(On DVD, January 2018) The culmination of the Man-with-no-name trilogy is spectacular, grandiose and … a bit too much. While the original film clocked in at 90 minutes, The Good the Bad and the Ugly takes thirty minutes before even introducing its three main characters. Painting with a far more ambitious brush, this instalment tackles war drama and a much grander scale, but somewhat confusingly goes back in time for a prequel. But who cares when Clint Eastwood is still iconic as the nameless “Good” protagonist, while Lee van Cleef still steals the show as the outright “Bad” protagonist, with Eli Wallach’s “Ugly” wildcard bouncing between the two. It’s the apotheosis of the Spaghetti Western genre, especially when Errico Morrcone’s iconic wah-wah-waaa theme kicks in. At the same time, it does feel like a lot. It’s fun to watch, but a certain ennui sets in when it becomes obvious that the film will not hurry from one set piece to another. Writer/director Sergio Leone’s style is a Leone-ish as it gets here, with careful editing and close-ups doing much of the work in creating suspense. An expansive cap to a remarkable trilogy, The Good the Bad and the Ugly doesn’t leave viewers hungering for more.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) Marx Brothers vehicle A Day at the Races, second in their MGM line-up, does feel a lot like the previous A Night at the Opera—individual set pieces for the Brothers, matronly role for Margaret Dumont, romantic subplot for the non-comedians Maureen O’Sullivan and Allan Jones, large-scale conclusion in a very public setting … it’s a formula, but it works even when it’s not as effective. Once again, I’m far more partial to Groucho’s absurdist repartee than Harpo’s silent act, but the result is decently funny, with a few highlights along the way: The musical numbers are actually pretty good (including pulling a harp out of a destroyed piano), even if the blackface sequence is hard to enjoy now despite the good rhythm of the song. Most of the comedy bits drag on a touch too long (or definitely too long for the “ice cream” sequence) but the charm of the Brothers usually make up for it. A Day at the Races isn’t quite as good as some of the previous Marx films, but it’s still watchable enough today.
(Second viewing, On TV, January 2018) I saw Judge Dredd in theatres back in 1995, accompanied by a good friend who had already seen the movie and was looking forward to my “wow” reaction at the cityscape revealed early in the film. My reaction to it then is pretty much my reaction to it now—the first half of the film has some worthwhile world building before disintegrating in a forgettable Sylvester Stallone action film—and very little of the movie has anything to do with the original Judge Dredd comic book. (But that’s why we got Dredd in 2012.) Another viewing twenty years later highlights the clumsiness of the adaptation attempt—the film isn’t smart enough to execute the satirical vision of the Dredd comic book, so it comes across as silly most of the time. Still, there is some effort here in trying to create a future (as dark and nonsensical as it can be) and it’s that effort that sustains the film during its first act, and then again at the beginning of its third. Otherwise, though, don’t hope for much. Stallone is his humourless self here (not contributing in the slightest in the film’s satirical potential), while Armand Assante does his best as a featureless antagonist and Rob Schneider is intentionally annoying as a sidekick. Diane Lane and Joan Chen aren’t too bad, though, but that’s a relative assessment when the plot has so little use for them beyond the obvious. We now know that the production of the film was troubled by an ongoing argument between Stallone and director Danny Cannon, each of them pulling in a different direction. The result, sadly, is still with us—worth a look for some of the production values, but definitely not as a cohesive science-fiction film and even less so as a Dredd adaptation.
