(On Cable TV, February 2019) Hollywood produced a lot of war movies during WW2, and most of those movies were a conscious propaganda effort to raise morale and justify support for the troops. Predictably, this drive almost vanished as the war wound down. (1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives was a sobering capstone to that period.) Hollywood soon turned to other matters, but within a few years the drive to portray the sometimes-heroic, sometimes-frightening experiences of World War II was once again a moneymaker. Battleground, freed from the constraints of propaganda, was ready to explore a slightly more nuanced territory. While it’s clearly from the “war is an adventure” school of thought rather than the “war is hell” viewpoint, it’s free to have soldiers being occasionally less than heroic—expressing fear, a desire to run away or simply slack off in the face of the enemy. Still, this is an old-fashioned war movie, and frankly charmingly so: characters die, but most of our protagonists make it through, and the level of violence and trauma is definitely on the lighter side. Don’t think of this as a bad thing: in historical context, Battleground is actually fun to watch: its ground-level portrayal of the Siege of Bastogne from a soldier’s point of view is sympathetic and somehow appropriate. While not nihilistic to the degree we’d see in the 1970s, it does acknowledge soldiers as vulnerable and scared. While there are obvious comparisons to be made through subject matter between Battleground and the much better-known Battle of the Bulge, this early lower-budgeted effort comes out ahead in several areas—most notably in more accurately depicting the bad weather and forest backdrop to the events. In other words, it’s still worth a look today, both as a link in the evolution of WW2 in film, but also as a now-stylized portrayal of men in combat.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) As an Information Technology professional, I have a bigger interest than most in the place of computers in movies, and Desk Set manages to bring together that interest with another one—seeing Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn playing off each other in a romantic comedy. Set at the dawn of corporate IT, this film takes the burgeoning anxieties of the era and recasts them as fuel for a workplace comedy with a big dose of romance. As the story begins, Hepburn is the manager of a research library for a TV network—her staff can answer any question anyone could have. But in walks Tracy as a mysterious eccentric eventually revealed to be an “efficiency expert”—tasked with bringing a computer in the building to complement the work of the research staff. This being a comedy from the early days of computing, madness ensues. In one of Desk Set’s funniest scenes, the quasi-magical computer ends up firing everyone in the building, something swiftly ignored as the staff learns to get along with their computerized assistant. Said computer ends up taking over most of the set and the plot, leading to a high-energy finale. In the meantime, we do get some good romantic sparring between the whip-smart Hepburn and the ever-affable Tracy. It’s not a great movie, nor is it a great romance, but it does work well enough as a comedy. The dialogue is nice, and the increasing absurdity of the film does work in its favour as it hits its finale. The romantic plot is never surprising, but the bits and pieces along the way are fun. This is later-day Tracy/Hepburn (she wears her gray hair consistently pinned back), but the first of their movies shot in colour. Still, Desk Set is fun and fun is what it aims for. Contemporary IT professionals should get quite a kick out of the mid-1950s look at the potential and perils of computers in the workplace.
