(On Cable TV, October 2019) This probably won’t make any sense, but The Naked City is not noir and yet not quite not-noir. A police procedural presented from the get-go as almost a documentary, this is a film that goes filming on the street of New York City, complete with an intrusive narrator to telescope events into expositionary montages. The narration is the first thing that grabs viewers in the film—the second is the authentic depiction of New York at the end of the 1940s. A murder has been committed, and the film details the arduous process through which the detectives investigate the crime. It’s not noir because it’s usually filmed during the day, and it features law-enforcement characters as the heroes. And yet it is not quite not-noir in that it abandons the romanticism of the city to take us to the venal humans that populate it, acting out of lust or greed in order to break the law and hurt others. Director Jules Dassin’s execution more than complements a decent plot in order to give us seven days in the life of New York City, following a murder that will soon be swept away like the previous day’s newspapers. Some good moments by likable actors do help in making the film interesting throughout—including a heartbreaking line about mourning a murdered daughter and terrific last lines that inspired many. (“There are eight million stories in the naked city. That was one of them.”) The Naked City has been imitated and surpassed by scores of other movies, but it has kept it patina of period detail admirably well. At this point, it’s as good a time-travel gets.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) Compared to 2019 romantic drama, there isn’t much to distinguish The Divorcee from countless other similar movies in which a married couple fight and we follow the woman as she deals with the aftermath. Good execution and a dash of style (including a rather good montage of her holding hands with suitors to show the passing of weeks) help a bit, but the story certainly isn’t exceptional now. But historical context is important, and The Divorcee becomes far more interesting once you focus on the fact that it comes straight from 1930. It’s a product of the early sound films era (so much so that the poster boasts “all talking!”), so don’t be surprised by the omnipresent hum of the audio nor the somewhat theatrical acting of the cast. But more significantly, it’s a novel adaptation from the pre-Code era, meaning that its sympathy and treatment of its protagonist (a quite good Norma Shearer), as she leaves her husband and navigates the shoals of her newfound freedom through multiple liaisons (without a moral consequence!), is considerably more sympathetic than anything we’d see until at least the 1960s. Consequence-free divorce was A Problem during the Hays era, and the film doesn’t consider it much of a moral stain as much as what you do when you can’t stay married. The ending gets unrealistically romantic, but there’s a happy ending for you. What’s more impressive is, well, the accessibility of the film for such an early talkie: it can be seen today as “just another story” set in the 1930s, which is considerably more than we can say from other films of the time. One curio: There’s a bit of French dialogue in the film, and it sounded to me like a cleaned up but authentic French-Canadian accent rather than the far more common European French accent. Alas, we may never correctly attribute it to anyone, as the credits for the film are typically short and the person speaking the dialogue is not fully seen.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) No doubt about it: The Silencers is a trip through time. First in the Matt Helm series of films made to lampoon the Bond series and featuring no less than Dean Martin, it’s like an authentic 1960s version of what Austin Powers was going for. Not as farcical, but certainly playing up the most ridiculous elements of the Bond formula: the women, the gadgets, the women, the lavish lifestyle, the women, the ridiculous villains and, of course, the women. (“NOT FOR CHILDREN,” shouts the poster after stating, “Girls, Gags and Gadgets: The Best Spy Thriller of Nineteen Sexty-Sex.” But don’t worry—it’s tame by today’s standards.) Rat-packer Martin is near-perfect as the suave womanizing agent Helm, whose conquests multiply throughout the movie. The women all look great, although classic Hollywood fans will be overjoyed to see the great Cyd Charisse strut her stuff in two dance sequences—her legs still go up to there, and she looks fantastic with longer hair. Don’t pay any attention to the plot, though: It’s all familiar plot devices meant to string the gags in the correct order, including a car fully equipped with a driver-accessible minibar and switch-activated privacy drapes for, well, whatever spies do in this kind of movie. Alas, the villain is pointlessly stereotyped along Fu-Manchu lines. Still, The Silencers is a big broad caricature, fully capturing a kind of spoof that would later be re-imitated. I watched it on a whim, attracted by the casting of Charisse, but ended up liking it quite a bit.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) I’m on a mission to watch all of the nine Hepburn/Tracy movies, and Pat and Mike is not only the eighth… it’s one of the better ones. It’s certainly one of the nine in which the distinction between actors and roles is most blurred. Written specifically for the pair, Pat and Mike has Katharine Hepburn as a naturally gifted athlete who pairs up with a gruff sports promoter. Sparks fly, a fiancé is ditched and you already know how it’s going to end … but the fun of the film is seeing Hepburn playing Hepburn, relying on her usual clipped dialogue patter and not using stunt doubles for the sport sequences. She actually looks younger here than in some of her late-1940s films, probably helped along by a looser haircut and an active role. Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy is up to his gruff self in trying to keep up with her. Occasional special effects add to the subjective impact of the comedy. Pat and Mike is not meant to be a deep or surprising film, but rather an occasion to spend some time with two likable stars doing what they do best, and it’s quite successful as such.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) I do not envy anyone who takes on the challenge of watching all of Clint Eastwood’s westerns back-to-back. Sure, Eastwood’s westerns feature some all-time classics and the man himself has an exceptional charisma. But at some point, they all start to blend into each other without much to distinguish them. I’ve been able to avoid that ennui by spacing these movies at a few months’ interval, but I’d be shaky about any pointed quiz to differentiate them, and I think I’ve finally reached by saturation point with Joe Kidd. Eastwood once again stars as a quiet but capable protagonist, this time going after a landowner for a variety of reasons. While a reasonably revisionist western, Joe Kidd nonetheless fails to impress—it feels like rote repetition of familiar tropes, with only a few quirks to perk things up throughout the film. The best flourish comes near the end, as a train is used to smash through a saloon and instigate a brief shootout. Otherwise, I’m going to have problems even remembering Joe Kidd in a few days, let alone identify what makes it different.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2019) For horror completists, there are a few good reasons to watch Survival of the Dead, the biggest reason being that this isn’t just George Romero’s sixth zombie movie, it’s also the last one he directed before his death. As such, you can expect the film to go beyond just the usual post-apocalyptic premise: Romero has done all of that already, and he’s free to explore a different kind of world, farther along the timeline than the zombie uprising and its immediate aftermath. At times, we do get a glimpse at this restlessness to go beyond the obvious. Our characters are growing comfortable in the zombie-dominated world, the Internet somehow remains operative, and there are a few settlements advertising for new inhabitants. CGI means that zombies are grosser than ever and dispatched in evermore creative ways. Survival of the Dead being shot in and near Toronto, there are a few likable Canadian actors in the mix despite their lack of name recognition: I particularly liked seeing Athena Karkanis as a tomboy soldier (her introduction is remarkable), and Alan van Sprang does have screen presence. Alas, none of this is enough to outweigh the script’s bad ideas and bland development. Recreating a Hatfield-vs.-McCoy family feud on an island off New England’s coast really isn’t as interesting as Romero must have supposed, and neither is the progressive domestication of zombies into something that doesn’t have to eat human flesh. Let zombies remain targets, I say. It doesn’t help that Survival of the Dead, like almost all of Romero’s zombie movies, ends up going over the same fatalistic territory: the centre cannot hold, humans will kill each other if the zombies don’t, and the human population past the apocalypse will just keep getting smaller and smaller. After six instalments, this is tiresome and should have been the first assumptions to be revisited if Romero truly wanted to explore new territory. In the meantime, Survival of the Dead ranks low in his filmography—dull, meandering and meaningless, it would have been utterly unremarkable in anyone else’s hands.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2019) I’m not going to excuse 1970s trash horror thrillers, but they did have a rawness that excused some of their excesses. If nothing else, you can rationalize the gore and nastiness by the thought that not that many people worked on the result. There’s something slightly more disturbing, however, in seeing the same trash plotting being executed as a slick nicely shot higher-budgeted contemporary remake. The exploitation intent remains the same, but clearly far many more people have worked to bring the distasteful result on-screen, and that’s somehow worse. Taking its cues from the paper-thin plot of the 1978 original, I Spit on Your Grave goes for the basics: Men rape woman, woman kills men. Despite a comparatively low budget compared to other horror movies, this remake is far slicker. It adds a lot more “stuff” around the bones of the plot (including an on-the-nose moment in which a character takes a few moments away from a gang rape to take a phone call from his teenage daughter talking about church), but little of it actually makes the film better: While it does fix some of the original film’s most dumbfounding moments, it’s still an exploitation film through-and-through. The heroine is far more sadistic in her revenge (at least she takes fewer chances with her plans), but the film doesn’t make a whole lot of mileage out of perhaps portraying her as a mass murderer setting up intricate traps and torture devices for her victims—it’s almost (but not quite!) enough to shift our sympathies. Still, the overall impression left by this version of I Spit on Your Grave is perhaps even dirtier than the original: There’s a deliberate attempt here to outdo the original and be as unpleasant as possible, and that’s unpleasant enough in itself.