(On Cable TV, November 2018) In discussing the first Pacific Rim movie with fellow nerds, I often feel as if I saw a different film than everyone else: Sure, it was OK, but wasn’t it a bit disappointing? A bit too darkly-lit, a bit blandly acted, a bit underwhelming in its third act? Now it feels as if I’m having an equally-contrarian view of sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, because it directly fixes what I had been complaining about in the first movie: It takes place in daylight, it lets the combat scenes breathe a bit, has more even acting (goodbye Charlie Hunnam, you were not an asset), and even goes a bit further than the original in developing the human/Precursors dynamics. Sure, I do miss Idris Elba … but not that much, nor do I feel that Guillermo del Toro is essential to the series considering how Steven S. DeKnight does in the director’s chair. In some ways, Pacific Rim: Uprising feels like a more fully-achieved vision of the series’ basic kaiju-vs-mecha premise: By the time it brings teenagers to fight monsters in Tokyo with gigantic exoskeletons, well, this is what this is all about, right? No amount of geographic weirdness, such as putting Mount Fuji right next to the Japanese capital (it’s really more than 100kms away), is enough to make me change my mind. The human/alien romance is disturbing enough, the integration with the series’ existing mythology feels consistent (well, mostly) and there are quite a few subplots to keep things interesting. It’s certainly not perfect—more time to develop the subplots could have helped, and I’m never too happy about the blatant pandering to the Chinese market. Overall, though, I had more fun with Pacific Rim: Uprising than the original, something that the much lighter tone does help a lot. Mark me down as a contrarian if you wish: I’ll either deny the allegation or wear it as a badge of honour.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) The running gag about the first Star Trek movies is that the even-numbered ones were bad and the odd-numbered ones were good, but it’s all relative—Star Trek III: The Search for Spock may be a bit dull at times, but it’s not quite as bad as the first or fifth instalments. Directly picking up where Star Trek II left off and leading directly to Star Trek IV, this instalment is entirely dedicated to tying up the big loose end left by the second film: Spock’s death. It feels more like an episode of the TV show that a movie-worthy story, although there are definitely stronger moments scattered in the film. I mean: Spock is found! Kirk’s son dies! The Enterprise self-destructs! Compared to Star Trek: Genesis, at least it’s to save Spock, and part of the film’s explicit moral is that sometimes a single person can justify heroic sacrifices. At least The Search for Spock is reasonably interesting to watch, with nearly every original cast member getting something to do. The special effects, alas, are very uneven: Some sequences look terrible, while others look great. Leonard Nimoy’s direction is usually average, falling back on TV-worthy framing and never quite attempting anything out of the ordinary. The Search for Spock all amounts to an acceptable entry, and one that doesn’t quite overstay its welcome at 105 minutes.
(On TV, November 2018) Twenty-first-century cinephiles may be forgiven the occasional pang of synthetic nostalgia for some periods as depicted by the movies. 1960s London, for instance, has been portrayed in exuberant ways by an entire sub-genre, celebrating the excesses of the time while downplaying its less playful aspects. Ironically, it takes another movie to deconstruct the archetype of the 1960s London playboy: Alfie, made at the height of the Swignin’ Sixties, pulls no punches in depicting the kind of flawed personalities that would embrace such a lifestyle, and the consequences that come with it. One of Michael Caine’s earliest claims to fame, Alfie follows a young man with more “birds” than a pet shop, and with enough charisma to turn to the camera and tell us, the viewers, what he’s thinking. Alas, the charm grows thin and the self-deception becomes impossible to ignore the longer the film goes on as his romantic problems grow bigger, he’s afflicted with health issues and distances himself from his own son. It gets much, much worse. And even then the protagonist tries to make light of the situation by trying to get the audience on his side. It doesn’t work, though, not in the film’s second half. It’s difficult to realize today how groundbreaking the film was by the standards of the time, not only in showing the playboy lifestyle, but also the darker side of it. But seen from today, it feels like a near-contemporary commentary (much like Saturday Night Fever) on something that later movies have attempted to romanticize beyond recognition. Alfie remains a good movie … but don’t be surprised to realize at the end that you will never want to watch it again.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) The original Airport may have been meant as a workplace drama made even more thrilling by the possibility of airplane crashes, but it launched the 1970s disaster movie craze and by the time its own Airport 1975 follow-up came around, the series refocused on a profitable niche: airborne disasters, in this case what would happen if a small plane crashed in a jumbo airliner? The premise doesn’t make a lot of sense the closer you look at it (or rather: it doesn’t make sense that there would be something to do after such a collision), but no matter: it’s up to George Kennedy and Charlton Heston to play the heroes, be lowered in the gaping open cockpit, and bring everyone back down to safety. That should be enough in itself, but contemporary viewers will get quite a kick out of this Airport 1975 because it’s one of the main sources of inspiration for the classic spoof Airplane! That’s right: the nun, the sick kid and other gags all find their origin here, lending an unintentional hilarity to something meant to be deadly serious. Otherwise, well, some of the airborne footage is impressive, while some of the special effects have not survived well at all. Karen Black is not bad as the heroine, despite her character bearing the brunt of the film’s unconscious sexism. Still, for all its faults, there’s a bit of a magnificence to the results—this is not meant to be a good movie, but it seems to know what it’s made for. As a result, Airport 1975 withstands an admittedly ironic contemporary look better than many of its contemporaries.
