(On Cable TV, October 2019) Film noir is often about desperate people in bad circumstances, and in this light Night and the City certainly qualifies as such. Unusually taking place in London rather than in a large American city, it nonetheless plays up the grimness of low-class hustling, with a protagonist perpetually convinced that he’s only one lucky break, one spin of the wheel away from success. Grim and tawdry, it takes place in the city’s underworld, rubbing shoulders with wrestlers and killers. Richard Widmark is not bad as the protagonist, but I suspect that most viewers will better appreciate Gene Tierney as his long-suffering girlfriend. The unrelenting grimness of the result isn’t only in the atmosphere, but in the lack of sympathy for any character and the unsparing ending of director Jules Dassin’s preferred version (a British version reportedly softens up the ending—it’s not the one I saw). Night and the City is not a film for every audience or every mood, but it does stand as a prototypical noir even despite not taking place within American borders. You even get a (repeated) didactic mention of “Montréal, in Canada” just for the fun of it.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) The first Happy Death Day was a tricky mixture of comedy and horror, and it took a while before it started firing on all cylinders. Happy Death Day 2U isn’t that different, although the first few minutes do promise a more interesting sidequel than the outright sequel it ultimately settles on. But there’s only so much deviation that a series can tolerate, and this sequel does ultimately change the tone and genre of the series a bit, going for a thankfully more comedic approach and reaches for outright science fiction (even if nonsensical) as an explanation for its time-looping weirdness. Jessica Rothe once again captures our attention as the heroine (once again hitting the film’s peak during a bouncy montage), especially given how Happy Death Day 2U unusually digs deeper into her dramatic back-story and provides her with a heartbreaking choice. The result is fun bouncy entertainment with enough depth to it to keep things interesting. Toning down the serial killer shtick only improves the sequel, and while it does fall prey to a certain sense of deja vu, it’s an impressive continuation by itself. Writer-director Christopher Landon is a clever filmmaker, and the results here outdo anything we may have hoped for a sequel.
(On TV, October 2019) Adapting a comic book to the big screen is a tricky exercise, even more so when it’s working from an exuberant source such as the Astérix and Obélix series. As someone who grew up on the series, the idea of attempting to adapt the comic violence, over-the-top gags and fantastic visuals of the comic seems hopeless. Astérix & Obélix contre César, as the first live-action adaptation of the series, clearly underscores how difficult it is. On the positive side, the film does manage to present an authentic Astérix adventure, complete with the wild cast of characters in the protagonist’s village. The state of computer-generated imagery circa 1999 is just barely enough to give an idea of what’s possible, while looking unfortunately dated twenty years later. A still-young Gerard Depardieu is featured as Obélix, along with Christian Clavier as Asterix. Roberto Benigni, then at the height of his international fame, showboats annoyingly in a villain role. The film works, but barely: other than the weirdness in trying to fit a fluid comic style in live-action, the film also frequently loses itself in useless subplots, and becomes actively irritating when it repeatedly tries to pairs up (despite objections from other characters) the fifty-something Depardieu with a much-younger love interest. Writer-director Claude Zidi doesn’t embarrass himself (the bar being low enough), but the approach here is rougher than in other later classic comics adaptations along the lines of Lucky Luke, Le Marsupilami or Gaston Lagaffe. (None of them were all that successful, but more so than here.) Considering what was available in 1999, it’s an honest half-success.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) Oh, what a fun curio Transatlantic Tunnel is. As I’m slowly documenting my history of science-fiction films, one of my assertions is that there was no self-conscious SF genre before the 1950s: Much of what preceded was in the horror genre. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few specific SF movies before then. In between Metropolis and Things to Come, here we have a film fussing over the digging of a tunnel between Great Britain and the United States. This is only made possible through fancy technology (science: check!) and developed through a sometimes-stupefying pile-up of melodramatic tropes (fiction: check!) Consider that, in the tradition of two-fisted SF heroes, the protagonist of the story (played by Richard Dix) is a genius engineer who becomes the public face of the grandiose project, but ends up losing nearly everything along the way. Consider how an exotic gas blinds his wife, how an underground volcano threatens his plans and how terrible tragedy affects him. It’s not meant to be subtle and indeed at times the Anglo-American boosterism of the film feels ridiculously overdone. (Also, hello, Canada’s coast is right there to save you some time and money in completing the tunnel!) Still, there’s an undeniable Buck-Rogers-style charm to the proceeding, as primitive as they may seem. There’s an attempt to develop a vision for the future even in a film limited by budget and being shot on studio-bound sets. One notes with some amusement that even in 1935, this Maurice Elvey film was the third adaptation of a transatlantic tunnel novel, and that it copiously reused footage from the previous films. As a classic Science Fiction novel reader, I’m curious as to whether Transatlantic Tunnel influenced Harry Harrison’s semi-classic A Transatlantic Tunnel Hurrah (early research suggests no explicit link), but the film itself stands on its own.