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2019) Sigh. I suppose that this is the basic exploitation movie trope in six words: Men rape woman, woman kills men. It doesn’t get any more sophisticated than this, and I Spit on Your Grave is indeed as basic as it gets with low-budget production values and a straightforward napkin-sized plot that only makes it to feature length because the violent scenes are extended beyond any reasonable length. The rape sequence alone lasts about thirty minutes, and the subsequent murders are equally interminable. If you can make a reasonable argument that conceptually, the film has excessive vengeance ideals but at least places its sympathies with the female victim, the sheer amount of relish through which the initial aggression and disproportional retribution are carried out brand I Spit on Your Grave as an exploitation picture and nothing else. It’s excruciatingly unpleasant to sit through even in the vengeance half of the film—As the plot stops for detailed depiction of sadistic killing, I found myself nit-picking the idiocy of the heroine’s excessively risky revenge plans and hoping that the film would perhaps play with the idea that she’s becoming a gleeful mass murderer. (But no.) To be fair, lead actress Camille Keaton delivers a strong performance, and the film does have a raw unnerving naturalistic feel like many of the period’s trashiest horror movies. It does help explain why I Spit on Your Grave remains relatively well known today (even spawning a 2010 remake) while many bigger-budget studio movies of the era have been almost completely forgotten. But that doesn’t redeem much, not make the experience any more pleasant. Worth a look only for horror completists.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) 1930s Hollywood adaptation of literary classics are a specific category, but Wuthering Heights is in a category of its own even as a novel. Dismantling the archetype of the vengeful romantic hero, it presents protagonist Heathcliff as an obsessive monster destroying everyone’s lives in order to get what he wants. The glossy Hollywood adaptation, by necessity, does muddle the portrait: it lops off the more disturbing second half of the book, softens a few edges and provides a tragic romantic happy ending of sorts to the lead couple. (This being the second time in a few weeks that a classic Hollywood adaptation of a literary landmark features the heroine dying in the hero’s arms, I’m suddenly curious about the device.) Being what it is, Wuthering Heights doesn’t completely delve into the most unsavoury aspects of the protagonist’s issues, although even a cursory viewing establishes that neither of the protagonists are particularly admirable in any way. For movie fans, there’s a certain pleasure here in seeing a young and dashing Laurence Olivier playing a cad opposite the beautiful Merle Oberon, or an even younger David Niven in an early role as another suitor. To contemporary viewers, the heightened melodramatic tone of the film can have a certain deliciousness, even if ironic. The film certainly won’t be much of a primer for a novel that keeps going for an entire generation after the events depicted in the film. Still, Wuthering Heights remains a landmark of sorts, and the period atmosphere is worth a brief time-travel trip.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) In the pantheon of movies more famous for their title than their content, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo has achieved a special notoriety. The subtitle can and has been applied to everything else as a signifier of “stupid movie sequel title,” and it feels vaguely sacrilegious to actually check out the actual movie. The result is … mixed. Released eight months after the original film, it’s clearly undercooked: the dialogue is serviceable, the storyline is the same “put on a show to save the community centre” nonsense we’ve seen since the 1930s and the characterization is paper-thin. Still, they did a lot in those eight months: There are a few spectacular numbers thrown in the mix here, bringing along a shift toward more classical musical comedy numbers in which everybody in the neighbourhood starts dancing to the same song. Such homages to classic musicals seem near to Electric Boogaloo’s heart—there’s notably a dance sequence using a rotating gimbal set that harkens back to Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. It’s cute, and frankly the story (as hackneyed as is it) does feel stronger and more substantial even in its clichés than the first film: There’s even quite a bit of class commentary. Ice-T is back to the forefront, while two-movie actress Sabrina Garcia has a cute little comedy role entirely in Spanish and lead Lucinda Dickey once again fails to impress. As a much-derided title, Electric Boogaloo is perhaps a bit better than you’d expect, but you do have to be in the mood for a bit of a cultural time travel back to 1984 to appreciate it.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) In between BMX Bandits, Beat Street and the Breakin’ duo, there was a spate of youth-culture movies in 1983-84 … and they are more interesting today as pop-culture archeological documents than movies in their own right. Breakin’ is what it says on the label: a movie entirely dedicated to breakdancing, albeit with contemporary music and Ice-T showing up on the soundtrack (although not always clearly on the screen). The story itself is the stuff boredom is made of, but it’s not as important as the dance sequences it features. The hair, the clothes, the slang may be hopelessly dated (and that’s part of Breakin’ charm) but the physicality of the performances remains intact. If nothing else, the film clearly illustrates how the 1980s completed a shift in the musical comedy form, going from the MGM ideal of non-diegetic dance numbers popping out of nowhere to a form in which pop songs replaced special songs and integrated more smoothly in the flow. The acting is forgettable (there isn’t anything special about Lucinda Dickey), the story is dull, but the rest of worth a slightly fascinated look, only to see what teenagers found cool back then. (Me? I was slightly too young and speaking the wrong language to have any first-hand memory of that subculture.) Breakin’ wouldn’t feel out of place next to some other youth dance movies of the past three decades, from the Step Up series to anything featuring a dance-battle sequence. Still, that’s part of the charm—the visuals change, but everything else stays the same.