(On TV, November 2018) I’ve been bingeing on classic cinema for months now, and I had almost forgotten what a truly wretched movie could feel like. Now, thanks to Martian Land, I’ve just had a quick and painful reminder. Produced by the infamous The Asylum production company in anticipation of The Martian, this is a film that keeps its quality as low as its budget. From a nondescript premise to terrible execution, there aren’t that many redeeming qualities to the film. In fact, it’s most fascinating when it shows that terrible movies cannot use the same tools as good movies. When bad actors get angry in terrible scripts, they become laughable rather than fearsome. When heroic deaths are sprinkled everywhere in a script that does not deserve them, they feel cheap and hollow, perhaps even reprehensible. There are a lot of special effects, and they are not good even with the possibilities of CGI. Things don’t make sense but our investment in the result is so low that it doesn’t really matter. I won’t try to claim that it’s one of the worst movies ever: that would be singling out a film that is simply too dull to be singled out. Every so often, I see a promising logline in the TV guide and record the movie just for the curiosity factor, but Martian Land will help me cure myself from the habit of doing so. It’s just dull. I’ve written too much about it already.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) The obvious hook for describing Where the Heart Is remains “Pregnant girl lives in a Wal-Mart,” but as it turns out that only explains the first third of a film that covers quite a bit more ground. (Also: While it’s satisfying to condemn a film for offering a big spotlight to Wal-Mart, I’m wondering when realism trumps anti-corporatism: If you had to live somewhere while homeless in a small town, Wal-Mart would be a good option.) (Independently of this movie, which I only discovered recently, I came up years ago with a party question that went “If you had to spend thirty days living in a store, which one would you choose?” and the answer was nearly always Wal-Mart.) Nathalie Portman stars as a young woman who ends up marooned in a small town after her boyfriend’s abandonment during a road trip, and the story covers roughly the six following years of her life, through various personal and small-town troubles. Ashley Judd is featured as her new best friend (she gets the film’s best lines), with a few other name actors such as Joan Cusack and Stockard Channing in supporting roles. Since the film is adapted from a novel, this gives Where the Heart Is a more freewheeling quality in terms of plotting and subplots—in particular, following the no-good ex-boyfriend through an abortive musical career. On the other hand, the film does feel unfocused and messy as a series of crises loosely held together chronologically. Several viewers will be allergic to the blatant product placement, not just for Wal-Mart, but for what the characters are drinking as well. It could have been a TV movie with lesser actors. While Where the Heart Is does deal with lower-class white people, it’s not always clear whether it has sympathy for them, as it sometimes milks laughs out of some stereotypes. It doesn’t make for a particularly good film, although the premise could have been developed in a far more interesting way.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) Social trends shift over two decades, but if some aspects of The Birdcage are now slightly dated, the film itself remains quite a lot of fun to watch. There is, mind you, quite a pedigree to this American comedy—it’s an updated Americanization of 1978’s French farce La Cage aux Folles, which was itself a movie adaptation of a 1973 play of the same name. (And I’m not getting into the sequels to the French film nor the American musical.) In other words, the roots of The Birdcage go back to before I was born. But no matter the year, the premise is the same: A half-flamboyantly gay couple has to hide who they are as their son comes to visit with his fiancée and her ultraconservative parents. The key word here is “flamboyantly”—while issues between gay couples and social conservatives continue to be a rich source of conflict, the portrayal of the gay couple in all versions of the story does include a very camp gay character with a vested drag queen identity. The Birdcage bathes its gay characters in a warm sympathetic portrayal, which helps it a lot in being just as amusing today—the portrayal of the social conservative characters haven’t aged so well, but then again some caricatures are necessary. Now, of course, gay couples can now marry even in the United States and social conservatives are slightly more approving of them—and The Birdcage is often mentioned as one of the movies that helped move things along. Still, even though some of the details have changed, much of the movie does remain a lot of fun to watch: Robin Williams plays, if you’ll pardon the expression, the straight man to Nathan Lane’s far more exuberant character, with Hank Azaria making quite an impression as a supporting character and Gene Hackman playing ultraconservative like few others. The shrill screaming, snappy snarking and outlandish outfits clearly benefit from the drag club atmosphere, but the moral message underneath it all couldn’t be more wholesome, and the film’s portrayal of all of its characters is immensely likable. Breezy and fun, The Birdcage remains surprisingly good even more than twenty years later.
