cultural impact of The Bride of Frankenstein is significant, much of the film feels fresher, more challenging and more imaginative than its predecessor. There are some brilliant special effects here and there, the story is far more morally ambiguous (I mean—the monster is likable, but he actually kills a young girl!) and it doesn’t merely go through the motions of the Shelley story like the first one does. There’s a clear articulation of a mad scientist rivalling Frankenstein, making the stakes ever more complex. This being said, I was surprised to find out that despite the iconic nature of the titular bride, she only shows up for a few moments—and her plot purpose seems to be to reject Frankenstein so that he’s motivated to go kill himself. Hmmm. Nonetheless, I had a much better time watching The Bride of Frankenstein than its predecessor, and its unusual nature is a significant part of it.
(On TV, July 2018) The great things about the handful of classic Universal Monster movies is that they’re iconic enough to be worth a watch at any time. The not-so-great thing about them is that they’re so iconic that they’ve been remade, ripped off, sequeled, and nodded at so often that we often know exactly what will happen even if we’ve never seen the movie. So it is that this 1931 version of Frankenstein is pretty much what we’d expect from a Frankenstein film. There’s Bela Lugosi in traditional makeup, there’s the mad scientist, there’s the lightning-powered machinery, there are the villagers … it’s extremely familiar and while it’s good, I don’t think there’s any surprise to it. I still enjoyed watching it, but I’m having trouble actually finding anything worthwhile to say about it.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) One of the problems about watching originals after their remake is that the remake is often, despite other problems, more in-tune with current tone and attitudes. So it is that the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives took a tongue-in-cheek tone to better distinguish itself from the original’s cultural ubiquity. After all, it’s not as if the idea of replacing wives with obedient robots can be taken seriously, right, right? I found the remake unsatisfying for many reasons, but the choice of tone seemed defendable. So, going back to the original, it’s a bit of a surprise to find that the concept is played here absolutely straight—as a slow-burning horror movie in which, yes, wives are replaced by obedient robots. I found the horror to be found not so much in the replacement (although that black-eyed simulacrum toward the end—eek!) as in the eagerness of so-called husbands to replace the one they’ve chosen to marry. The other big change of pace between remake and original is, well, the change of pace—this 1975 version is incredibly slow by today’s standards, and doubly so when you consider that is spends its time building to a punch that is already familiar: characters take forever to get to what we already know even before watching the film. Taking everything together, I enjoyed the original The Stepford Wives far less than I was expecting. It hasn’t aged gracefully at all (even in its portrayal of mid-1970s affluent small towns) and is often a slog to get through. Can we ask for a remake of the remake?
(On Cable TV, July 2018) Blaxsploitation movies will always have a special place in my cinephile’s heart, and Cleopatra Jones feels like a particularly fine example of the form: not overly known, yet featuring pretty much everything we’d expect from the subgenre and sporting a terrific heroine in the lead. Tamara Dobson stars in the title character, a glamorous undercover agent for the US government. Coming back home from an anti-drug foreign intervention, she gets to clean up her neighbourhood from dealers with a fair amount of kung-fu. But the plot isn’t the point of a film fostering black solidarity against drugs, promoting ways to work within the system to resolve troubling issues and doing so with an overwhelming sense of style. Dobson is so spectacular that she doesn’t need to disrobe to appeal to audiences—her sheer presence and fashion sense are enough. It’s almost satisfying to hear the characters in the film echo the same conclusion: “Black is beautiful” indeed. From a contemporary perspective, there is often a disconnect between the historical near-hysteric reactions to Blaxploitation movies from conservative circles and the film we see from today’s perspective—especially notable here is how staid and law-abiding the film feels, with a standard anti-drug message and some complementarity between Jones and the White establishment—some racist cop antagonists aside. Cleopatra Jones doesn’t feel particularly subversive nor dangerous, but that does give it a very specific charm even today.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) There are movies that are going to be seen no matter their subject matter, simply by dint of being part of someone’s filmography. You can watch Paths of Glory because it’s one of Kirk Douglas’ better roles as an officer stuck between loyalty to his men and duty to his superiors. Or because it’s one of Stanley Kubrick’s most humanistic movies, with great battle sequences and a powerful ending. Or you can watch it because it’s a terrific film, at once indignant about war and decent in its depiction of characters forced in impossible circumstances. Some sequences already showcase Kubrick’s film mastery: The lengthy uninterrupted shot through WW1 fortifications is a thing of beauty, and the editing of the film is top-notch even by contemporary standards. It has endured today not simply because of its pedigree or its exceptional performance, but perhaps because its perspective on war—as an incredible waste that makes monsters out of everyone including the most principled—stands sharply at odds from other war movies of the era. Blending it with a legal drama (even a pseudo-legal drama) adds more opportunities to explore its theme than a strictly combat-focused film would have. Comparisons with other war movies of the era are instructive. Well worth watching today, Paths of Glory is the film where the Kubrick magic starts happening and it still stands as one of the director’s strongest features.