(On Cable TV, November 2018) Despite suspecting better, I half-expected to like Shampoo. I’m usually receptive to critiques of the 1960s or Warren Beatty’s projects, and I like the concept of examining an era’s social more through the lenses of a specific day (here the election of Richard Nixon in November 1968). Shampoo, alas, proved to be a far more sombre experience than I expected. Beatty deservedly stars as an in-demand hairdresser able to use his job to meet women and maintain simultaneous affairs at once. Of course, such a character must not be allowed to profit, and much of the film details the ways in which his life implodes over the course of slightly more than a day. The playboy lifestyle is not played for laughs or wish-fulfillment, with the so-called comedy of the film being tinged with a substantial amount of humiliation, self-recrimination and missed opportunities. It’s not a whole lot of fun and if I had paid more attention to director Hal Ashby’s name or the 1975 year of release of the film I could have predicted that for myself. (For various reasons, my reactions to Ashby’s movies ranges from tepid liking to outright loathing—but then again that’s my reaction to most of the New Hollywood era in general.) Considering the downer plot and restrained laughs, I best reconciled myself with Shampoo as a period study, taking a look at the excesses of 1968 from the decade-long hangover of the 1970s. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) There’s quite a bit of metafictional context about Postcards from the Edge that make it a fascinating movie for those steeped in Hollywood history. For one thing, it’s not just a movie about a Hollywood actress with addiction issues trying to get back on the right path despite the domineering influence of her mother—it’s also adapted from an autobiographical novel from Carrie Fisher that many saw as a roman-à-clef about her relationship with her own mother Debbie Reynolds. (Fisher herself maintained that it was a novel for a reason, but there are substantial differences between the inward-driven, stylistically experimental novel and the far more conventional film whose script she adapted herself.) Taking all of this rich material and giving it to seasoned actors’ director Mike Nichols seems like a natural fit, even more so when he’s able to count on an impressive gallery of capable actors, staring with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in the central mother/daughter roles. I don’t particularly like MacLaine in general, but she’s quite good here and Streep has seldom been as funny as in this role. The Hollywood satire circa 1990 is likely to remain more interesting than the familiar dramatic material, but there’s enough here for everyone—including musical numbers. Postcards from the Edge is almost a piece of Hollywood history the more you know about the business and the history, but it’s strong enough to be interesting even to casual viewers.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) Tone and atmosphere are crucial to comedies, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels manages to keep up a delicate balance between its reprehensible hijinks and the charm of its lead actors hamming it up on the sunny French Riviera. Pleasantly harkening back to earlier decades (it’s a remake of the 1964 comedy Bedtime Story with added complications), it’s a comedy that leaves plenty of room for stars Michael Caine and Steve Martin to riff on their own comic personas, especially when they portray conmen with vindictive streaks. Their banter is infectiously fun, and they manage to neutralize most of the contempt that we would hold for such criminal characters. Glenne Headly is also quite good as the completing piece of the romantic triangle, although it’s a role that requires her to fly under the radar for a while before taking centre-stage in the finale. The French Riviera seems to be a supporting character in its own right, providing the right backdrop for the kind of breezy comedy that director Frank Oz intended. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may not be all that deep (although there’s enough plot to keep things interesting even for those who have seen the original), but it’s well-executed enough to keep audiences smiling.