Month: January 2019

Hang’em High (1968)

Hang’em High (1968)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) If you’re having trouble keeping track of Clint Eastwood’s westerns at home—I certainly can use a refresher from time to time—, Hang’em High is pretty much what it says in the title: This is the one where Eastwood (playing essentially the same character) gets hanged by a gung-ho posse too quick to designate a guilty party, but miraculously escapes and becomes a volunteer federal marshal eager to enact some revenge. The third act is also all about a big public hanging. In between, we get thoughts about frontier justice. If there’s anything looking like an unusual take on Eastwood’s persona here, it’s that his character ultimately works within a (very loose) judicial system, although Dirty Harry isn’t too far away in having him go to extraordinary lengths to punish villains with little regard to due process. (In how many movies has Eastwood played a lawyer? I rest my case, your honour.) The atmosphere of a frontier town is well presented, enough to make us reflect about the rocky colonization of the frontier and how justice took a bit longer to arrive. Eastwood is equal to himself (for better or for worse) and the film doesn’t quite have the worst qualities of later westerns that presented Eastwood as a quasi-supernatural figure. The Leone influence is clear, and that probably tells you all you need to know about the film’s direction. Hang’em High remains a solid Eastwood western, not particularly distinctive but not dull either.

Annihilation (2018)

Annihilation (2018)

(Netflix Streaming, January 2019) It’s rare to see first-class science fiction movies gets as weird and eerie as Annihilation—although, considering the source that is Jeff Vandermeer’s novel, it’s not that unexpected. The film clearly heads out to Stalker/Solyaris territory in presupposing a zone of strange phenomena and a group of explorers tasked with understanding some of what’s going on. Headlined by a power group of gifted young actresses (Nathalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson in glasses and curly hair—yes!), this film gets more and more unsettling as the group gets closer to the source of the anomaly, and it takes them apart in very literal ways. The really good production design and rainbow-hued cinematography give justice to the uncanny visuals and troubled subject matter—the film is not interested in theatrics (or even understanding what’s going on) as much as in studying grief, terminal melancholy and self-destruction. Everybody has a bad past in this film, and it’s that past that challenges them more than the alien presence at the heart of the zone. Compared to the writer/director Alex Garland’s previous Ex Machina, Annihilation is more subtle, more hermetic, more suitable to a range of interpretations (what’s with the tattoo thing?) than its preceding nuts-and-bolts nightmare. It’s just as thought-provoking, however, and a good example of the avenues that filmed Science Fiction has not yet fully explored.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) As much as it may displease some purists, there are times where the remake improves upon the original film, and my feeling after watching the original Murder on the Orient Express is that this may be one of those pairs. Oh, I liked it well enough—there’s something just delicious about seeing a gifted detective stuck in a remote location (here: a train immobilized by snow) as a murder has been committed and everyone is a suspect. Agatha Christie wrote strong material in her original novel, and it’s up to the filmmakers to do it justice. Under Sydney Lumet’s direction, the atmosphere is quite nice, and the editing is surprisingly modern with a number of flashback cuts. The ensemble cast is remarkable, with names such as Lauren Bacall (who looks fantastic), Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Perkins in various roles –some of them with very little time as the story goes from one interrogation sequence to another. Still, as absorbing as it can be, it’s probably worth watching the original before the remake, as the cinematic polish of the later Kenneth Branagh version is far better controlled, and so is the take on Poirot: Here, Albert Finney plays him far too broadly as a farce character, whereas the remake wisely makes sure that behind whatever eccentricity shown by the detective is a conscious veneer soon exposed. The Murder on the Orient Express remake doesn’t necessarily strip the original of anything worthwhile, but it does make it feel slightly less impressive.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