(In French, on Cable TV, February 2019) There’s some really weird stuff if you start looking in the late-night lineup of your Cable TV channels, and I was really amused to find Evil Toons on the schedule of French-Canadian horror-focused Frisson TV. It’s not exactly a well-known film. It’s not a good movie. It even stretches the definition of a “fun to watch” film. But it’s certainly weird enough to warrant a look. The premise is one that I find immensely charming, being about a few young women asked to clean a house that—obviously!—turns out to be haunted, possessed and just plain old evil. David Carradine shows up to looks spooky and deliver some exposition, but he’s not the main draw here. That would turn out to be pornographic actress Madison Stone in a relatively rare mainstream role, first as a funny sex kitten and then as a threatening vamp. The weirdness doesn’t stop there, as the antagonists of the film are realized as hand-drawn cartoons integrated in the live-action footage. Writer/director Fred Olen Ray has a checkered career in low-budget films (most of his movies don’t even have a Wikipedia page), but I’m sure that Evil Toons represents a career high of sort. Now, I wouldn’t want to overhype this—Evil Toon’s potential vastly exceeds what it ends up delivering. We barely scratch the surface of the naughty horror comedy that it could have been in better hands. Budget oblige, the toons barely show up … and the script can’t even be bothered with a few choice pieces of dialogue that even a marginally better comedy would have delivered without breaking a sweat. There’s no subtlety, the story’s development is lame and the characters have a tendency to under-react to sights that would have more realistic (heck, most comic) characters screaming their heads off—how dumb are these people? The end-credit music is catchy, though, and Evil Toons manages to go without nudity for a full twenty minutes. What we’re left with is still a weird movie, albeit with Madison Stone doing her best. It could have been quite a bit better but somehow, I can’t bring myself to condemn the result.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) There is a weightiness to The Sundowners that makes it both respectable and a burden to watch. The story of a nomadic family trying to make ends meet in outback Australia, it’s a character study (adapted from a novel) of a man unwilling to settle down, something that his wife finds increasingly untenable. Robert Mitchum stars in a very manly role, with Deborah Kerr as his long-suffering wife—despite the mostly happy marriage banter between the two, much of the film’s central conflict is about whether or not they’ll be able to reach an accommodation, and the ending is far less definite than many would have wanted. But the real reason to watch the film may have less to do with plotting and more with the impressive colour cinematography—unusually enough for 1960, much of the film was shot on location in deep Australia, featuring plenty of koalas, kangaroos, sheep and sheep-shearing. Peter Ustinov makes an impression as a refined older man somehow found in the outback. It’s a solid drama that was eventually nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), but don’t expect much in terms of resolution.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) Every decade in Hollywood history has its own incredibly specific subgenre, and one of the most charming ones I can think of is the spate of 1960s teenage beach movies. Taking aim at the then-developing teenager market segment (Hello Boomers!), it weaved the youth obsessions of the time—surfing, singing, dancing, partying and motorcycling for the bad boys—around a few musical numbers and cartoonish villains. Beach Blanket Bingo was the fifth of the seven mainline “Beach Party” movies, and arguably the best known of them. (With a title like that, no wonder!) Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello once again stars as the all-American teenage couple at the centre of the film’s antics. This time around, the plot has to do with publicity stunts, skydiving, a mermaid and a kidnapping. No less than Buster Keaton shows up in a comic role, deftly keeping up with the youngsters. There are plenty of funny moments, even with comical Nazi biker antagonists. To modern eyes, Beach Blanket Bingo is intriguing in how it plays into teenage interests but not too much—it scrupulously avoids any unpleasant subjects in favour of a universe in which fun on sunny beaches are the norm. (Heavens forbid our lead couple would do more than just kiss.) Still, it’s a lot of fun, and definitely entertaining despite the superficiality. I don’t recommend watching more than one of those movies every few months, though—they all blur together even if you’re paying attention.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) One of my working hypotheses in my Grand Unified Theory of Hollywood is that everything was invented during the 1930s, and we’ve been running variations on a theme ever since. San Francisco is another validation of that statement, as it credibly sets up the template that later disaster movies would follow closely. Set during the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco features no less than Clark Gable as an atheistic saloon owner and gambler. Then popular singer Jeanette MacDonald is the love interest, while Spencer Tracy has an early role as a Catholic priest fit to act as the protagonist’s conscience. Much of the early film is spent showcasing the city as it existed at the turn of the century and setting up the dramatic conflicts that will be settled definitively by the earthquake. For modern viewers, there’s also another kind of suspense: How, exactly, are the filmmakers going to portray the impending disaster on-screen? Is it going to look effective to our modern CGI-jaded eyes? That question is answered convincingly two thirds of the way through with an utterly thrilling sequence in which real-world sets are split apart. It’s a long and still-impressive moment in the movie as characters scream, building crumble and even the era’s limitations in special effects technology can’t quite diminish the importance of the moment. Once the disaster is over, it’s no surprise if our atheistic character had found God and his love interest, affirming San Francisco’s Phoenix-like endurance. The slightly historical nature of the film, looking backwards twenty years, actually gives it an interesting weight that the speculative disaster films of the 1970s can’t quite match. While primitive by today’s SFX standards, I found San Francisco surprisingly enjoyable when it gets on with the show, and prescient as to how it creates a template for an entire subgenre to follow.
