(On Cable TV, March 2019) If you know Julia Roberts but wish she’d do something more daring than her usual screen persona, then stop what you’re doing and go watch Mystic Pizza if you haven’t already done so: it’s a revelation. Here, a pre-stardom, pre-Pretty Woman Roberts has a very early role as a fiery curly-haired teenager and you won’t believe the cuss-words coming out of her mouth. That’s more than enough of a reason to watch the film, but fortunately there’s more to it: an affectionate coming-of-age story, coupled with an engaging look at the travails of a small family-owned pizzeria on the brink of closing down. The small-town atmosphere is credibly presented, and while Annabeth Gish hasn’t risen to the same superstardom as her co-star, her work here is also quite good—along with Lily Allen in a supporting role. In the end, Mystic Pizza does feel like its namesake food—a bit cheesy, rather delicious, very familiar, incredibly comforting. Not something to be snobby about.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) It’s interesting to look at the list of top-grossing movies of decades past and see a few surprises in there. Billy Jack, while somewhat forgotten today, was an interesting blockbuster hit. Its production history and release remain singular, as actor-writer-director-producer Tom Laughlin resurrected his Billy Jack character from The Born Losers and made a movie that he then distributed himself, eventually ranking in significant profits from a low-budget film. Little of this would have worked had the film itself been less interesting. But Billy Jack itself is this weirdly compelling mixture of native-American revindications, vigilantism in the service of pacifism and a martial-arts expert protagonist proudly affirming his Navajo roots. Even executed in grimy low-budget quasi-amateurish fashion, it does have a certain straightforward appeal. Beyond the dull-toned narration, it shows a clear underdog story in which free-spirited (yet violently competent) hippies and Native American face off against square whites. It’s hard not to cheer for the oppressed heroes even as they face caricatures—the council scene is bad enough! The exploitation intent of the result makes it that we’re not supposed to care about the profoundly hypocritical message of preaching pacifism in the middle of an all-out escalation of violence … and that’s how it goes: Billy Jack may grapple with the notion of pacifism in the face of violence, but never comes close to being willing to provide an answer. Laughlin does deliver a very likable performance, even if he’s not exactly a good actor and everyone surrounding him fares even worse. For all of the quirky interest of the film, though, it’s hard not to link it to trends that would emerge later, both in cinema and in society: not only as a prototype for the transformation of New Hollywood into the popular blockbuster release by the late 1970s, but also the rise of Native American activism throughout the 1970s, including the Wounded Knee standoff of 1973. Billy Jack is definitely a curio no matter how you look at it, and an interesting film in its own right.
(In French, On Cable TV, March 2019) There’s a good reason why The War of the Roses is often brought up, decades later, in conversations about dark comedies: As a story of a warring couple, it will make most people’s divorces look positively tame in comparison. Featuring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as the warring couple in their third outing together, it’s directed with devilish glee by Danny DeVito—who also gets a good role as the film’s narrator. It’s clearly not a laugh-a-minute comedy, but the film does an admirable job at controlling its tone (always an issue in dark comedies) as things simply get worse and worse with no upper limit. By the morbid ending, it’s not as if we haven’t been prepared for it. Douglas and Turner were arguably at the height of their own respective fame by the time the film was made, and there’s an interesting aspect to the film capturing those performances at that time. The obvious caution here is that The War of the Roses may not be a film to be watched at anyone at any time—although, ironically enough, it may be most suited to those in the middle of a divorce themselves as a reminder of how bad things can get.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) At this point, “a Syfy Original” should be interpreted as a warning more than a simple production credit, and Leprechaun Returns doesn’t buck accepted wisdom. This standard “evil force attacks co-eds in a cabin” horror movie has very little to distinguish itself from other similar movies—not in wit, not in execution. Even discounting the silliness of the Leprechaun series, everything about Leprechaun Returns seems extruded from the cheap horror-movie factory, from the bland premise to the off-putting gore to the actors seemingly ordered from some central casting clone farm. The leprechaun-themed humour is obvious and flat, and there’s really nothing anywhere that goes beyond the strict minimal requirements for the genre. Even the modern patina (made out of drones, environmental consciousness, DIY action heroines and media social complaints) fails to bring anything new here. I’ll admit that I’m not that familiar with the seven-instalment Leprechaun series (I’ve seen the first one and only mildly enjoyed it for reasons that had nothing to do with its quality as a horror film), but I doubt that it would have helped. While Leprechaun Returns is a bit too slickly made to escape complete failure, it’s immediately forgettable and eventually a chore to get through.