(On TV, February 2019) These are weird times we’re living in, and such a chaotic period call for unlikely heroes. So it’s been both amusing and comforting to see the last few years bring eighty-something Ruth Bader Ginsburg to pop-culture stardom, with young people and memes transforming “The Notorious R.B.G.” Supreme Court Justice into one of the few beacons of progressivism in a right-leaning political environment. RBG uses that “RGB mania” as its initial springboard into an exploration of the judge’s life and views, from battling early discrimination as a female law student in the 1950s to her involvement in landmark decisions on gender equality. She shows up in some of the film’s footage as a sit-down interview subject, but much of RBG is spent talking to various other people (including Bill Clinton, explaining the process through which he appointed her to the Court). There’s quite a bit of archival footage—including her confirmation hearings—mixed in between more contemporary material. The film does offer a strong and intelligible portrait of her role in rolling back gender discrimination in the United States. RBG also features a good primer on the changing nature of US politics and Supreme Court members, forcing her from the centre to the left. The result can be surprisingly funny, inspiring and touching at times, especially in the segments that focus on the role that her husband played in her life. [November 2019: While a great documentary, RBG is probably best seen alongside On the Basis of Sex, a fictional take on Bader-Gingsburg’s early years that almost perfectly complements the material covered here.]
(On Cable TV, February 2019) If I’ve got my dates and players correctly aligned, Meatballs was the first noteworthy example of the underdogs comedy genre that dominated the early 1980s. It introduces not only a specific comic tone, but Ivan Reitman in the director’s chair, and Bill Murray in front of the camera. Setting a tone, Meatballs goes for a very anarchic kind of humour as the slobs take on the snobs and decidedly win. It’s more a series of comic sketches than a sustained attempt at developing a plot, and you can see the influence of this film taking over movie comedy for a few years. Fortunately, Murray is very funny—he carries the film even through the uneven surrounding material, and his riffing is often the highlight of the film. There are many, many obvious signs that Meatballs was shot north of Toronto, whether it’s the Peterborough-branded buses, Ontario license plates, Montréal Canadiens shirts, or the Ontario bus tours advertised on the wall of the local dinner/bus terminal. The film is amusing enough, but it’s now worth watching more as an early precursor to an entire sub-genre, all the way to Wet Hot American Summer and beyond.
(In French, On TV, February 2019) While mainstream attention is focused on the live-action DC Universe movies, Batman fans have enjoyed a steady diet of more daring animated movies for the past few years. Gotham by Gaslight clearly shows how malleable the Batman universe can be when it strikes out in unusual directions. Here we have the characters and concepts reimagined for the late 18th century, with Batman fighting against Jack the Ripper while mentioning Houdini and Sherlock Holmes as contemporaries. It’s definitely an elseworld story given how the characterization of some familiar character is deliberately off persona. Fans of the original graphic novel should be advised that this is a very loose adaptation, to the point where readers will have plenty of new surprises in store. This being said, it’s only a surprise when you compare—in absolute terms, this is a familiar narrative that ends where you’d expect from the first few minutes even despite a few effective red herrings in the mix. As is often the case for historic reinterpretations, the draw here is the atmosphere and the incongruity of seeing a steampunk Batman more than a compelling story in itself. Even given the Batman animated movies’ tendency toward R-ratings, Gotham by Gaslight remains far too violent for its own sake—killing Poison Ivy is not how to make fans happy. The animation is also curiously cut-rate: unusually enough, TV motion smoothing may actually help here.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) I know that Grease 2 has a terrible reputation (upon release, it bombed so hard that it killed off its male lead Maxwell Caulfield’s career for years), but watching it now doesn’t seem like a terrible experience. Of course, I ended up watching both movies at more than a decade’s interval (is this unique? Both movies came out four years apart, and nowadays most people wanting to watch the sequel would do it soon after seeing the first one) and that probably helped a lot in erasing the comparison factor between this mediocre entry and its far better-received prequel. At best, it’s a bubblegum high school musical going back to the early sixties (but really the late fifties) for harmless teenage antics. A young Kim Basinger is quite good in the lead role, her slightly grumpy attitude doing much to make it fun. It’s also fascinating, as a cinephile, to see a film act as a bridge between newer stars such as Basinger or Christopher MacDonald, and veteran actors of yore such as Tab Hunter. As with many musicals, the best numbers come early on, with “Back to School Again” effortlessly introducing most of the cast, and “Score Tonight” wringing the most out of its bowling alley setting. The songs may not be the pop-culture hits of the original, but the dance choreography remains pretty good. No, Grease 2 is not the original. But when I look at the early-1980s musicals, this one is better than most.
