(On Cable TV, March 2019) The New Hollywood of the early 1970s was so depressing that even its romances were doomed to death or divorce. A prominent case in point: The Way We Were, a multi-decade chronicle of the love story between two characters (played by Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford) throughout their hook-ups, breakups, and intervening ups and down. While there’s nothing conceptually wrong with that premise, the execution is severely underwhelming. Under director Sidney Lumet, the film feels like a mosaic of scenes set years apart, not really building on anything nor proposing a coherent dramatic arc other than “they won’t end up together.” There are some vexing narrative decisions that undermine anyone’s attempt to suspend disbelief or in sympathizing with the characters. For instance, much is made of the female lead’s political activism… but the plot doesn’t present an interesting antithesis despite a rich historical potential. Streisand and Redford do look good, but their characterization isn’t particularly deep other than becoming incarnated arguments. Where the film does a bit better by virtue of being a big-budget production is in looking back at a few decades of American history, showing in retrospect what could not be shown on-screen during the Production Code years—including the impact of the blacklist on Hollywood. It’s not particularly dismissive of The Way We Were, but that’s more out of resignation for the nature of the films at the time. I’m not volunteering to see it again any time soon, though.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Being in a rock band is cool and all, but who can claim to be cool enough to have a documentary about them directed by Martin Scorsese? Well, The Band is that cool enough, and they even get street credentials from roping in post-Mean Streets Scorsese before he became The Scorsese. Watching The Last Waltz, for me, is a bit of a strange experience as I know practically nothing about The Band itself (who does, these days?), and am so free to appreciate the film and the music itself without any prior emotional attachment. Much of the documentary is structured along the lines of the group’s last concert (with their original line-up, it should be said), intercut between interview footage with band members and a few testimonials. The audience barely figures in the film—it’s all about the band itself, special guests and the performances. Fortunately, the music itself is up to the weight placed on it. There have been other concert films since then, some of them also from Scorsese, so the newness effect of The Last Waltz is diminished compared to 1976. Still, everything is very well handled, with good music and interesting interviews even if you’re not familiar with The Band.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) One of the particularities of investigating horror films of classic Hollywood is appreciating how some of them could do much with very little—using atmosphere, cinematography, and subtlety to achieve interest without buckets of blood and gore. The Hays Code prohibited such overt material, and some producers found ways around the restrictions. Writer-producer Val Lewton was one of the best at it, and he found in director Jacques Tourneur a kindred spirit. Cat People was their first collaboration, and it shows an interesting intent to play on a semi-psychological register, with a woman (Simone Simon, convincingly feline) convinced that she turns into a panther when aroused. The romance that follows with a man skeptical of the claim is punctuated by strange events and (predictably) doesn’t end well. I won’t try to exaggerate the subtlety of the film—not when some of the dialogue is on-the-nose to the point of obviousness. Some of the material is simply weird (who stuffs a cat in a box?), but the black-and-white cinematography is quite nice and the plotting is devoid of nonsense enough to fit in 73 minutes. There are layers to it all, though—a take on female sexuality that was good enough to be remade more permissive decades later, some oneiric symbolism and direction that’s not entirely figurative. I quite liked Cat People, but keep in mind that I watched it with a cat on my lap.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Anyone getting pulled into serious film history will eventually watch films not for their entertainment value, but because of their historical importance, however loosely defined that can be. In the case of The Blue Angel, the film is most often cited as being important for being the first German full-length sound picture, and perhaps more importantly featuring Marlene Dietrich in her first big-screen role. Much has also been written about the very close relationship between Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg—there’s clearly a near-voyeuristic quality to the film as it captures her cabaret act. It’s all meant to be sexy, but for a very narrow definition of it—and since I’m neither a big fan of Dietrich nor the androgynous look she often sported, the effect is somewhat lost. It doesn’t help that The Blue Angel plays like a warning against the siren call of her appeal—our poor protagonist goes from being a respected teacher to a miserable cuckolded cabaret clown throughout the entire film. I found Dietrich far more interesting in the later Shanghai Run, or the much later Witness for the Prosecution, but hey—this is an imposed viewing. I’m not any fonder of the film’s mortally slow pacing, in which roughly a minute’s worth of plot takes ten minutes to complete—the film may have been with sound, but it kept the pacing problems of the silent era. None of this was helped by a terrible viewing experience: the film I watched had major, major sound issues, with sound interruptions and major crackling issues to the point where I muted the film. When I turned it back on later during the film, the broadcast was entirely silent. I’d normally blame the broadcast, but this was on Turner Classic Movies, which takes great care to show movies in the best available format. No matter where or how or why, I didn’t get much out of The Blue Angel other than a sense that I could cross it off my list and be done with it.