Action, judge-dredd-1995, 1995, 2018-01-03
(On Cable TV, January 2018) My knowledge of silent movies is cursory, and so Nosferatu (1922) is now the oldest movie I have ever seen so far, beating out 1925’s The Lost World by three years. It certainly looks and feels old—while, by the late thirties, movies had already acquired much of the grammar they’re using today, this 1922 effort feels rougher. Overacting is almost de rigueur in a silent film with bad image quality, and the intercutting of text and action doesn’t flow very well. Still, the genre origins of Nosferatu (which adapts the broad strokes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to a point where copies of the film were ordered destroyed after a lawsuit) means that there is a story to follow, and a few thrills along the way—the film may be close to a hundred years old by now, but seeing Nosferatu (legendarily played by Max Schrek) rise from his coffin, plank-straight, is still effective even now. Fans of Dracula will focus on the numerous deviations from the book, but the film is still good for just a bit more than historical interest. A film with a bizarre, baroque history, Nosferatu is now in the public domain which explains why it’s freely available online … and often shown by budget-conscious TV stations. Long may it continue to haunt nighttime programming.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) So, it’s January first and what better way to start the movie-seeing year than with the latest instalment of the reliably ludicrous Fast and the Furious franchise? The Fate of the Furious doubles down on the increasing madness of the series, which means that the film starts with a street race in which the protagonist’s vehicle catches fire well before the finishing line and ends with a face-off between fast cars and a nuclear submarine. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. Once again, we’re back in the world of high-end cyber-espionage, with street racers saving the world through various heroics. There are even plot twists, what with series protagonist Vin Diesel flirting with the dark side by dint of manipulation. The character motivations don’t always make sense, the action beats are far-fetched and the plot is an excuse to get from one set piece to another, but that’s the price to pay for seeing Jason Statham joining the good guys, spectacular action sequences and enough self-assured movie mayhem to remind us why this mix of comedy, action and outright absurdity works so well. The most interesting sequence comes midway through the movie, as the newest self-driving technologies and the ever-rising possibilities of hacking combine to make New York a playground for vehicular mayhem, all the way to making cars rains down from above. Great stuff, and a series highlight. Otherwise, what you get is what you’ve been getting since the series pivot Fast Five: attractive actors, beautiful cars, big dumb (but savvy) action, globe-spanning locations, a focus on family that now approaches self-parody and enough dangling threads that sequels aren’t just possible, but expected. (Although the most recent news out of the franchise are of feuds that don’t bode well for the entire cast returning.) I’ve been a fan of the franchise since the very first one (although the second film sorely tested my faith) and The Fate of the Furious hasn’t changed my mind. Bring on Fast Nine…
(On Cable TV, December 2017) Nearly twenty years ago, I had the misfortune of catching a free advance screening of Very Bad Things, a film so vile in its black humour that even a certain competency of execution couldn’t shake the stomach-churning reprehensibility of its subject matter. I bring it up because, for a horrifying moment, Rough Night seemed to be headed in more or less the same distaff direction, as a group of bachelorettes accidentally kill what they think is a male stripper and then try to cover up the crime. Despite the combined comic talents and good looks of comediennes such as Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer and Zoë Kravitz, the film seems intent of revisiting the same awful places—how are you ever going to get laughs out of that situation, with a guy bleeding to death on the floor? Fortunately, writer/director Lucia Aniello isn’t quite so sadistic and misanthropic, and as Rough Night advances, it ends up clarifying that the death was actually preemptive self-defence and so we can all have a good laugh about it. Whew. I have no qualms blowing part of the film’s third act revelations in those circumstances, as knowing how it turns out may help a few viewers make it through the film’s middle section. It will help that the actors are doing what they do best—Jillian Bell is the flamboyant centre of attraction, while Kate McKinnon brings a recognizable dose of absurdity to an eccentric character. Scarlett Johansson chooses to play her character as the level-headed one. In smaller roles, Demi Moore and Ty Burrell show up a sex-crazed neighbours. While the film does suffer from the usual excesses of contemporary R-rated comedies (far too much profanity substituting for wit or actual comedy) and loses itself in scattered subplots that could have been tightened up, my opinion of Rough Night at the end is far more positive than it would have been at the dull start or the far-too-violent middle. As an entry in the “girl comedies can be R-rated” subgenre that sprung up in the wake of Bridesmaid, it’s passable but forgettable.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) While Alfred Hitchcock remains an essential director even decades after his death, his individual films haven’t all aged as gracefully, and Marnie seems to have been more damaged than most by the passing of time. Part of it has to do with the absurdity of its premise; parts of it have to do with evolving social standards; parts of it have to do with now-outdated filmmaking. In narrative terms, Marnie not only piles on bits of silliness as premises, but also pushes the “psychologically damaged protagonist” angle pretty hard, with childhood trauma explaining aberrant behaviours in ways that haven’t been convincing in decades. But that pales in comparison to the ways the characters treat each other, with a marital rape sequence that pretty much kills any sympathy for anyone in the movie. Then there’s the atrocious has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed horse sequence in which a flurry of disconnected shots can’t quite convince us of a horse-riding accident. Take all of that (and a score of smaller annoyances), blend together and the result is barely palatable. While there is some coolness to seeing Sean Connery in a Hitchcock film (playing a much harder version of even his Bond persona), and Hitchcock is trying something more blatantly stylistic here, the result seems disjointed and unlikable even as a dark thriller. Tippi Hedren stars as the ice blonde, although Diane Baker is more striking as the brunette foil. Opinions differ as to what is Hitchcock’s best period (I’ll put my chips on 1954–1959), but as far as I’m concerned, Marnie is out of it.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I remember seeing at least a good chunk of The Birds as a kid, but I’m surprised to find out, upon revisiting it, that I like it far less than I’d thought. Oh, the basics of the movie are there: the suspense sequences involving the birds themselves are strong, and the dread of the film’s second half is still striking. Director Alfred Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense remains unquestionable, and it’s a testament to his skill that the film remains effective even when the scenes don’t make much sense from a logical perspective. You can recognize in this film the prototype for two or three subsequent generations of horror movies, even when these strike out “birds” for “zombies” in their scripts. Where The Birds doesn’t work as well is when it’s considered as a complete movie. The lack of an ending is as troubling as it’s meant to be, but it doesn’t offer much closure. It’s even worse when considering that the first half of the film focuses heavily on a romance (dramatic or comic remains open to consideration) only to trash that subplot once the birds attack and never really come back to it. This is all intentional—but even intentional frustration remains frustration. While The Birds may remain distinctive even today, it doesn’t feel finished from a narrative perspective. Even arguing that it’s not the point of the film isn’t much comfort. It’s true that much of what made The Birds special back then is now commonplace today: The electronic soundtrack and special effects are either substandard or invisible by today’s standards. Fans of the film will note that HBO’s The Girl recreates the making of The Birds in service of an effective suspense thriller in which Hitchcock is an unrepentant sexual harasser toward Tippi Hedren. Speaking of which, Hedren is as good as it gets as the icy blonde protagonist, while Rod Taylor is effective as the square-jawed protagonist. (If icy blondes aren’t your thing, then Suzanne Pleshette is the brunette for you). But even with flaws, The Birds remains an interesting film—the Hitchcock touch is obvious, and its lack of narrative satisfaction becomes daring at a time when everything is neatly wrapped up for mass consumption.
