(On Cable TV, October 2019) There are times, seven movies deep into a horror series, where you can justifiably think, “They should stop now.” Not because it’s gotten bad yet (well, arguably), but because it’s clearly heading in that direction and it should cut its losses before it gets there. So it is that Saw 3D does have its share of interesting moments (the opening sequence visibly shot in downtown Toronto, the idea of a victims support group, the final revelation answering a few questions by bringing back a character) but was clearly running out of steam in its seventh instalment. Considering the wildly intricate chronology of the first six films, it’s not a real surprise if the temporal shenanigans of the series are mostly gone, the cast of characters thinned out, the moral pretensions almost completely wiped away (especially with one character running around like a mass murderer) and the focus on the traps—not my favourite aspect of the series—is getting tiresome. Then there’s the 3D: trendily hopping on a craze now gone back under control, Saw 3D sends flying body parts in the viewers’ faces, which just looks weird and contrived in 2D. (There’s also some colour grading issues with the 3D-to-2D conversion, but who cares, really.) I don’t exactly hate the results, but it does feel like a lesser movie for the series, and a justifiable reason for its subsequent break. Indeed, in retrospect, the 2017 Jigsaw felt a bit reinvigorated, amply justifying the seven-year pause in what had been until then a yearly series.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) I have enough basic problems with the Saw series that I’m not going to pretend that I love it … but I’ve been vocal enough in my appreciation of its movies that I can’t pretend not to like it even a little bit. What’s appealing about the Saw series isn’t as much its gory torture sequence or botched morality, but the blend of twisted chronology, well-executed industrial trash aesthetics, and the crazy use of editing and soundtrack whenever the movie shift in high gear and doesn’t want you to pay attention to the details. I’d somehow skipped Saw VI when it came out (although I still remember joking that the title of the film, when pronounced in French as “Saw Six,” sounds like “saucisse”—meaning sausage) and it was time to six the oversight. Don’t worry if you’re coming in late: this sixth entry quickly recaps much for the series as it brings together a reunion of nearly all of the surviving characters—and a few dead ones as well. I’m singularly uninterested in discussing the various traps/kills of the film, especially when there’s more fascinating material in how the film turns political as it draws explicit inspiration from the US health insurance system, and even takes a few moments to explain its insanity. (Reminder: The film, like most of the series, was filmed in Toronto.) In doing so, and flash-backing so often that there’s nearly enough material for a drama-based prequel movie, it moves even closer to making Jigsaw a folk hero taking on the system. The chronology of the film isn’t as twisted as the previous ones, but it’s not simplistic either: In addition to the numerous flashbacks, there’s also a parallel plotline about the Jigsaw successor being investigated (leading to a rare non-trap death sequence) and getting a comeuppance slight enough to allow for a sequel. For a sixth instalment, that’s not too bad—the social content alone is enough to make the film relatively watchable even if you haven’t been paying attention to the series so far … and if you can stomach the gore. Still, no amount of plotting games and social content can disguise the fact that Saw VI is still meant to be a gory horror movie in the first place.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) I’m not a big fan of the bad-seed horror genre, and becoming a parent has done nothing to improve my opinion of the subgenre. The Prodigy brings very few new ideas to the table, although relying so much on ideas of reincarnation and the possibility, however fleeting, that there may be a cure for the bad child does give the story something extra to play with. Unfortunately, where The Prodigy fails is in giving us a reason to care. Focused almost entirely on the monster it has created, it seems uninterested in having anyone else to care about. The mom protagonist is barely sketched; the father is taken out of the film as quickly as he can, and even the psychologist (Colm Feore, wasted in a middling role) is better used as a puppet to bat around. Much of the execution is strictly routine, with faded colours, intrusive musical cues, and showy direction that, alas, only plays into solidly established genre techniques. By the time the bleak ending comes around, it’s more disappointing than anything else—not only is the film not giving us any chance to care, it ultimately doesn’t even give us a reason to care since the dice is loaded for a depressing ending. In making itself so dark, The Prodigy also found a way to make itself easily ignored.
