(On Cable TV, February 2019) With the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, this is my third take on the same story in less than a year, which is to say that it’s less about the incredible story and all about execution at this point. Using the 1935 and the 1984 as a comparison point, this middle version does act as a natural progression in a series. It’s in colour, it’s less sympathetic toward mutineer Fletcher Christian, and being a major studio film from the end of the Hays Code era, it has strategically placed leis and hair to ensure that we don’t see the nudity of the 1935 or the 1984 version. On the plus side, this film (which cost a relative fortune of $22M in 1962 dollars to produce, spanning two years and two directors) clearly throws a lot of money on-screen in re-creating 18th-century ships and spending time on a lush tropical island. It feels like a lavish film, and the historical recreation is impressive. The colour cinematography is splendid, as are the terrific costumes and set design. But production qualities aren’t sufficient in ensuring a good movie. For one thing, it’s unbelievably long … not just in terms of events, but in the pacing of those events. The film alternately dawdles and rushes through plot points, not quite mastering its narrative rhythm. There are other narrative issues as well: It’s an interesting choice to have the botanist narrate the story … even if he’s not there for all of it. Factually, this Mutiny on the Bounty is better than the 1935 version but nowhere near as nuanced as the 1984 one: There are clarifications on a few breadfruit-related plot points, but Captain Blight is still portrayed as an outright sadistic villain. Then there’s the Brando Problem: The more I see of Marlon Brando past his two Oscar-winning roles, the least I like him—it doesn’t help that his character is initially presented as a foppish cad, but there is something about Brando himself (no doubt tainted by his later performances) that just rubs me wrong. It certainly limits the film’s appeal as much as its duration does. Let me put it this way: the 1935 version has the advantage of staging a big spectacle at its time; the 1984 version has a half-dozen terrific actors. This 1962 version, in comparison, is merely there. It has now been thirty years since the latest major version of Mutiny on the Bounty—ample time for a new version even closer to reality.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) The 1970s were a dark, sad decade for movie musicals, and The Wiz does nothing to change my mind about it. This musical remake of The Wizard of Oz uses black actors and a modern-day urban setting, but seems determined to waste both its premise and its potential. There was a lot of it to start with, what with a cast that starts with Diana Ross and then goes on to Richard Prior and Michael Jackson. The surprisingly slow start sets the tone for the disappointment to come, what with Ross looking far too old to play a teenager, and a film that appears determined to suppress any of her natural sex appeal. It gets better once she starts to sing, but not all that much. Michael Jackson fares much better in what is probably his finest screen role, nearly unrecognizable as the Scarecrow, but with his very distinctive voice shining through. Meanwhile, Pryor is in-keeping with the impact of the movie, a disappointment as the Wizard that undermines even an already-undermined character. As a clone of its original inspiration, The Wiz isn’t all that good: Occasionally too scary for kids, far too dull for adults, it also takes many of the original film’s most satisfying (but not necessarily the most realistic) plot points and blurs them into meaninglessness. The production design can be imaginative and ambitious at times, but it’s not successful at what it does. The ending is exceptionally disappointing, running three musical numbers too long and delving into cheap pop philosophy to overstate what was perfectly obvious in the original. The only musical number that works, both on a musical level and a narrative one is the insanely catchy “Ease on Down”, which is worth saving from the rest of this overlong misfire. Reading about the film’s complicated production history is instructive in understanding why it ended up being so disappointing, but this is the result we’re stuck with. (Even Xanadu was more fun than this, if not necessarily more coherent or less dated to the disco era.) Alas, the damage done by The Wiz didn’t stop at the movie itself or its audience: Historically, this film was a notorious flop in every way, and is seen as having led to the end of the era for black-focused films as reinvigorated by the blaxploitation movement. If that’s correct, The Wiz has a lot more to answer for than for wasting more than two hours of everyone’s time even forty years later. (Minus five minutes for “Ease on Down”, because it’s that good.)
