(In French, On Cable TV, October 2018) The history of mutinies in the US Navy is a very short one, making The Caine Mutiny an even more interesting depiction of sailors rebelling against their captain. Adapted from the Herman Wouk novel, this film steadily cranks up the pressure as crewmembers of the Cain grow increasingly concerned with the mental stability of their commanding officer. (He’s played by none other than Humphrey Bogart, in a somewhat atypical role as a weak and cowering character.) It culminates in mutiny … but the film has quite a bit longer to go before being over, and it’s that third act that proves perhaps the most interesting portion of the film. Because after the mutiny comes the reckoning, as our rebellious protagonists face martial court for their actions. That’s when a lawyer (ably played by Miguel Ferrer) takes care of the mutineers, long enough to get them a fair or suspended sentence but also to deliver a terrific post-judgment speech explaining in detail how much he loathes them for what they’ve done. The Caine Mutiny also manages a terrific overturning of familiar expectations by making a semi-villain (or at least a weakling) out of its novelist character. Fictional writers being written by real writers usually means that most writers in any kind of novel/movie are usually semi-virtuous canny observers. Not here, as Wouk avatar Fred MacMurray turns out to be a coward and pointed out as such. Such overturning of expectations makes the film as good as it is, pointing out that mutinies aren’t necessarily admirable or glorious even when there’s a reasonable doubt of their necessity. The Caine Mutiny is not a short film, but it does put us on the bridge during a very tense situation, and then plays out the consequences.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) Considering that Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh’s Seal is often cited (not always favourably) as being the quintessential European art-house film, I approached the film with some caution. I don’t particularly like the kind of film that The Seventh Seal is said to typify, and was expecting the worst and the dullest. Considering these expectations, I was pleasantly surprised … but not much. Nor by much. But the film is rather more amusing than expected—absurd, profound, visually inventive at times but especially funnier in a dark fashion. Needless to say, “better than expected” isn’t much of a recommendation—I still found it long, meandering, atonal and trying, but it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared. This doesn’t quite translate into a recommendation, but no matter—The Seventh Seal’s reputation in history is secure, and I’m not going to make much of a dent in it … nor will I add much more to this review.
(On TV, October 2018) The popular depiction of the WW2 French Resistance is usually heroic, portraying them as virtuous stalwart fighters against the occupying Nazi regime. But the reality wasn’t so rosy nor clear-cut, and writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville knew better than most, having witnessed it firsthand. So when he tackled the topic in L’armée des ombres, he did so with a complete lack of romanticism. The French Resistance here is made of anti-heroes, cruel and doomed at the same time. It’s a rough business, and death is seldom clean. Their activities are sordid, set against ugly backdrops and the constant threats of betrayal from fellow Frenchmen. There are a few heroics, but they almost come across as accidents with terrible consequences. A sombre and anti-glamorous cinematography further reinforces the intended realism of the film. L’armée des ombres is certainly not a pleasant viewing experience, but it does offer a different view of the Resistance, something that usually remains an unexamined plot device in other, lesser movies.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Despite Hollywood’s supposedly left-leaning tendencies, it can be counted upon to deliver, year after year, a reliable stream of pro-war statements wrapped in the American flag, family values and unquestioned imperialism. The latest entry in the subgenre is 12 Strong, which heads back to the woolly post-9/11 days when the United States boldly invaded Afghanistan half a world away. Such initial force projection isn’t easy, and so the first boots on the ground belong to Special Forces, leading the charge that more conventional military troops would later follow. Afghanistan is not an easy country to invade, and much of 12 Strong portrays the adaptations of the American soldiers as the CIA sets up factions against each other. Our protagonists eventually take up horses as the only workable transportation in the country, leading to a somewhat surreal scene featuring a 21st-century cavalry charge. Surprisingly enough, 12 Strong ends with everyone making it back home against overwhelming odds, marking a rather pleasant change of pace given the number of movies focusing on recent American military disasters with few survivors. This is not a particularly deep film—there is practically not introspection here about the wisdom of invading other countries, nor about the looming quagmire that would sweep up American (and Canadian!) troops over there for almost two decades. The dramatic arcs of the film play on familiar threads: family, safety, and bonds between men under combat. Only the cavalry aspect of the film distinguishes it from so many other similar efforts. Still, the film is a decently entertaining watch under Nicolai Fuglsig’s direction. It does help that it features terrific actors: in between Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena and William Fichner, the cast is a bit too good for the limited material, but they do give it a dramatic heft. It’s too long for its own good, and even then doesn’t quite manage to flesh out its characterization. But it does come alive in battle scenes, and documents an underappreciated facet of the Afghan invasion. At times, 12 Strong feels like a throwback to the war-is-an-adventure school of filmmaking, but that’s a nice change of pace from the overly ponderous war movies of late.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Like many silent films, director Victor Sjöström’s Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) is not an easy watch. It feels overlong, overacted, melodramatic and yet decidedly played in low-key compared to later efforts. Its distance from modern viewers is further lengthened by the fact it’s coming from Sweden, with entirely different codes and assumptions. Still, it does have something interesting to say, and its depiction of horror elements being used in the service of a drama-driven story. The plot is not linear (to the point of being a bit of a challenge to follow if you’re expecting the typical silent-movie narrative structure) and the special effects are effective. Further adding to the historical importance is the oft-cited influence of the film on that other significant Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend The Phantom Carriage to just anyone – budding film historians, especially with a specialty in horror cinema, will best appreciate the result.