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) As a Francophone North-American viewer, French cinema can be frustrating in its lack of tonal control. For lack of discipline or cultural reasons, French movies often can’t bother to maintain a consistent tone from beginning to end, leading to a curiously scattered approach where a film’s approach seems to vary by accident rather than by design. This is particularly striking with comedies, one of the best demonstrations being 2009’s live-action adaptation of Lucky Luke. As a childhood fan of the original comic book series, I was favourably predisposed toward a film adaptation. But I wasn’t necessarily expecting this one, in which Lucky Luke flirts with girls, suffers a mental breakdown when he thinks he’s killed a man, and ends up in a psychedelic villain’s lair in time for the climax. It’s been too long since I’ve read a Lucky Luke album to demand exact fidelity to the source material, but even as a mere movie this Lucky Luke goes everywhere and anywhere. While reviews in France were (and continue to be) harsh, it’s not a complete failure due to the impressive visual polish of the film and the sight of Jean Dujardin as Luke. The cinematography, set design, special effects and costumes are as good as one would expect for this kind of film, while Dujardin has the square jaw required of the role. I’m also generally upbeat about Sylvie Testud as Calamity Jane. But it’s in the script that film falls flat, not quite managing to balance the comedy with the action with its numerous digressions and substandard writing. Even as a comic western, it doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be, and this lack of focus quickly becomes grating. In doing so, Lucky Luke become one of a growing line of disappointing comics-to-movie French adaptations. Too bad. I’m sure they’ll figure it out eventually.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) Some movies celebrate the human spirit, and some movies focus on the innate depravity of people. Guess to which category Blindness belongs to? Here’s a hint: In a universe where a disease is turning everyone blind, government inevitably resorts to concentration camps where the prisoners are left to fend off for themselves. Authoritarian rule quickly follow, along with resources hoarding and mandatory rapes because it’s that kind of story. There’s a voluntary vagueness to the film that is supposed to make it universal but instead comes across as indecisive—coupled with the intentional flight from realism, it does make Blindness a bit of a chore to get through. Once it’s clear that the film has allegorical points to score, it does become obvious in the way it goes to achieve them, and that the characters are mere puppets in that service. Still, those issues are more attributable to the source (Nobel-award-winning José Saramago’s novel) than the film adaptation itself: from a visual standpoint, it is handled with some skill and no one will dare say anything less than favourable about the performances of Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo in the lead roles. A few Canadian icons appear, most notably writer/director Don McKellar (who wrote but did not direct Blindness) in a small role. It’s unusually literary for a post-apocalyptic movie, but that doesn’t necessarily work in the film’s favour: instead, it seems to be pulling back from engaging with macroscopic ideas and locking itself up in its own pocket universe while everything degrades. Blindness is not guaranteed to be a good time for horror or Science Fiction fans.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) Nicholas Cage and Las Vegas make for an interesting coupling ((he’s apparently now a resident of the city), especially given how each one of the movies in which they come together are so different. Leaving Las Vegas is a depressing tragedy, Con Air is a brash action spectacular, and Honeymoon in Vegas is an offbeat romantic comedy featuring no less than a troupe of parachuting Elvises (Elvii?) at the climax. Writer/director Andrew Bergman certainly seems to have fun in setting up the film’s premise, as a couple (Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker) travels to Vegas to be married, only to run into an Indecent Proposal-like situation in which a rich man (James Caan) offers to erase the protagonist’s gambling debts in exchange for a weekend with his soon-to-be wife. (Indecent Proposal was released in 1993, although the original novel predates Honeymoon in Vegas.) There’s some plot weirdness about Parker looking like the rich man’s dead wife, but never mind the justifications: Much of the film’s fun is in seeing Cage’s character chasing his wife, only to come back in style by jumping out of an airplane with a bunch of Elvis impersonators. As they say—what goes on in Vegas … warrants a movie. The result is a frothy funny film, not particularly deep at all, but offbeat and likable enough to be worth an unpresuming look. Cage is surprisingly fun as a romantic hero, and the Honeymoon in Vegas itself offers an interesting contrast to his other Vegas movies. Still, it may work best as a chaser for Leaving Las Vegas.