The Remains of the Day (1993)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) Anyone who starts a steady movie-watching program should be careful about scheduling and the danger of oversaturation. Watching too much of the same thing, especially if it’s not your proverbial cup of tea, is a recipe for disliking (or at least not caring for) some perfectly decent films. Or at least that’s the way I feel about The Remains of the Day, a smart, well-executed film that nonetheless feels like the same thing as countless other films. Clearly a Merchant Ivory production, it focuses on the stiff-lipped inner turmoil of a super-competent housekeeper as he struggles with what he wants compared to what is expected to him. It’s a very British drama, nearly to the point of parody as it studies the end of the servitude era and presents its protagonist as the last of his breed, to his own detriment as it condemns him to stay alone and detached. Adapted from a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, it does have interludes about the fascist tendencies of the British aristocracy, heavy romantic drama, convincing period details (such as ironing a newspaper). Still, I didn’t feel much love for the result, and I suspect that this isn’t due as much to the qualities of the film itself, but having seen too many similar stiff-upper-lip British downstairs drama films in a short period of time, with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson playing more or less their own archetypical personas. I suspect that revisiting The Remains of the Day (which, to be fair, is slow-paced and almost requires an undergraduate degree in early-twentieth-century English history to follow) later on would end up in a more favourable assessment.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

(Netflix Streaming, January 2019) It says much about the Marvel Cinematic universe’s self-assurance that it not only knows how to make decent movies (nearly) every single time, but counter-programs deliberate tonal shifts within the series itself. Much as the sombre Avengers: Age of Ultron was followed by the first comic Ant-Man, here we have the even-more sombre Avengers: Infinity War followed by the almost-as-comic Ant-Man and the Wasp. Once more featuring a charming Paul Rudd, this sequel also aims for a lighter, funnier, not quite as melancholic kind of film with the MCU … and that’s not a bad thing. It’s often very funny (with Michael Peña once again winning comic MVP), although the comedy aspect is balanced against more serious elements, including an unusually sympathetic antagonist as played by Hannah John-Kamen. Rudd is backed by capable supporting talent, including a much-welcome bigger turn from Evangeline Lilly, as well as characters played by veteran Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer. The transition from lighthearted caper film to more metaphysical fantasy in interesting to watch, and the top-notch special effects help sell the film’s wilder sequences, such as a car chase exploiting the scale-changing powers around which the Ant-Man series is based. It may not be particularly deep (and at times it feels like a filler episode in between the Infinity War/Endgame two-parter), but Ant-Man and the Wasp passes the time nicely—there’s something interesting, funny or entertaining every few minutes and that’s not a bad change of pace after the sombre conclusion of previous MCU film—which shows up in a ponderous post-credit sequence.

A Quiet Place (2018)

A Quiet Place (2018)

(Netflix Streaming, January 2019) There are quite a few things I don’t like about A Quiet Place from a strict logical standpoint. The premise of the Earth having been devastated by murderous aliens with a keen ear doesn’t survive a critical look. There are plenty of plot holes, dumb decisions and nonsensical implied backstory here, and by the time the normally quiet characters speak normally near a waterfall providing aural cover, one wonders why there aren’t human settlements near Niagara Falls, windy mountain passes, wavy beaches or heavy metal concerts. But A Quiet Place does a bit of essential misdirection in asking us not to think about those things—by focusing its story on an isolated family, paying careful attention to tactile details and featuring a soundtrack that could have been largely lifted from a silent movie, it sets up a simple but effective suspension of disbelief. Actor/writer/director John Krasinski, accompanied by his off-and-on-screen partner Emily Blunt, shows a clear and effective intention for his movie. He ends up making a very effective, very careful use of sound, especially in building up the suspenseful sequences. There is a lot of implied background in the way it simply shows us details about a family having been able to survive in a dangerous world. I’m not that happy with elements of the conclusion, nor the wider perspective of the imagined universe, but it works on a nuts-and-bolt level, and it certainly offers a different watching experience—there’s been a few sound-conscious horror movies lately (Hush and Don’t Breathe among others) but A Quiet Place has something slightly different to say by heading into the Science-Fiction realm. I’m not sure that the announced sequel has anything left to explore, but if this film is anything to judge, then we shouldn’t bet against John Krasinski undertaking further challenging projects.