(In French, On TV, February 2019) If you were around at the time, 1992 was peak-Madonna year. Sold to the masses as an aggressive sex goddess, 1992 saw the near-simultaneous release of an album called Erotica, a coffee-table book of nudes called Sex and a ridiculously over-the-top film tilted Body of Evidence perhaps only because the two previous titles were already taken. Aiming for a neo-noir but settling for trashy thriller, this film took place in familiar territory by featuring Willem Dafoe as a lawyer asked to take on the case of a woman (guess who?) accused of murdering her husband. Before the first act is even over, erotic scenes grind the action down to a halt, rudely interrupting a few adults cosplaying noir archetypes and making for a much simpler plot given that the movie would barely make it to feature-film length without the nudity. Despite Madonna being Madonna, I’m not complaining: After all, Julianne Moore and Anne Archer are also involved. (Plus Defoe, playing a suitably slimy lawyer in between numerous trysts.) Body of Evidence is about atmosphere rather than narrative and it features one of the least surprising “not guilty” decisions in a while—after all, we’re in a noir and this is what happens in a noir. The incredibly familiar story is perversely meant to be comforting, as we have a sense that this is just a big game updated to early-1990s aesthetics. I still haven’t decided where I stand about it. Candid depictions of lust have their place in cinema and Hollywood could make a few more movies in that subgenre. On the other hand, Body of Evidence may not be the example to follow. At its best, it’s mildly enjoyable as a trashy thriller blessed with far bigger names than it deserves. At its worst, however, it’s not just boring but actively irritating in how it insists that it’s hot despite often missing the mark. But, hey, surely peak-Madonna was a thing because some people liked it, right?
(On Cable TV, February 2019) It sure looks as if someone in the programming department of Canadian cable TV SuperChannel has a sense of humour for scheduling romantic thriller Sleeping with the Enemy on Saint Valentine’s Day. Back in 1991, Sleeping in the Enemy was “the next movie” for Julia Roberts: The follow-up movie (after Flatliners) to the instant stardom that Pretty Woman unlocked for her. It certainly was an interesting choice of roles: A story of escape from spousal abuse in which she played the battered wife running away from the violent husband, looking for some quiet far away … but never far away enough. If this strikes you as made-for-TV Lifetime movie material, you’re not wrong: Sleeping with the Enemy has an incredibly formulaic plot, and many other films, famous or not, have re-used the same elements—sometimes as a showcase for other stars. (Jennifer Lopez in Enough, Ashley Judd in Double Jeopardy…) Still, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that both the film and Roberts benefited from each other. Robert’s new star power ensured that the film would be profitable (and with a nine-to-one box-office return on investment, this means incredibly profitable), while the film gave her the chance to stretch her screen persona in the thriller genre. She looks stunning in long red hair at the beginning of the film—but then later on, after cutting the hair, she also gets to show some dramatic range as the resourceful fleeing wife faking her death, and then as a combative woman defending herself when the psycho husband inevitably comes knocking. Despite the film’s predictable nature, there are a few fair moments of suspense along the way. Spousal abuse is the topic that powers the film and despite a serious treatment of the issue, the film can’t help but push it a bit too far at times: Oh no, the towels are aligned! Oh no, he’s watching them at the state fair from behind an implacable moustache! OH NO, the cupboard’s been rearranged! This being said, the familiarity of the plotting sometimes works in the film’s favour by making it easier to take: we know where it’s going, we know how it’s going to go, we know she’s going to be the last one standing. In director Joseph Ruben’s hands, Sleeping with the Enemy is not a good movie—the villain is so cartoonishly evil that the film begs the audience for fist-pumping approval upon his inevitable death—but it’s not an unbearable one, and it even has a few effective moments along the way. It probably speaks too much about my sense of humour that I deliberately watched it on Saint Valentine’s day in keeping with SuperChannel’s scheduling.