(Second or third Viewing, On Blu Ray, November 2018) By the time Timothy Dalton took over the James Bond role from Roger Moore in The Living Daylights, the ground had shifted a bit underneath the Bond franchise. Suddenly, the womanizing wasn’t as appealing, and dozens of other movies were aiming for the same thrills as the Bond series. As a result, The Living Daylights attempts a light retooling of the character. There’s only one woman for Bond this time around and the film goes back to its spying roots in delivering an authentic late-period Cold-War thriller that has a ring of authenticity to it. Dalton has his best movie here—still relatively charming compared to his much-darker follow-up License to Kill, but hard-edged enough to ensure that we wouldn’t mistake it for another Moore entry. I remembered only a few things from a previous viewing sometime in the early 1990s, but one of them is the incredibly cool Walther WA 2000 sniper rifle used early in the film. The other is Maryam d’Abo as one of the best Bond Girls up to that point, and a relative rarity in the pantheon as a Bond Girl portrayed as a complex skilled character (a cellist) but not an enemy agent equally able to match Bond’s fighting skills. The film’s opening half is a bit better than its concluding act, which suffers from some contemporary weirdness in heading to Afghanistan and fighting alongside the anti-Soviet pre-Taliban Mujahideen. (To be fair, Rambo III ended up in the same place for the same reasons at about the same time.) Still, The Living Daylights remains a step up for the series, and it’s still remarkably good watching even today as we’ve grown accustomed to a much dourer Bond during the Craig years. Alas, Dalton would squander much of his accumulated goodwill in the follow-up film…
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) Even by the permissive standards of French-Canadian cinema, La rage de l’ange is a bit of an oddball. Written and directed by Dan Bigras, often best known as a singer with an extensive street history, it’s a highly melodramatic tragedy about three young people in desperate circumstances, drawn to the Montréal underworld even if it offers no way out. Coming from a filmmaker with considerable experience in combining poetry with slang, it’s not a surprise if the film ends up stuck on two different registers, occasionally bringing high language to low surroundings (such as Pierre Lebeau’s memorable “Pope”, spouting pretentious philosophy from a barstool) and high tragedy to a contemporary setting. Socially engaged, it’s a movie that touches upon a bewildering number of issues ranging from prostitution, sexual abuse, homosexuality, street gangs and the normalization of violence. There is no happy ending in sight for the young protagonists at any point in the film, and the blunt-force approach of the film isn’t made for subtlety. As the title suggests, they could have been angels in other circumstances. If there’s an audience for this respectable but not enjoyable film, it may be less the street kids and more the suburban liberals wanting their most heartfelt prejudices confirmed.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) On the one hand, Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is an imaginative, clever, exuberant fantasy film. On the other, it’s the kind of film that appears severely limited today by circa-1988 technology: it swings for the fences, but doesn’t have what it takes to pass muster today. It’s also a story of the one-thing-after-another variety, meaning that the picaresque structure may not feel as if it’s tied up together. Still, it’s good fun to see John Neville justifiably hams it up as Munchausen, along with such notables as Sarah Polley, Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman and Robin Williams in grander-than-life roles. The fantasy between reality and fantasy here is thin, and I’m not too sure that it makes the most out of this quality. Still, as part of Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” after Time Bandits (which I didn’t like all that much) and Brazil (which is an all-time classic), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ranks as a solid, um, average. I like what it’s trying to do, I appreciate that it was almost impossible to accomplish back then, but I’m not all that enthusiastic about the results.
(On DVD, November 2018) Now that’s more like it. After a second film that didn’t do much with the possibilities of the series’ central premise, here comes A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to dig a little deeper in its potential. Almost entirely forgetting the second instalment, this volume finds Freddy Kruger tormenting kids, the first film’s final girl coming back, and the kids finding a way to fight back. Now, I don’t really like the series—it’s cheap, it’s occasionally far too silly for its own good, the actors are really not good (I like looking at Heather Langenkamp, but her acting here is terrible) and there’s a huge gap between the potential of the series and its execution. Still, Dream Warriors is watchable enough: the imagery of the dream sequences is far more interesting than your average slasher, while the idea of youth fighting back is promising (the execution; not so much). Alas, there are more than a few clunkers in the works: Freddy Kruger definitely takes a turn for comedy here, moderately defanging the antagonist. The story also flirts with a highly inappropriate relationship between doctor and intern, undermining the whole atmosphere. I’m not a fan, but I didn’t have the feeling of wasting my time.
