(On Cable TV, June 2019) I’m not much of a baseball person, but even I found myself gradually interested in Eight Men Out’s depiction of the World Series-fixing scandal of 1919—a sordid little footnote in American sports history during which gamblers managed to convince a few White Sox players to deliberately lose games and be compensated by a share of the profits. Perhaps the most interesting thing in writer-director John Sayles’ film is the way even a fixing operation is fraught with complexity: It’s not enough to even convince the players (in this case, helped along by the baseball team owner’s legendary cheapness)—you have to prevent leaks, ensure that they’re paid, and fight against every player’s instinct to win. A bunch of name actors (including John Cusack, David Strathairn, Charlie Sheen and others) help keep Eight Men Out interesting even despite the absence of a satisfying climax: the film mirrors the regrettable real events that led to the lifelong expulsion of eight players from the baseball league—including Shoeless Joe Jackson—, the team owners asserting their control over players (a decades-old theme) and national disillusionment about the purity of baseball. Despite the usual warnings against learning history from Hollywood movies, Eight Men Out is a fascinating illustration of incidents that many would rather not acknowledge … making it even more important a subject.
(In French, On TV, June 2019) There’s an entire cluster of 1980s movies that, if you weren’t around to see them upon release, now feel like strange artifacts of another era. You can watch them for a cast of actors who later went on to do other things, but they usually feel so familiar in the story yet so detached from now that they’re artifacts. At least that’s how I feel about Lucas, a wholly unremarkable high school drama that had the good luck of featuring actors (Corey Haim, Winona Ryder, Charlie Sheen, Jeremy Piven) who became better known afterwards. The plot has something to do with a nerd picking up football to impress a girl, but as a coming-of-age comedy, it’s about as sweet as it needs to be with our hero learning about unreciprocated crushes and earning the respect of teammates through one of the big prototypical slow claps of the 1980s. Lucas is probably more meaningful to those who dabbled in high-school football, saw it at the right age, or were around for it in the 1980s. For everyone else, well, it seems as if there’s been endless variations of the same thing since then.
(In French, On TV, March 2019) The 1980s were about as bad as things got when it comes to exporting violent American imperialism through the magic of Hollywood movies (not-so-coincidentally climaxing with the TV-friendly Gulf War of 1991), and if the release of Navy Seals missed the end of the Reagan administration by two years, it started production years before, with a script from a retired Navy SEAL, pre-production stopped by director Richard Marchand’s death and several script rewrites slowed down by the 1998 WGA Writer’s Strike. None of those delays mattered much considering that the Middle East was still a hotspot during the Bush I administration, and so was the projection of American power in the area. The plot, as conventional as it is, has Navy SEALS tracking down errant Stinger missiles and getting into all sorts of shenanigans. As you’d expect from a Hollywood film, the Navy SEALs protagonists are presented in a very mainstream-friendly way: They fight for America, and they’re bad boys! They don’t play by the rules! They do dangerous things for fun! TO THE EXTREME! As befit a muscular military action film of the 1980s, it does very much feel like an attempt at a recruitment film, albeit not quite as slick or successful as Top Gun. There is some ironic value in seeing Charlie Sheen here in full bad-boy soldier mode, not only considering his troubled personal history later, but specifically his role as the lead of the Hot Shots! military spoofs starting the following year. Still, once you put away issues of geopolitical power projection and ironic casting, there isn’t much here to report—Navy Seals is about as basic as military action films were during that period.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) Not being much of a western fan, it was probably inevitable that I wouldn’t care much about Young Guns. Clearly made with the intention of bringing sexy back to the western genre, it does have the good sense of casting the Brat Pack of photogenic young actors for a nice little shoot’em up. Even today, who wouldn’t be tempted to have a look at young Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen and Dermot Mulroney in the same horses-and-guns movie? Alas, the movie around those actors isn’t quite up to the promise—for all of the then-trendy soundtrack, this retelling of the Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid’s life does feel perfunctory. I suppose that here’s a cultural element at play here—Being Canadian, I have little use for outlaw legends along the lines of Billy the Kid, and so that aspect has nearly no grip on my particular imagination. While stylish, Young Guns definitely shows its age and late-1980s pedigree—thirty years later, it looks flashy, dated and a bit ridiculous with its overcoats and lengthy slow-motion moments. I don’t quite dislike the result, but neither do I care for it much—although I suspect that the deliberately accumulated sex appeal of half a dozen guys is wasted on me.