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) The issues with Snatched start from the first title card, where a wittier “The kidnappers were also to blame” was replaced by a much cruder and dumber formulation. But so it goes throughout the entire film—while the premise and structure aren’t bad, the execution rushes to irritating, gross and dumb material every chance it gets. For an actress as polarizing as Amy Schumer, it’s not the best decision to spend the first five minutes of the film establishing the maximally irritating nature of her character. Much of the film goes on in much of the same vein, with Schumer’s vulgar comic persona harming whatever strengths Snatched may have. Not that she’s the sole irritating character in a film that has another character (her brother) also defined by his self-absorbed annoying nature. The film does get a few laughs and has a few high points, mind you: There is a certain welcome unpredictability to the adventures along the way, as plans go awry for both prey and pursuer. Much of the film’s go-for-broke humour should have been reined in, though: the tapeworm sequence depends on an amazing disregard for human biology, is grosser than funny and never leads to a worthwhile laugh, petering out into an unrelated next scene rather than ending on any kind of note high or low. (I suspect that improv is to blame — actors goofing off on a set are far less adept at crafting a punchline as screenwriters tying away with a plan.) And so it goes for the rest of the film. While Wanda Sykes is quite funny (alongside an unrecognizable Joan Cusack), while it’s actually good to see Goldie Hawn making a comeback after fifteen years, while Schumer can manage an occasional moment of comedy, Snatched as a whole is just dumb, exasperating and hypocritical in its attempt to be heartfelt, and far from being as good at it could have been.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Fans of the wonderful That’s Entertainment! anthology series of classical Hollywood musical numbers will get another, albeit smaller, charge out of That’s Dancing, a more modest but focused look at the evolution of big-screen dancing from the silent era to the 1980s. It’s a clip show, of course, but a fun one—the clips (coming mostly but not exclusively from MGM) are introduced by such notables as Gene Kelly, Ray Bolger and Liza Minelli. As an illustrated history of dance in movies, it’s full of small delights for fans of the form, and noted mentions of such legends as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Allen and Eleanor Powell. Among various little treasures, the film even presents a number cut from The Wizard of Oz! Kelly’s narration is fun, especially as he seems enthusiastic about dance at a venerable age. Mikhail Baryshnikov gamely tries to make on-screen ballet history interesting—a slight challenge compared to everything else on display. It ends with a look at the musicals of the 1970s-80s, all the way to Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video. The result is perhaps not as all-entertaining as the That’s Entertainment series given its focus on dance rather than musical numbers (the distinction in thin but real), but That’s Dancing is still one good moment after another, less constrained by MGM’s archive and quite willing to go past the golden age of Hollywood musicals to the then-present.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) One of the benefits of a classic Hollywood film education is discovering earlier version of later remakes, and being able to compare how different eras approached similar themes. The Omega Man is (at this time) the middle version of a Richard Matheson novel I am Legend, filmed earlier as The Last Man on Earth (1964, with Vincent Price) and later as I am Legend (2007, with Will Smith). The compelling premise remains the same, as a lone human survives in a city occupied by vampires/creatures/mutants. But this version does have quite a few things making it special even today. The decision to set the film in an eerily deserted early-1970s Los Angeles makes for terrific visuals, and having none other than Charlton Heston makes for a good showcase for him. The interracial romance of the film is still enormously appealing today—and Rosalind Cash looks great despite being saddled with some dated dialogue. I am not, however, so happy with the film’s silly-looking antagonists, or the evolution of a remarkably good first act into the messier and somewhat dumber final section. Much of the action doesn’t hold up, nor do many of the characters’ decisions. While interesting by itself, The Omega Man is perhaps most interesting when compared with other takes on the same story. None of them completely satisfy, but the more I see of the earlier versions, the less I’m impressed by 2007’s I am Legend. Let’s wait another twenty years and maybe the next version will get it right.