(On TV, October 2019) I only watched Halloween: Resurrection out of a twisted sense of completion—It’s almost certainly the second-least popular and the second-least relevant of the Halloween movies (only outdone by the second Rob Zombie one), but it also happened to be the second-last one in the series I hadn’t seen. It turns out that is obscurity is justified. Emerging from the reality-TV craze of the early 2000s, it commits two blunders out of the gate: lamely killing off series heroine Laurie Strode in the pre-credit sequence (but not really, as the 2018 remake would backtrack) and then boldly putting reality TV in the Halloween mythos, with a dose of low-resolution found footage for good measure. Or should that be putting Michael Myers into a reality-TV teen horror movie? Either way, the result feels off-brand in more ways than one, and not in a good way such as the increasingly supernatural nature of the series’ sixth instalment. Coupled with the recognizably formulaic nature of the execution, complete with annoying teenage characters, ham-fisted plotting, and dialogues (Busta Rhymes may be likable, but he here comes across just as stereotyped as the other characters), obvious designation of the final girl from the first few moments, irritating music cues and the result is more infuriating than anything else. I’m almost certain that the film plays far worse today than it did back in 2002 (even if reviews weren’t kind back then either) because we have seen many, many variations of the same webcast reality-TV horror blend since then—whatever cogent points Halloween: Resurrection may have been trying to make with its then-unusual commentary on audiences watching its “dangertainment” have been overwhelmed by, well, reality. The result, seen from 2019, has deservedly been forgotten even by the series’ own internal continuity.
(On TV, October 2019) If the 1980s got busy in how it spawned multi-instalment horror franchises, the 1990s got stupid about it, which explains why 1993’s unlikely Leprechaun has now led to seven sequels and counting. The original feels like countless other early-1990s horror/comedy movies, playing on so much ingrained familiarity with the genre and the form that it has to resort to a ludicrous monster for inspiration. It’s ridiculous by design, so it can’t commit to the scares, yet can’t quite bring itself to become a full comedy. After a middling opening, it settles for following a bunch of kids and teenagers through the usual nonsense as a diminutive antagonist (Warwick Davis, quite good) prances around in stereotypical garb and spouts Irish one-liners. If this doesn’t seem all that scary, it doesn’t matter: Leprechaun, by this stage of the horror genre, is going through the motions of a horror movie in order to offer some kind of lighthearted experience to fans. That it engendered to so many follow-ups is baffling, but that’s really the producer’s decision. Perhaps the best of what the film has to offer now is a sense of nostalgia for that school of filmmaking (today’s horror comedies aren’t that different, but they do seem more self-aware). Oh, and one of Jennifer Aniston’s earliest film performances: it’s certainly not the best showcase for the acting skills (not with that dialogue, anyway), but she’s surprisingly cute as a teenager, and offers an interesting contrast to her later screen persona. Otherwise, though, Leprechaun is as bland as it comes even with a deliberately eccentric villain—in form, it’s practically identical to so many other films. Whether this is a good thing or not is the point of having a horror genre.