(Kanopy Streaming, November 2018) I’m not sure about you, but our high school English curriculum in French-schools Ontario in the very early 1990s included what felt like half a year on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. As a result, I have suffered permanent retention of the novel and the film (which we must have seen at least once during the ordeal). Now, let’s be clear: Golding’s novel is rather good, but one way to suck the enjoyment out of anything is to take it apart in high school English class. As a result, watching the film even as a middle-aged man is an exercise is restating the obvious. While the film does have its occasional directorial flourishes (I’m thinking of the opening juxtaposition of boarding-school pictures and increasingly violent military images) and does nicely with an all-kids cast, I know far too much about Lord of the Flies’ plot, characters, themes, symbolism and ironies to be surprised at much of the movie adaptation. If it makes a difference, consider that I had more or less the same reaction at a recent viewing of 1984’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: Knowing the story inside and out makes the film dull, especially if it’s a spectacularly faithful version. One thing I wished was different is if the film had been shot in colour—you do miss a lot by setting a film on a tropical island and having it in black-and-white. Otherwise, what else can I say? I bet the movie is still shown in high-school classes that study the novel.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) When you’re Kathleen Hepburn and have remained a star through six decades of Hollywood history, the least you can be given is a feature-length documentary during which to comment your life and career. This is exactly what Katharine Hepburn: All About Me is about: Hepburn welcoming us home, leaving the camera running as she putters around the house and gives us the highlight reel of her career. Hepburn fans will note that the film came shortly after Hepburn’s 1991 autobiography and so offered her a complementary opportunity to cement her legacy even further by offering a movie-length trailer of the image she wanted to portray. In fact, you could argue that Hepburn here had a better vehicle for legacy summation than a book—after more than sixty years in show-business, the 85-year-old Hepburn remained an actor even when talking about her own life. Here we have poignant recollections, a few laughs, a warm portrait of Spencer Tracy (at a time when Hepburn was free to talk about their relationship without fear of being contradicted or annoying Spencer’s wife). This is all supported by great archival footage (including home movies) and Hepburn’s still-distinctive speaking style. This is Hepburn on Hepburn—much as I like her (and I really do like her a lot), there isn’t any place here for critical commentary on her life and work. This being said, All About Me remains quite a fascinating document for Hepburn fans—a 70-minute whirlwind tour of a career that could have sustained a much longer film, but also the portrait of a screen legend in her last few years. Perhaps her last great performance as well.
(Kanopy Streaming, November 2018) There seems to be no limit to the Ingmar Bergmanesque nature of Ingmar Bergman’s movies—by which I mean that whatever cliché you can conjure up in your mind about European arthouse movies (pretentious, implausible, black-and-white, handful of actors, dull, dour, slow-paced, inconclusive, rural-set, etc, etc, etc.) there’s bound to be a Bergman movie that meets and exceeds those clichés, fully justifying them. Through a Glass Darkly is not dissimilar to Persona in being set in a beach cottage, but it feels considerably duller even as it delves into mental problems, incest, parent abandonment, psychosis and the family lives of writers. It’s the kind of film that downplays whatever assets it has, and then ends on a note fit to make viewers shrug in indifference. The camera rarely moves, and while the actors are good at what they’re given, what they’re given isn’t enough. I’m lucky that this isn’t my first Bergman film, otherwise I may have given up entirely on his oeuvre.
(Kanopy Streaming, November 2018) I’m not particularly receptive to the kind of downbeat intimate drama that is Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, but two things in the film kept me from being completely uninterested: The depiction of Milan, resurging from the post-war years in that charming 1960s energy, and Marcello Mastroianni being always cool (as a writer!) even when playing Don Draper’s early inspiration. Jeanne Moreau is also wonderful, even if her character is in the midst of a full-fledged marital crisis with a fairly obvious destination. Otherwise, well, this is the portrait of a marriage in full disintegration, which isn’t the most cheerful of topics. The premise is made even worse by Antonioni’s typically contemplative style: there is only one exit for the characters (divorce) and the viewers (waiting until the end credits) as well. What must have been a breath of fresh air in 1961 compared to the Hollywood Golden Age has been made and remade endless times since then, so modern viewers may not find anything as fresh as then-contemporary audiences. Dull, slow-moving and depressing, La Notte is a very specific kind of film for a very specific kind of viewer.