(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I remember seeing Hot Shots! Part Deux in theatres, first week of release, with a bunch of friends and then driving back home while upholding the time-honoured tradition of quoting the best parts of the film to each other. Nearly twenty-five years later, the film holds up pretty well, although it’s somewhat funnier if you have recently viewed its primary sources of inspiration such as Rambo III and Basic Instinct. (“I loved you in Wall Street!”) Unlike latter, less successful spoof movies, however, Hot Shots 2 works on its own as a comedy even if you ignore the parody: there’s wittiness to the script, physical comedy, much absurdity and wry references. The influence of early-nineties pop culture is strong and getting more esoteric by the year (“War … it’s fan-tastic” requires explanations today), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Charlie Sheen is very good in the title role, while Lloyd Bridges’ unhinged performance as a gaffe-prone president is endearing in the ways the current gaffe-prone president isn’t. It was a great decision for the film to abandon the flying satire of the first film and take on a slightly different military parody. Unusually enough for sequels that usually move on to a new love interest, the beautiful and hilarious Valeria Golino is back and the film does deals with her return in surprising narrative ways. Even today, the film remains very funny, and the presence of a few known actors in smaller roles (Miguel Ferrer, Rowan Atkinson, Richard Crenna) is a great bonus. At a tight 86 minutes, Hot Shots! Part Deux doesn’t overstay its welcome, and is probably best watched soon after its predecessor for even more spoofy fun.
(Second or third viewing, On DVD, October 2017) I first saw Hot Shots! as a teenager before seeing Top Gun, which may have coloured my perceptions of the so-called serious movie. But having recently seen Top Gun in its entirety makes a re-watch of Hot Shots! even funnier. This spoof, is the pure ZAZ lineage, relies a lot on deadpan jokes and actors playing ridiculous material as seriously as possible. Peak-era Charlie Sheen makes for a credible mixture of action-hero looks and comic timing, while Valeria Golino is both spectacular and hilarious as the obligatory (but not perfunctory) love interest—female roles in spoof comedies rarely get as good a character as she does here. While Hot Shots! is focused on Top Gun, it does have time to indulge in broader gags and isn’t content (as with many worse recent spoof movies) simply running through the original plot with extra slapstick and pop-culture references. As a result, Hot Shots! has aged well, even for those who haven’t watched Top Gun recently. In fact, it may even have appreciated slightly since its release given that the bottom has fallen out of the comedy subgenre. A competent spoof upon release, Hot Shots! now stands as a remarkably funny film today.
(On TV, November 2016) There have been many great movies about Vietnam, but for all of the respect I (and others) have for Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter or Full Metal Jacket, I think that Platoon is better than all of them in giving us a cohesive soldier’s view of the conflict, without necessarily building up to a larger metaphorical point. (Apocalypse Now happens in parallel with Vietnam, The Deer Hunter is about the scars it left and Full Metal Jacket is a collection of great sequences with a threadbare link between them.) Oliver Stone writes and directs from his own experiences, and the result has an authenticity that’s hard to shake off. From the first few moments when our protagonist (Charlie Sheen, baby-faced, sympathetic and humble) steps on the ground and sees the haunted veterans, it’s obvious that this is going to be a wart-and-all portrayal of the conflict. By the time our protagonist hooks up with the local drug users, we’re clearly far from pro-war propaganda pieces. Platoon is also canny in how it sets up a conflict between two senior soldiers (one, played by a suitably intense Willem Dafoe, trying to be civilized about an uncivilized situation, and the other, played with even more intensity by Tom Berenger, surrendering to the madness) that compel our protagonist to choose a camp. Terrifying combat sequences all build up to a natural conclusion to our viewpoint character’s war experience. Lauded upon release, Platoon is no less effective thirty years later—largely because it sticks close to its own authenticity and doesn’t try to make more than what’s already a significant point about the combat experience.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) Charlie Sheen and self-indulgence go really well together, but there’s a difference between showing it in tabloid headlines and seeing it in a full-length feature film. Billed as a comedy, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III stars Sheen as a circa-1970s graphic designer dealing with the abrupt departure of his latest girlfriend. Delusions, flights of fancy, anxiety attacks, crippling doubt all follow, inevitably leading to wacky despair-fueled hijinks and acceptance of sorts. It’s as good as any excuse to prop the Charlie Sheen persona as a romantic lead, and for writer/director Roman Copolla to do whatever he wants with the tools of cinema. (It all culminates, somewhat amusingly, into an intensely self-reflective final shot in which the actors name their characters