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, November 2018) Even by the ludicrous standards of 1980s action movies, Red Dawn is something special. After all, it’s built on nothing less a premise than an invasion of the United States by foreign forces, allowing ordinary high school students to turn into La Résistance. As far as power fantasies go, it’s a good one—there’s a chill at seeing concentration camps and executions on American soil that excuses nearly every excess in fighting back. Written and directed by John Milius, the premise makes no sense, but the execution manages to succeed in portraying the nuts and bolts of the story on the ground—the film never gets out of the vicinity of a small Colorado town, as it’s spectacularly invaded and taken over by foreign occupants. Our teenage protagonists are quickly driven to the countryside, where they plan and conduct semi-quixotic attacks against the invaders. There’s a lot of potential here to criticize American interventionism through ironic inversion and so … oh, who am I trying to fool? Of course Red Dawn is about American machismo writ large—even though the main antagonist has a surprising amount of character development, the film is about celebrating the militaristic values of fighting back, and no questioning of American military interventionism (which, if you look at the past sixty years, is about as bad as it gets from an international perspective) is allowed or even imaginable within the context of the film. The rah-rah-rah stuff gets tiresome after a while, especially since the film quickly backtracks to the heroic-sacrifice flag-waving rather than anything else. (The script-to-screen journey of the film is quite fascinating—read the Wikipedia article.) Seen from today, and easily ignoring the forgettable 2012 remake, Red Dawn seems like the fantasy of an ultra-right-wing cuckoo. It’s curiously less effective in the end stretch than it is at first—the film doesn’t seem to know where it’s going as the band of protagonists keeps dwindling, eventually settling for manly tears. And yet, even with all of this being said, it’s quite a movie—if it didn’t exist, there would be a hole in most 1980s film analyses of Reaganesque power fantasies.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) It’s amazing what you can do in terms of special effects nowadays with very few means. It’s even more amazing to consider that scripts don’t require any special effects and yet are still as terrible as they ever were. So it is that volcano-in-LA disaster movie Destruction Los Angeles does feature cheap special effects that would have been the envy of generations of Hollywood directors … yet Tibor Takács can’t be bothered to put together anything resembling interesting characters or a compelling story. Falling back once again on the tired “family in distress” plot with a side order of estranged couple rediscovering each other, this made-for-TV film is the epitome of emptiness. It doesn’t have a single new idea, it doesn’t have a single reason to be watched. It merely exists to fill a programming slot. The actors are there for the paycheck (good for you, actors!) and I suppose that most of the audience is there out of inertia. Re-watch 1997’s Volcano again—it will hold up better.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) Now Robin and the 7 Hoods is an interesting curio: A gangster musical, featuring Bing Crosby and the Rat Pack. Adding even more interest to the proceedings, the story is a retelling of Robin Hood in Prohibition-era Chicago. With a premise and cast like this, you can almost be forgiven for thinking that whatever is on-screen is a let-down from whatever idealized movie you could imagine. Depending on your taste, the film is either too talky, too long, not witty enough to fully capitalize on its potential, or to make good use of its long list of performers. Barbara Rush isn’t as good a Marian as she could have been, while we can quibble about the number of songs given to this or that actor/singer. All of this is true—Robin and the 7 Hoods is never mentioned as a major musical, and there’s a feeling that the material could be done quite a bit better. And yet … there are some really good moment in here. The highlight has to be the “Bang! Bang!” number featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. as a gun-crazy gangster shooting up the place. Another great sequence has a speakeasy transforming itself into a religious mission complete with gospel singers. Edward G. Robinson shows up briefly as an elderly gangster, while Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (a bit wasted) and Bing Crosby (showing up too late) get to croon a few numbers. The colourful portrait of 1920s Chicago is a straight-up cliché, justifiably so in a silly musical comedy. I do wish Robin and the 7 Hoods would have been just a bit better, but I still had quite a good time watching it all. Just the thrill of discovery does account for much of it.
