(On Cable TV, December 2018) In the running for the title of the greatest clip show ever made, That’s Entertainment! does have the advantage of great source material to draw from: nothing less than the heydays of MGM musicals, featuring greats such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and so many others that it would be exhausting to list them all. Various stars such as James Stewart, Bing Crosby and Elizabeth Taylor introduce some of the archival segments. Helmed by writer/director Jack Haley Jr. from MGM’s library extensive library, the film is a pure celebration of musicals as an art form, and of MGM as a powerhouse studio. Ironically, the film also acts as a tombstone for the classical MGM—filmed on the studio’s backlot, That’s Entertainment! presents the MGM studios right after they were sold off to finance the studio’s debts. As a result, the backdrop behind the presenters is decrepit, rusted, faded, overgrown with weeds, showing Hollywood’s past grandeur in a documentary fashion. The contrast between that and the clip shows is astounding, as we get a quick greatest hits of MGM’s most memorable numbers and fascinating segments about Astaire, Kelly, Esther Williams and Judy Garland. That’s Entertainment! is an absolutely fascinating film, and it deserves its enduring popularity—TCM even used it, along with its sequels, as a perfect lead in to the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Now, I want a good affordable copy of it on Blu-Ray.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) It’s not easy to make a successful ensemble musical biography, but Cadillac Records does manage to put together a fun and intriguing look at the life of Lionel Chess and the heydays of Chess Records, a pivotal Chicago-based record company that played a crucial role in rhythm-and-blues, as well as the formation of early rock-and-roll. The ensemble cast clearly has fun playing musical legends, what with Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Beyoncé as Etta James, Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf and Mos Def as Chuck Berry, with Adrian Brody as producer Leonard Chess. Writer-director Darnell Martin’s script doesn’t stray far from either the truth or the music movies clichés, but it does have a good narrative rhythm to it. It’s perhaps most remarkable for focusing on a label rather than just a single artist, giving us a glimpse of the relationships between a group of people moving forward in time. The characters are memorable, their stories remain interesting and the music is about as good as it could be. Don’t be surprised to want to revisit Cadillac Records only for the music, leaving it as background ambiance while doing other things.
(In French, On TV, December 2018) I’m starting to be old enough to realize how complex history can be, and how many little-known side stories, tangents and footnotes it contains. Now, thanks to Warren Beatty’s Reds, I know a little bit more about the American involvement in the Bolchevik Revolution of November 1917 and its aftermath. Beatty here produces, writes, directs and plays in a movie about American journalist John Reed, who witnessed those events first-hand, sent news reports and ended up writing a book about it. In addition to Reed’s reporting, the film does spend quite a bit of time chronicling his complex relationship with socialite Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton). If it feels like a history lesson, then this is an impression that the film actively courts—by including documentary footage of “witnesses” talking about Reed, Reds blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and further bolsters the epic scale of the result. The other thing that hits hard is the film’s mind-numbing 194 minutes, far too long even for the kind of massive world-changing epic that Reds has in mind. Still, if you can schedule your life around the movie, it’s quite an interesting history lesson that it has in mind—a corner of American history during which the country may have been tempted to back off from savage capitalism, and a milestone of Russian history seldom depicted sympathetically in American movies. It’s easy to imagine parallel realities emerging from America embracing at least some degree of socialism, as this film dramatizes the elements in play in the late 1910s. Now that Beatty has essentially retired (or at least retreated back in a safe corner), it’s easier to evaluate how daring much of his pre-1990s filmography could be, and with Reds he controlled the project from beginning to end. The result is a fiercely intelligent, provocative, unusual piece of work that may overstay its welcome, but nonetheless illuminates a pocket of history that deserves to be told.