Alive (1993)

Alive (1993)

(In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Alive is a movie about survival up in the mountains after a plane crash, and it’s adapted from famous real events in which the survivors ate the body of the deceased for sustenance. The nervous jokes about cannibalism were all over the release of the film back in 1993, and they’re still the first thing that most people talk about when they talk about that film. For good reason too—survival movies come and go, but they usually fade away quickly—does anyone even remember 2018’s The Mountain Between Us? Alive has a tricky element to deal with, and director Frank Marshall does have the decency of being skillful at the way it goes about it. Otherwise, it does remain a decent survival story: capable actors, harrowing plot, some dodgy pre-CGI special effects, and a bit of an uplifting conclusion. But if Alive sticks in mind, it won’t be for much of the film—it will be for those five minutes where it steps away from the norm, and can do so without accusation of gratuitous exploitation because it’s adapted from real events.

The Women (1939)

The Women (1939)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) It’s not clear to me when George Cukor got a reputation for being a “woman’s director”, but there’s got to be a link between that and The Women, a film renowned for having an all-female cast … down to the extras and gender of the animals shown on-screen. That’s not the only reason why it has endured, however: the script is a master class in delightful bitchiness between its major characters, all the way to a memorable catfight at the beginning of its third act. The acerbic script has several witty things to say about marriage from the point of view of an ensemble of women having similar but complementary problems with their husband and lovers. Set in the Manhattan upper-class, The Women is Hollywood glitz escapist wish fulfillment, but also a bit of a pure exploration of gender tension freed from the shackles of money. There is a distinctive “fashion show” sequence that was shot in colour, adding a dash of style to the movie. The cast is solid, with a number of the era’s most famous actresses taking part—and, of course, the antagonist is played by Joan Crawford. The beginning of the film can be a sink-or-swim experience, as the script moves fast and it can be difficult to distinguish between half a dozen very similar brunettes … but it gets much better as the subplots unfold, and as the solid dialogue keeps drawing us in. The Women may have a bland title, but it’s a hard film to forget.

All About Steve (2009)

All About Steve (2009)

(On TV, January 2019) Some movies are more infamous than famous, and to the extent that anyone even thinks about All About Steve, it’s usually to remind everyone else that it was a terrible film. (I don’t like the Razzies, but All About Steve is notable in that it led to Sandra Bullock winning a Razzie for the worst actress of the year, and picking it up herself … the day before winning a Best Actress Academy Oscar for The Blind Side, which is not necessarily a better movie.) With a reputation like that, it’s normal to approach the film with an “it can’t be that bad” presumption. All About Steve, however, is honestly that bad, although it can often camouflage its awfulness by humour. Even the premise is strange, what with a socially awkward girl obsessively pursuing a dreamboat of a romantic prospect, turning psychotic behaviour into rom-com antics. The problems, I suspect, go straight to Bullock as the producer of the film. There are plenty of hints that the script, as originally written, was far wackier than what eventually landed on the screen. There are enough zany hijinks and eccentric characters left over on the sides of the plot to make a reasonable hypothesis that when Bullock became the film’s producer and cast herself in the lead role, the main character re rewritten to fit their lead actors, and that neither Bullock nor Bradley Cooper wanted to strike out too far in absurdity. The result is a film that doesn’t know how to approach its own material. Bullock in the lead role is too conventionally sympathetic and cannot allow herself to completely become the nerdy obsessive protagonist in her full glory—she has to be fit to be played by Sandra Bullock’s persona, and that works to the film’s detriment as it holds back what could have been a far funnier film. Another actress may have been able to play a brainy outcast, but Bullock has to get her star moments. Much of the same also goes for Bradley Cooper, asked to play a relatively straight and featureless male romantic lead in a film geared for something else. This would explain such baffling tonal issues with the rest of the film, including a scene (glorifying Bullock’s character, naturally) mean to be inspiring and heroic, but just coming across as tone-deaf. I suspect that movie-star interference in films is widespread and corrosive, but All About Steve looks like an ideal example of the problem. The problems of All About Steve are all about casting—specifically when the casting of a persona end up weakening the character as originally written … which happens when the star and producer end up being the same person.

