(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) Considering that I really disliked the 2010 Tim Burton live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland (for being dull and ugly, mainly, but also useless), I really didn’t have very high expectations for the sequel, and in fact delayed its viewing for more than a year before its impending disappearance from Netflix hurried matters along. To my surprise, I actually liked Alice through the Looking Glass a bit better. But here’s the crucial distinction: I liked the aspects of the sequel that wandered further from the original, and still disliked whatever linked the film to its predecessor. I’ll allow that Mia Wasikowska is fine as the lead actress. Otherwise, though, the farther away the film runs with its time-traveling concept, the better it becomes. Alice through the Looking Glass never breaks out of the increasingly mechanistic nature of 2010s fantasy films, but it does have some fun along the way, playing with grand visuals and peeking at younger (and less ugly) versions of the characters. Heck, even the story is slightly more original than the usual time-travel stuff. Even the chronological theme does harken back to the Lewis Carroll mathematical games in the original novel. It’s when the sequel clings to the original that it becomes much weaker. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is just as annoying as in the first film, Helena Bonham Carter’s character is still grotesque, and what the heck is Anne Hathaway doing with her hands in that role? Pink’s catchy “Just Like Fire” anthem song makes for a nice single illustrating an expensive-looking end credit sequence but has nothing to do with anything in the film, the series or Lewis’ legacy. As for the science-fictional devices, forget it – time-travel here is a story device that explicitly positions itself as taking place in an unchanging timeline. Even the framing device fails to find a satisfying denouement, showing quite a bit of laziness in the story department that fails to properly support the visual aspect of the film. And I won’t talk about the inevitable tendency of modern sequels to over-explain everything in their entire pocket universe. I still don’t think Alice through the Looking Glass is a good movie, but at least it’s better than its predecessor, and it offers a few good moments even as the rest of the film drowns it in market-mandatory mediocrity.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) There are a lot of not-so-good things about the bombastic, almost-chaotic musical Annie: It moves more slowly than it should, has a number of overly cute moments, doesn’t quite know what to do with Carol Burnett as the film’s main antagonist and places a lot of weight on the shoulders of young Aileen Quinn. Aaaand, I don’t care. It’s a perfectly serviceable musical at a time when musicals were considered passé, and its best numbers (“Tomorrow”, “It’s the Hard Knock Life”, “Let’s go to the movies”, “Easy Street”) are memorable, hummable and likable. I like the exaggerated caricatures that fill the movie—but then again I like musicals best when they take on a grander-than-life quality that wallows in their particular nature. In that regard, Annie is nearly perfect: it’s a musical that knows that it’s a musical and never lets up an opportunity to exploit that fact to its fullest. Even the political commentary by way of a Roosevelt caricature meeting Daddy Warbucks is hilarious. Veteran director John Huston has fun with the whole thing, and while it could have been sped up a little bit, the result is fun enough. I’m not even bothering to do a better/worse comparison with the 2013 remake, so distinct are the two movies in my mind.
(On TV, June 2018) You really wouldn’t expect a film about alcoholism to be so … entertaining. And yet here we are with The Lost Weekend, a film about an alcoholic protagonist being offered a weekend out of town to work on his issues … which he refuses in order to go on a three-day bender that leads him to rock-bottom. Surprisingly non-didactic, the script nonetheless carefully maps out the behaviour and coping mechanisms of a functioning alcoholic, before dropping him down as low as he can go: abandonment, debts, imprisonment, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and perhaps self-redemption at the end. And yet the film remains fascinating and engaging throughout, a paean to director Billy Wilder’s ability, amply demonstrated here and elsewhere, in balancing extremely different tones into a cohesive whole. Ray Milland is convincing in the lead role, although Doris Dowling is captivating in a relatively minor barfly role. The filmmaking techniques here are used wisely, but it’s the message of the film that’s interesting: Alcoholism isn’t always shown in a proper light (often used a s a comic device), and The Lost Weekend does manage to find a way to talk about it that still stands the test of time. Hilariously enough, The Lost Weekend was directly inspired by director Wilder’s experience working with noted alcoholic Raymond Chandler during Double Indemnity. I’m not the best audience for the film (I don’t even drink, so it’s not as if I can relate to alcoholism), but I found the film far more interesting than expected, and I find it an entirely acceptable Oscar-winner.