(On TV, October 2019) The first Pet Sematary managed to blend Stephen King’s unusually bleak novel with a crazy sensibility of its own and if the result wasn’t exactly good, it did hold its own as a decent 1980s horror movie, especially in the King adaptation subgenre. Sequel Pet Sematary II, alas, is crazier but nowhere as respectable, nor as interesting. Once we’ve established at film length that it’s a terrifyingly bad idea to bury people in a cemetery that resurrects them wrong, the follow-up merely piles one dumb character decisions on top of others. The result isn’t a complete catastrophe: At least Clancy Brown has the good sense of overacting throughout his part, making it more fun than the dour plot summary may suggest. Edward Furlong is dull as the lead, but Darlanne Fluegel does bring some redheaded heat to her role, and is a good reason why the beginning and end of the movie are more interesting than anything in between. Still, Pet Sematary II is not much: the plot depends on unbelievable characters, repeating the high points of the original without as much dramatic oomph and with the usual limitations of early 1990s horror movies following up on King’s work without directly adapting them. See it if you must complete a list or two (or if it comes bundled with the original); otherwise it may not be worth the effort to track down.
(On TV, October 2019) By the time you’re eight films deep in a series, it’s a reasonable assumption to presume that anyone still watching is, by that time, a stark raving mad fan of the series. At that point, any change becomes risky—sure, the series has to evolve … but what if you stray so far? It’s also at that time in a series’ lifespan that dismissing previous instalments becomes tempting. (Perhaps that was new in 1993, but by 2019 we’ve seen enough examples of fifth or even fourth films in a series trying to ignore everything but the first or second instalment.) A more interesting question at this point becomes: What about those people who don’t like the series and (perhaps like me!) end up seeing that late warped prequel-ignoring instalment out of obstinacy and list-checking? I am not a fan of the Friday the 13th series, and perhaps that all explains my not-so-dismissive reaction to The Final Friday. The film gets started on a very high note, as supernatural Jason is entrapped by a policewoman playing a vulnerable coed, then trapped in a crossfire and reduced to pulp by a battalion of soldiers. But wait! There’s more in those first fifteen minutes, as the coroner finds himself possessed to eat Jason’s disemboweled but still-beating heart. We’ve already jumped far away from the non-supernatural origins of the series, but it keeps getting wilder as Jason is revealed to be a slimy creature jumping from one body to another, and there’s an ancient prophecy saying that Jason can only be killed by another member of his family through a mystical dagger. This is all completely wild and nonsensical and ignores everything about the series, but to someone who suffered through all the previous Friday the 13th series, this is actually kind of entertaining and a deserved takedown of a disliked premise. In short, I was more entertained by The Final Friday than any of the previous films, even if it’s a dumb horror movie that can be forgotten five minutes after the credits roll.