(On TV, February 2019) I’m certainly not the only (North-) American cinephile for whom writer/director Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows was a revelation, and who started looking for his earlier work. While I’m still looking for Boy, I was lucky enough to catch Waititi’s first feature-length film Eagle vs. Shark on TV. The good news is that despite its low budget and limited production means, Eagle vs. Shark manages to be a striking, film-literate take on romantic comedy tropes. There’s quite a bit of kinship between this film and Waititi’s own later Hunt for the Wilderpeople in that it defies expectations, plays with the medium and features strong character work in an atmosphere that’s not afraid to reach for absurdity at times. Eagle vs. Shark may take place in small-town New Zealand, but it’s exceptionally accessible to international audiences. Well, if they can stand it, because the not-so-good news is that cringing and proxy humiliation are the film’s favourite emotions as it goes out of its way to make viewers feel embarrassed for its lead characters. The closest analogue I can find is Napoleon Dynamite, and that’s not necessarily a recommendation. The male lead is screwed up, the female lead is screwed up (albeit not as unpleasantly so), the lead’s entire family is spectacularly screwed-up and this is a film all about them. There’s no way out until the end. Waititi cameos as the film’s lone admirable character—and he’s long dead in the narrative. Jemaine Clement is a comic treasure (his voice alone is worth preserving for future generations), but he seemingly delights in making his character as unpleasant as humanly possible. There are clear limits to how a non-stop cringe fest can be enjoyable, especially when the audience spends most of the film screaming at the heroine to GET OUT OF THERE and forget about the protagonist. That’s not exactly the best set of ingredients for a heartwarming comedy (indeed, by the final reconciliation we’re not left entirely happy), so consider yourself fairly warned about the film’s effectiveness if that’s not your cup of tea. Still, I’m rather glad that I caught Eagle vs. Shark even if I have no intention of seeing it again. I think that Waititi is undeniably brilliant, and having a look at this early effort was worth the trouble … and the second-hand embarrassment.
(On TV, February 2019) I’m an enthusiastic and forgiving audience for stories about writers, so it was natural that I’d eventually gravitate to The Rewrite even years after its release. Focused on a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who takes a teacher’s job in a northeastern university, The Rewrite is, at its best, an entertaining trifle of a comedy/drama with a few pointed jokes at Hollywood, academia and those who make “being a writer” too big a part of their identity. It’s actually the kind of story that begs to be a novel more than a movie, but I’m not about to complain given that it features the ever-likable Hugh Grant in the main role, and my perennial movie-crush Marisa Tomei. A strong supporting cast (J. K. Simmons! Bella Heathcote in a substantial role! Allison Janney!) helps the film get rolling and remain likable throughout. (Well, likable despite the unlikable character played by likable Hugh Grant. It’s that kind of film.) The plot itself is serviceably in thrall to the usual rom-com tropes, albeit with a bit of a harder edge than usual in terms of character growth. The clash of culture between Hollywood and Academia is amusing in its own right, and it feels as if the lead character does earn his happy ending along the way. The Rewrite is nowhere near an essential movie, but it’s likable enough to be worth a look for anyone interested in its lead actors or subject matter. I had a good-enough time watching it.
(On TV, February 2019) We should never underestimate the impact of a great movie poster, because the one for Love and Basketball stuck with me long enough to get me to record and watch the movie nineteen years later. Fortunately, it’s not a movie solely defined by its poster: As the title aptly summarizes, this is a romantic comedy focusing on a basketball-playing couple, each with professional ambitions that run against their obvious attraction to each other. Romantic comedies are often best distinguished by their setting, and the focus on basketball works equally well at creating kinetic excitement as it does as a literalized metaphor. Playing with a four-quarter structure, Love and Basketball follows our protagonists over a seventeen-year period, as they go from backyard hoops to professional play, always threatening to come together until the very end. It’s quite enjoyable purely on its own merits, but as the film ages it also becomes a pretty good time capsule for some great turn-of-the-century actors: After all, where else can you watch Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert, Gabrielle Union, Regina Hall and a quick glimpse at Tyra Banks? Love and Basketball is a clever movie from writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood: It’s not meant to be particularly surprising or challenging (it climaxes right where it should—on the basketball court), but it has quite a bit of heart, and an interesting frame over familiar, relatable material.
(In French, On TV, February 2019) As far as Cyrano de Bergerac remakes go, Roxanne is a better than average reimagining of the basic plot in a completely different environment, which is to say a mid-1980s Washington state small town. (Naturally, it’s filmed in British Columbia.) The deliberately idyllic environment features a gifted man with a prominent nose (Steve Martin, ably carrying the panache required for the role of Cyrano), struggling with his romantic intentions toward another resident and dragged into impersonation when a good-looking but dull romantic rival shows up. The plot is classic, but its reinterpretation is very well done: Actors have to play Cyrano with a formidable strength of character, and Martin (who also wrote the script) gets a few fantastic set pieces to himself, whether it’s an opening sword fight (in contemporary America, yes) or a no-holds-barred verbal joust in which he vanquishes his opponent through overwhelming self-deprecation. Martin is clever enough to make the character vulnerable in other ways, and it’s this internal conflict more than the romantic drama that drives the film forward. The film is predictably less interesting in its last half (in which the arcs must be resolved) than the more character-focused opening, but it’s well done enough to be funny, charming and compelling at once. Good actors help support Martin, with Kelly Preston in particular being quite good as the titular Roxanne. The whimsical atmosphere of the film helps a lot in ensuring that Roxanne doesn’t feel particularly dated even today.