(On TV, June 2018) There’s a weird, weird quality to Laura—a film noir with a dead protagonist overpowering all other characters, a hilariously unprofessional investigation and a literal ticking-clock denouement. And yet director Otto Preminger keeps all the elements in good balance, delivering a film noir that works almost better as a study of obsession than a straight-up murder story. Having actors such a Gene Tierney (suitably entrancing as Laura), Dane Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price (well before he became the prince of horror) also helps. The result is actually kind of delicious, what with the good dialogue, unusual structure (so that you’re not watching the same darn thing) and stylistic touches. Laura amounts to a surprisingly good film, perhaps not a core film noir but certainly adjacent to it.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) Watching classic movies from a list of pre-approved classics is usually one happy discovery after another—after all, those are the movies that have lasted throughout the ages, so they come with a presumption of quality. After a while, you start to wonder if all movies of the time were just as good, or if you’re getting a skewed idea of the period through its best representatives. But then you’re brought back to earth by a film such as Brief Encounter, which feels dull, overlong, anticlimactic and even useless. But our perspective is not that of the time, of course: Back in 1945, Brief Encounter and its tale of unconsummated adulterous passion was seen as a return to normalcy after the wartime years, as a refreshing example of realism, as a courageous take on many British presumptions. It’s subtle, unfulfilling and stoic—and it betrays a ton accumulated and assumed social restrictions. That does not make for exhilarating cinema. But it did bring director David Lean to the forefront of his contemporaries, and earned Brief Encounter an overwhelming number of favourable notices. Don’t ask me what I think, though: I barely stayed awake throughout the film, and would not jump at the chance of seeing it again.
(On TV, June 2018) There is, at first, not a lot to distinguish High Noon from countless other westerns—there’s the hero (getting married), there are villains waiting for their boss. A confrontation is coming to a small Western town, and that seems to be the extent of it. But High Noon does go farther than that—first, by taking place in near-real time, it does create more tension than a less time-compressed film, especially as our retiring hero fails to find allies in confronting the coming threat. It culminates in a classic shootout in which help comes from an unlikely place, and concludes with a highly skeptical look at some of the Western’s most cherished clichés. It helps that rock-solid Gary Cooper (looking a bit older than his prime) stars as a good man forced to take one last stand. Grace Kelly is merely fine as the newlywed bride, but Katy Jurado is more eye-catching as a source of wisdom. Keep your eyes open for smaller performances from Lloyd Bridges and Lee van Cleef. Director Fred Zinnemann keeps things stirring until the climactic shootout, and High Noon has survived admirably well even today.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) If A Hard Day’s Night doesn’t feel that fresh today, it’s largely because it has made a significant mark on pop culture. At the time, the very concept of having a “day in the life” movie featuring rock stars in a thinly fictionalized version of themselves and performing their hit songs was a definite novelty. Today, after the music video boom and bust, it feels rather quaint. Even the Beatles themselves, at that relatively early stage of their career, feel rather wholesome and boyishly charming—it helps that the source of mischief in the film comes from a “clean” older gentleman. Still, what we do get even today is seeing The Beatles goof around for an hour and a half, with various silly comedy bits and performances of their early hits in mid-sixties London. That’s really not bad at all, and Wilfrid Brambell is unexpected fun as a source of chaos. A Hard Day’s Night may not be as fresh as it was upon release, but it has aged well in that that it proposed as new back then has been deeply integrated in today’s pop-culture landscape. It’s worth a look, particularly for Beatles fans.