(On Cable TV, February 2019) I’m not a very forgiving viewer when it comes to dramatic silent movies. Still, spectacle is spectacle no matter which decade you hail from, and so Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is still worth a quick look today, and as more than the film that led to the much better known 1959 version (or the already-almost-unknown 2016 one). It’s silent, it’s epic and it’s spectacular. Never mind the well-used special effects (Bethlehem star! Earthquake! Jesus-featuring scenes shot in two colours!): despite a much heavier emphasis on the nativity compared to later versions (it’s in the title!), the point of the movie are the epic action sequences: the sea galley battles are quite good and measure up to much later films. The chariot race is overlong but thrilling: action-packed, featuring thousands of extras and innovative camera angles for the time. Trivia tells us that this Ben Hur was the most expensive silent movie ever made and one of the highest-grossing ones as well. All that money can be seen on-screen, and that’s the kind of blockbuster moviemaking that endures well—the film reportedly went quite a bit over budget, but made MGM’s reputation as a major studio. Deeply influential over the 1959 version, and thrilling in its own right, this 1925 version of Ben Hur is surprisingly fun to watch … although you may want to skip over some of the quieter drama moments.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) Considering that Sayonara is a late-1950s film about Japan, it’s inevitable that it would be somewhat romanticized—although, notably, not as whitewashed as it could have been. A rather annoying Marlon Brando is featured in the lead role as a very stereotypical American getting seduced by the Japanese way of life (and, obviously, a Japanese woman). Much of it becomes a romantic drama heavily playing off social expectations with the unsubtle style of the time. From today’s perspective, Sayonara isn’t much to talk about: it’s long, melodramatic, plays into some strong clichés of interracial relationships and has a mumbling Brando. It’s very much an adaptation of the James Michener novel, better suited to the page than the screen. While it’s better than many other Hollywood movies of the period in having ethnic-appropriate casting for the white men and Japanese women, it does have Ricardo Montalban play a Japanese man … oh well. And so on. But if you dig down into that the film represented in 1957, then you can understand why the film was nominated for a few Oscars: At the time (and for a few more years afterward). It was one of the few sympathetic and compassionate representation of Japan and to fairly represent interracial relationships. Miyoshi Umeki became the first Asian (and, to date, the only) Asian actress to win an Academy Award, while comedian Red Buttons got an Oscar of his own for a very dramatic role. It has aged, but as a compassion-driven film it had aged far more gracefully than other, more hate-driven ones. While the result definitely feels trying today, Sayonara is a film worth putting in context. I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but those trying to complete their list of all Oscar-nominee pictures … but it does have its strengths.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) In theory, I find it fascinating that the internet is creating a new mythology for our ages, with creepy copy-and-paste material defining new monsters. But my respect stops somewhere along the line in which they’re co-opted in unimaginative Hollywood horror movies. There’s quite a lot of potential in the “Slender Man” creepypasta (even leaving aside that the film is at least ten years past the curve in tackling the now-hackneyed idea of a memetic virus), but very little of it survives the transition process that leads to a dull teen horror film, one so pedestrian that it sucks all life out of the idea. Slender Man is a corporate product in more ways than one: not only does this Sony film feature characters with Sony phones, it also goes straight to the least common denominator in execution. In an effort to try as much weird stuff as he can, some of what director Sylvain White (who did so well with The Losers) attempts just look silly and laughable. The indifferent execution cares so little about whatever it’s doing that it’s careless at all levels: Slender Man is badly lit to the point of being difficult to understand, which is not helped by editing that makes characters disappear from the film without explanation with viewers uninterested in being incensed about it. (Scenes were reportedly removed from the final film, although the kindest cut would be to skip the film entirely.) When all the scary stuff ends up being hallucinations or dream sequences, it’s hard to get worked up over yet another meaningless scene. The ending, as obvious and unsatisfying as it can be, merely makes viewers hate the film even more. What’s perhaps worse is that you can still see a glimpse of what a much more unnerving movie would have been. I liked the emphasis based on the female protagonists—for a time, we’re taken in their world and it’s different from the usual horror material. The lead actresses are likable (although the most intriguing one disappears first, and then the second-most interesting one disappears second and so on until the survival of the dullest) but they’re not quite good enough to save the film. There are glimpses at something better, but the execution never capitalizes on it, and ends up repurposing the Slender Man mythos to a generic horror product with an arbitrary mythology. I’m not sure I’d characterize Slender Man as a letdown because, frankly, who actually expected this to be good? But it’s still a failure.