(In French, On TV, March 2019) One of the fringe benefits of being French-Canadian is a slightly more relaxed attitude toward sex and nudity that translates into some options that would be unusual in the Anglosphere. I’ll spare you the tales of Bleu Nuit’s glory days back when I was a randy teenager, but its spirit lives on in Cinepop’s regular broadcast of the first few Emmanuelle soft-core movies, or Prise 2 having a weekly late-night spot for racier films. Hence being able to record Wild Orchid off non-premium Cable TV and finally having a look at what’s perhaps the Mickey Rourkiest of Mickey Rourke’s roles. Wild Orchid is infamous in cinephile circles for its hedonistic plot, and sex scenes so convincing that generations of viewers have wondered whether they did-it-for-real on camera. (Both actors say they didn’t, so let’s go with that.) The plot isn’t much more than a fancy excuse for high-gloss erotic scenes, as an American lawyer (Carré Otis) travels to Rio and gets fascinated with a rich businessman (Rourke) and gets swept in the easy Brazilian exoticism. (At least it’s better than Blame it on Rio.) Rourke’s performance is fit to remind us that he was a sex symbol at the beginning of his career, while Otis is very cute as an innocent Midwestern ingenue thrown in upscale debauchery. Everyone will have their favourite scene, but my money is on that Anya Sartor old-hotel scene—whew! The plot is thin, with 15 minutes of narrative diluted in lengthy slow-motion soft-core sex scenes in a 90-minute film, but it’s familiar because it features many tropes later often imitated: The innocent heroine; the super-rich-and-confident man; the glamorous surroundings—Fifty Shades of Gray never invented anything in the world of racy movies. Wild Orchid isn’t much of a narrative film, but it does have at least a bit of primal interest to it. The Brazilian scenery is gorgeous—and I’m not only talking about the beach, birds, and trees here. No wonder Anglophones across Canada regularly watched Québec channels late at night to, um, learn French.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Merchant Ivory films get some flak for being middle-of-the-road filmmaking, often undistinguishable and stuck in a very specific style. That’s largely true … but what that criticism misses is that these are consistently good movies, made with some filmmaking skills and great actors. So it is that A Room with a View feels unimpeachable in its chosen genre—a small masterpiece of gentle atmosphere, where every character is impeccably well mannered, humorous and well spoken. It’s a love story with a happy ending—what more do you want? A superlative cast is up to the material: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, even Daniel Day Lewis is amusing in a bit of a comic role. Meanwhile, baby-faced Helena Bonham Carter is simply adorable in the lead role while there are very likable roles and performances by Denholm Elliott as Mr. Emerson and Simon Callow as Reverend Beebe. The now-period perspective on a 1908 novel does reinforce its then-daring critique of the Victorian era and wraps it up in a 1980s patina. While humorous, the story is made even more respectable through a lush recreation of an earlier era, perhaps slow paced but with some odd enjoyable notes here and there. As a comedy, A Room with a View feels a bit insubstantial to have been nominated for an Oscar, but then again why not? Merchant and Ivory know what they’re doing and why.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) I don’t think today’s audiences can quite approach Ernst Lubitsch comedies with the same thrill as they did upon release: Social attitudes are not what they were, and the impish sense of the perverse that powers his comedies has often been outpaced by progressivism. But Lubitsch wasn’t just there to shock for comic value: the execution of his films was based on a solid sense of sophistication that, frankly, has rarely been equalled since. That Uncertain Feeling, for instance, takes on a comedy of remarriage as its topic, casually bandying around a divorce as if it was no big deal for a woman to leave her husband for an eccentric new man. It’s all sophisticated like many comedies of the time were, set within the upper-class Manhattan set with more romantic comic worries than money problems. Built on witty dialogue, much of the humour comes from characters acting unusually calmly to stressful situations … although That Uncertain Feeling’s biggest laughs come from having them revert to type and punch someone who aggravates them. The character work