(In French, On TV, October 2018) The sequel to 1978’s Any Which Way but Loose once again features Clint Eastwood as a brawler looking for love (Sondra Locke, obviously) alongside his pet chimpanzee. As with its prequel, Any Which Way You Can also proves that Eastwood’s talent for comedy is … limited. Once again, the film is a comedy largely because it’s not a drama—it plays with incongruous elements, features Eastwood in a role when he can be cheered for punching people in the face and fighting Nazi bikers. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this sequel is that it ends up giving to its protagonist what the original denied: The girl and the fighting victory. Whether this is a reflection of giving fans what they wanted or ushering the nicer, kinder, more entertainment-driven 1980s is a matter of debate, but it does make the sequel more conventional, more satisfying and somehow less distinctive. Any Which Way You Can is worth seeing if you’ve seen the first film or are an unconditional Eastwood (or Locke) fan, otherwise it’s not particularly memorable.
(On TV, October 2018) I wasn’t expecting much from mid-1960s comedy How to Steal a Million except that it starred Audrey Hepburn, but I quickly grew charmed by the result. Hepburn plays the daughter of an art counterfeiter, trying her best to avoid her father’s handiwork from being discovered by appraisal experts. To this end, she befriends a burglar and quickly finds herself planning a museum heist. The plot is good enough to allow Hepburn to play her ingenue best (in her mid-thirties!), bouncing off Peter O’Toole’s charm and the fatherly attention of Hugh Griffith. Hepburn being her usual lovable self, the film unfolds at a pleasantly breezy pace, once again reuniting her with Paris and haute couture. It’s not necessarily one of Hepburn’s best movies, but she delivers here a quintessential performance: Funny, charming, intensely likable and more than cute. As a result, How to Steal a Million is the kind of film that isn’t necessarily listed as an essential 1960s film but packs a lot of entertainment. It’s perhaps best approached as a happy discovery.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) After decades of stellar character roles, it seems fitting that Gary Oldman would win his first Oscar for playing none other than Winston Churchill in a biographical film. Focused on the crucial months during which England found itself alone (well, alone with its globe-spanning empire) against the Nazis, Darkest Hour becomes a political thriller in which Churchill had to manoeuvre between the population and the Nazi-appeasing politicians. It’s fact-based without being entirely factual (that wonderful scene about Churchill riding the underground—never happened) yet made with such restraint that we’re led to imbue more credibility to the film than we should. There’s another word for it, of course, and that mythmaking: a deliberate attempt to further shape Churchill’s stature as the English bulldog, providing further Britannia Triumphant material. (There’s been a surprising number of those lately, from King Arthur to the newest iterations of James Bond focused on home territory—I’m thinking there’s a link with Brexit, but I’m not sure what it is yet.) Director Joe Wright seems in his element here, with a high-stakes historical drama and plenty of opportunities for respectable filmmaking. It’s not a bad movie despite the uncomfortable feeling of being manipulated through a very selective vision of history. To be fair, Oldman is very good, and Darkest Hour does manage to inject a lot of drama into historical events. It could have been worse, and if it did get Oldman a much-deserved body-of-work Oscar, then why not?