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) Movies have always betrayed our not-so-hidden anxieties, and as we increasingly rely on automated systems for ever-more mundane tasks, I expect to see more movies along the lines of Monolith in the coming years … but I hope they will be better than this one. Here, we chain up the ANDs in order to get to our premise: A woman AND a toddler travel through the desert with a car that’s both automated AND armoured. They are alone AND on an off-road route AND it’s getting hot AND the kid is asthmatic AND she gets locked out of the car while the kid’s inside AND coyotes are around AND so on. That’s a whole lot of ANDs to contrive a desperate situation, but Monolith would be far better if it actually focused on the basics before multiplying the irrelevant background details and subplots. Our mother is an ex-rock star AND her husband is unfaithful but little of that actually matters once we are finally in the desert. Even worse: Monolith keeps breaking its own time/space unity. It’s as if writer/director Ivan Silvestrini didn’t have enough faith in his own halfway-interesting core premise (woman against armoured car!) and kept trying to juice it up with useless peripheral complications. Even with those, it’s easy to see where things are going, until the film gets tired of itself and throws up an ending just to be done. It really doesn’t help that the protagonist is relentlessly, almost intentionally unlikable, making dumb decisions that keep putting herself and her son even deeper in trouble. The dialogue is clunky, and the film never manages to do justice to its own premise or to go beyond the basics to offer a more rounded experience. It does have interesting cinematography, though, including some spectacular drone footage—further showing that these are now well-within the reach of low-budget filmmakers. I just wish that the result would have been better. This is the second unrelated low-budget “Monolith”-titled film that I’ve seen, and neither of them are good.
(On TV, February 2019) If you’re looking for a documentary to play while you’re putting up Christmas decoration, you can do far worse than Jingle Bell Rocks!, which studies not only Christmas music but the obsessive collectors (all of them men) of said holiday albums. This is a film about the thrill of hunting through used record stores, the joy of discovering good material among the dreck, and the fun for these collectors of meeting the recording artists. The collectors interviewed for the documentary claim that they’re not obsessive, not crazy and not weird (well, I think some of them may agree that they’re a bit weird) but we don’t care: their enthusiasm and their passion is endearing. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Christmas-themed documentary without exploring our relationship with that holiday. Then there is the music itself, which is a lot like listening to a good mix tape. (And yes, they do talk about mix tapes.) It comes wrapped in a history of Christmas music through the rock generation and into rap—including an extended discussion of one of my own holiday classics, “Christmas in Hollis”, through “Back-Door Santa”. Despite the seemingly straightforward subject matter, there are a lot of surprises in Jingle Bell Rocks! : At any given moment, you’re liable to hear from director John Waters, to touch upon the racial aspect of Christmas iconography, or feature an appearance by Doctor Demento. The climax of the film happens as it works its way to re-create a pivotal song for the film’s lead collector. As I’ve mentioned, Jingle Bell Rocks! is an ideal film to leave on the TV as you’re putting up decorations: It’s great background music, and you can drop in and listen to the film’s highlights at any time.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) There have been many evil-child movies, but we tend to associate that subgenre more with schlocky post-1970s exploitation horror thrillers than slick 1950s Hollywood major productions, explaining why The Bad Seed still has the power to surprise even today. This classy-yet-trashy killer-kid thriller is a tad overlong and certainly melodramatic, but it remains disturbing by sheer value of having its perfect pigtailed child star perform a series of unbearably evil acts—and dwelling on the anguished reactions of grieving secondary characters to drive the point home. Unusually enough for this kind of film, no less than three of its actresses were nominated for an Oscar: Patty McCormak as the titular killer kid, Nancy Kelly as her mother, and Eileen Heckart best as the grieving mother without whom the film would be far less effective—much of the film’s overwrought plotting can be dismissed as nonsense, but her portrayal of grief remains disturbing. Some of the material is definitely clunky: There’s a lot of psychological nonsense about the nature of evil and its possible genetic origins that would be reworked or even cut from any contemporary version. Otherwise, much of The Bad Seed’s power remains in the clash between our idea of a glossy 1950s studio film and the subject matter that it explores: there’s a restraint in the way the film tackles sobering material that makes