(On TV, December 2017) I’ve always liked James Stewart, but after the one-two combination of The Shop around the Corner and It’s a Wonderful Life, he has now ascended even higher in my own pantheon of actors. It’s hard to resist the charms of his performance in It’s a Wonderful Life, as central as he is to the film’s success. After all, on paper it sounds like a snore: A man being shown (by an angel, no less) the impact of his life? Not promising. And yet, after a rough start that goes all-in on divine intervention, the magic starts happening as we follow Stewart’s character as he ages and develops. Writer/director Frank Capra was a veteran at the time of the film’s production and his skill is evident throughout. It’s a Wonderful Life has that elusive scene-to-scene watchability, as we can’t resist wanting to know what will happen next, even though we can certainly guess the outline of the plot before it happens. Much has been said about the film’s inspirational quality, and despite my skepticism the film does deliver on these promises—so much so that, midway through the movie, I paused it and made a difficult (but important) phone call that I’d been putting off for a while. All part of trying to measure up to James Stewart’s character. While I have issues with many of the film’s more maudlin moments (and suspect that I’m opposed to a few of its major themes), I’m rather pleased to report that It’s a Wonderful Life worked as well on me as it worked on several generations so far. Far from aging, it has become quite an amazing time capsule. Plus, hey, James Stewart.
(On DVD, December 2017) The best thing about For a Few Dollars More in following up A Fistful of Dollars is adding Lee van Cleef as a foil to Clint Eastwood’s Man with no Name. Eastwood is terrific, of course, but van Cleef is just as effective in his own way, adding tension and even more spectacular machismo to this sequel (the sequence in which they duel over a hat is quite good). The budget also seems more generous, allowing for a more fully realized version of a Western shot in Spain by an Italian crew. Sergio Leone’s direction remains just as effective, but seem more polished than in the previous film. It helps that the script is somewhat more complex than the previous film, allowing for more than a simple stranger-comes-to-town paradigm. The climax works well, and the watch motif adds another layer to the film. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s score and you’ve got a strong follow-up to the original western, and a stepping stone to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I really wasn’t expecting much from Yankee Doodle Dandy other than checking off a list of classic movies I should see, so imagine my surprise when I started to be honestly engaged in the film. Initially drawn in by the time-capsule aspect of the film (as a 1942 framing device leads us to late 1800s vaudeville, and then the birth of Hollywood musicals), I really started enjoying myself in-between the honestly funny comic routines inspired by state work and the birth of American musical movies. Academy Award-winner James Cagney (looking like a young Anthony Hopkins?) shows some serious skills in giving life to actor/composer/dancer George M. Cohan through some sixty-some years. By the time the film ends, we’ve been given front-row seats to a highly dramatized depiction of the evolution of American entertainment from theatre to movies, as well as a full biography ending with a striking piece of palatable pro-American patriotism both in topic matter and presentation. The re-creation of lavish stage spectacles is striking, many of the tunes are toe-tapping good and the film remains sporadically very funny even now. Add to that some directorial flourishes from Michael Curtiz (most notably a sequence charting the evolution of Cohan’s Broadway shows) and you’ve got the makings of an unexpected great movie that has appreciated in the seventy-five years since its release. I’ve been watching more older movies lately, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is the kind of happy discovery that will keep me going deeper into the archives.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) If Going in Style feels familiar from the first few moments, it’s not just your imagination: there’s been a glut of “old guys going wild” movies in the past half-decade, and they often feature the same actors. Alan Arkin can play old crusties like the best of them, and he almost reprises his The Stand-Up Guys character here to good effect. Morgan Freeman also reprises another character (from Last Vegas), while Michael Caine regrettably doesn’t go full Harry Brown as a pensioner seeking revenge. This is all very familiar stuff, going back to the idea that Hollywood, having maintained those great actor personas for decades, would rather reprise them (with laughter) than dare anything new. Still, under Zach Braff’s direction, Going in Style may be generic stuff but it’s well-made generic stuff. Even knowing where it’s going, the film plays at a pleasant rhythm, the expected set-pieces all falling into place in a comforting rhythm. The actors know what they’re doing, the audience know what they’re doing, and the critique of the excesses of modern American society is carefully kept to a merest whisper as so not to give anyone any ideas. Going in Style is as average as any other Hollywood release these days, but it gets back most of its points on actor appeal and rhythm of execution.