(On TV, October 2019) Anthology movies aren’t meant to be consistent, but I’m finding myself generally disappointed by the overall level of quality from the five Tales from the Crypt. The framing device actually isn’t too bad, but once we dig into the five stories themselves, we end up with fairly basic concepts developed limply. I suspect that the passing of time may have had something to do with it—horror build upon itself and the basic stories in this 1972 film often appear just a bit too simple, just missing an extra twist to be truly interesting. (To be fair, Tales from the Crypt is indeed aware of horror history—it adapts an old comic book series, after all, and even has characters explicitly mentioning “The Monkey’s Paw” in its best segment.) Perhaps the best reason to watch the film today is for its early-1970s atmosphere: In the hands of director Freddie Francis, the fashions and décor, as dated as they can be, do offer a contract to other horror aesthetics. As for the rest, I remain lukewarm.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) Considering the central role of computer-generated imagery in portraying fantastic creations in modern movies, there’s still an old-fashioned charm to see ambitious fantasy movies from the pre-digital era. In Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, stop-motion wizard Harry Harryhausen is at the top of his form in making fantastic creatures interact with live-action actors. It’s all the service of an old-fashioned adventure tale with a party of adventurers, evil opponents and a stream of wonders. In many traditional ways, this is not a particularly good movie: the acting is perceptibly poor, the direction is clearly limited by the requirements of the special effects and the episodic plotting is of the one-thing-after-another variety so popular in picaresque fantasy adventures, with few things building upon each other. But Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is not a movie to be appreciated on the usual scale. The stop-motion animation is often impressive (although that final-act tiger looks more huggable than threatening) and the imagination at work in terms of developing even rough fantasy conceits is refreshing in contrast to so many mainstream movies of the era. It has definitely aged and is now definitely dated: the special effects can be great or terrible depending on the scene and your own indulgence in such matters. But Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is, perhaps almost despite itself, quite a bit of fun. It’s like being told a fairy tale, filled with known elements but comforting because of how familiar it is, and how old-school it now feels.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) In many ways, Boxcar Bertha isn’t particularly remarkable: As a better-than-average production from the Roger Corman filmmaking school, it heavily draws upon Bonnie and Clyde for inspiration at it shows a depression-era couple turning to crime in between love scenes. But here’s the thing: It’s Martin Scorsese’s second feature film, his first professional feature one after his quasi-student film Who’s That Knocking at My Door. As such, it’s practically mandatory viewing for fans. But it also shows what a good director can do with familiar material: While most movies produced by Corman had trouble even settling for capable B-movie status (“crank them out fast and cheap” seem to have been his American International Pictures’ unofficial motto), Boxcar Bertha does manage to become a decent genre picture. Despite a blunt script and low production values, it’s handled with some skill and meditative intent, reflecting Scorsese’s approach to the material and destiny to execute superior genre pictures. Barbara Hershey and David Carradine also do quite well in the lead roles. I’m not sure contemporary audiences will appreciate the film as much at the 1970s one did—after all, there’s practically a 1970s “violent couple picaresque journey” subgenre by now-famous directors in between Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, arguably Beatty), Sugarland Express (Spielberg), Badlands (Malick), and Boxcar Bertha fits right into what was then New Hollywood’s most salacious appeal. Decades and a few more Natural Born Killers later, it’s not as new or invigorating as it once was. Instead, we’re left with something far different: the movies as juvenilia, interesting not as much for what they were, but what they foretold.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) In Orson Welles’s filmography, The Stranger is often regarded as one of his least remarkable efforts. An early film noir set in a small town where a Nazi-hunter comes to investigate, it was (at the time) an attempt by the disgraced Welles to prove that he could be counted upon as a dependable actor/director, free from the drama that punctuated the first few years of his career. We all know how Welles’s career eventually turned out when driven away from Hollywood, but he was successful in turning out a competent and profitable result with The Stranger. Alas, this work-for-hire means that the film has far fewer of the distinctive touches we associate with Welles at his best: while highly watchable, the result seems rote. The action moves efficiently through stock characters, and Welles even at his most commercial is still a cut above most directors of the time. The dialogue has some great moments (such as the magnificent speech about the nature of Germans, as horribly stereotyped as it may feel now) but the film’s biggest distinction is how closely it engages with the immediate aftermath of WW2: Never mind the film’s interest in escaped Nazis living in the States: it also features then-new graphic footage of concentration camps … including a pile of bodies. Just to make it clear what this is about. You can certainly see in The Stranger a transition film in between the domestic thrillers of the early-1940s and the more fully realized noir aesthetics of the end of the decade. The result is still worth a look, not least for the compelling performances of Welles, Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson. It’s a striking illustration of what happens when a great artist is given familiar material.