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) To put it bluntly, The Blob is not a good movie. And yet it endures even today, frequently showing up on retro movie channels and ranking high on the list of quintessential fifties movies. Part of it is certainly due to this being Steve McQueen’s first film—a 28-year-old actor playing a much younger teenager trying to save his town from alien invasion. McQueen being McQueen, the film largely revolves around his innate charisma, and it’s not a bad thing to see him as young as he gets in movies. The titular Blob almost steals the show … but not quite. Special Effects limitations being what they were, this is a fifties sci-fi horror film that is definitely not horrific even as some characters get dissolved by the alien menace. (The amusing title song is worth a listen.) Aside from MacQueen and a rather droll tone, The Blob is perhaps most remarkable as a gentle visit to mid-fifties small-town America, where the grocery store and the local movie theater are important landmarks and the local police chief harbours small grudges against specific people. It’s not good, and perhaps it still works because it never was. A rather inconclusive ending takes on a new meaning sixty years and one climate change crisis later.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) There’s a remarkable amount of exoticism on display in Shanghai Express, which follows a few characters are they board a train from Pekin to Shanghai and get caught up in the Chinese civil war. Trains are good for taking characters a long way while remaining in manageable locations, and so the movie does feel far more expansive than its limited sets suggest. (Although there is one notable outdoors sequence showing the train leaving Pekin.) Notably helmed by Josef von Sternberg before the Hays Code crackdown began, Shanghai Express features a courtesan as heroine, opium dealing, forced sex, civil war dealings and one big murder. Marlene Dietrich is spectacular as the morally compromised “Shanghai Lily”, with a then-rare leading role for Asian-American performer Anna May Wong. While the first half of the film is a bit melodramatic and seems content to see its ensemble cast just chat away, the film gets far more interesting as a thriller once the train is stopped by government forces and the characters are kicked out of their comfortable berths. Great cinematography helps propel a morally ambiguous subject matter that still feels decently modern. It wraps up satisfyingly, which is true for the film as a whole: Made in 1932 but almost just as interesting today, Shanghai Express is a welcome reminder that the basics of cinema were all understood even as early as the early thirties.
(In French, On Cable TV, July 2018) If you’re even a casual fan of classic cinema, The African Queen is a must see, even for no other reason than it features Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn playing off each other in familiar roles—Bogart’s kind-hearted rogue, and Hepburn later-career matriarch. The story takes place deep in Africa during World War I, as a Canadian adventurer (Bogart) rescues an English nun from German attack. Escaping to friendly territory is not a certainty, especially when their tiny boat is faced with the threat of a German warship blocking their way. The adventures build up to a pretty good finale. While the innovation of shooting much of The African Queen on-location deep in Africa has paled a bit for today’s audiences, the results are clearly appreciated on-screen with a film that looks quite a bit more realistic than many of its studio-shot black-and-white contemporaries. (Legend has it that most of the crew suffered greatly from the shooting conditions, except Bogart and director John Huston who mostly drank alcohol rather than water.) Bogart got an Academy Award out of the film (a lifetime achievement reward in all but name) while Huston and Hepburn got nominated for their efforts. The result is a product of its time, but The African Queen has aged rather well and significantly better than many other films of the time.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) As far as reputations go, The Thing from Another World is most famous for being the predecessor to John Carpenter’s The Thing—both adapted from the same John Campbell short story, both about finding a murderous alien encased in ice. But whereas Carpenter’s 1982 movie was a conscious exercise in terror, The Thing from Another World is a far gentler affair, a thriller in which a man-in-a-suit is electrocuted before posing too much of a threat. But a softer version of the same story doesn’t necessarily mean that the film is without its own merits. From the surprisingly effective opening title card, The Thing from Another World is a surprise example of good execution. The technical details ring true, there are a few scenes of substantial impact (the overhead shot of the melted ice being one) and the pacing is more effective than expected. While the nearly all-male-and-white cast isn’t particularly distinguishable, there’s an amiable sense of teamwork to the story (quite a contrast with the 1982 version!) and Margaret Sheridan brings a touch of warmth and humanity with her banter with protagonist-pilot Kenneth Tobey. It’s not all good (the parallels with Soviet invasions and the mad-scientist shtick have not aged well), but The Thing from Another World is generally better than most of the alien-invasion SF movies of the fifties. Christian Nyby reportedly directed, although many agree that legendary producer Howard Hawks played a large role in the film’s production. This may explain the sophistication of the end result despite a trite premise—and a film that still works reasonably well even today.