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, October 2019) I remember bits and pieces of having first seen Dreamscape as a teenager, but I clearly remembered only the best part of it—the oneiric third act, and the wham-shot of the climax. As it turns out, there is more than that to the entire film: a thriller in which (decades before Inception), scientists use parapsychological mumbo-jumbo to justify someone entering another person’s dreams and manipulating them to good or ill effect. A young Randy Quaid makes for a likable hero, a psychic reluctantly recruited into a secret program while Kate Capshaw is the heroine. Christopher Plummer (evil) and Max von Sydow (good) provide supporting performances as the ones pulling the strings. The result is far more inventive than many other movies of the period, and remains surprisingly entertaining. There are weaker moments, of course: a dream seduction scene has become uncomfortable today at an age where consent must be fully informed, and Dreamscape becomes ordinarily dull in its third quarter as it focuses on conspiracy shenanigans rather than the premise of entering dreams. Special effects are employed effectively even if limited by mid-1980s technology. I’d ask for a remake, except that we already had one with the superlative Inception. It remains quite a fun film, though, especially if you approach it as just another B-grade 1980s SF movie.
(On TV, October 2019) I’m not much of a comic-book fan, but there is something about Batman’s cast of supporting characters that I find interesting and Harley Quinn is surely one of the best newish (1992) introductions to the menagerie. (I’m not a big fan of the Margot Robbie version of Harley Quinn, but that’s another discussion for another time.) This animated movie Batman and Harley Quinn takes from the New Batman Adventures TV series in recycling the art style and personalities of the characters. Quinn being Quinn and Batman being Batman provides much of the fodder for the film’s admittedly lighter tone: Noticeably lighter and funnier than the previous Batman animated movies (a clear step up from the repellent The Killing Joke), Batman and Harley Quinn nails the tone of the character and how she sees the world. It’s surprisingly racier than what you’d expect from the series (including some naughtiness between Quinn and Nightwing), but it somehow works. The film is at its best in small character moments: the overall plot is a bit too sombre, and the film ends about two minutes too early for a satisfying denouement. But having Quinn expel gas in the Batmobile has its own particular charm. Batman and Harley Quinn is not a great movie in that it won’t do much for those not already at ease in the Batman universe. But it’s fun enough for those who are, and noticeably better as a lighthearted adventure than the ultra-grimness of some other animated Batman movies.
(In French, On TV, October 2019) The line between good-crazy and bad-crazy is difficult to explain, but it can be convincingly illustrated by a back-to-back viewing of the original Poltergeist and its sequel. While it’s unfair to compare a Spielberg—“produced” horror thriller to a far more pedestrian follow-up, the drop-off in quality isn’t all Spielberg related. Take the script, for instance, which puts Native-American mysticism, cult leaders, psychic powers and the remaining elements of the first film into a big blender of subplots that don’t make any sense. Not only does Poltergeist II quickly reach for the unsatisfying “weird stuff happens for no reason” school of horror filmmaking, it does so with a singular lack of fun. Our characters bicker because they’re homeless and can’t get insurance to pay up, fight against an old cult suddenly revealed to be behind the shenanigans of the first movie, and cross over to a nebulous “other side” that doesn’t do much. It overcomplicates what had been an admirably simple premise, and forgets the humour of the first instalment. There are at least, copious special effects: They’re limited by mid-1980s technology, but at least they’re there. But they’re not enough to compensate for the film’s numerous problems and overall lack of appeal. I’m told that Poltergeist III is even worse, but I’m not that much in a hurry to find out.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) As I go through the 1980s back catalogue, it feels as if every new Chevy Chase movie I see highlights how badly his abrasive comic persona has aged. Or maybe been overexposed: his arrogant man-child persona has been repeated ad nauseam by other performers such as Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, and I found it all more annoying than funny in Spies Like Us. Whoever thought he was even remotely likable as a womanizer has now been proven wrong and unfortunately, we’re still stuck with the result. The film takes the low road to international comedy, by featuring two bumbling Americans being pressed into the spying business as decoys for other more competent operatives. Of course, the rules of comedy mean that they’ll end up being Big Heroes by the time the nuclear missile flies. (This shouldn’t be a spoiler.) It’s easy to see why director John Landis would be interested in a script with large-scale comic set-pieces, international vistas, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase and half-a dozen cameos from comedy directors that you have to be a cinephile to catch. Spies Like Us is not bad, but it does drag much longer than necessary and it relies far too much on Chase’s unpleasant comedy persona—Aykroyd is far more sympathetic. I do wish we’d see more ambitious big-budget comedies these days (rather than the improv-type stuff), but I don’t miss Chase at all.