(On TV, October 2019) If it took me a while before catching Prince of Darkness on TV, it’s not for lack of trying. But it’s is not considered among his best movies, and watching it only confirms why. I’ll be the first to admit that there is something intriguing in the concept of the film and a good chunk of its execution: The uneasy mixture of science, religion and impending apocalypse is always something that gets me interested, and there’s some interest in the film’s idea of ancient evil bootstrapping itself in the world through modern technology. On a purely visual level, there is also some really interesting stuff here, up to Carpenter’s prime-era standards: the man-of-insects, the liquid mirrors, gravity running in reverse and other spooky stuff works well in isolation. Finally, there’s some interesting character work throughout the film: Despite Jameson Parker’s unfortunate mustache, Donald Pleasance acts as a cornerstone of the film, with some assistance from Victor Wong. Alas, Prince of Darkness, for all of its potential, eventually falls into the spooky-stuff-in-a-blender school of horror filmmaking, in which various strong images are strung together with no apparent discipline or meaning. Anything and everything can happen, making moot any attempt to make sense of it all. This impression is made worse by the film’s frequent and blatant jumps from a patina of scientific justification to pseudoscientific nonsense without rigour or reason. Even the music is a bit too much at times. Finally, and perhaps more damagingly, Carpenter misses the mark when it comes to creating empathy for his characters. The lead couple is dull and uninvolving (the male lead initially behaving like a creep doesn’t help at all), there are too many supporting characters, and few of them end up being sympathetic, except for supernatural fodder when the film has to kill or possess someone. The result is still worth a look, like most of Carpenter’s movies, but there’s a palpable sense that Prince of Darkness, with all of its genuine eeriness and good ideas, could have been much, much more.
(In French, On TV, October 2019) There are so many reasons why I should not even like Wings of Desire. The deliberate use of monochrome, the stream-of-consciousness dialogue (is it dialogue if it’s eavesdropping on people’s thoughts?), the languid pacing, the improv-style acting, the pretentious philosophical claptrap, the very familiar dramatic arc … and so on. On paper and initially on-screen, Wings of Desire is an almost prototypical art-house film meant for a very specific audience. But gradually, almost begrudgingly, I ended up warming to the results. There’s a subtle grace to the way writer-director Wim Wenders uses a downplayed portrayal of angels to explore a full-spectrum take on humanity, portraying their black-and-white coolness against the colour perceived by the human characters. Peter Falk shows up playing a version of himself (even referencing “Columbo”) that turns out to be a fallen angel. Otto Sander also plays an angel with a mixture of detachment and empathy. But the acting focus here falls on Bruno Ganz convincingly portraying an angel yearning for human feelings, falling in love with a trapeze artist played by the captivating Solveig Dommartin. Clever understated touches (overcoats, libraries, children of course perceiving angels) add to the overall effect, while pre-reunification Berlin, cut by its wall, is shown in stark detail. Even the use of black-and-white has a plot purpose—and I surprisingly found the last colour portion of the film blurrier and less impressive than its initial black-and-white presentation. The film peaks somewhere near its third quarter, both in imaginative detail and in execution—the ending feels satisfying but pat, possibly from having influenced many other takes on similar material. While I don’t love Wings of Desire, I do end up liking it more than I thought, which hints at its more universal appeal than could be anticipated.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) There’s a deceptive simplicity to the premise of Born Yesterday: from afar, it’s a standard Pygmalion spinoff, what with a journalist being asked to educate the girlfriend of a businessman. But it’s in its execution that the film proves to be quite a bit more than expected. For one thing, the film (which takes place in Washington) doesn’t miss an opportunity to link personal virtues to political values—the coarse businessman who slaps his wife is proved to be a criminal who aspires to fascism (how familiar!), and the ingenue who learns better about the bedrock principles of the nation uses that knowledge to emancipate herself from a bad situation. Then there’s Judy Holliday, who comes across (though a grating voice and uncouth manners) as a hopeless self-obsessed hick but eventually proves herself as smart as everyone else—and do so in an almost imperceptible manner, making us care before we even know it’s happening. William Holden and Broderick Crawford also provide good performances to round up the lead trio. The script is a bit blunt at times and certainly predictable overall, but it does have moments of cleverness and humour, good dialogue and effective directing. Handled by veteran George Cukor, Born Yesterday proves to be a solid comedy with a timeless message, a still-impressive lead performance and a political message that really wouldn’t be out of place in a Frank Capra film.