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) Some movies struggle with the burden of their reputations, but 12 Angry Men ably supports its considerable acclaim. The concept is terrific (twelve men in a sequestered jury decide whether to condemn a young man to death) and the execution does justice to the premise. While clearly a film from the fifties (all-male, all-white cast), it still crackles with dramatic energy and great performances. The way the audience is gradually made aware of the case though conversations and questions is intriguing, and the way no less than twelve characters are sketched in less than 100 minutes is also impressive. Henry Fonda is the star of the film as the lone holdout juror who eventually gets everyone to change their minds, but each actor gets a piece of drama to distinguish themselves. It’s interesting how 12 Angry Men, from a judicial perspective, is both inspiring and horrifying—while the film has a strong message to send about the civil importance of jury duty, it also depends on the jury acting in terrible ways—investigating the case themselves, then building presumption upon presumption. Still, we’re here for the drama more than the lecture, and there is a lot to like in the individual scenes that mark the turning point for each character—particularly satisfying is the sequence in which jurors tell another incredibly racist one to shut up now that he’s had his say. 12 Angry Man is tightly wound-up, with every facet of its background (most notably the weather, and the fan starting to work once the jury shifts) integrated in the plot. It’s quite a movie, and it’s still well worth watching sixty years later.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) I’m not quite sure what I expected from a forties “nuns set up a school/hospital in the Himalayas” film (something with nuns and Nazis?), but Black Narcissus exceeded my expectations to deliver something I couldn’t have imagined. It is about nuns setting up a school/hospital in an abandoned building at the base of the Himalayas. But it is also about a man setting off erotic jealousy among the nuns, and Englishwomen thinking themselves at the vanguard of civilization being utterly defeated by India. It ends up with a nun casting off her habits, putting on lipstick, attempting the seduction the only white man within walking distance and trying to kill her superior. Considering that his film was made in 1947 England, you can imagine that it did push a few boundaries. Black Narcissus was ahead of its time in at least another aspect—the Oscar-winning colour cinematography is impressive, with bright colours and subdued tones orchestrated in a conscious effect. The film wasn’t shot on location despite impressively deceptive trompe-l’oeuils. Oh, there are certainly a bunch of issues with the film. Shot and released shortly before Indian independence, the film is redolent with colonialist rhetoric, and features at least two performers in brownface. (Much as I’d like to praise Jean Simmons for her role, there’s no getting around that she’s a white girl playing an Indian girl under layers of makeup.) Still, as noted, the ending finds the British nuns retreating from India, completely defeated. More interesting is the romantic triangle between two nuns (Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron) and a local fixer played by David Farrar. Byron is particularly striking once she removes her robe and goes on a rampage toward the end of the film—an authentically shocking moment that almost pushes the film toward horror. By the end, Black Narcissus delivers quite a bit more than what we could have expected from post-war English movies. It’s quite a surprise, and thanks to Jack Cardiff’s cinematography it’s still worth a look today.
(On TV, July 2018) Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly and the French Riviera—what more could you ask from To Catch a Thief? Hitchcock here lets go of relentless suspense in order to favour a breezy romantic comedy involving jewels thefts and a former master burglar trying to clear his name. Grant is effortlessly charming as the retired cat-burglar and he sets the mood for the rest of the film. Kelly is blander than expected, although it’s amusing to see her strut around the Riviera given her later position as the Princess of Monaco. John Williams (who always looks like John Cleese to me) also gets a good supporting role as an insurance man helping out the protagonist. Set against the sunny seaside scenery, this is a bit of a departure of Hitchcock, who doesn’t really try for suspense (even when the film could have called for it, such as the final sequence) as much as romantic banter and gentle crime. The atmosphere is well executed and the result is good sunny fun. To modern audiences, To Catch a Thief does have a bit of awkward fifties-style staging—most notably in the nighttime villa burglary sequence, not to mention the quasi-omnipresent rear-screen projection. But, as with the unnatural colours and high-class characters, this is part of the package: watch the film, travel back in time.
