(On Cable TV, March 2019) Coming to the original The Longest Yard after seeing the Adam Sandler remake only underscores how the original was rougher and tougher. Stemming from the dark and gritty New Hollywood 1970s when even the heroes were criminals, the story multiplies premises by sticking an underdog football comedy inside a prison, with Burt Reynolds leading a team of inmates for a not-at-all-rigged game against the prison guards. I don’t care for either prison or football, but even I have to admit that there’s something intriguing in how the codes of two familiar subgenres are combined, then refocused as a star vehicle for Reynolds. The outlaw blue-collar comedy aesthetics of the 1970s make for a distinctive atmosphere, and do heighten the stakes in a way that the newer sanitized remake couldn’t manage. Reynolds himself is quite good: the film makes good use of his charisma, even when he shaves off his moustache for the role. Ironically, The Longest Yard stumbles in its last inning, as the climactic football game drags on interminably. But then again—I understand far less about football than I do about prison, and the film’s last-act indulgence in pure sports mechanics feels more like a sop to football fans than anything else. While both the 1974 and the 2005 versions share a surprising number of plot points, there’s no denying that the original is grittier, harsher and far more politically interesting as a stick-it-to-the-man transposition of social power dynamics onto the football field.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Every Purge instalment takes more care in detailing its premise, and each one has fewer and fewer interesting things to say about it. Prequel The First Purge takes us to the origins of the first purge, but has nearly nothing to say that hasn’t been covered yet. There is something almost interesting in how the series has been slowly shifting from having white to black protagonists in four instalments—and this one doesn’t pull any punches in having black heroes fighting white supremacy. Alas, this is the point that the last few movies have already made, leaving little thematic gas in the tank. Otherwise, though, this is all routine stuff, repugnant and boring at the same time. Describing the first purge is a mistake from series writer-producer James DeMonaco (not directing this time around) when the film’s not nearly as clever as it thinks—the portrayal is less interesting than what the back-story had left to the imagination. The First Purge starts grating very early on, to the point where I actually didn’t care for Marisa Tomei’s character—which is nearly a first. Everything is as nihilistic as dictates the box-office returns of the series—there will be purging as long as there is commercial potential to the series (and then two or three “final” instalments). There is something else at play, though—the first Purge was released at the tail end of the Obama years, back when it was possible to fool ourselves that things were getting better and the movie was over the top. Now we’re knee-deep in one of the most overtly mean-spirited presidential administrations in history, and the series premise hits too close to home. At this point, we don’t need any more entries in the Purge series—we need to pay attention to the newscasts and prevent it from happening.
(Second Viewing, In French, On TV, March 2019) One wouldn’t expect Under Siege 2: Dark Territory to have a special place in movie history, but it does! Back in 2005, SFX trade magazine Cinefex printed a long roundtable article discussing the state of the industry, and one SFX luminary mentioned the film as the first one in which “invisible” digital special effects were used to simulate a film being shot aboard a train, launching a now-commonplace technique. Re-watching Under Siege 2 today, most of those “invisible” effects hold up—it takes a conscious effort to realize that they’re shooting on a studio set. More spectacular effects are noticeable later in the film, but by that point we’re already onboard. Alas, while Under Siege 2 remains enjoyable on a purely 1990s action movie way, it could have been much better. The main problem, as usual for a Steven Seagal movie, is Steven Seagal himself. His limitations as an actor (emotionless, devoid of personality) aren’t as big a problem as his pride preventing his character to ever be made vulnerable: The Seagal style is to never acknowledge that the protagonist can be put in jeopardy, and that ends up taking away a lot of audience sympathy. The result is an action movie that’s literally on rails, whether we’re talking plot or narrative approach. It’s very much an exemplar of the mid-1990s Die Hard imitators, although better than many. The rhythm and premise of the film is very much of its era, with director Geoff Murphy playing with military technology, regularly scheduled action sequences, and a rather good over-the-top villain played by Eric Bogosian. You can spot Katherine Heigl in an early role as a sullen baby-faced teenager. The action climax of the film is actually pretty good, but it would be much better if it wasn’t for Seagal jogging through it without a care in the world, confident that nothing will dirty his suit or muss his hair. But as I said—no one expected this film to be anything more than a footnote in movie history.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) For all the smack talk that movie reviewers and jaded viewers say about Hollywood and its propensity to always do the same thing, there’s always a stream of odd deviations from the norm if you know where to look. Alpha is most definitely not a major studio-backed film, but it was released by Sony—albeit with a year-long delay that may betray the uneasiness of its marketing department. After all, how do you sell a movie set 20,000 years ago, without supernatural or science-fictive elements, and not even featuring a modern language? These complications approach art-house territory in terms of audience appeal and you have to admire the audacity of writer-director Albert Hughes in even proposing the project. But that’s underselling the strengths of Alpha, which is (at its best) a rousing adventure story, featuring a boy and his proto-dog trying to get back to his tribe after they’ve left him for dead. The film is a roller-coaster ride of prehistoric action sequences. Aptly balancing realism with action-movie thrills, it’s an intriguing glimpse at the kinds of heroics that were required by our ancestors. The heavily processed cinematography is terrific, making use of IMAX-grade image quality and numerous virtual sequences. It says a lot without that many subtitles. The Big Idea here is to depict how human domesticated wolves into becoming dog companions, so I expect Alpha to strike a chord for dog lovers of all stripes. (I wonder how a similar film about cats domesticating humans would go. Probably an animated comedy set in Egyptian granaries.) While I do think that Alpha’s appeal remains limited (I found long stretches of it very long to sit through), I like that a film taking so many chances and yet sticking to a certain realism exists: we need more than the usual formulas in order to keep things fresh, and it’s this difference that makes Alpha special.