(In French, on TV, February 2019) If Congo has any claim to fame, it’s this superb quote from co-star Bruce Campbell: “What if you were offered a chance to appear in a movie based on a Michael Crichton novel? It will be directed by veteran Frank Marshall. Stan Winston will handle the special effects and it will be a big budget Paramount production. Sounds good? Congratulations, you just made Congo.” (There are a few versions of that quote around, but they all end with the same punchline.) The point of the anecdote is to illustrate the vagaries of Hollywood projects between what sounds good on paper and what comes out in the end—and to slam the movie along the way. Of course, your take may not be as harsh: While I found the much-maligned movie quite disappointing indeed, it’s not nearly as bad as some of the critical pile-on would have you believe. I wasn’t a fan of the original novel (which crammed one incident inspired by African clichés per chapter, narrative coherency be damned), but its episodic nature translates quite naturally to the screen, where it becomes one thrill after another until we’ve stopped asking for any kind of believability. The ridiculous pileup of subplots all justifying an expedition in deep Africa makes for an entertaining premise, and that’s well before we end up with a climax in which volcanoes, diamonds, killer apes and laser weapons are all involved. Congo’s bombastic nature ensures that we never take it seriously. The ever-cute Laura Linney stars, along with a few notables such as Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry and the inimitable Bruce Campbell. As long as you keep your expectations in check, this is an old-fashioned adventure film that should satisfy roughly 51% of your cravings, even if there’s quite a lot missing to ensure that the film is fun, that it flows well and that it makes the most out of its elements. As it is, Congo does remain a disappointment: It’s inert more often than it should, can’t quite capitalize on everything at its disposal and none of the cast or crew can’t quite save it. But that’s the risk that you take on every Hollywood movie … no matter how good their pedigree.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) There are a number of very entertaining stories about the making of Hatari! and the most believable of them is that the script was practically written during shooting, given that so much of the movie depended on the unpredictable actions of wild animals. It certainly shows in the herky-jerky nature of the film, in which wild animal catchers in deep Africa alternate game-hunting sessions with quieter drama back at the camp. In a way, the haphazard plot doesn’t really matter: we’re left in an unusual environment, with a director focused on entertainment and big-name stars seemingly having fun. Considering that Hatari! is directed by then-veteran Howard Hawks and stars none other than John Wayne, it’s no surprise if it harkens to the 1940s with its square-jawed male roles and subservient female roles. Making heroes out of big-game catchers working to supply zoos with wild animals ensures that both their methods and goals are reprehensible by modern standards. Then there’s John Wayne in his usual borderline-repellent persona—it’s astonishing to see the movie present him as a romantic lead to an actress nearly thirty years his junior. As a result, I can’t say that I like Hatari! as much as most of the other movies in Hawks’ filmography—but even I have to admit that the hunting footage is nothing short of spectacular, and that the film does an intriguing job in creating a plot to go around the actions of the animals. Elsa Martinelli is captivating in the lead female role, but the best reason to watch the film is to see a well-oiled Hollywood production run against the vagaries (and dangers) of filming alongside wild animals and then figure out how to deal with that captured footage. Amusingly enough, this is the movie for which Henry Mancini’s famous “Baby Elephant Walk” was written.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) Following the success of Pulp Fiction in 1994, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw a glut of Tarantino imitators that eventually led to a critical backlash. Despite the major talents that emerged through these dark criminal comedies (Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, Doug Liman’s Go, and Paul Anderson’s Hard Eight had enough similarities to Pulp Fiction that they made it easier to put those filmmakers on the map), there were far many more filmmakers looking for projects and taking the Tarantino route for easier financial backing. It’s now been more than twenty years since Pulp Fiction, but filmmakers are still working in the same sandbox—as Stegman is Dead/The Hitman Never Dies clearly shows. With a script that seems assembled in a blender from extremely familiar subgenre elements (pornographic film producer, Asian girl, one neurotic hitman, a second competitive hitman, a precocious kid, convoluted plotting), the film becomes a muddled example of what happens when someone goes Tarantino crazy without quite understanding the level of craft that goes into making the entire thing work. As a mixture of the genre’s best hits, Stegman is Dead never manages to become anything other than a familiar rework of overdone elements. The black criminal comedy is not good for earnestness when it’s handled so carelessly: Nothing is to be taken seriously when everyone’s got a gun in their purse and when child endangerment is treated so casually. There are attempts here at big strong character, but they don’t really work and the plot is so convoluted that only makes sense in its own logical frame of reference. Oh, I could watch Berenice Liu all day, but that’s not the point—the point is that even despite my best intentions in liking a crime comedy shot in Manitoba, I’m still left disappointed at the final result. Stegman is Dead is not that bad (I did watch it to the end, which is more than I can say about some other Canadian movies), but it’s underwhelming partly because I can see far more potential in here left unrealized.