(On DVD, December 2017) Iconism doesn’t get any starker than seeing Clint Eastwood anchor this Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western in A Fistful of Dollars. As “The Man With No Name” walks into town to drive an archetypical plot, this is as stripped-down a western as you can find. There’s only the laconic hero, villains to be vanquished and innocents to be protected. A measly budget led to a laser-like focus on the film’s core strength, bolstered by Leone’s impeccably sense of style and Eastwood’s star-making performance. It certainly works as an exercise in machismo, explaining its enduring popularity even today. Numerous set-pieces help develop Eastwood’s legend as much as his character, including an improbable but strong climax featuring bulletproof armour. Leone’s sense of direction is distinctive even without much of a budget at his disposal, grand landscape shots eventually leading to expressive close-ups that have now passed into parody. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s now-familiar score (although without the “wah-wah-waaah” flourish, only present in the third film in the series) and you’ve got the making of a genre classic. It’s rough and crude, but focused and strong.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My issues with big Hollywood musicals (especially in their classic pre-seventies period) are simple. They feel interminable, often because (being frequently adapted from endless Broadway musicals) they take narrative breaks during their songs. The song starts and unless it’s a toe-tapper, it’s just as possible to go get a snack and come back in time for the conclusion of the song, at which point nothing will have changed. When the musical is good, it usually gets better toward the end as there is (finally!) some dramatic movement. So it is that much of My Fair Lady is underwhelming, especially at first. The Pygmalion plot being presented piece by piece, we frequently have to stop in order to let the characters have their say and present themselves. Audrey Hepburn is cuteness personified as a coarse commoner being groomed into becoming a passable member of London’s high society, while Rex Harrison is his own brand of fun as a highly self-confident phonetics professor. The film’s big insight that manners make the woman is cogently put, but it does take a while to get there. The film does get better midway through, as the comedy of manners training finally takes off and the female lead is tested in her introduction to high society. The subplot about her family does drag, and My Fair Lady becomes less interesting the more it remembers that it had to deliver a romance in addition to the class comedy. But ultimately, the charm of the lead actors eventually wins out on the way to a predictable conclusion. The film can be watched today and only feel slightly stuffy—the period setting does help a lot in breaking the film out of its production date. While I’m reasonably satisfied with the end result, I still wish it would have been shorter.
(In Korean with French Subtitles, On TV, December 2017) I’m writing this review some time after seeing The Good, the Bad, the Weird, having had the time to catch up on its inspiration The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in the meantime. Spaghetti Western here leads to Kimchi Western (director Kim Jee-woon’s own expression) as we get a horse,-trains-and-motorcycles 1930s adventure across the Manchurian Steppe during the Japanese occupation. If that sounds like an unusual blend of intriguing elements, then sit down and appreciate the show—The Good, the Bad, the Weird is deliberately unlike anything else, and the trip is worth the time. Jee-woon is a hyperactive kind of director, and so his take on western movies jumps and shoots and races furiously across the desert, set-pieces following each other in a madcap race that will make viewers as exhausted at the title characters. Much of it works well, but not all. I’m not much of a fan of “the weird” (much as I wasn’t a fan of “the ugly”), although Lee Byung-hun is great as “The Bad” and Jung Woo-Sung is also quite likable as “The Good.” The kinetic action set-pieces are exceptionally well-made, and updating the western setting to the 1930s allows for the use of motorcycles alongside more traditional western elements. As a curiosity, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a fine discovery. I’m not entirely convinced that the film is as good when stripped of its novelty element—the dramatic beats are familiar, the lulls in-between the set-pieces are considerable and I’m not sure that the film best maximizes the elements at its disposal. Still, it is fun to watch and unusual to contemplate. If this is what we’re going to get in an increasingly globalized entertainment marketplace, then I’m all for it.