(In Theaters, March 2019) At this stage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe business model, we’re all converts to the Marvel episodic paradigm—to the point where I will reliably show up to theatres despite the inconvenience, just to be ready for the next Big Episode in the series. As a result, the episodic effect also helps weaker episodes in attracting people in theatres. Captain Marvel, compared to other MCU films, is just about average—it’s nicely made without being exceptional at this stage of the series, providing just enough unpredictability to keep things interesting. There are a number of subverted assumptions here: our origin story drops us in media res, with an alien discovering that she’s really human rather than the usual other way around. Even for comic book fans, there are surprises: The Skrull shapeshifting menace is dealt with expeditiously (this time around, at least). Even for the MCU, there’s a bit of a surprise in how the film is set in the nineties, featuring characters in their younger selves (that digital de-aging effect for Samuel L. Jackson is occasionally eerie, but soon becomes unnoticeable) and plugging jokes directly in the mythology of the series so far. (The explanation for Fury losing an eye was a let-down, though.) Much has been said about this being the first Marvel film to star a female character (they all forgot about Elektra, but that’s fine: everyone including the cast and crew of Elektra have forgotten about Elektra) and the film does make use of a slightly different kind of super-heroism without beating it senseless — Brie Larson’s not bad, but a bit bland: Lashana Lynch is more interesting. Captain Marvel’s clearly defined three acts are variably interesting: the opening segment is too focused on cosmic elements and hazy direction to be fully engaging, but things pick up once we’re back crashing on circa-nineties Earth through the roof of a Blockbuster. (I’m now old enough that “my” nineties nostalgia is now a thing, and I’m not as horrified by that as I had imagined.) The third act begins once everyone’s back into space and it doesn’t quite fully realize its promise despite coming a fair way along. I fully expect Goose to be a supporting character in a future MCU film. More than that, though, I do expect to be there, in theatres, whenever the next MCU episode comes rolling along.
(On DVD, March 2019) There’s a reason why My Girl remains a bit of a traumatic film for an entire generation of viewers, and that reason will become blindingly obvious to even the least observant viewer by the time the film hits its third act. (Spoilers ahead, obviously!) It does start innocently enough, for quirky values of “innocent”—here we have baby-faced Macaulay Culkin, fresh off his breakout hit Home Alone, playing the friend to our protagonist, a cute 11-year-old girl (Anna Chlumsky) with a widowed dad (Dan Aykroyd, quite likable), a funeral parlour as a home, a senile grandma and a writer’s soul. It takes place in the 1960s, further fostering a false sense of nostalgia for a simpler time (“Nixon renominated”) bolstered by the small-town setting of the film. We’ve seen enough of those coming-of-age films to understand that there’s no way anything will go wrong in such a setting, right? And then, well, then … the bees strike hard and kill one of the main characters, shocking a generation of kids (no, seriously; search for “my girl trauma”) and making this film into something else entirely—an approachable discussion of death and grieving, or maybe a bid for relevance ensuring that we still reference My Girl when so many other family movies from the early 1990s have been forgotten to time. The bait-and-switch (but is it, with the foreshadowing?) is something—coming-of-age comedy one moment, heavy drama the next, with a sequence nothing short of horrifying as the linchpin between both. There are films I regret not seeing in theatres when they came out, but My Girl isn’t one of them—I’m rather glad I’m seeing it now than at an impressionable age.