(On TV, October 2019) Keep your expectations in check, Friday the 13th fans: Despite the grandiose subtitle, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan only makes it to New York City in its last third, leaving the rest of the film to take place on a cruise boat filled by teenagers. (How we get there is a stretch even by the lax standards of the series, given Crystal Lake—formerly situated at least two states inland—now being connected to the ocean.) It’s not a particularly good entry, although it makes up in craziness what it doesn’t have in quality. The last act (located in Manhattan but shot in Vancouver) is by far the most interesting: The first act is just dumb and ham-fisted in how it assembles all the plot pieces, while the extended cruise that makes up most of the movie is just one dull kill after another. Things get warmer once we make it to the late-1980s Big Apple, filled with graffiti, criminals and toxic waste. In the film’s highlight, Jason makes it to Times Square (where he pettily kicks down a punk gang’s boombox), but you do have to get through a lot of nonsense featuring generic characters before getting there. The heroine herself is one of the series’ blandest, and some of his victims don’t get any development whatsoever. Kelly Hu has an early role here, but she doesn’t get much to do before being thrown away from the story. By this time in the series, seven instalments in nine years (not to mention a burnt-out slasher genre), it couldn’t keep the same conventions and so this instalment does try to shake things up … to no positive effect. The ending, which resets Jason to child form, wasn’t really followed up in the following entries in the series, each of which struck out in different directions by ignoring much of the established so-called continuity. There’s a fair case to be made for Jason Takes Manhattan being, in bits and pieces, the craziest episode of the series so far … but it’s not consistent craziness, and that often does make it a chore to watch. Of course, if you’re not a slasher fan, there is only a strict minimum here to keep you interested.
(On TV, October 2019) For cinephiles such as myself who don’t have any affection for the slasher genre and the Friday the 13th series in particular, the most interesting element of its movies is the narrative that holds the instalments together—the way Jason is brought back and dispatched in between the gore and the murdering of horny teenagers. Considering that the Friday the 13th series (justifiably) jumped into supernatural territory during its sixth instalment, it makes sense that its sequel would lean even more heavily in that direction. So it is that Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood features nothing less than a protagonist with telekinesis powers, able to break a mean girl’s pearl necklace at a distance, send a TV flying across the room and (far more crucially) free Jason from the underwater tomb in which he was placed at the end of the previous film. The ending also features a more interesting showdown than usual between zombie Jason and a final girl with the power to fight back. Alas, that ending peters out in an uninteresting finale, concluding the film on a sour note. I haven’t discussed anything in between the beginning and the end of the film because, in many ways, there’s nothing to say: It’s the usual killing-the-teenagers routine with little to distinguish it. (Although, strangely, this instalment intriguingly avoids the over-the-top gore featured in other films of the series—murders aplenty, but always cutting to another shot before the blood sprays out. Maybe it’s the TV version?) Jason is a more formidable menace here thanks to being played by Kane Hodder for the first time, and as a kid who became a teenager in 1988, I still find some of the girls and hairstyles in the film cute rather than dated. Still, that’s a not a whole lot to recommend—Much like the entire series, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood is not particularly good, and you really have to dig in order to find something interesting to say about it.
(On TV, October 2019) There we are. Now we’re talking. Surprisingly enough, there was little in the first five movies in the Friday the 13th series to explicitly state that it took place in a universe with supernatural elements—Sure, Jason was impossibly invulnerable and the plotting contrived to absurd degree, but you could deny, ignore or explain away the supernatural events. Not so much here, as Jason is resurrected by a bolt of lightning, his body still moist-fresh after some time underground. Then we’re back to the usual business of murdering horny camp counselors. This new supernatural focus does bring a bit of energy back into the series, although not as much as improved screenwriting and directing. (It’s not good writing or direction, but at least it’s a step up.) The ending has the decency to lean on the supernatural element in immobilizing the threat (until the next film) but not even pretending to get rid of it. There’s also an element of self-aware comedy to the film, starting with a title sequence that borrows from James Bond’s barrel gun opening but does not quite go into outright parody territory. (I also liked the bit where the camp counselors ask what could be worse than a psycho killer … to be answered by the arrival of a bus filled with kids.) I am certainly not a fan of the series and I won’t try to pretend that Jason Lives is any good, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction—and an illustration that any series that goes on long enough ends up being a parody of itself.