isn’t bad either—while Merle Oberon is splendid as the wayward wife and Melvyn Douglas does some great seething, Burgess Meredith is a highlight as a pianist who becomes the object of the female lead’s attention, causing chaos with gnomic utterances, misplaced dislikes, odd anxieties and a complete lack of care. It ends as we may expect, with a remarriage—both because the pretender is hopeless, but more importantly because (and here’s the heartfelt awww underpinning the comedy) our two leads never stopped loving one another. That Uncertain Feeling leaves a clear impression even in modern reviewers: it has aged quite well (perhaps helped along by a freer attitude toward divorce) and while it may not be Lubitsch’s best, it’s sufficiently clever and witty to remain interesting … and funny.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Contemporary viewers may decry the violence, vulgarity and provocativeness of today’s cinema, but the truth is that the frontier between moviemaking and sensational freak-show has never been all that clear, even during the first decades of the medium. In The Unknown, for instance, we can recognize the huckster’s instinct to show audiences something they may never admit they crave. Consider this: Lon Chaney stars as a circus attraction: a man without arms, who can throw knives and shoot a rifle with his feet. Except that he does have arms, tightly bound behind him: his characteristic double-thumb would easily identify him as a wanted criminal. Working at the circus is a good way to fly under the watch of police authorities … that is, until he falls for another circus worker (played by Joan Crawford) who cannot bear a man’s touch yet is desired by another man. More murder and terrible ironies abound in the rest of the picture. The story is simplistic, with much of the ending telegraphed well in advance, but there is one unnerving plot development midway through, and even the expected twists and turns help in making this an essential silent melodrama. Yes, The Unknown is lurid … but audiences then and now willingly paid to see this stuff.
(In French, On Cable TV, March 2019) In a fit of perverse humour, I decided to watch Fort Apache the Bronx right after the original Fort Apache it references. The comparisons are not kind to the 1981 film in more ways than one. Obviously, it’s not as much of a classic as the original—the titular reference is an ironic nod at the state of New York City’s Bronx by the late 1970s—with entire city blocks destroyed as urban blight, and a police force under siege by so-called barbarian forces. But the episodic police drama does miss one of the earlier film’s most interesting point—that “the other side” opposing the policemen actually had valid grievances for going to war and was portrayed in something of a sympathetic fashion. There’s not much of that here—Paul Newman plays a young cop assigned to the worst precinct in the city, and coming to grip (or not) with its casual lawlessness, drug use, unpunished crimes and code of silence regarding abuses by police officers. Fort Apache the Bronx is a grim movie, and it exemplifies the prevailing attitude that “drop dead” NYC was then considered unsalvageable. The rubble-strewn post-apocalyptic atmosphere is worth a watch by itself but remains hard to shake, and it’s good to have such anchor points as Newman, Rachel Ticotin as a likable nurse, Danny Aiello or Pam Grier as no less than a cop-killing prostitute. The unusual plotting, mean to unsettle viewers used to tidy endings, feels very New Hollywood with its unabashed grittiness and refusal to comfort audiences. Still, it’s not that dour of a film despite the setting: the burnt-out cynicism of the police characters, used to “holding the fort” against the criminal hordes, manifests itself through biting black humour. In keeping with the nihilistic 1970s (and in opposition to the reactionary 1980s), Fort Apache the Bronx is at ease with the idea that peace in a neighbourhood can depend on police leniency—things start turning truly sour when a new inflexible police chief comes in and demands stricter crackdowns. The slice-of-life plotting doesn’t have much of a main plot and features a number of clichés along the way, but forty years later it feels like an anthropological expedition in an alien land. I ended up liking quite a bit better than I thought at first.