(On TV, March 2019) I am surprisingly underwhelmed by sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll biopic The Doors, and even more so considering that it’s from Oliver Stone, a filmmaker who has amply demonstrated his ability to deliver vivid and exciting takes on American history. He doesn’t fail here—it’s more that he half-succeeds, focusing on one specific element without quite bringing everything else together. It’s not uninteresting by the time the credits roll, but the film does itself no favours with a first half-hour spent in a series of false starts and delirious haze. Stone keeps things moving and the least we can say is that the film rarely stays sitting still for long … but the flip side of that is The Doors’ hectic quality, moody intercuts and scattered attention span. The focus here, despite the film’s title is clearly on lead singer Jim Morrison—bolstered by an exceptional performance by Val Kilmer, the film embraces a portrait of the singer as a death-seeking drug-fuelled paranoid. It’s a great topic for a flamboyant film, but maybe not so much for historical accuracy. Saying that the result is pretentious isn’t a criticism as much as an acknowledgement that it has captured a significant facet of Morrison’s personality even as it has downplayed others. Even then, the film does sport some interesting performances in its corners—Meg Ryan and Mimi Rogers, among others, still manage to be memorable. Which, in the middle of a film with great music and an exemplary rock-and-roll superstar subject, is no little feat.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) It’s interesting to note that as Alfred Hitchcock grew older and more comfortable with his mastery of the suspense genre, he started placing more emphasis on gimmicky premises, including one-location films—whether we’re talking Rope, Rear Window or the first one of them all… Lifeboat. After a perfunctory prologue, the situation is made clear: An American ship has been sunk by a German U-Boat, and a diverse crew of passengers is now stuck together on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As with most lifeboat stories, Lifeboat quickly becomes a study in the ugliness of desperate humans with a side order of sadistic ethics. It’s also quite morally gray, especially toward the ironic end. Still, it does wring quite a bit out of its premise, keeping things interesting for its zippy 80-minute duration all the way to a surprising action-packed climax (“In a word, wow!”) The obvious temptation in discussing Lifeboat is to focus on the technical challenges of presenting a story entirely set on water—the rear projection, for instance, is obvious but not necessarily intrusive. But there are some fine acting performances to discuss as well. This was the first film in which I can recall being impressed by Tallulah Bankhead, for instance and I can see what the fuss was about—although my sympathies go with the other female character. You can also see Brit Hume in an early role, showing the span of his career after seeing …batteries not included (1987) a few days ago. Also worth noting is Canada Lee’s performance, in a much better-than-average representation for a black character in 1944 Hollywood. Finally, let’s appreciate what’s possibly Hitchcock’s funniest cameo … in a one-location film in the middle of the ocean.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Sadly, I’m counting down the last few Freed-unit MGM musicals on my list—I can see why they were hailed as the best in the business, and there aren’t that many left for me to watch. I would expect a downward quality trend in getting to the less famous movies, but Silk Stockings is a strong entry in the musical corpus. It’s a decent musical adaptation of 1939’s Ninotchka, with Cyd Charisse stepping into the Garbo role in a movie at the measure of her legs—her solo number “Satin and Silk” is both funny and sexy, within a role that takes advantage of both her dancing abilities as well as her ice-queen acting range. The film has Fred Astaire as a movie executive trying to put together a project in Paris, which requires convincing Russian artists to work for the capitalistic west. Charisse plays a humourless Soviet operative gradually seduced by the leading man and Paris’s considerable attractions. The West-versus-East element of the original 1939 film plays far better in the middle of the Cold War, and this mid-1950s film also captures other obsessions of the era—most notably the decade’s obsession in distinguishing movies from TV through colour cinematography, widescreen framing and “Stereophonic Sound.” (It’s, by far, my favourite number of the film despite a dodgy cadence.) Another highlight is “Red Blues,” as the gentle poking at Soviet rigidity finally makes its way over the Iron Curtain. There’s plenty to like in the acting, as long as you accept Astaire once again being in Paris with a much younger partner (as in the same year’s Funny Face)—if it helps stomach the 22-year age difference between them, keep in mind that few actresses, no matter their age, could keep up with Astaire’s dancing. This being said, Astaire is up to his usual very high standards (he keeps the best for last with an iconic final “The Ritz Roll and Rock”), but Charisse has the tougher role as the rigid accented Nina, slowly transforming over the course of the film. Their duet is quite good as well, perhaps echoing their comfort together after working on The Band Wagon four years earlier. Peter Lorre also has a funny small role. While Hollywood history is rife with disastrous musical remakes of earlier works, this certainly isn’t the case with Silk Stockings. Much like the quasi-contemporary High Society, it takes a good film and delivers something equally good in a slightly different way. It’s one of the essential musicals of the 1950s.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) I have now seen three adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist in a single year, and that is about two more than strictly necessary. That being said, this 1948 take from director David Lean is about as close to a canonical one as it gets. It’s exceptionally well directed, lavishly produced with very good black-and-white cinematography with deep use of shadows to give an extra-gloomy atmosphere. As usual for the story, this is a tale of misery piled upon misery, with the very detailed set giving a still-credible portrayal of life in gloomy low-class London. Characters die a lot, sometimes not very gracefully. The one aspect in the work I’m really not fond of, however, is the hideously racist Jewish stereotyping that Alec Guinness gives to his interpretation of Fagin—a monumentally wrong note in an otherwise strong literary adaptation. Do not, under any circumstance, prefer the atrocious Oliver! musical adaptation to this version. Sometimes, literary classics deserve the classic filmmaking adaptation treatment.