(On TV, November 2018) Peak Patrick Swayze cannot be explained—it has to be seen to be understood. And while Dirty Dancing usually imposes itself as the obligatory film in considering his Swayzeeness, I’d argue that Road House is a better place to start, or maybe to end. Swayze here plays a bar bouncer with a particular genius in making sure the place is well organized—keeping the riff-raff away, ensuring that employees are honest and taking care of any customers making trouble. As the story begins, he’s somehow convinced to leave a prestige assignment in New York City to help turn around a bar set deep in rural Missouri. As he rolls into the small community, we’re left to grin at this elaborate set-up for a classic “stranger comes into town” plot: The question isn’t whether he’s going to attract the attention of the corrupt local authorities and clean up the place, but in what style he’s going to do so. As such, it’s a near-perfect Swayze vehicle, allowing the actor to flex his skills as a credible action hero. Only a fairly lacklustre romance prevents Road House from truly making him shine. The rest of the film is familiar business, with the local mafia intimidating the honest men out there, and the protagonist going on an over-the-top rampage of violence to right the wrongs of the place. It gets surprisingly violent at times. Road House is not what we’d call a good movie: it’s clearly aimed both at female Swayze fans and at their boyfriends looking for a few action thrills. But its unsubtle, almost-earnest approach to a classical story means that it can be appreciated either straight or ironically, depending on your chosen viewing level. Many movies of the time have aged far less gracefully.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) Sequels aren’t supposed to be better than the original, especially when the first film is already very good, but the Paddington series is something special. Correcting some of the few but glaring missteps of its predecessor, Paddington 2 further develops its characters, boasts of a much-improved villain, and never distances itself from the inspired lunacy of the first film. Much of the credit goes to writer/director Paul King, who once again concocts a complex blend of whimsical writing, good performances and top-notch special effects. The story here is a bit beside the point as much of the sheer joy of Paddington 2 comes from the asides, the execution or the sight gags. Paddington-the-bear himself remains as optimistic a figure as can be imagined, even when wrongly sent to prison. It’s a testament to the film’s innate good-naturedness that even prison proves to be a fun experience in Paddington-world, as his sheer force of optimism managers to transform the environment itself. The world is simply better with Paddington, and that goes for the movie too. Much of the film is like the first one at one exception: a much-better villain, with Hugh Grant playing a washed-up actor for all it’s worth. Grant is clearly having a lot of fun here, and it’s contagious. Better yet is that the villain is matched to the universe of the film—the original Paddington sinned by having a villain that was disturbingly too dark for the setting. Here the tone is more even and just as delightful. Stay for the credits—Paddington 2 holds back one of its best sequences (a musical number!) for the very end. This is one kid’s movie that will charm even the adults.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) As a quick trawl through this site’s archives shows, I’m more than familiar with the novels of Vince Flynn, from which American Assassin was adapted. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a fan back then, and most American thriller writers are now so far to the right that they’re often unreadable for any sane foreigner. American Assassin takes up that worldview verbatim, offering a vision of bloodthirsty terrorist hiding in every dark corner, gleefully mounting plans against all Americans and requiring the services of none other than a state-sanctioned psychopath. Someone very much like Mitch Rapp, traumatized by the violent murder of his girlfriend and positively lusting after revenge. You can probably write the rest of the film yourself, so closely does it adhere to the usual formula. Despite the numerous fights, chases and evil plans, it’s a surprisingly dull thriller. Nearly everything is on rails going from one plot point to another, and Dylan O’Brien doesn’t have what it takes to make a compelling protagonist out of what the script gives him. But someone else does, and it’s Michael Keaton—he shines brightly in a supporting role as a hard-as-nails mentor who positively relishes his job. Otherwise, some nice special effects illustrate a nuclear-driven climax. But that’s it—American Assassin plays to its paranoid base but doesn’t do the required legwork to reach out to a broader audience. It’s surprisingly boring whenever Keaton isn’t on-screen.