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) To modern viewers, classic Hollywood is as wild a territory as the wild west was to Eastern-Americans. Everything is harsher, our intuitions fail us and only the most traditional of Anglo-Saxon white males find themselves in friendly territory. But there are occasionally a few havens of civilization, even as tentative and rudimentary as they were. So it is that film historians are generally complimentary toward classic traditional western Fort Apache as marking a turning point in Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans, portraying them as capable, intelligence opponents motivated by real grievances and possessing distinct tribal identities. It’s not a portrayal that sustains much scrutiny today—clichéd, naïve, offensive … but still a step in the right direction compared to previous portrayals as of gratuitously murderous hordes. It also prefigures later nuanced portraits from director John Ford himself, such as The Searchers. As for Fort Apache itself, often considered the first of Ford’s “cavalry trilogy,” it features John Wayne and Henry Fonda butting heads as commanding officers of a small fort, with Wayne playing the reasonable one and Fonda playing the rigid autocratic one. Both of them do well, but Fonda is perhaps more remarkable for an unusual role as an unsympathetic character. There’s some great Monument Valley footage here, especially when the battle sequence starts. Fort Apache reasonably entertaining to watch, although definitely too long in its first hour as the film seems to be flaying about for a story to tell.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) I didn’t go in The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley cold—I too had been charmed from afar by the rise of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, taken in by the photogenic Holmes (seriously; people have been talking about how Jennifer Lawrence was going to play her in a film for years!) and the Silicon-Valley-promises of revolutionary health care. Everyone wanted to believe that it was true. But then I saw the implosion of the firm, the ways it had been overhyped and the deliberate attempts at deception and fraud. Apparently, documentarian Alex Gibney (perhaps the best in the business at this time) assumed that most of his viewers came from the same place, because The Inventor does not merely focus on the events surrounding Theranos’ rise and fall, but explores (more interestingly through interviews with ethicist Dan Arialy) the reasons why such a deception could be effective. The Inventor comes closest to excusing Holmes’s behaviour by suggesting that a well-intentioned lie may have ballooned into something much bigger. But the rest of it doesn’t pull any punches in describing the pattern of deliberate deception (with journalists expressing naked anger at the way they’d been duped), and strong-armed legal coercion at their whistleblowers and critics. They emerge from the film as the true heroes, whereas everything about Holmes seems deliberate, and manipulative—even her deep voice, featured without commentary, seems to have been faked. The direction is quite good, with some cute visual puns (such as cacti used as visual metaphors during a discussion of blood-drawing needles) and a good mixture of styles to present what is essentially a talking-head documentary. Gibney draws widely on pictures and video shot during Theranos’ heyday by none other than fellow documentarian Errol Morris. There’s a thicket of issues tackled in The Inventor that may have gotten a bit more play (perhaps most damningly the failure of the gate-keeping older white men that were supposed to be good judges of character when faced with an attractive younger woman—all of the women interviewed in the film are clear-eyed about what was really going on), but the finished documentary remains a satisfying exposé. Also tackled along the way; the built-in duplicity of Silicon Valley, the Steve-Jobs worship as a substitute for real knowledge; and the false god of disruption. But if you’re fascinated by the brazen lying (at a time when the country is having a truth problem at its very top elected offices), dig deeper in the Theranos story—the stuff that’s not in The Inventor is even more mind-boggling … to a point where Gibney may have been too even-handed in his approach to the topic.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) I suspect that most people who approach the original 1958 version of The Fly will do so with a good working knowledge of the 1986 Cronenberg remake, which will probably set a very different set of expectations. Clearly, the 1950s film won’t be as gut-churningly gory as the 1980s one, but it does have its own sense of eeriness and dark comedy. All of this is helped along with Vincent Price in colour, sweet-talking his way through a mad-scientist role. The experience is so different that it certainly has its attraction. Even from the start (which features a mild-mannered murder mystery as we try to figure out why a wife says she has killed her husband with a hydraulic press, despite a complete absence of evidence to the matter), it takes us somewhere different. (As a bonus, this version is “set” in Montréal.) While The Fly can be silly at times (I’m thinking of the much-criticized audio comedy of the final spiderweb, for instance), it’s still a horror film, and it still carries a punch such as the revelation of the fly head (despite the unconvincing makeup). It even gets tense and disturbing at times. That’s pretty much the best-case scenario for looking at a film with a famous remake: Perhaps not quite as striking, but distinctive and effective in its own way.