Tag (2018)

Tag (2018)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) As far as contemporary comedies go, Tag holds its own as an enjoyable entry in the genre. Starting with an off-beat premise inspired by real events (a group of guys playing a lifelong game of tag), it stocks its ensemble cast with known comic personas, features a script that exploits the nooks and crannies of the premise and wraps it all up in sequences that have more cinematic depth than most other comedies. As a comedy/action hybrid (naturally, with the “tag” hook), it features enough CGI and gags stolen from other action movies (including the Sherlockian slow-motion voice-over options analysis) to act as a semi-satire. The film does a credible job at rationalizing its unlikely premise, from how the game was created to the various rules that make it a bit more complex. To support that intent, it also features a coterie of observers (including a journalist played by Annabelle Wallis in a thankless role that is reduced to being the audience’s surrogate) to highlight how crazy the main characters can become in playing the game. The cast was clearly chosen for their established personas, whether we’re talking about Jon Hamm’s propensity for comedy, Isla Fisher’s energetic enthusiasm, Ed Helms as the goofy straight man, and Jeremy Renner to make use of his action-movie credentials in a more serious character than the other. The result is funny enough, although the third-act turn into drama is suspect in the way movies written according to screenwriting rules feel obliged to hit specific emotional turns. Tag is an enjoyable comedy, with set-pieces more ambitious than is the norm for many flatter comedies. The dialogue shows signs of having been written rather than improvised, which usually improves the results.

Tiny House of Terror (2017)

Tiny House of Terror (2017)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) By now, I know enough about Swedish cinema to brace myself whenever my list of must-see movies brings me to another one of them. Oscar-nominated The Emigrants is not an Ingmar Bergman, even though his style and favourite actors (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann) are clearly not too far away. (Actually, I’m being meaner to Bergman than I should—his movies usually have wit and a really good idea or two somewhere in them, and that is sorely missed here.) Telling us about the story of Swedish peasants emigrating to the United States in the 1850s, this movie is about as unromanticized a retelling of the American immigrant tale as possible: death, tragedy and misery await at every turn, and not even making it to destination can spare some family members. I suppose that the realistic portrayal has its place (and acts as a commemoration of sort for Swedish-Americans), but it quickly becomes an ordeal for viewers wondering when or even if this will ever end—at times, it feels as if the multi-month journey is taking place in real time. It’s long. Sooo looong. Frankly, I would have stopped watching The Emigrants had it not been Oscar-nominated.

Utvandrarna [The Emigrants] (1971)

Utvandrarna [The Emigrants] (1971)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) I can’t adequately explain how much I love “Tiny House of Terror” as a movie title. It’s over-the-top, instantly intriguing and packs the cuteness of “Tiny House” with the threatened menace that is “OF TERROR!” in four short words. Impossible to resist, and probably impossible to live up to as well. This is a made-for-Lifetime TV movie and it shows—watching it on commercial-free Cable TV channels, you can see the fade-out-fade-ins, which is especially amusing in the case when it fades back to the very same shot. While the screenwriter has to be congratulated for the chutzpah of creating a thriller based on the high-concept housing fad of the moment, Tiny House of Terror doesn’t, in the end, have much to do with Tiny Houses—it goes beyond the setting to quickly becomes a sombre revenge thriller where the tiny house becomes an afterthought. The broken chronology of the result is interesting and while some twists can be guessed in advance, the film is filled with so many red herrings that it’s actually a letdown when everything is explained as the resolution does not match our wildest explanations. This Canadian production gets a few extra points for cute lead actresses (Francia Raisa and Nazneen Contractor)—and some applause for casting non-Caucasian actresses for no particular plot reason. In the end, despite a title that overpromises much, Tiny House of Terror is not that good but not that bad either—too bad about the disappointing ending, though.

Dick Tracy (1990)

Dick Tracy (1990)