(On TV, June 2018) Much has been written and said about Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, and nearly all of it supports the assertion that it is a late film-noir classic. I certainly won’t dispute the critical consensus: From its landmark first extended shot, Touch of Evil is the work of a master filmmaker, deftly guiding us through a familiar plot with enough energy and precision to make it look at fresh and new. By the late fifties, film noir was growing aware of its own stylized approach, and Welles had ballooned up to his late-day persona. Both are used effectively, with Welles delivering plenty of visual style as a director, while turning in a remarkably disquieting performance as a deeply corrupt police officer. The film effectively uses actors such as Marlene Dietrich, but somehow convinced itself that Charlton Heston would make a convincing Mexican under layers of makeup. This misstep stands out but does not really damage the film, which is good enough to stand on its own. The sense of palpable desperation certainly associates Touch of Evil with prototypical film noir—it remains a must see for fans of the genre.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) I may not like Michel Gondry’s work all that much, but now that I’m familiar with his approach, each one of his films bothers me less and less. La Science des rèves is pure Gondry in that it mixes his flights of fancy, eccentric characters and low-tech stop-motion special effects in the service of a romantic story. It’s twee and silly and ultimately tragic (maybe) and messy in its small-budget style, but I ended up liking it more than I would have expected. Gael García Bernal stars as a young artist moving from Mexico to Paris and finding that his promised job is far less interesting than expected. Meanwhile, he falls for his next-door neighbour with results complicated by his eccentric personality and his difficulty in distinguishing dreams from reality. The street-level view of Paris is interesting, but not as much as the characters in their flawed, initially off-putting qualities. Charlotte Gainsbourg is appealing as the love interest and the treatment of French/English bilingual dialogue is something I always appreciate, but the star of the show is Gondry’s imagination, endearingly portrayed through cardboard bricolage and stop-motion animation even when (say) tap water could have done just as well. Part of the key in appreciating Gondry is letting go of logic and simply letting the film go where it wants. This goes double for the oneiric The Science of Sleep. It may not outclass Mood Indigo as my favourite Gondry (a very qualified recommendation) but its whimsical quality makes for a welcome departure from the rather more realistic movie fare I’ve been binging lately.
(On TV, June 2018) Unlike many classic Disney movies whose reputation has outstripped their substance (Do no, I repeat, DO NOT try to watch Peter Pan), Bambi is almost exactly what it seems to be: A coming-of-age story involving a deer and other talking animals. Yes, the mom still gets shot by hunters. But everything else is what it is. On the one hand—great, you’re getting your money’s worth. On the other—the film does feel limited at some point, almost as if it was a nature documentary with added spoken interludes. Still, the film is often very cute, charming, and a hit with kids (as long as you get over the mother being shot and all). This was one of Disney’s last feature-length movies for a while: the studio was commandeered during WW2 and had trouble gearing back to long-story production. (Its next feature film from the studio would be Cinderella in 1950.) It enough to make you wonder what could have happened if Disney had been able to control its next few years: Bambi was a departure from the studio’s previous films in its more realistic approach, and we’ll never quite know what could have emerged from that direction.
(In Theatres, June 2018) It’s hard to recapture magic, especially if everyone is expecting it—so it is that while The Incredibles 2 does manage to be in the same vein as its predecessor, it can’t quite reach the same level of quality. Still, it’s fun to spend time with the Parr family again, especially when they inhabit as cool an art deco world as the one they have—seriously, the art design of the film is a thing of wonder, and the film is very pretty to look at. As for plotting, well, maybe the folks at Pixar should let go of their screenwriting manuals to get new ones, because it does feel as if it repeats a lot of recent movies, leaving little in terms of surprise. (Even the film’s surprises are not surprising.) Fortunately, the film does well on execution—the state of the art has evolved significantly since the first Incredibles, and the result is up to anything else coming out of Pixar. Script-wise, it seems to me that the film took a step back from elements of the first film (such as discovering Jack-Jack’s powers) and doesn’t have as much to go on after resolving so many prior conflicts—the best we have is Helen going off on her own and Bob being resentful, which is something but not much. Still, I had a pretty good time watching The Incredibles 2, and it will make a perfectly acceptable companion in the inevitable double-feature Blu-ray case.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) The problem with second seasons of high-concept shows is that you don’t quite have the same element of surprise in reserve. In Westworld’s case, it means that the dizzying timeline tricks and character revelations of the first seasons can’t be exactly reproduced, and that the show has to work within known parameters. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t try to keep things interesting. Set in the few days immediately after Season 1, this second series follows characters as they react to the events of the first season, revealing new secrets along the way and digging even deeper in mind-twisting questions about personalities and predetermination. Thanks to the endless wonders of flashbacks, simulations and body/mind separation, nearly the entire cast is back (yes, even those confirmed dead), meaning that the solid acting talents of the series are once more on display. Tessa Thompson gets a deservedly more prominent role, while Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Rachel Lee Evans all keep on doing what they did so well the first time around. While I was initially disappointed by the series’ renewed focus on the park (I expected the hosts to escape in-between seasons), the park’s uncovered secrets made things even more interesting. And while this second season is straightforward about its dual-timeline structure, it does experiment with storytelling in focusing certain episodes on specific characters (some of them peripherals) and taking trips in other theme park areas to hilarious parallel effect. My pick for most-improved character goes to Lee Sizemore, formerly an annoying writer here transformed into the incarnation of everything he wished for (including a late empathy boost for his own creations) in a neat commentary on the relationship between creator and characters. Meanwhile, the season’s best episodes (setting aside the season finale that features so many character deaths that it feels obliged to have a few resurrections as well) has to be the eighth, in which a relatively unsophisticated character discovers the true nature of his world in a mostly self-contained episode that spans decades of series history. There is, once again, a lot of material to digest in Westworld—the storytelling is challenging, the themes are explored to the point of pretentiousness, and the science-fiction devices used in generally compelling fashion. It all amounts to solid TV—worth following as it airs, episode after episode.