it even more fascinating—witness, for instance, the audio-only death by burning: over the top yet still uncomfortable. Parents of young girls will definitely have a stronger reaction to the result—Geez, attempted filicide?! Soundtrack-wise, there’s an interesting use of “Au clair de la lune” as a leitmotif, even remixed in the main orchestra theme. The film concludes with two very interesting bonuses: A plea by the filmmakers to the audiences not to reveal plot points to others, and a comic post-credit scene in which the adult actress laughingly mock spanks the child actress that does much to relieve the tension left by the very dark ending. The Bad Seed remains fascinating today because of its place in history—any contemporary remake (and there have been many similar films ending outright in horror) would be far less interesting because we’ve grown used to them and because they’re not a 1950s major Hollywood studio film. Sometimes, the time and place are the point of a movie.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) There is such a thing as low-budget charm, and Blood Car doesn’t waste a lot of time in setting up the rules of its game, a mixture of over-the-top absurdity (in the near future where gas is an unaffordable luxury, a man discovers how to make cars run on … blood), unabashed revelry in its ultra-low-budget (including makeshift sets that are not meant to fool anyone) and enough sheer sexploitation and gratuitous nudity to keep things interesting in between the horror concept and the schlock comedy. It starts well enough to hook viewers, and if the premise does run thin on even a 79-minute film, it’s generally palatable throughout. It’s not really interested in developing the obvious thematic parallels between blood and oil, but at least it acknowledges them. Acting-wise, the film does have the basics: a sympathetic lead in Mike Brune and a very cute heroine in Anna Chlumsky. The ending does runs out of gas, but Blood Car has suitably weird and funny moments up until the very end. Keep your expectations firmly in check—this is a really low-budget movie, after all—and you may just be pleasantly surprised.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) I miss 1990s standalone thrillers, and Presumed Innocent is a fine example of the form—adapted from a novel, it drops viewers right in the middle of a complex story and challenges them to keep up. The accumulation of subplots makes things more interesting than the rather simple core premise would suggest, with enough layering of legal system cynicism to provide the gritty atmosphere. I liked the dense beginning far more than the increasingly linear ending, which ends on a five-minute monologue that ends up sucking a lot of punch away from a striking revelation. This being said, Alan J. Pakula’s understated direction does leave full space for the focus to be on the story—this is not a film that would benefit from an overabundance of style. Harrison Ford is OK in the lead role, his stoic persona playing well with a character not prone to bursts of emotion. Elsewhere in the cast, Bonnie Bedelia is not bad as the protagonist’s wife, while Raul Julia is very cool as a top defence lawyer. Still, Presumed Innocent is a plot-driven film rather than an actor’s showcase, and at a time when so few top Hollywood movies run on pure story, it only makes me realize how much I miss it.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) I hope that Americans sometime realize the utterly bizarre nature of their law enforcement “system”, with its odd pockets of arcane rules and historical exemptions. So it is that I knew nothing about the San Francisco Patrol Special Police as depicted in Kuffs … and I don’t think that the film makes a very convincing case for its existence. It doesn’t help that this is a film with severe split personality problems, trying both for 1980s violent police action and for fourth-wall-breaking comedy. Christian Slater (near the height of his popularity at the time) often provides comic asides to the camera, sometimes in the middle of otherwise dark and dramatic scenes. Some sequences (talking to the camera while gagged, bleeped swearing, drugged-out sequence, visitors barging in on a shot-out apartment) approach pure slapstick, while much of the rest of the film is dull dark action undistinguishable from countless other movies. The cast can be surprising: Milla Jovovich shows up in a very early film as nothing more than “the girlfriend”, while Bruce Boxleitner is taken out early and Tony Goldwin is playing silly. While Slater does provide the charisma that his role requires, much of the film seems to succeed accidentally rather than by design, so inconsistently does it whiplash from comedy to drama. It really does nothing good to the image to the private law enforcers of San Francisco to be portrayed like Kuffs does.