(Second Viewing, In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) Back in 1990, Hollywood really wanted audiences to go see Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. After the success of Batman in 1989, it had been designated as the most likely contender for the Summer Box-Office crown. I remember the overwhelming marketing push. It didn’t quite work out that way: While Dick Tracy did decent business, movies such as Ghost and Die Hard 2 did much better. Still, the film had its qualities (it did get nominated for seven Academy Awards) and even today it does remain a bit of a curio. Much of its interest comes from a conscious intention to replicate the primary colours of the film’s 1930s comic-book pulp origins: the atmosphere of the film is gorgeous and equally steeped in Depression-era gangster movies and comic-book excess. A tremendous amount of often-grotesque prosthetics were used to transform a surprising ensemble cast of known names (Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan … geez) into the caricatures of Tracy’s world. Beatty himself shows up as Tracy, square-jawed and willing to give his best to a film he also directed and produced. Madonna also shows up, but she ends up being more adequate than anything else. Dick Tracy’s big twist is very easy to guess, but this isn’t a film that you watch for the overarching plot: it’s far more interesting when it lingers in the nooks and corner of its heightened vision of 1930s cops-vs-gangsters cartoons. Visually, the film holds its own by virtue of being one of the last big-budget productions without CGI: the matte paintings are spectacular, and you can feel the effort that went into physically creating the film’s off-kilter reality. The question here remains whether the film would have been better had it focused either on a more realistic gangster film, or an even more cartoonish film. Considering the original inspiration, there was probably no other option than an uncomfortable middle ground. In some ways, I’m more impressed by Dick Tracy now than I was when I saw it in 1990 (at the drive-in!)—I wasn’t expecting as much, and I’m now more thankful than ever that it lives on as how big budget 1990 Hollywood rendered the gangster 1930s.

Way Down East (1920)

Way Down East (1920)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) I seldom reach back to the early 1920s for straight-up dramatic films, and Way Down East is a thorough reminder of why. Coming from legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith and starring none other than silent film superstar Lillian Gish, it’s a century-old film that goes back even further in time for inspiration, to an 1889 melodramatic play. To say that social mores have changed is putting it mildly, especially how the entire film revolves around an unmarried pregnant woman and the debilitating social shame that this implied. (There’s also a lesson here between contemporary period pieces and authentic period pieces—anyone trying to remake Way Down East a hundred years later would face significant challenges in trying to re-create the same emotions evoked in 1920.) The film does not pull any punches in reaching for tears and thrills—there’s infant death, small-village ostracization and peril on ice floes. It also packs a bit of a class warfare message as its sympathies are solidly with the working-class heroine humiliated and abandoned by a rich suitor. Now, all of the above may sound like good dramatic material, but the early days of cinema weren’t as polished as what we expect: D.W. Griffith was still helping to invent the cinematic art form! As a result, Way Down East can be a trying viewing experience. Incredibly long, pretentious, outdated, shot with static cameras with terrible image quality (and that’s from the impeccable broadcast source TCM!), it can be an ordeal for most of its duration. Fortunately, it does improve sharply by the end, as the film points out the double standard it depicts, and then rushes to an action-packed finale on a partially frozen river that features an authentically dangerous ice-floe scene that will have even contemporary viewers gritting their teeth in suspense and sympathetic frostbite. Gish is very good and lovely here, but she suffered for it—legend has it that she suffered permanent nerve damage in her hand from shooting the climactic scene. I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that you fast-forward directly to Way Down East’s last fifteen minutes … but it would save you a lot of time.

Polytechnique (2009)

Polytechnique (2009)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) I suspect that Polytechnique received a lot more interest in recent years now that its director Denis Villeneuve has become a major Hollywood director. But it’s a great, hard-hitting in its own right as it takes on the tragic events of the Montréal Polytechnique shooting of December 6, 1989, as a springboard for a drama that’s not quite a re-creation. Much of the basic facts, as horrible as they were, are faithfully reused here—the shooter specifically targeting women, and the helplessness of the male students as they were unable to help their classmates. But Polytechnique adds a layer of fiction that help navigate a fine line between attempting to re-create the event, and adding another layer of tragedy for the survivors of the events. The broken chronology gives false hope and brings us back very reluctantly to the heart of the massacre. Unable and unwilling to shoot the movie at the school itself, Villeneuve nonetheless gives an unsettling layer of authenticity to the result. Polytechnique is deliberately shot in black-and-white for ever starker realism, adopting cinema-vérité aesthetics in a way to reduce the distance between the events and the viewer, an effective choice to present events very familiar to many of its French-Canadian viewers. It’s visually raw, but carefully controlled in its technique. Polytechnique is not easy to watch and it’s liable to linger for a few days/weeks/months, but it’s a mesmerizing film … and probably one that most will never re-watch again.