(On TV, October 2019) Even by the low standards of slasher movies and the even-lower standards of its series, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is a singularly dumb instalment. Jason is dead (yes, really), but what takes its place is spectacularly contrived. The film begins as the young protagonist of the previous film, now grown up but severely traumatized, is sent to a halfway house camp just happens to be close to Crystal Lake Forest Hill. One random axe murder later, we’re once again stuck with a hockey-mask-wearing psychopath murdering teenagers. Characterization isn’t a strong suit of this film as it keeps introducing minor characters just in time to murder them savagely and then repeat until a dark barn-set climax. There’s a lot of nudity, but it doesn’t help as much as you’d think, not when the film even struggles to create a plot around the predictable kill sequences. I did like the idea of a chainsaw-versus-machete combat, but that’s reaching deep in the film’s details to find something worth remembering. The Friday the 13th series was never high art, but A New Beginning plumbs new depths in its attempt to do something without quite going supernatural. But then there was the sequel…
(On Cable TV, October 2019) OK, this was a fun one—in a decade when Woody Allen movies started with the introspective Stardust Memories telling us about his “earlier, funnier ones” and moved on to what would become Allen’s contemporary blend of gentle comedy and drama (culminating in Manhattan Murder Mystery, which would best exemplify Allen’s tone for a while), The Purple Rose of Cairo stands out as a metafictional high-concept homage to 1930s film. The plot gets going in a Depression-era small-town, as a young woman with problems escapes to the movies … and has the star walking off the screen to meet her. They fall in love, but the best part of the film is how it keeps poking at its premise and developing a little bit farther than strictly necessary, having some fun along the way. (Real life doesn’t fade to black in intimate scenes, for instance.) Some of the development does leave us wanting more, though—the brief mentions of other actors springing to life do land us in a territory that is never properly explored. The recreation of a 1930s comedy film is convincing and a delight if you’re familiar with the era. The bittersweet ending is disappointing, though: a bit more light would have been helpful, although the protagonist finds herself in a better place if only for not being stuck in the same relationship. Still, compared to other Allen movies of the era (the bizarre Zelig excepted), The Purple Rose of Cairo does feel more high-concept, funnier, breezier.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) I have now seen four different film versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers —1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007, and they each have the singular distinction of being worse than the previous one. I saw the now mostly forgotten 1993 version out of a sense of completion, but I can’t say I’m feeling fulfilled now that I’ve seen it. The problems start early with Body Snatchers, as a moody teenager’s voiceover opens the film with a soliloquy more at ease in an overdone coming-of-age drama than a full-blown horror movie—it’s a strong cue about the film being aimed explicitly at teenage audiences rather than tap into universal paranoia. Then the script makes a dumbfounding decision to set the story on a military base, completely undercutting the suburban (or urban) this-could-happen-anywhere anxiety that made the reputation of the earlier entries. The parallels between pod people and military rigidity isn’t as clever as the screenwriter thinks, and the result plays safely at a remove, defanging a lot of the innate terror that such a scenario should have. To be fair, there are a few things I do like about this version—director Abel Ferrara usually knows what he’s doing, and Meg Tilly is pure sexy evil here. But as for the individual components that I liked (the shrill shriek, the big-budget military hardware and explosions, the special effects depicting the pod people taking over) all seemed to have been taken from other better movies. A muddled ending that seems to rescue disaster from the jaws of victory is a further irritant. Within the context of its handicapped scope and repetitive nature, this Body Snatches does OK, but it falls far short out of the best versions of the story.