(In French, On Cable TV, July 2018) So-called erotic movies aren’t particularly interesting to review—we know what they’re for, and so do they—whatever plot surrounds the set-pieces is either perfunctory or ridiculous. But Emmanuelle is interesting to comment as a movie. At one point, it was featured in the Guinness Book of records as the longest-running theatrical feature, as a theater in Paris played the film for more than a decade (I just checked, and the current record-holder is either a film shown at Disneyland since the seventies or a feature that has been playing at a Chinese theater for three decades). Records aside, Emmanuelle has a place in movie history for having been part (along with Last Tango in Paris, and other) of the seventies “porno chic” era, when it looked as if mainstream cinema and erotic cinema were fated to merge. That didn’t quite happen, but the film led to a dizzying profusion of more than fifty sequels or unauthorized spinoffs, and (at least in French-Canada) remains a bit of a shorthand reference for artistic softcore adult cinema. It still plays regularly on French-Canadian cable, which explains this review. Alas, there’s a lot more to the hype than to the film—Emmanuelle has not aged well. The atmosphere of the film remains stuck in the hedonistic free love era, with characters egging each other on to sexual freedom at the expense of just about every other concern. To its credit, Emmanuelle is executed with a patina of respectability—the cinematography takes advantage of the Cambodian scenery, the dialogue is polished to the point of pretentiousness and there’s tact to the film’s atmosphere that definitely sets it apart from crasser approaches. This being said, much of the material feels ridiculous, offensive or hopelessly naïve by today’s standards. Heroine Emmanuelle is portrayed as quasi-chastely faithful until she reveals that she joined the mile-high club twice on the way from Paris to Bangkok. Depictions of Asians are brutally Orientalist, with Asian women being the object of quiet exotic contemplation and Asian men always using force in their sexual encounters. The film plays with the “erotic awakening” plot without much conviction (see: mile-high double) but has at least an awareness that there’s a double standard at play between Emmanuelle and her husband. Sylvia Kristel became a superstar based on her role, but she’s exceptionally boring here—only Alan Cuny as a Mephistophelian older mentor is interesting as a character or a performer. Everyone else ranks on looks, which isn’t saying much given early-seventies French moustaches for the men. (Even Kristel herself would look much better with longer hair in the sequel.) Trivia fans may appreciate that a striking secondary character, Bee, is played by Marika Green—the aunt of notorious clothes-removing actress Eva Green. I was a bit surprised to feel more exasperated than charmed by Emmanuelle, especially toward the end as the genial hedonistic atmosphere of expatriate wives entertaining themselves was replaced by a much darker testing of the heroine in evermore sadistic episodes. It barely leads anywhere, which is admittedly not as much a problem for erotic films where the journey is the destination. But it does reinforce the idea that there’s little to say about the film or its genre. (For the record: Yes, I saw the first sequel Emmanuelle II. No, there won’t be any review—there’s even less to say about it.)
(On TV, July 2018) To today’s audiences, there’s no denying that the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is incredibly dated. But, as a comparison with its 2008 remake quickly shows, that’s a large part of its charm. As a reflection of Cold War preoccupations, it’s quite interesting. It never gets any better than when it shows (in montage, even!) the world of 1951 reacting to an alien invasion, with contemporary newscasters offering information and opinions, period cars rushing through Washington DC streets, and serious people trying to come to grasp with the intrusion. This original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is, with its boarding houses, romantic conventions, Cold War calculations and anti-nuclear message, integral to its time period. It does suffer from creaky execution issues (special effects, staging and acting are not exactly seamless) and sometimes veers into unintentional hilarity (“How can this alien be so old and yet look so young?”, doctors wonder while lighting up cigarettes) but focusing on those details is missing the point—at the time, and maybe even today, having aliens land to deliver a semi-peaceful “denuclearize or else” message was a daring statement. The Day the Earth Stood Still remains perfectly respectable as an idea-driven science-fiction film, not interested in aliens as monsters but as judges delivering a moral message to contemplate. The period feel of the time is now interesting in its own right, adding a new dimension to the film that wasn’t there originally. Big ideas, anthropological tourism, touches of humour, religious allegory and an unsettling ending? Not bad for a film having reached retirement age.