(In French, On TV, February 2019) There’s something not quite right in my claiming Montréal-shot movies as “practically local”—after all, my “local” is Ottawa (ish): Specifically, I grew up in a francophone town forty kilometres east of Ottawa. So I started watching La sacrée as a bit of a novelty—it is, after all, the first Franco-Ontarian comedy, shot entirely in Eastern Ontario, using government grants to cover a meagre $1.2M budget. Its dialogues are entirely in colloquial French-Canadian with an Ontarian blend of French peppered with English (played for laughs in one character’s quasi-bilingual speech patterns and then again in a training montage). I was ready to fast-forward through the film just to catch glimpses of familiar sights and homegrown details. To my surprise, I actually started enjoying the film early on—never mind seeing a downtown Ottawa street doubling for Montréal, the initial hook of the film is director Dominic Desjardins’s ease behind the camera. La sacrée looks significantly more expensive than it cost, and the slick mainstream-comedy direction of the film helps get past the initially repellent protagonist. Our so-called hero is nothing more than a professional con artist, projecting airs and seducing a rich heiress while subsisting on nothing more than a ratty apartment and flashy suits. Things start to change once he’s called back from Montréal to his native Ontarian village, where he’s seen as the rich ingrate who refused to help his now-dead parents a few years before. There are complications, and before long he’s using his flimflamming talents to try to revive his hometown through the establishment of a microbrewery in the local church. There’s clearly a familiar city-slicker-learns-better aspect to La sacrée that’s in line with other French-Canadian comedies à La grande séduction, but it works more often than not. The film is a great deal easier to watch than some far bigger-budget films, and considerably funnier as well. La sacrée is not always equally enjoyable, but it’s more than occasionally witty (such as cutting from a love scene to church bells toiling in error) and even the rote romance works well enough. The protagonist predictably sort of redeems himself by the end of the film. It doesn’t aim higher than a mainstream small-town comedy, but it succeeds quite well at that. La sacrée is, in other words, a perfectly charming homegrown production that actually acts as a representative example of a familiar kind of Franco-Ontarian existence: the small town, the church, the childhood friends… I liked it quite enough even with my built-in biases … although I really wonder what non-French-Canadians would make of the very specific patois used in the film!
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) With a title like They Found Hell, you would be forgiven to think that it would be a metaphor for the horrors of war or genocide or something along those lines. But as a look at the film’s TV-Guide description shows, They Found Hell actually means what it says in its title. It’s about a few students who actually literally open a portal to hell, step in and have to find their way back. Of course, there’s a catch: This is low-budget SyFy filmmaking at its most prototypical, meaning that we’re going to spend a lot of time watching characters run through disaffected Bulgarian factories at night, being chased by a burly costumed six-foot-something guy. On the menu for our characters: Going to hell, spooky pursuits and predictable deaths. As a made-for-TV film, They Found Hell does what it can with its budget and very obvious commercial break fadeouts: Its vision of hell has to do with backlit forests, a colour filter, random fires, some CGI and a few hanging bodies for ambience. The structure of the film isn’t sophisticated: Once our so-called-brilliant students are in Hell, they quickly split up and are killed one after another. It does get really boring really quickly as we look, usually in vain, for anything that would rise up to the level of the film’s gonzo title and premise. Eventually, there’s a mad-scientist riff because, at that point, why not? The individual levels/sequences of the film usually bring to mind the much better movies that They Found Hell rips off incompetently. The ending seems cheap even in a cheap movie during which we’ve hungered for anything more interesting than obviousness. Still, despite the easy potshots that one can take at anything coming from SyFy (have they ever produced a good film?) and the obvious limitations of They Found Hell, I actually found myself watching the thing until the end, which is more than I can say about other efforts. It’s certainly not good, but it’s not that terrible either.