(Cineplex Store Streaming, November 2018) Somehow, I expected much worse. Few movies deserve the tile of “infamous” but Irréversible is one of them. From the off-kilter opening credits onward, it famously “features” an exceptionally gory death as an opening statement (fire extinguisher plus face; not a good mix and I won’t add more) and revolves around a nine-minute-long rape sequence that’s filmed as one uninterrupted shot that leaves no detail to the imagination nor any place for the viewer to hide. I knew all of this before watching the film and it did take me a while to bring myself to watch it, only spurred to it by an unfortunate need to cross movies from a to-see list. Irréversible is not a fun movie to watch. In fact, it’s about as far away from fun as possible—call it an ordeal, maybe. It doesn’t mince details in portraying a hopelessly nihilistic view of the world. But experiencing the film somehow isn’t as vicious as I was expecting. For one thing, there is an exceptionally clever conceit at play here in showing a traditional revenge movie in ante-chronological order: We see the revenge first, then the hunt for the suspect, then the rape, then the happy first act introducing the characters. The impact is significant: The opening salvo of violence establishes a tone that carries through the hunt, while the rape throws the happy-moment conclusion of the film is disturbing ironic territory knowing what will happen to those characters later on. As repulsive as the film can be in its excesses (did we need to see such graphic gore? Did we need to see the entire rape sequence?), there is a deliberate attempt here to go beyond conventions. You could take the script, rearrange it chronologically, remove the philosophical element, elide the rape, soften the gore and it would be an unremarkable film in-line with much of what cheap exploitative filmmakers create without anyone batting an eye. It would still be conceptually ugly. It would still be an unacceptable celebration of revenge. And it wouldn’t be the same film. I did not like Irréversible and have no plans to ever watch it again. (Hence streaming the film rather than purchasing a physical copy—I don’t want it in my house.) But I have to recognize that it’s a film with conscious intent. It’s disturbing for valid reasons—Monica Bellucci ranks highly in my personal pantheon of sex symbols, and I was honestly distressed to see her (not the character; the actress) be subjected to what she goes through in the movie. I like Vincent Cassel a lot and didn’t like the character he became in the film. (For added mind-bending, consider that Cassel and Bellucci were married while shooting Irréversible.) Screenwriter/director Gaspar Noé has since become just as infamous for equally uncompromising movies (I still have Enter the Void on my shelf of DVDs to watch, and I’m still making excuses not to watch it). Irréversible is a bold movie and I almost hate that it exists. But somehow, it’s not quite the empty exploitation vehicle I was half-expecting. I’m still recommending that you do not watch it.
(Google Play Streaming, November 2018) I’m a surprisingly good audience for movies that stake out the interesting middle-ground between reality and fabulation, and Secondhand Lions does manage to create a satisfying film from those elements. The premise has to do with a boy being left with his two elderly uncles living on an isolated farm. To say that the uncles (played wonderfully by Michael Caine and Robert Duvall) are eccentric is putting it mildly—they seem to be financially comfortable enough to give in to their whims and fancies (including purchasing a lion), and they keep telling their young charge about their fantastic youthful adventures. You can probably write the rest of the plot yourself, but Secondhand Lions is at its best in the small incidents and adventures, and in bringing their tall tales to life. The conclusion brings all the threads together in a satisfying coda. It’s not a great film or a memorable one, but it’s rather good at what it attempts to do, and provides enough closure to the audience to be worth a look.