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) I don’t think anyone ever expected much from Teen Wolf, whether during its production, initial release or long afterlife since then. But sometimes you just need a spark to make it work, and Michael J. Fox was clearly the ingredient needed in this sometimes silly but rarely dull teen horror comedy take on werewolf movies. Fortunately, the script is not bad: clearly written with some awareness of the genre, the film zig-zags a few familiar tropes and has at least three mild surprises (the father knows; the secret comes out; the crush doesn’t want him) contradicting where we think the story is going, and earning a few laughs along the way at some blatant revelations. The way it fully engages with its premise is almost refreshing even now, and I suspect that much of the film is simply about seeing a werewolf playing high-school basketball. The “Teen” of the title is equally important as Teen Wolf seems very comfortable in the halls of an American High School. There are quite a few teenage anxieties hidden in its premise (what if your alter ego was more popular than the real you?) even despite a plot that’s more straightforward than it appears. But then again Teen Wolf is far better in the fun and games of its premise than it is at the narrative heavy lifting: even if it gets bogged into the mechanics of its climactic basketball game, it’s lighthearted most of the time, and unafraid to be silly even when it doesn’t have to be.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) If you want a stark illustration of what seventy-five years’ worth of innovation and social changes can do to a medium, have a look at 1928’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc followed by 1999’s Joan of Arc. Both of them are (obviously) retelling of the life of Jeanne d’Arc coming from the French movie industry, both of them looking at the story from various angles … and with vastly different means. The 1927 film is silent, static, black-and-white, heavy on dialogue and focused almost entirely on her trial. The 1999 version, well, comes from Luc Besson with the very energetic directing that we’ve come to expect from him. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that this version is far less religious, with considerable doubt given to the traditional story and quite a bit of ambivalence regarding the role of gods and devils. The surprising cast not only reunites Besson with Milla Jovovich two years after Le cinquième élément, but also brings in actors such as John Malkovich, Dustin Hoffman, Vincent Cassel and Tchéky Karyo. Still, it’s Besson who shines, with spectacular battle sequences and a very modern rhythm to a familiar story. The film, unlike other takes on the story, seldom turns Jeanne d’Arc into a nationalistic symbol—The French royalty and clergy are portrayed unsentimentally, with a cynical approach to the entire affair. Despite some directorial prowess, the structure of the film remains confounding: The multiple false starts at the beginning of the film are near-useless, the middle sequence outshines the rest thanks to its gory war set pieces while the third act undermines Jeanne d’Arc’s legend with a far more contemporary take on the idea of divine possession. The least one can say is that this Joan of Arc is certainly not a boring film … even if I’m not entirely sure it achieves its own objectives.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) There are, even today, many reasons to see Saratoga Trunk. The best is probably seeing Ingrid Bergman at her most radiant, and playing opposite Gary Cooper. Otherwise, it can be fun to follow the plot of the story (adapted from a then-best-selling novel) as it moves from New Orleans revenge to Saratoga Springs husband hunting to transcontinental railroad brawling and such. There’s a lot of material crammed in the film’s 135 minutes running time. The production values of the film are high, with plenty of overwrought costume drama. (Flora Robson is a highlight.) It’s clearly from another era—never mind the blackface for one of the performers, how about the radically different social expectations for women? This being said, you can like melodramatic 1940s Hollywood productions without necessarily being entirely convinced by them: there’s a sumptuous nature to some of Saratoga Trunk’s sequences that’s pure Golden Age, and there are few better exemplars than Bergman and Cooper at it.
(In French, On TV, February 2019) The original The Pink Panther was not designed to spawn a series of movies featuring Inspecteur Clouzeau, who was clearly a supporting player in a much broader farce. But Peter Sellers brought such a manic energy to the role that producers were quick to ditch the panther and keep the inspector. With A Shot in the Dark, you can see the progression of the series’ premise in featuring Clouzot at its centre, not even attempting to recapture the spirit of the original. It’s not yet perfect—the comedy is unusually dark for the series, with a high body count of innocents dying from being at the wrong place while villains were aiming for Clouzot. But there are still a few funny moments in the result—most notably toward the conclusion, as “the usual suspects” are brought together and nothing goes as planned. Sellers himself is quite good in pratfalls, but his bumbling does become tiresome when it’s the focus of the film, and A Shot in the Dark’s annoying repetitions of the same gags does mean that the film gets redundant after a while. Ironically enough, the French dub of the film is less annoying than the original English version … because it removes Clouzeau’s ridiculous accent, and makes Sellers about half as annoying as a result.