(On TV, November 2018) Behold! The only pro-Vietnam war movie ever made! Well, maybe not (although search for “only pro-Vietnam war movie” and see what comes up), but The Green Berets has the rather dubious distinction of being the only major Vietnam film made during the 1960s to take an unabashed stance that the US should go there, and kill as many communists as possible in order to secure a future for the (South) Vietnamese children. No, really, the last scene of the film says exactly that and it takes place on a sunset beach with John Wayne holding a Vietnamese kid’s hand. Anyone who somehow harboured any doubts about Wayne’s political orientations will be set straight after watching this film, which he “directed” and starred in. Wayne, then 58, plays a Colonel who takes it upon himself to show to a cynical left-leaning reporter the true meaning of the US effort in Vietnam. It’s a very special episode of “Let’s justify American imperialism,” and the caricature of the opposing viewpoint is so acute that the propagandistic nature of the film quickly comes into focus. The Green Berets is at its worst when it talks down to its audience in its daddy-knows-best tone, and at its best when it lets go of the brainwashing in order to focus on the war sequences—there’s an attack on a Special Forces camp two-thirds of the way through that’s well-executed. Alas, and this speaks a lot about the film’s lack of dramatic impact beyond its simplistic pro-war message, this climactic sequence happens at least half an hour before the film’s ending, which concludes with a rather lame third-act mission. It’s not the only element of The Green Berets that justifiably earns critical scorn, as the film is crammed with war-movie clichés made even worse by its espoused cause. The only thing I really liked without reservations about the film is George Takei (and his unmistakable voice) showing up for a few minutes in middle of the film. Otherwise: nothing good. It’s amazing, historically speaking, that The Green Berets was released (to some commercial success!) in 1968, as the war was souring on a weekly basis and no one could be fooled by what it purported to show. It does qualify as essential viewing for those interested in the history of American war movies, mostly as a counter-example of just about everything else being made at the time. If nothing else, you can make an argument that it influenced, even though contrarian revulsion, the next crop of Vietnam movies.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) I’m old enough to remember Sliver as a Big Thing back in 1993—almost solely on the basis that this was Sharon Stone’s follow-up to Basic Instinct (1992) and people were wondering if she’d become the Queen of Erotic Thrillers (or something like it) based on how similar both projects sounded and given that both were coming from then-volcanic screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Stone had quite a career afterwards, but Sliver itself sort of disappeared along the way. A critical disaster but a modest commercial success, it’s one of those very-1990s movies that show up on cable channels once in a while to remind contemporary viewers of the aesthetics of the time. They’re certainly not going to talk about plotting, considering that the simplistic story of the film has to do with a single woman moving into a high-rise with strange tenants and an unsolved murder mystery. After discovering that the owner of the building is a pervert who has installed dozens of cameras inside the building to spy on its residents, the story ends with the discovery of a different murderer only because preview audiences hated the original (and quite predictable) ending. Considering this paper-thin incoherent mystery and a Stone performance best characterized as adequate, aesthetics are the only thing left to discuss. (Not, not the sex scenes, which are comparatively tame.) The early 1990s were a weird time for movies, as the industry was beginning a switch to digital editing and post-production capabilities that allowed many more possibilities, many of them showy and awful. Much of Sliver is spent looking at TV screens, and lending that particular visual style to the film. It’s incredibly dated and not (yet) in a good way. As a result, Sliver isn’t much of a fun watch today, an experienced capped with a terrible ending that attempts to break through the fourth wall, only for the fourth wall to bloody the film’s nose.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) I’m not that impressed with Red Sparrow, but it did make me realize that I miss those espionage thrillers that used to be far more prevalent. If recent geopolitical events have taught us something, it’s a fresh reminder that spying is still a thriving business, even between the USA and Russia—and I miss the tone, the excitement, the style of those movies. Red Sparrow is a watered-down substitute for what I’m looking for, although it does have its good moments. Much of the central conceit of the film feels out-of-place in a mainstream Hollywood movie: the idea of agents trained to do anything (well past the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” definition of anything) to get targets to talk. In order to make this premise credible, the film relies on Jennifer Lawrence’s sex appeal which is a … specific choice. (Tastes vary, and so Russia if you’re listening please don’t bother with a Jennifer Lawrence lookalike in my case. OK, thanks.) Poor Lawrence gets mistreated in all kinds of ways here, as the universe of the film demands us to believe in Machiavellian Russian operatives willing to do anything to bring western civilization down, and that includes roughing up poor Jennifer – this is not a film made for titillation. Not that Red Sparrow is a bore—as the machinations of all characters develop and crash into each other, we get down to a cold icy runaway prisoner exchange scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cold-War-era spy thriller, and that’s what I wanted out of Red Sparrow more than the sexual torture, extended chemistry-free romance between Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, or training minutiae that could have been handled in flashback. I could have used less violence and meanness in the overall result, as a similar and just as interesting espionage thriller could have been possible without the gratuitous exploitation. Alas, you get the films you get, not those you wished for. Frankly, I’d rather watch Atomic Blonde again.