(In French, On TV, October 2018) Ew. But also: What was I expecting? Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is notorious as a particularly vile piece of sex/gore exploitation filmmaking, and its first sequel (of three) Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks is very much in the same vein. Yes, there is a lot of nudity—star Dyanne Thorne has a compelling presence in or out of clothes. Alas, this sole redeeming feature is more than sunk by the nastiness of the rest of the film, during which gory deaths manifests itself through torture, genital mutilation, outright slavery, forced surgery and the likes. Perhaps worse yet is the film’s gleefully sadistic atmosphere: don’t go looking for sympathetic characters or anything feeling like a happy ending, because this is not that kind of film and the best we can hope is the greater evil being defeated by the slightly lesser evil. Even as a jaded horror viewer, I felt queasy during much of Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks—I have trouble imagining anyone actually wanting to be associated with this film. And yet, and yet, I’m almost certain that sometime in the future, I will succumb and try watching the other films in the series. Just to see if they’re any better. The curse of curiosity…
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Derivatives of Groundhog Day’s time-loop premise are now commonplace, and it takes a little bit more to avoid charges of being derivative. Happily, Happy Death Day eventually gets there: A comedic horror take on the reliving-a-day idea, it’s a film that eventually finds its groove and runs with it. It doesn’t start that promisingly, what with a college student waking up next to a one-night stand and going through a school day (that happens to be her birthday) before being brutally murdered … and starting over again. The expected scenes of time-loop movies are there, but there is a sharp edge to the horror element as our protagonist gets murdered time and time again. While the first half-hour of the film is a bit perfunctory, the film eventually improves, roughly at the same time as we gain an appreciation the lead actress. Jessica Rothe doesn’t have much name recognition, but this is going to change with her performance here, as she goes from an obnoxious sorority girl to a likable protagonist over the first half of the film and then keeps our interest for the remainder of the story. The “Confident” song montage is when the film finally comes into focus. A dark comic sense of humour from director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell certainly helps keep things interesting despite the film’s low-budget. Unhappily, the film eventually starts ignoring its own plot points (not much is made of the protagonist becoming weaker throughout the loops) but the ride is a fun one despite some third-act weirdness. I ended up liking Happy Death Day more than I thought at the beginning, and even more than I thought after twenty minutes of it. Even as a Groundhog Day derivative, it’s actually worth a look.
(In French, On TV, October 2018) The premise of the OSS 117 series is strange but simple: adapt older French spy novels as comedies by repurposing their plot and pushing their sexist and racist content to an absurd degree. It wouldn’t work if Jean Dujardin wasn’t headlining the cast, and in fact it works markedly less well in OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus than in the first film of the series. It turns out that even when exaggerated for comic purposes, sexist and racism aren’t that funny … and the film doesn’t have much more in its sleeve to get viewers laughing. Dujardin does have the comic timing (and the square-jawed looks) to take the parochialism into comic territory, but there the jokes fall flat as being irritating and repetitive. It’s no surprise if the female characters, played by Louise Monot and Reem Kherici, are far more likable than the misogynistic hero. Director Michel Hazanavicius replicates the original’s self-consciously old-fashioned filmmaking, but he can’t strike gold twice, and the film often becomes an ordeal rather than an enjoyable parody piece. At best, OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus is best seen right after the original film, but I expect that the growing exasperation with the character is liable to grow even worse when they’re watched back-to-back. Too bad, because there’s a kernel of interest here that could have been developed better.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Hollywood has a fixation on making inspiring movies out of tragedies, and firefighter drama Only the Brave pushes this habit to the limit, leaving out a few less-savoury details along the way. The real events on which this film is based (and Only the Brave does itself a disservice by not stating this up-front) are tragic: nineteen close-knit firemen belonging to the fire crew of Prescott, AZ, died while fighting a brushfire. What the film insists on doing is to show the dedication, courage and tenacity of the doomed men, their relationships to be extinguished with their spouses, and so on. Everybody is ennobled in death, and the firefighters here are no exception. It’s a familiar script in that regard. What makes the film work beyond the mournful homage is in its execution from visually-strong director Joseph Kosinski. A solid cast headlines the film, with Josh Brolin as the chief leading the men in danger, and capable actors such as Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly and Andie MacDowell in supporting roles. The way the firefights are shown is also quite compelling—for a medium-budgeted film, Only the Brave has some exceptional special effects (in daytime, outside, wide-screen) to portray men fighting fires in dangerous circumstances. It’s almost certainly the best firefighter film since Backdraft and its earnestness does manage to keep the film going even when it’s not being subtle about what it’s doing. The film does end at the right moment, though: again, the real-life story had a very unpleasant epilogue, with the widows of some of the dead men having to fight the town council to secure benefits. That part is nowhere in Only the Brave, but then again some things are beyond Hollywood’s ability to transform in a noble uplifting film.