(Hoopla Streaming, December 2018) Those who maintain that romance is the universal language will be comforted by the existence of Kwak Jae-yong’s My Sassy Girl, a South Korean romantic drama that hammers the tropes of the genre as blatantly as any Hollywood movie. The story is a bit messy, but it has to do with an unstable (quirky, sassy, fun, abusive—take your pick) young woman barging into a quiet young man’s life and upending it completely. The romance is further heightened by a lengthy separation between the two and a dramatically ironic finale. It starts out funny, becomes poignant later on, and finishes with big romantic guns firing by the very end. Of course the fun is in the details, in the quirkiness of her behaviour, the three movies imagined by the hero, or the atmosphere of a somewhat familiar romantic comedy set in contemporary South Korea. While this is all very cute and quite accessible (the film was one of the highest-grossing movies in South Korean history at the time of its release), I can’t help but wonder how much less fun the film would be if the gender roles had been inverted. But that’s asking too much of a film not meant to sustain such scrutiny. In the meantime, it’s best to just appreciate My Sassy Girl and have fun along the way.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m enough of a Scorsese fan to be at least sympathetic to the idea of a film featuring a criminal as a protagonist, but it always helps if there’s at least a nod toward decency and morality somewhere in the mix. Alas, that’s not so in this Superfly remake, which features a gangster going against worse gangsters … and getting away with it. Trying to find even a thematic point in this glitzy celebration of conspicuous consumption, hedonism, fast cars, cool guns and ménage-à-trois shower scene is tough—what we get is the lifestyle, the shoot’em-ups, the car chases, the double-crossing and the escape to a yacht. If you’re looking for the tradeoffs, well, at least one of the protagonist’s girlfriends gets killed and, um, that’s about it. (He seems perfectly happy with the remaining one.) At least Trevor Jackson is fine in the lead role—and who wouldn’t with Lex Scott Davis and Andrea Londo at his side? “Director X” (actually Julien Christian Lutz) distinguishes himself through a decent visual style, made all the way more remarkable in that the production of the film was ridiculously short—something like three or four months from start of production to the end of shooting, with theatrical release three months later. There’s some obvious visual symbolism in Superfly (the heroes drive, shoot and wear black; the villains drive, shoot and wear white) but again there’s not much underneath the surface, and not nearly enough of what would be needed to justify a gangster film glorifying the lifestyle.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) There’s dumb comedies, and then there’s Weekend at Bernie’s, a film that somehow thought it would be a fine premise to have a corpse carried around and made as if it was still alive. The amount of sheer suspension of disbelief required to buy into this inane concept would power the current American presidency for about ten minutes, but that’s how Hollywood rolls. Focusing on a pair of your men as protagonists allows the film to dip deep into the dumb-guy humour pool, with beaches and bikinis and necrophilia, with a bit of yuppie self-absorption to round things off. It’s remarkably dumb for a black comedy, and oddly insubstantial as well—once the script has gone through the obvious jokes, there’s not a lot left to do for director Ted Kotcheff. I suppose that the audacity has its charm … and that Weekend at Bernie’s must be seen at least once to be believed. (The sequel is even worse.)
(Second Viewing, In French, On TV, December 2018) I recall seeing Eraser in theatres, and not being all that happy about it. (The idea of a portable railgun firing “near the speed of light” with no recoil seemed hilarious to me, but laughing alone in the theatre isn’t one of my fondest memories. But then again I placed a lot more emphasis on scientific rigour back then.) In retrospect, though, Eraser had aged decently enough—it does feature Arnold Schwarzenegger near the prime of his career, after all, and the kind of big dumb action movies made in the mid-1990s have grown scarcer in recent years, accounting for a bit of nostalgia. I mean; in how many 2018 releases do we have a parachuting hero bringing down an airplane rushing toward him with nothing more than a handgun? Some rough-looking CGI (alligators and human skeletons!) add to the charm. At the time of the film’s release, much of the release chatter had to do with how the audio and CGI team had to work around the clock right before release to change all mentions of the villainous “Cirex” to “Cyrez” after computer chip company Cirix complained. In terms of star vehicle, Eraser is pretty much what Schwarzenegger could handle at the time—and having a featured role for Vanessa Williams is more interesting when you realize that the film never goes the obvious route of creating a romantic subplot between both of them. James Caan also has a good turn as a mentor-turned-villain. The political machinations justifying the plot are better than average for an action movie, and the coda seem closer to a political thriller than an action film. Eraser is still not a good movie (and it pales a bit compared to other late-1990s actioners), but it has aged into a decent-enough one.