(In French, on TV, March 2019) You don’t watch Doc Hollywood for deep insights in the human condition. You don’t watch it for the twists and turns of the plot. You don’t watch it for a ferocious critique of modern society. You watch it because it has prime-era Michael J. Fox as an L.A. doctor marooned in a small Midwestern town, and all of the expected hijinks that will ensue. You watch it because it’s an intensely familiar premise executed according to the best practices of the breezy and fun formula. You watch it because you can see the entire character arc unfolding from the first few minutes, and even because the “rebirth” symbolism is so on-the-nose. You watch it to catch early glimpses of Woody Harrelson and Bridget Fonda. You watch it because Fox can’t be anything but sympathetic, and because Julie Warner is very nice as the love interest. You watch it because some have compared the film to Cars, but it’s more fun comparing it to U-Turn. You watch it because it’s comforting in its predictability both at the micro and macro level (who would have thought that a film set in a small city would feature a town fair sequence?!) You watch it to decode the hypocrisy in having Los Angeles-based filmmakers try their hand at a film praising small-town living. But, perhaps more than anything else, you watch Doc Hollywood because it’s what Hollywood prescribes best—a small, unassuming, entirely expected comedy that delivers what it’s meant to do and leaves the heavy lifting to others.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Historically, Forever Amber was the anticipated Great Blockbuster of its time. Billed as the next Gone with the Wind, adapted from a salacious blockbuster, showcasing actors that the studio was grooming for stardom, it was Fox’s most expensive film at the time … something not help by a troubled production that saw incredible delays, director Otto Preminger taking over the ongoing shoot, and multiple actors (including its female lead) replaced midway through. It set opening week box-office records, although the overall returns for the film remained in the red due to the very high budget. All of this is immaterial to modern viewers encountering the movie absent from its production context. Fortunately, enough of the budget still shows up on the screen to impress. As a costume drama cranked to ten, Forever Amber benefits from its lavish colour cinematography, amazing costumes and a lead actress, Linda Darnell, who looks amazing in red hair and very detailed dresses. The stylized nature of the film, set in late 17th century England, helps it age gracefully as a historical recreation (albeit filtered through the lenses of the 1940s). George Sanders is also remarkable as Charles II. Plot-wise, the film isn’t quite as impressive: the melodrama is extreme (a lot of people die, all things considered), although the amount of not-so-softened sexual content is surprising coming from a film of its time—but it does make the film feel more modern than it is. (A curious facet of the Production Code years is that filmmakers could get away with more risqué material if they were adapting a best-selling novel.) The plot, as per the original book, is not meant to end well. Still, Forever Amber remains an impressive spectacle if you like costume dramas and enjoy the kind of overwrought style of Golden-age Hollywood.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) As I continue my exploration of classic Hollywood cinema, I have a growing fondness for those movies that manage to capture something that existed then and doesn’t now. Movies with a big enough budget to fulfill their goals of immersing us in a world unlike our own. Movies such as Grand Prix, which takes us right in the middle of mid-1960s Formula 1 racing. Hop in the cockpit of a fast car, because we’re going for a ride! Director John Frankenheimer here manages the stunning feat of presenting an entire F1 season through distinct races, augmented by some stunning cinematography designed by none other than Saul Bass. Several sequences have an authentic feeling of speed and danger as we sit next to the driver, fly in helicopters, or witness impressively staged accidents. Even today, the racing sequences impress—and it’s amazing to realize that this was shot for real without CGI trickery—it would be almost impossible to restage Grand Prix with its period feel today (although Rush did come close), making it something that can never be surpassed even with today’s means. It may not come as a surprise to find out that the narrative connective tissue between the races is far more conventional. There are only so many permutations of classic racing subplots, after all, and Grand Prix only has to put up enough connective tissue to get the next race with a bit of dramatic context. There is some serious acting talent on display here. Yves Montand is quite cool in a leading role, as is a young James Garner. None other than Toshiro Mifune makes a cameo as a Japanese racing team owner. Meanwhile, Jessica Walter is jaw-dropping beautiful as the romantic lead. Movies with intermissions usually have me wishing they were shorter, but not Grand Prix: this one is worth the near-three-hour running time. What an incredible film, even half a century later.