(On TV, June 2018) Even though Hitchcock worked steadily throughout the film-noir period, most of his movies aren’t as closely associated with the subgenre as you’d think: Hitchcock was his own subgenre, and his preoccupations were usually not those of classic film noir. But some Hitchcock movies often approach noir, and Shadow of a Doubt (along with Strangers on a Train) is often mentioned in that vein. I’d argue that the film was closer to the paranoid domestic thrillers of the 1940s (alongside Rebecca and Gaslight), but no matter the subclassification, Shadow of a Doubt remains a decent entry in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. It’s about a teenage girl who comes to suspect that her uncle, newly arrived as a house guest, is a serial killer. She’s unsurprisingly right, of course, and much of the film’s last act is spent surviving her uncle’s murderous plans. It’s a decent enough film, although perhaps one of Hitchcock’s least surprising ones. Still, his mastery of suspense is better than any inclination toward surprise, and the results speak for itself. Much of the plot was later reused and pushed to an extreme conclusion in Park Chan-wook’s far more disquieting Stoker (2013).
(On TV, June 2018) Like many, I like film noir a lot, and Double Indemnity is like mainlining a strong hit of the stuff. Pure undiluted deliciousness, with black-and-white cinematography, unusual investigator, femme fatale, crackling dialogue, strong narration and bleak outlook. Here, the focus on insurance agents trying to figure out a murder mystery is unusual enough to be interesting, while the Los Angeles setting is an instant classic. Fred MacMurray is a great anti-hero (morally flawed, but almost unexplainably likable along the way), Barbara Stanwyck is dangerously alluring and Edward G. Robinson is the moral anchor of the film. Double Indemnity does have that moment-to-moment watching compulsion that great movies have—whether it’s the details of an insurance firm, dialogue along the lines of the classic “There’s a speed limit in this state” exchange, a trip at the grocery store, or the careful composition of a noir film before they even had realized that there was a film noir genre. Double Indemnity is absorbing viewing, and a clear success for director Billy Wilder, gifted with a Raymond Chandler script from a James M. Cain novel.
(On TV, June 2018) Never ask me to choose between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, because you’re going to see the Tramp being thrown overboard. Chaplin’s highs are higher (The Great Dictator and Modern Times outclass nearly everything that Keaton has done), but for a consistent laugh-for-laugh basis, Keaton is the one I prefer. This is a weird thing to talk about in discussing The General, because compared to many of Keaton’s features (say, Steamboat Bill Jr. and Sherlock Jr.), it’s a far less funny film: the jokes aren’t that prevalent, and Keaton gets less to do on a physical comedy basis. But The General proves that Keaton could deliver a sustained feature-length picture that held together as a story rather than a series of gags: Here we have a Civil-War-era train engineer who, through a set of circumstances, finds himself chasing another train across enemy lines to retrieve his beloved, and then being chased back by another train. The film’s standout sequence is a shot in which an actual multi-ton train crashes down a river when it tries crossing a burning bridge—and it was shot for real, with no miniatures whatsoever. Recognized as the single most expensive silent movie shot (costing roughly half a million in today’s dollars), it’s a spectacular piece of cinema even ninety-some years later. The film itself isn’t as spectacular, but the hunter/hunted structure works well (and doesn’t have any later imitators) and there is a very funny joke late in the film when the rescued damsel decides to be picky about which bit of wood to put in the train furnace. The General is still well worth a look—but do try to find a high-quality version of the film in order to enjoy the details of the picture.