(In French, On TV, February 2019) OK, world, I admit it. Revenge of the Pink Panther has pushed me over the edge, and it forces my hand. I have to come clean, even if you’ve seen it coming from the hints I’ve left all over the place. Are you ready? Here goes: I’m not that much of a Peter Sellers/Inspecteur Clouzeau fan. I have accumulated enough data points by now to realize that I like the original The Pink Panther best because Clouzot is a support player to Niven/Cardinale/Capucine. By this sixth entry in the series, Sellers/Clouzeau has become an all-engulfing, all-self-indulgent ego monster around which the entire series revolved. The plot revolves around him (it’s all about attempts to kill him, something that director Blake Edwards must have had on his mind at the time), the direction puts him centre stage and the editing can’t bear to cut away from his antics. The silly story hits many familiar plot points in the series, and can’t stand still by going from England to France to Hong Kong. While the budget is obviously bigger than previous instalments and there are a few comic moments along the way, the constant bumbling, perplexing fixation on costuming, graceless stumbling upon the truth, have become more grating than amusing—and that applies equally to the criminal and the romantic plot. Revenge of the Pink Panther was the last of the six “main” Pink Panther movies, and it clearly shows the reasons why it was quickly running out of steam by that point. Or maybe even at any point past the first movie.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) If anyone wants to illustrate the ways in which the Hays Code stunted the emotional development of American movies for thirty years, a comparative study of racy novels adapted to the big screen would make for a nice case study. In the tradition of the later Peyton Place, Kings Row takes an almost sadistic glee in revealing the sordid underbelly of small American towns. This depiction of a turn-of-the-century Midwestern town starts off slowly as it introduces its young main characters, then turns to the good stuff as they age: Going deeper and deeper in twisted melodrama, we end up with murder, suicide, insanity, fraud, destitution, malicious amputation, class warfare, and so on. The original novel was far wilder (what with incest, nymphomania, euthanasia and homosexuality), but the film does stand out by Hays Code standards even in its adulterated adaptation. (It had a rough view of psychiatry, but that’s to be expected from Hollywood films of the time.) Much of the enduring draw of Kings Row is found elsewhere, though—it’s usually cited as Ronald Reagan’s best performance, and one of the last he did before his military service. Reagan’s career was never quite the same after this interruption due to WW2, and Kings Row is enough to make anyone wonder if he would have gone on to a more successful career as an actor had he not left. He does have a strong role here, and carries much of it on sheer likability. Kings Row will work better if you’re in the mood for some rough melodrama—from today’s perspective, it’s far less objectionable as it once was.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) From 1933 to 1945, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made nine movies together, revolutionizing the movie musical along the way. While I think that The Gay Divorcee is the funniest of those movies and Swing Time the best from a dancing standpoint, Top Hat is usually mentioned as the most successful of those nine pictures. It certainly gets a lot of mileage out of the classic “Cheek to Cheek” number, but perhaps the best thing about it is how it distills the Astaire/Rogers formula to its purest: A romantic comedy, with catchy music and terrific numbers spanning the gamut from funny to classy. There’s a solo tap-dancing showcase for Astaire, there are gorgeous costumes (wow, that feather dress!), there’s screwball comedy of mistaken identities, there’s an astonishing multi-storey set meant to present a fantasy version of Venice and, of course, there’s the idealized couple dancing away. With that formula, it’s a guaranteed fun time. The comedy is formulaic to the point of having miscommunication naturally escalates to good-natured slapping, which is in-keeping with mid-1930s comedy. If the Astaire/Ginger partnership worked so well compared to some other Astaire partners, it’s because the age difference between the two was a “mere” 12 years, but also because Rogers could keep up with him better than others. (If you’re paying attention to the other perennial issue in Astaire movies, that of consent in romantic pursuits, it’s still here but not as blatant as in other films.) Top Hat may not be all that substantial, but it remains exhilarating entertainment in the classic Hollywood glamour tradition. Since seeing the film, I managed to find a DVD copy—just so that I can watch it at any time.