(In French, On TV, March 2019) It’s not rare for artists and entertainers to have golden years where things suddenly click for them: during that time, they star in multiple memorable projects and clearly define the shape of their career. Jim Carrey’s 1994, for instance. Or, closer to this review, Luis de Funès’ 1964 in which he starred in both Le gendarme de Saint-Tropez and Fantômas—initial instalments of two series that would cement his acknowledged talent into superstardom, first in France and then across the world. No less than six films would eventually form the Gendarmes series chronicling the adventures of a police department in the vacation town of Saint-Tropez and its high-strung maréchal played by de Funès in top form. If you’ve never been exposed to de Funès typical brand of tightly wound hyperactive martinet-ish humour, then this is one of the films to see… even if he’s positively restrained and down-to-earth here compared to later, wilder instalments of the series. After a fake-out in the form of a black-and-white prologue, the film moves to very sunny and colourful cinematography once the protagonist makes it to the French Riviera. The plot itself remains humdrum at first, and pick up once the protagonist gets to protect his daughter and the setups finally come into play. Still, this is de Funès’s show, and the film would a much lesser one without him. This being said, let’s not dismiss out of hand the rather wonderful atmospheric look that this film offers at the mid-1960s south coast of France, complete with nudists, tourists and art thievery. Finally, let’s not discount the formidable earworm that remains “Douliou-douliou Saint-Tropez.” Sure, de Funès is the biggest reason to see Le gendarme de Saint-Tropez, but not quite the only reason.
(In French, On TV, March 2019) As a former but unrepentant Science Fiction critic, I know better than anyone else that we’re not supposed to grade SF films of past decades on a prescience scorecard where more points are accumulated for accurate predictions. This goes double for dystopias, as we’re perhaps more sensitive to the bad things than the good ones. Still, it’s really hard to resist the impulse when it comes to The Running Man, considering the richness of its vision. Adapted very loosely from the Richard Bachman/Stephen King novel (notably softening the ending but frankly just taking the name of the characters and the rough premise), it ends up being an over-the-top Arnold Schwarzenegger film set in the near future. (To underscore the difference from contemporary films, Schwarzenegger sports a rather cool goatee and otherwise delivers a film that fits well in his classic streak of action films.) The bare bones of the plot have to do with a totalitarian USA using a TV Show to kill its dissidents, but the execution (once past the setup) is repetitive, with the protagonist dispatching one opponent after another using one-liners, steadily making his way back to the TV show host. The action is bloody and choppy, reinforced by cinematography that’s pitch-dark to the point of exasperation. A few wrestlers—and future co-Governor Jesse Ventura!—make up the opponents, with the romantic interest played by the beautiful but underused Maria Conchita Alonso. (The producers make sure they get their money’s worth by having her character exercise in lingerie.) The film is limited by 1980s technology in its presentation (such as the early cheap-looking CGI opening credits) but does prove disturbingly prescient in its satirical dystopia, anticipating the 2001–2019 slide of America into cheerful authoritarianism, airport checkpoints, entertainment/capitalism synergy … and reality TV. Also notable without being so flashy is solid-state video. So, while there’s no real point in grading The Running Man for accurate predictions, it’s the kind of additional material that does help the film distinguish itself from many far more generic action films of the 1980s. It has some kind of verve in spitting out groan-worthy one-liners and work its way up to a big spectacle of a conclusion. Not necessarily my go-to-choice for films of the era, but somewhat better than I expected.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) There are films that I watch out of obligation, and the 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet is one of them—It’s directed by notable filmmaker George Cukor, won a few Oscars, features a few name actors from the era and still ranks on extended best-of lists. The problem (and I’ve discussed this elsewhere) is that Shakespearian dialogue in English bores me beyond belief. So, I may have listened with half an ear—with some help from an adaptation that adapted, shortened and simplified some of the material. This being said, there’s enough in the film on a visual level to keep things interesting—great costumes, decent sets, and actors looking as if they’re really enjoying doing Shakespeare on-screen. (Oh, and Edna May Oliver as the nurse!) Cukor directs with a sure hand, while Leslie Howard does well as Romeo, John Barrymore distinguishes himself as Mercutio, and Norma Shearer makes a decent Juliet. Frankly, the whole thing still looks so good that you can be forgiven from not paying much attention to the dialogue. It’s interesting to compare and contrast it with later versions: Put against the (dull) 1968 Zeffirelli version and the (hyperactive) 1995 Luhrmann version, this Romeo and Juliet feels closer to what we would imagine a lavish theatrical production to look like.