(On TV, December 2018) There’s a self-acknowledged B-movie quality to Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator that makes the movie about ten times as much fun as if it had tried to play things dramatically. Working from an H. P. Lovecraft premise, this is a film that has fun with the idea of hideous resurrection, clearly made in the same horror/comedy vein as Evil Dead 2. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy watch for those who aren’t used to the gore or the casual disregard from decency—Re-Animator is clearly destined to a specific hardened public. In between the gallons of blood, practical makeup effects and unbridled imagination, the hospital sequence that makes up most of the third act is wild enough. Jeffrey Combs has some fun as the lead actor playing the epitome of a mad scientist, and this carries through to the entire production. There are a lot of wannabe horror/humour hybrids, but few of them manage the magic combination of elements that Re-Animator stitches and cobbles together. This being said, it’s worth reiterating that this is not for everyone—it’s best watched by seasoned horror fans who have developed the macabre sense of humour that the film is going for.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) A good musical comedy is timeless, and Easter Parade is better than most. Here we have Fred Astaire as a Broadway singer pairing up with a young singing sensation played by Judy Garland in an effort to make his ex-partner (on-and-off-stage) jealous. That’s really an excuse to string along musical numbers, of course, and Easter Parade plays that game well. Astaire is in fine form, MGM’s Freed unit was near the top of its game and few expenses were spared along the way. I’d like it a lot better if Judy Garland and Ann Miller (who plays the ex-partner) switched roles, but I seem to be in the minority in my overall lack of enthusiasm for Garland. Still, Miller gets at least one good solo number (“Shaking the Blues Away”) and it’s fun to see her as the romantic antagonist. The film’s by-the-numbers plotting lets the musical numbers shine through: the highlights include the Astaire/Garland comedic “We’re a Couple of Swells”, but especially the Astaire number “Steppin’ Out with My Baby”, which mixed optical trickery to show Astaire’s dance moves in slow motion. The early-1910s Manhattan atmosphere is convincing, with all the stops pulled out for the title end number. Astaire, like in most of his movies, is too old for his co-star, but then again which woman, no matter her age, could keep up with his dance moves? Worth watching at any time of the year, Easter Parade is among the best of the MGM musicals, and remains a minor landmark in Astaire, Garland or Miller’s careers.
(In French, On TV, December 2018) There are elements in La Florida that don’t require any explanations to its French-Canadian target audience but need quite a bit of unpacking for other audiences. For instance, the connection between Florida and Québec: While Florida occupies a specific place in American culture (equal part Disney, Kennedy Space Centre and two doses of “Florida Man”), it occupies a very different place in Québec’s imagination—it’s the hot sunny state where well-off retirees go spend their winters, deemphasizing the state’s significant problems and playing up its destination as, well, the middle-class Quebecker’s dream. The fun of La Florida is largely found in opposing these two conceptions of the state, as a family of coarse Quebeckers (headed by French-Canadian screen legend Remy Girard) purchases a hotel in Fort Lauderdale with dreams of making it big. Alas, they run afoul of another Quebecker with a stranglehold on the local hotel trade, as well as an American developer (hilariously played by Margot Kidder) with plans for the location. A young Marie-Josée Croze unusually provides the film’s sex appeal in a bikini. The film was a massive success back in 1993 (becoming the highest-grossing Canadian film of the year, regardless of language) and became a bit of a cultural reference in further reinforcing stereotypes about Florida. It’s still worth a look for the actors as a gentle (but predictable) comedy.
(In French, On TV, December 2018) Just as I was tempted to dismiss writer/director Jacques Demy on the basis of the unbearable Les parapluies de Cherbourg, here comes the much better Les demoiselles de Rochefort to redeem it all. This far improved follow-up fixes my two biggest annoyances with the previous film: Much of the dialogue is spoken rather than sung, and it does feature a happy ending (even though it’s by mere seconds—the film does toy with its audience toward the end, perhaps keenly aware that those having seen Les parapluies de Cherbourg almost expected an unhappy ending.) That alone could have been enough to make it a good movie, but then it goes the extra mile. Not only does it feature a young gorgeous Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac, but here is no less than Gene Kelly (visibly older, but still capable) walking in for a few scenes and a dance number. Very, very colourful, Les demoiselles de Rochefort makes the best of its coastal-town setting, starting with an elevated bridge dance sequence, then spending much of its time in a public square with a fantastically glassed-in café set. There’s a little bit of atonal weirdness when it turns out that there’s an axe murderer (!) hanging around, but otherwise the film is far more successful than its predecessor. “Chanson des Jumelles” is a great, memorable number, but it’s really the cheerful colourful atmosphere of the film that wins audiences over. I happened upon the movie by chance, playing as it was in the middle of the night on an unlikely TV channel, and almost gave it a pass. Only Gene Kelly’s name drew me in, and I’m glad it did—Les demoiselles de Rochefort is now one of my favourite French films of the 1960s, which is saying something considering the strengths of the decade for French cinema.
(On TV, December 2018) There is a sharp racial edge to the premise of The Toy—the idea that a black man can be essentially bought by a rich white boy to act as his plaything. It completely fits within Richard Pryor’s comic persona, as well as the irreverent nature of early-1980s comedy. (I’m not sure the same movie could be made today.) Still, what matters in a movie is the execution, and that’s where The Toy loses a lot of its lustre—once given the basic elements, much of the script feels far too familiar to be interesting. Of course the boy needs a friend; of course, the protagonist won’t ultimately lose his integrity; of course, they’ll actually befriend each other.) Further compounding the problem is the often-juvenile nature of the screenplay—it’s fine to have a largely kid-driven film with an adult premise, but when the script’s most interesting elements are sidelined for kiddie goofiness, we’re left to wonder who’s the film real audience. I suspect that some of the film’s disappointment comes from adapting a French film to an American context (with a very different take on the issue of, well, slavery), and not necessarily knowing how to play those elements. At least we do get to have Pryor and Jackie Gleason go head-to-head in comic scenes. Still, The Toy feels like a disappointment, disjointed and not quite able to use everything at its disposal for a coherent result.