(On DVD, February 2019) Christmas classics don’t always age as well once you remove the nostalgia factor. While I think that The Charlie Brown Christmas Special remains a timeless classic, I was quite disappointed by How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Fortunately, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is closer to the first than the second—it has aged better than many other classic Christmas TV specials. Much of it has to do with its chosen stop-motion style: it has a wonderfully tactile feel, and the felt creatures are too cute for words. Burl Ives narrating also adds a lot. Plus there’s the thematic underpinning, digging into discrimination and coming out of it with a positive message. (Yes, I’m aware of the controversy in conflating a happy ending with “being useful for something”. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.) The songs a good, headlined with the omnipresent title number. Oddly charming and sympathetic today, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer still deserves its regular rotation in the holiday schedule.
(On TV, February 2019) In hockey-mad French Canada, Slap Shot has become a bit of an unintentional classic for reasons unforeseen to the original producers. As legend has it, the dub for the Quebec release was handed over to someone who unusually decided to translate it into French-Canadian street joual—as far away from proper grammatical French as it can be. This was a rarity back in 1977, and an entire generation grew up on the vulgar patois proudly heard in the dub. While the cultural omnipresence of the film has waned somewhat in recent years, it’s easy to see why Slap Shot would prove to be a smash hit in Quebec. For one thing, it makes no pretence as to the nobility of hockey: Taking place in the rough-and-tumble minor leagues, this is a sports comedy in which skating is accessory to fist-fighting, taking a very populist stance toward the sport. Then there’s the French-Canadian factor: Taking place in the world of northeastern hockey, it’s natural that some of the characters end up being French-Canadian (featuring snippets of French here and there even in the original English dub), and that some known French-Canadian actors would be featured in the film—such as Yvan Ponton, who would find later celebrity headlining the hockey-focused TV series Lance et Compte and playing in Les Boys series. It does help that the script (written by Montréaler Nancy Dowd) effectively creates striking characters. Paul Newman pleasantly looks out of his element here, his good-natured personality clashing with the gritty and vulgar late-1970s blue-collar environment. While billed as a comedy, the ending is more bittersweet than anything else, although there are a few funny moments along the way. Looking at the film’s release date, it does occur to me that you can draw a straight line from Slap Shot to the underdog comedies (sports or otherwise) of the 1980s, making this film feel even more than a precursor to a much larger movement. The consequence, of course, is that Slap Shot certainly doesn’t feel as fresh or shocking as it must have back then—but that’s the price of success.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) The obvious knock against Shine is that it does, at times, seems like the most Oscar-baiting of all the Oscar-baiting films. While it doesn’t qualify for Nazi bonus points, it does feature a down-and-out disabled musical prodigy who, thanks to the love of a good woman, regains his talent and his ability to live normally—and it’s based on a true story. It went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning Geoffrey Rush an Oscar for Best Actor. If it seems to you that you’ve seen quite enough of those movies already, you’re not wrong: it’s a formula, and even the best-executed formulas can still feel overly similar. Still, this is all understating that Shine is, by most standards, a really good movie. Rush gets a flashy role as a musical prodigy hampered by an overbearing father and his own brain’s chemical imbalances—it’s not subtle acting, but it’s the kind of off-beat grand performance that earns notices. The point being that this is the kind of film that allows actors to take centre stage. The focus on music allows Shine to feature better-than-average editing and scoring, further making it feel substantial. As far as formulas go, it’s a successful implementation. There have been far worse Oscar nominees.