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) Hollywood has always had a soft spot for grander-than-life outlaws, mostly because it could make portray them as protagonists even bigger than life and (in the name of entertainment) revel in whatever cool crimes they committed. 1930s Hollywood was just as susceptible, as shown by a number of outlaw movies of which Viva Villa! Is only one example. Here we have Hollywood avowedly magnifying the legend of the famous Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa: a woman in every village, an army of thousands, and an American journalist creating his legend. It’s not exactly subtle, and the film’s treatment of the character is not without a dose of racism: clearly, this is an American perspective on a Mexican story (literally—what would Villa be without the American journalist documenting his actions?) rather than an attempt to show the story from his own perspective. Executed with significant production means, the film features hundreds of extras, a lot of location shooting and grandiose battle sequences, which (combined with the attempt to show a charming rogue, helped along by an exuberant performance by Wallace Beery) help keep the film interesting today … even though it would be completely unacceptable as a new movie today. You can see why Viva Villa! was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. Fans of Howard Hawks will appreciate knowing his uncredited contribution to the film, even though director Jack Conway completed the film.
(In French, On TV, October 2019) There isn’t anything particularly sophisticated in My Fellow Americans, which features two bickering American ex-presidents going on the run after being exposed to malfeasance from the current administration. But it’s one great late-period opportunity for Jack Lemmon and James Garner to shine in comic performance as elder statesmen. The film eventually becomes a buddy road movie (complete with the mandatory shot of the two characters screaming, “Aaah!” while driving), taking them (mostly) undercover through America in an effort to get back to Washington and expose the plot before they’re killed. There’s an effective mixture of the high and the low here, with two revered figures often acting out like schoolboys. Despite the warring presidents from different parties, don’t expect much political relevance from a film that would rather settle for silliness rather than barbed satire. (It’s also from an era where you could actually respect [ex-] presidents no matter their affiliation, but we’re long past that point now.) Still, Lemmon and Garner make for a good comic pair, even when the rest of the film around them is trite and obvious. I half-enjoyed My Fellow Americans, which is more than I can say from most similar movies.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) I understand why Pather Panchali is an important film: Breaking from the dominant tradition of song-and-dance Indian cinema, it chooses to focus on a representation of desperate rural poverty in, helping to launch the parallel cinema movement. Writer-director Satyajit Ray is considered a legend today, and his work in India echoed what was also going on in Europe as cinema tried to propose an alternative to the glossy Hollywood film aesthetics. His work in Pather Panchali is as dramatically effective as any other director, with a gut-punch of an ending that certainly won’t have you thinking about a happy ending. Then there’s the fact that the film presents Indian culture from the inside, without the distancing effect of many western productions (especially at the time) that imposed a filter over the depiction of the country. (See the quasi-contemporary The River, from Jean Renoir, that was closely linked to the production of Pather Panchali.) That’s all fine and good, and I suppose that I can check off one more film from the must-see lists of world cinema. But here’s the thing: I really don’t like neorealism, no matter the country. I like the glossy entertainment that cinema has to offer, and the thought of being stuck for more than two very long hours in desperately poor rural India has me reaching for the escape door, the fast-forward button or any other form of escape. For all of my growing film education, I really don’t like Pather Panchali, don’t want to see it ever again, and am not looking forward to digging deeper in that subgenre to watch similar movies. Part of a film education isn’t only to find out what you like, but also what you don’t.