(In French, On TV, December 2018) As much as I respect and understand the forces that led to the New Hollywood of 1967–1977, I cannot and most likely will never be able to muster any kind of enthusiasm or affection for it. Films of that era and sensibilities remain almost uniformly grim, pointless and unpleasant. Case in point: Harold and Maude, which details the growing affection between a death-obsessed teenager and a much older woman. Affected with the typical disaffection of an early-1970s protagonist, Harold drives his parents crazy, can’t relate to the world and is intrigued by the idea of suicide. Meanwhile, Maude is an elderly free-spirit living life to the fullest but with the intention of checking out on her own terms at 80 years of age. It’s a strange, off-beat, morbid movie, but calling it a comedy feels like a stretch, especially when there’s very little joy to be found in its exasperating execution. Helmed by Hal Ashby (whom I’m increasingly recognizing as a director who does nothing for me), it’s clearly a reflection of the increased freedom that filmmakers enjoyed at the time. I can’t help, however, than to think that whatever Harold and Maude brought to the film world has been fully integrated in the corpus and doesn’t have much left to say if you don’t enjoy it on its own terms. The Cat Stevens music is as dated as the film itself, and if Harold and Maude is worth a look for a pure undiluted shot of New Hollywood, nobody is forcing anyone to enjoy it.
(On TV, December 2018) Every Santa Clause movie in the series gets markedly worse, and if The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is not quite terrible, it’s certainly heading in that direction. “Was there anything else to do with the premise?” is the question that producers should have examined more closely before embarking on a third instalment, as what they resort to is a highly unpleasant back-to-the-beginning parallel reality and an active antagonist in the persona of Jack Frost. Martin Short isn’t to be blamed for playing Frost—he gives it everything he’s got, and his madcap performance does hold some interest. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is often painful to go through. As is often the case in film series, baby makes three—or at least becomes an important plot point of the third film. Much of the creative juice of the series has run dry, and running off fumes barely gets the instalment past the finishing line. Tim Allen is blander than bland in a role for which he was picked because he was bland, and that’s saying something. The Escape Clause is the kind of movie they throw alongside the previous ones to make for a series collection DVD 3-pack, but it’s not a given that everyone will get to it.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) I really enjoyed (with reservations) Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, but then again I was supposed to: I’m very near the nerdy child-of-the-1980s demographic that the book celebrates and aims for. There is nothing wrong in writing a novel meant to stroke the nostalgic sense of a particular audience (after all, the boomers have been doing it for at least thirty years), but Ready Player One got a particularly severe case of spotlight rot as it became a publishing success and people farther away from its intended audience started reading (and rejecting) the book. With the adaptation of the novel to film, I was looking forward to the result almost as much as I was wondering how it would smooth some of the rough edges of the original. Expectations ran high for the result—after all, there was no better outcome for the film than to be actually directed by Steven Spielberg, given Spielberg’s stature in shaping the 1980s and the novel’s frequent nods in his direction. As a director, Spielberg could also be counted upon to deliver the wow factor of a big special-effects-driven production. Fortunately, Ready Player One lives up to the hype and the apprehension. Much of the novel’s cheerful homage to 1980s geek-culture remains intact, and most of the plot has been ably adapted on-screen despite the mountains of exposition that Cline (and readers) loved along the way. It’s still a story about a young man in a dystopian future trying to make something of himself through an epic Easter egg hunt in a virtual reality environment. In the details, however, many things have changed. Even though the movie’s licensing team made heroic efforts to obtain permission to use a flurry of pop-culture references, some changes were still necessary and arguably improve the experience. I far rather enjoyed going back to an astonishing digital re-creation of The Shining than Wargames, and I suspect that Spielberg did as well. Ready Player One does fix a few of the novel’s more vexing moments, although a few annoyances do remain. Still, the point of the film is the giddiness of playing hard with pop culture, and having fun along the way. The special effects are often astonishing, and the giddiness of a few scenes (such as the Manhattan Race) are well worth a look, showing Spielberg once again at his most entertaining best. (He even had time to begin and complete The Post in-between Ready Player One’s production and completion). It’s clear that Ready Player One does remain a very specific kind of film for a very specific kind of audience, but the film expands its reach beyond the novel, and the result is an enjoyable future thriller with terrific special effects and probably as many pop-culture references as we’re likely to ever see again under the current IP framework.