(On TV, February 2019) We’re more now than a decade into an era where fantasy movies have become commodified into meaninglessness. Everything is possible with CGI and dozens of films over the past few years have offered fantastic visions on-screen that have been consumed and forgotten shortly afterward—nothing is special any more. In that context, watching 1984 big-budget fantasy film The NeverEnding Story is interesting: the special effects are creaky, used sparingly and the film seems amazed that it can pull them off in the first place. Alas, this veteran fantasy adventure hasn’t aged particularly well along the way—from a purely narrative perspective, the film’s few good ideas are strung along an exhausting hero’s journey where it’s just one adventure after another until we get to the point of the film and its conclusion. There are, to be fair, some very ambitious moments along the way: the film doesn’t hold back on what it tries to do with its imaginary world, and there’s a lot of fantastic material in here. I liked aspects of the ending quite a bit, but the film doesn’t quite go all the way with them (possibly because it only adapted the first half of the original novel). Alas, The NeverEnding Story can be too dull to be entertaining: at times, it starts to feel like an obstacle course until the end. I’m not sure if the film has simply been outclassed by wilder fantasy movies or if it was dull to begin with, but it’s obvious that the film simply doesn’t play the same way today as it did back then.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) The good news for Science Fiction movie fans lately is that special effects are cheap, SF devices literacy is high and there are plenty of non-theatrical distribution channels for low-budget SF movies to reach an audience. The not-so-good news are that given all three previous factors, it’s easier than ever to stumble upon a big cube of nonsense. I think that there are a few good ideas in 2036 Origin Unknown. Too many of them, in fact: By the time we’re past a Martian expedition, an Artificial Intelligence taking over a mission, a cube of mysterious origins, then we’re off into the usual 2001-inspired special effects mysticism, virtual reality reboot, the destruction of the human race and an AI that learns the true magic of friendship. That’s a whole lot, and by the end of the film it feels as if it’s been clearing its throat for 75 minutes before getting to what it really wanted to say. Not to mention an ending that pretty much trivializes what’s come before it, a high-tech fillip very much in the tradition of the venerable “it was all a dream” dodge. Still, despite 2036 Origin Unknown final flop, there are a few intriguing elements in the mix. There’s a striking structural audacity in having most of the film being Katee Sackoff interacting with computer displays, slick special effects taking over much of the heavy lifting in describing a much bigger story outside the confines of the (essentially) single-room set. The technobabble is ambitious but remains technobabble—and it’s all too easy to find mistakes in the illustrating special effects, even in the first few minutes. The writer clearly has a lot of his mind—it’s too bad that he couldn’t quite cull and select what he should have focused on, or gone beyond many of the obvious ideas in his premise. There’s a bumper crop of those low-budget imaginative SF movies lately, and they should be encouraged: they’re significantly better than what Syfy-special “low-budget SF movie” used to mean even a few years ago, and from time to time you get one that hits it out of the park. 2036 Origin Unknown isn’t one of them, but you have to play the averages.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) Medium-low budget films about the zombie apocalypse are a dime a dozen these days, and Patient Zero doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from the undead pack even when it pretends that’s not really a zombie story. This is one of those films that posits that the humans are the real enemy, and the inevitable degradation of the bunker environment feels like another retread of Romero’s Day of the Dead. Struggling with having anything to say, Patient Zero hovers around I am Legend thematic concerns without quite making the leap into the advantages of the replacement solution. I’ll be honest: Most of my motivation in watching the film was in seeing another role for Natalie Dormer, and while she does make for a fine leading couple along with Matt Smith, it’s really Stanley Tucci who steals the show, no doubt relishing the opportunity to play a ripped zombie leader and earn some muscular action antagonist credentials. The script is where the problems start: In trying to show a world where zombies are creating their own language, the film barely creates the scaffolding of an intriguing premise (is it a new or modified language? Does it lead to a distinct culture? How much of it is different from human?) before giving up and wallowing into the clichés of the genre. Of course, there’s a trigger-happy colonel who relishes shooting nearly every promising character, existing solely for making things more difficult. Of course, there’s a quasi-magical antidote-from-Patient-Zero nonsense, something that even the film doesn’t believe even if its (so-called smart) characters do. A better screenwriter would have been able to do better, but I’m not sure that the end result would have been much improved considering the uninspired direction from Stefan Ruzowitzky. From its very dull generic beginning to a disappointing Adam-and-Eve conclusion, Patient Zero constantly threatens to become better without never actually doing so. Some of the action sequences almost work well, but they’re not enough. I strongly suspect that the film was abandoned by its studio: Shot in 2015 with then-popular actors, the film was ultimately dumped without fanfare in 2018 almost as if they wanted to wash their hands off the result and let it fade among so many other similar movies.