(On Blu-ray, November 2018) I probably shouldn’t expect much from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but its second instalment feels silly and dull. Freddy’s Revenge clearly isn’t beholden to any kind of internal logic, meaning that stuff happens without explanations or rigour in what is made possible by the rules of the series. The strength of the Nightmare on Elm Street series is how its films can flip squarely in dream logic without much notice, but there isn’t enough of that in this sequel. There are, to be fair, some decent sequences here and there—the idea of a character possessed to conduct a series of murders is horrifying enough, and there is one showcase sequence in which antagonist Freddy gruesomely emerges from the protagonist’s body. The special effects do have a quaintly charming quality that reminds us that this is merely a movie. Still, taken at face value, Freddy’s Revenge isn’t much to talk about—as if someone had seen the first film and had to turn out a half-baked script in a few weeks. But if you do read about the film and discover that there was an intentional attempt (not recognized by the director) from screenwriter David Chaskin to insert a significant amount of homosexual subtext, then the film suddenly become far more interesting, even in retrospect: Suddenly, the lack of romantic chemistry between hero and heroine, the tone of the coach sequence, the “friendship” between the two male leads and the body-horror all become pieces of evidence in a deeper reading of the film. I’m not among the target audience for such alternate takes on material, but it’s there and it does lend quite a bit of depth to what had been at face value an uninspired sequel.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) Roger Moore is the Bond through while I discovered the series, so he’ll always remain my definitive take on the character … but he was clearly far too old to play the role in A View to a Kill. Bond’s tendency to date far younger girls gets overwhelmingly uncomfortable here, especially after the somewhat more mature heroines of the previous films. Various other structural mistakes, such as passing far too much time on the opening penny-ante villain horse-doping scheme rather than his ultimate evil plan, further damage the picture. Still, I still enjoyed quite a bit of the movie. There’s something about the action scenes that feels more modern than previous instalments, and both the chase sequence through Paris and the other in San Francisco feel well-handled. Then there are the antagonists: Christopher Walken is typically indescribable as genetically-engineered villain Max Zorin, his line delivery being much better than the actual lines. Then, of course, there’s Grace Jones: Not a gifted actress, but a spectacular evil Bond Girl more than capable of taking on Bond and make him sweat a little. Goody-two-shoes Tanya Roberts doesn’t compare, and there’s a fantastic lost opportunity here to bring back a recurring KGB agent character. Patrick MacNee shows up in a supporting role as a fellow agent, with some fun banter between him and Bond. Duran Duran’s title song is terrific, and it does underscore the peak-eighties nature of the film. Still, it’s hard to watch the film and not wonder about the wasted occasion of what a younger Bond, a tighter script, and a more daring director could have done with the raw material of the film. Still, as a swan song for Moore in the role, A View to a Kill is not quite bad. There have been far, far worse movies in the franchise and even in Moore’s tenure.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) No matter the era, America is always under siege. In the 1980s, even as détente was making the Soviets slightly less threatening, Americans discovered that the Japanese were going to outproduce everyone and buy everything. American industrial management were quick to obsess about Japanese production techniques: why was Toyota producing cars that were so much better than anything Detroit could turn out? 1986’s Gung Ho may not be a particularly well-known film these days despite being directed by Ron Howard, but it presents an impeccable take on the obsession of the time as a Japanese car company buys an American factory and starts imposing its methods. A significant culture clash ensues, spiced up by the fact that the American characters are being challenged to do better. Michael Keaton headlines the film with his usual charm, playing a foreman acting as the link between Japanese management and the American workers. Despite the obvious concessions to comedy, the film was reportedly used in Japan in order to understand how to manage American workers. The result is often more interesting as a time capsule than a conventional film—Howard directs unobtrusively, Keaton is his usual sympathetic self, Mimi Rogers shows up, a few more Howards (Clint and Rance) have supporting roles, and the film has a pleasant blue-collar atmosphere without being weighed down in the kind of dark drama that such mid-1980s setting usually accompanied. It’s watchable enough. A sequel, showing how American manufacturing adopted and adapted Japanese manufacturing techniques, would be sorely needed at the moment.