(Hoopla Streaming, October 2018) Bringing an imaginative version of the biblical story to the big screen, F.M. Murnau’s Faust remains remarkable today for its density of special effects and for an all-out approach to fantasy filmmaking. As a result, there’s quite a lot to see here (do try to watch as high-quality a copy as you can find), which is helped along by the reasonable running time of the film (a mere 106 minutes, when some contemporaries ran almost to three hours). The story is a remix of several versions of the Faust story, meaning that it’s familiar and yet a good clothesline on which to hang fantastic set pieces. A veteran Murnau being at the helm (this being his last German film before moving to Hollywood and working on Sunrise), there is an undeniable artistic intent here, which adds quite a bit to the film. It may not be to everyone’s taste (and it does take a while to get started) and like most silent movies it does require active viewing in order to make the most out of it, but Faust is a solid example of fantasy filmmaking, influential and still worth a look today.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Considering my extremely low opinion of the first two Maze Runner movies, I’m as surprised as anyone else to find out that third instalment The Death Cure is a bit of an improvement. It may be that the enforced delays in the production of the film (put on hold for a year when series star Dylan O’Brien suffered a serious accident while shooting) helped distinguish it from the spectacular crash of the dystopian YA subgenre that occurred in the meantime. It may also be that, contrarily to the recycled and lazy post-apocalyptic settings of the first two volumes, this one heads back to a high-tech megacity as a backdrop to its familiar thrills. No matter why, and I’m not trying to argue that it’s any better than an average action movie, The Death Cure feels a little bit more interesting and a little bit less exasperating than previous instalments. There’s an interesting ensemble supporting cast (Nathalie Emmanuel, Giancarlo Esposito, Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper, Patricia Clarkson, Will Poulter, etc.) stuck with the uninspired material and quite a bit of special effects work to keep things looking dynamic even when the story is dull. Plot-wise and sight-wise, there isn’t a lot in The Death Cure that hasn’t been done better elsewhere (the coincidences and contrivances get heavy at times), but it can be familiar comfort fare for, say, cyberpunk fans looking for a minor dose of the stuff. Director Wes Ball keeps things rolling, so at least there’s a bit of kinetic energy to the nonsense. If I thought too much about The Death Cure (and I don’t really care to), I’d point out the hideous hypocrisy of having the city, a last bastion of civilization, burn to the ground while our teenage heroes claim this as a victory … but that sort of thing is depressingly common in post-apocalyptic YA fiction where the span-of-consequences seems to stop at the teenage protagonists with nary a care for anyone else. “Better than the previous volumes” in this case doesn’t quite translate in an absolute recommendation.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) There is a lot going on in writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, and while not all of it makes sense or is properly developed, it does help maintain interest in a kind of film that I otherwise would find dull or ugly. Let’s see: Here we have a protagonist who’s not just estranged from the mother of his two children (sub-plot #1) but is also semi-psychic (#2), is dying of cancer (#3) and is involved in illegal immigration (#4) which lead to him welcoming the wife of a deported drug dealer in his apartment (#5). The issue here isn’t the number of subplots as much as they all seem to belong in different genres: their collision often smacks of contrivances, and I’ve left the most dramatic parts out of it. Fortunately, the film is anchored by a strong Oscar-nominated performance by Javier Bardem, who grounds even the most ludicrous content in reality, while remaining compelling enough to follow even when the film revels in unnecessary grimness and tragedy. There are plenty of ways Biutiful could have gone wrong, and yet it (mostly) stays interesting throughout as it goes for high drama and a weepy conclusion.