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) That’s it—I’m done with Michelangelo Antonioni. I’ve seen four of his films and mildly liked only one of them, and that one is due to Blow-up having inspired both Blow-Out and Austin Powers. For his core alienation trilogy, L’eclisse merely reiterate (at great length) everything I felt about L’avventura or La notte—dull drama about unlikable characters and a director who’s clearly not interested in conventional narrative moviemaking. L’eclisse is overlong, uninterested in telling a story, in love with its own way of avoiding conventionality even at the expense of basic watchability. But I repeat myself. I could go on, but the point isn’t as much that I disliked the movie, but that it’s not a movie made for me. Coming from the early 1960s, it’s an experiment rebelling against the formalism of Italian cinema, a first foray in portraying a rejuvenated Rome after the lean post-war years, a series of experiments with cinematic form, and a refusal to play it safe. Considering nearly 60 years of subsequent experimentation in pushing the barriers of cinema, it’s a fair bet to say that other directors have pushed the envelope farther, and that if other directors haven’t, it’s because you lose a considerable portion of the audience along the way. If pressed, I do have a few nice things to say about L’eclisse: Alain Delon is cool despite showing up late in the film. The sequences at the Italian stock market are fascinating and Monica Vitti is always wonderful to watch. There’s clearly an artistic intent at work. But when you throw these elements together, I just can’t stand the result—too long, too dull, and so self-indulgent that I’m not even willing to play along. And that stands for Antonioni as a whole. It’s not because some 1960s critics were rapturous about the result that I must feel the same way.
(On TV, October 2019) It took no less than seven years for Moustapha Akkad, the producer of the Halloween series (at that point) to conclude the three-film arc launched with Halloween 4, but sixth entry Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers is a let-down even by the low standards of slasher films in following the fifth movie’s dangling plot threads. This being said, let’s be careful about expressions such as “three-film-arc,” and “following up on plot threads”: the production history of the series clearly shows that they had no idea where to go and made it up at each new film up to the shooting stage, which explains the disjointed plot details and increased supernatural mysticism of Myers’s powers. Whatever interesting plot elements are almost accidental, and they tend to be overwhelmed by the execution as, inevitably, slasher movies appeals to those who want to see “the kills” more than anything else. The production history of this entry is almost legendary for its chaotic nature, so all we’re left to contemplate is what shows up on-screen (and even then, there’s a producer’s cut also floating around—not what I’m reviewing here). And what shows up is … weird. Paul Rudd gets an early starring role, but his sullen creepy character is far away from his usual screen persona. This was veteran actor Donald Pleasance’s last film role, but even it was butchered considering that he died between principal photography and the extensive reshoots. The result is a mess, not even enjoyable by slasher standards. And if you’re not a slasher fan, then it quickly becomes exasperating. There are about half a dozen things and ideas in here that a more competent writer or director (or producer, considering the entire mess) could have used to make a more interesting film, but that’s not the case. There is an interesting historical context here in that the following year, Scream would re-examine the slasher genre and relaunch it on a foundation of self-awareness and snark, so you can consider Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers as the last dying gasp of the old-school slasher. As for me, this was the last reasonably popular Halloween film I hadn’t seen (or so say my notes, because these films are hard to tell apart without written documentation) and so I can walk away from the entire series with the conviction that off-brand Halloween III remains the craziest and best of them.
(On TV, October 2019) I have a feeling that I should be liking The People Under the Stairs a lot more than I do. After all, it does feature non-traditional protagonists, social issues such as accessible housing, and more unhinged antagonists than usual. The structure of the film is also a bit unusual, with the protagonists escaping the Bad Place on the third-act turn, only to return later. Seasoned writer-director Wes Craven blends the appearance of weird creatures with more prosaic concerns, such as a family in danger of being evicted, in order to skirt the edges of the horror genre. That’s all well and good, except that, well, I didn’t care much for it. The creatures feel needlessly grotesque, the protagonist a bit too young, the social commentary muted, the humour out-of-place. The Gulf War footage does bring some intriguing period atmosphere to the proceedings, but not enough to take the film out of the confines of its own set. In other words, I don’t quite get The People Under the Stairs and there are worthier movies to puzzle over.