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) If you want to see swashbuckling adventures at their best, you must see an Errol Flynn film and if you want to see Flynn at his best, there aren’t many better choices than The Sea Hawk. Pitting an Elizabethan-era English hero against the might of the Spanish Armada (doubled with a few parallels to the enemy as Nazis, to whip up patriotic fervour along the way), this is not a film that deals in nuances—the heroes are virtuous, the villains are perfidious, the English ruler is just and the love interest quite lovely indeed. It works, though: the spirit of adventure runs high enough to bulldoze through any credibility objections. Take the first boarding sequences, for instance—dodgy tactics and overconfidence by the British, but it’s still a great sequence. Few genre tropes are left unused, even in the spying business back on the home front. Flynn makes a terrific hero, and Brenda Marshall is quite good as well as the beautiful Spanish girl who can’t help but fall for him. Michael Curtiz directs with energy and confidence, all the way to the landmark final sword-fight, which features energetic performances, shadowed cinematography, cut candles, broken furniture and people being thrown through windows. It’s a final sequence that caps a quintessential adventure film with generous period detail and costumes. The Sea Hawk remains quite an experience event today—it’s still at the top of the genre.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) I must have read Steve Alten’s Meg two decades ago and it remains a memorable thriller. (Poke around this site, and you can read my review, then my progressive disenchantment with the rest of Alten’s increasingly unhinged bibliography.) Ever since, I’ve been paying attention to every hint and rumours about a film production. Like most long-gestating movie projects, it seemed consigned to development hell and inglorious failure—even when it involved the unlikely figure of a first-generation movie-site webmaster as producer. After a very long and chaotic development process, a film called The Meg finally made it on-screen. Alas, fans will have to be generous in finding traces of the original novel in the movie adaptation. A gigantic prehistoric shark escaped from the depths? Yes. Everything else? Not so much. Which may not be a problem by itself—given two decades’ progress in digital special effects, even the wild action sequences of the novel can be “improved” with more craziness. Much of the credit for the film’s existence goes to its Chinese investors and their impact is almost impossible to ignore in the finished film, considering that it takes place in south-eastern Asian waters with location-appropriate subplots and a few Asian actors including the very cute Binbing Li. Finally, there’s the lead action hero factor—Jason Statham usually plays the same persona no matter the film, so it’s natural (I didn’t say “preferable”) that the script be tailored to his specifications. So, what do we get? Well, a decent action spectacle for one thing: Statham hasn’t been in many big-budget films of late (Fast and Furious films aside), so that’s interesting even if it downplays his usual macho heroics—you can’t really punch a skyscraper-sized shark in the mouth, right? Even with those changes, I’m relatively content by the results. I liked the initial atmosphere of the film, what with its high-tech research setting, cast of character and inventive adventures. It’s hardly perfect, of course: in the quest for a summer blockbuster, the “scientists” aren’t particularly smart, and the film can’t help but keep a few howlers for dramatic effect, including a massive shark sneaking up on a research station that would presumably have a sonar and other tracking mechanisms. Still, there’s been many aquatic-creature thrillers in the past few years and this one is better than most: veteran director Jon Turteltaub clearly understands that scale matters, and so does a big budget. He also knows how to build thrills rather than horror—compare The Meg’s beach sequence with the one in Piranha in an object lesson on how to build a tense sequence without veering into disgusting horror. No, The Meg is not Meg put on screen as faithfully as possible. But I’m not complaining.