(On TV, November 2018) As someone who doesn’t go crazy for blondes, I’m less susceptible than most to Marilyn Monroe’s charms. But she could be a hilarious comedienne when given the right material, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (nonsense!) is as good a showcase for her brand of humour as anything else I’ve seen her in so far. Helmed by the always-excellent Howard Hawks, this is a Hollywood musical from the golden age, as two women make their transatlantic way to Paris in search of husbands and their fortunes. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Monroe’s Pink Dress are set-pieces of the film, the song reprised more than once. Monroe is very, very funny as the ditzy but clever heroine, while Jane Russell is spectacular as her brunette friend—her “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” number (complete with a surprising amount of cheekiness) is a highlight. Maybe a bit lighter on songs than you’d expect from a 1950s Hollywood musical comedy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (nonsense!) is heavier on comedy. All of this plays quite well to Monroe’s comedic talents—the film is her showcase even if I prefer Russell on general principles. The gender roles of the film are hopelessly dated, of course (the film is based on a 1940s Broadway musical itself based on a 1920s comic novel, explaining some of the material such as crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner) but once you get into the 1950s frame of mind, anyone will realize that the heroines are really the masters of the plot, playing their hands as skillfully as they can. That kind of agency (need we go over the Hawks woman archetype again?) certainly helps Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (nonsense!) survive well through the decades, offering many of the same pleasures that audiences of the 1950s enjoyed while watching the film.
(On TV, November 2018) Yes, trivia fans, it is true: Robert de Niro once directed a movie. Not only that, but he directed A Bronx Tale, written by fellow actor Chazz Palminteri and based on Palminteri true-life childhood stories. Surprising no one, it’s about growing up in the Bronx during the 1960s, and having to deal with the neighbourhood gangsters. De Niro himself has a secondary role as the bus-driving father of the young protagonist while Palminteri plays the local mobster. The movie quickly sets up a dynamic in which the hero has to choose a father figure between two men, one of them law-abiding and dull, while the other definitely isn’t. It’s a story with gangsters rather than a gangster story: the point is to show the realities of growing up in that neighbourhood and being tempted by The Life. As a period piece, it’s nicely done and somewhat successful: the nostalgia is effective without being overpowering, while the music sets a tone that the film follows. A Bronx Tale is likable, perhaps not a classic but a worthwhile companion piece to many other all-out gangster films.
(On TV, November 2018) For some reason, I sat down to watch Detour while thinking that I was going to see a comedy. To my great delight, it ended up not only being a film noir, but a cheap nasty film noir whose low-end production values were redeemed by a solid script and at least one great performance. The story has to do with a man crossing the country to be reunited with his girlfriend, but reality intervenes and before long he’s on the run from the law for a death he didn’t cause –if you believe him. Alas, his only partner is a hitchhiker who quickly understands the situation and bends him to her will—played by Ann Savage, in a ferocious performance that shows how much freedom film noir gave to its female characters. The production values of Detour are low even by 1940s standard: the producing company specialized in cheap productions, and most of the film seems to be spent either driving a car in front of an obvious rear-projection, or bickering in a hotel room set. But the film has good dialogue and an even better fatalistic atmosphere of encroaching doom. Our character ends the movie as an outcast from society despite his best intentions: there is nothing he can do. And so is one of the lessons of film noir. Sometimes, even if you don’t take the narration at face value, there is nothing you can do.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) I wasn’t expecting much from Pit and the Pendulum: horror movies of the early 1960s can be undistinguishable from one another, especially given how many of them were made with small budgets and indifferent actors. But from the first few minutes, there’s something remarkable about the film’s use of colour (in an early-sixties horror film!), its confidence in using a flashback structure and, of course, in Vincent Price’s performance. Director/Producer Roger Corman became a legend for a reason, and Pit and the Pendulum remains surprisingly effective. Great sets help, as does the unusually stylish flashback cinematography. The titular pendulum and pit set is also quite good. This being said, my favourite moment in the film is the stinger at the very end, which takes barely a second to remind us that something horrible is still happening to one of the antagonists—and will keep happening for a while. It’s an amazingly good jump-conclusion to a decent horror film.