and the artifices of filming are revealed all the way to a mirror shot of the director and camera operator.) As a light-hearted romp playing with cherished visuals, competent actors in small roles (including Bill Murray, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Schwartzman and Patricia Arquette), A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III isn’t without occasional interest. It does not, however, coalesce into something more meaningful that scattered vignettes and Sheen playing some idealized version of himself. (Or, rather, some idealized version of what other people should be thinking about himself.) I’ll admit that it’s easy to transfer any feelings about Sheen-the-persona onto Swan-the-character, but then again the film makes it easy to do so. I don’t happen to particularly like the Sheen persona (although, like many others, I find it unexplainably compelling), and that may explain a decidedly tepid reaction to the film despite by usual fondness for meta-cinematographic tricks and showy set-pieces. At best, it’s a surreal, strange and kind-of-wonderful film. But for anyone even remotely aware of Sheen’s antics over the past few years, it definitely takes a special state of mind to go past the misogyny, self-adulation and conscious myth-making at play here.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) The art of the parody movie has eroded so dramatically since the ZAZ heydays of Airplane! and Top Secret! that contemporary standards for those kinds of films are, to put it mildly, abysmal. If it’s not from Friedberg/Seltzer, then it’s already a notch above the worst. If it’s not wall-to-wall covered with sadistic slapstick violence, it’s another rung up. (But I repeat myself) If it tries something slightly funnier than simply re-create scenes from well-known movies then we’re already comfortably above the bottom of the barrel. Sadly, this doesn’t mean that Scary Movie 5 is a good movie; it just means that it’s not as bad as it could have been. I suppose that anyone willingly choosing to watch this film can’t complain if it sucks: The previous installments of the series have ranged from terrible to mediocre, so it’s not as if the series has a reputation to maintain. This time around, Scary Movie 5 rounds up sequences and references to films ranging from 2010 to 2013, curiously choosing the inconsequential Mama as a framework, Paranormal Activity as methodology and delving into both Black Swan and Rise of the Planet of the Apes for extended sequences. (There are smaller, lamer riffs off Inception, The Help, Sinister and Evil Dead, as well as an attempt to spoof 50 Shades of Gray before it even comes out) It occasionally gets a few grins: The opening sequence with Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan works well because Sheen handles most of the comedic heavy lifting and Lohan looks surprisingly good. There’s a beautifully absurd pool-robot-party sequence late in the film that had me giggling like an idiot, and a few gags here and there earn at least a chuckles. Anna Faris and Regina Hall are sorely missing from this fifth entry, but Ashley Tisdale does her best to step up in the lead role, understanding that in this kind of film you don’t have to be good as much as being game to do the silliest things. To its credit, Scary Movie 5 doesn’t just rely on cartoon violence and laugh-free recreations. But it rarely manages to go beyond the cheap laughs and easy targets. It seldom trusts the viewers to figure out the joke, explaining it in far too much detail and killing it in the process. (Tellingly, the best running gag of the film are the split-second glimpses of the antagonist running around in the background.) Scary Movie 5 struggles to make it to 75 minutes before adding a 15-minutes-long credit/outtake/cookies sequence. While the film has enough grins to avoid raising outrage like many of the worst examples of the genre, it’s not good enough to get more than a lukewarm okay-if-you-like-that-kind-of-thing. Frankly, when it comes to dumb Paranormal Activity spoofs, A Haunted House –itself no paragon of comic filmmaking– did it first and did it better.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2007) I’ve often maintained that this film should end up being the definitive film of the eighties, and another look at it just confirms my suspicions: It’s ageing really well, with just enough period detail to make it look grounded (ah, mid-eighties technology…) while the film itself is driven with a solid grasp of contemporary filmmaking techniques. The dialogue is delicious, Michael Douglas’s Oscar-winning Gordon Gekko is a fantastic antagonist, the narrative drive of the film just keeps going… oh yes, this film holds up well even today. Even the blank characterization of Charlie Sheen works well up to a point, since the character is supposed to act as our stand-in for the film. Less successful are the lacklustre performances by the two female stars of the film, neither of whom do much to distinguish themselves in underwritten roles. Writer/Director Oliver Stone’s audio commentary is spectacular, informing us about the making of the film, the problems that Stone had in dealing with the actors, reactions to reviews of the film and a deeper look into the thematic intentions of the film. (Hint: It’s all about fathers.) Unfortunately, the documentary featured on the disc is a bit long, relies too much on clips from the film and covers some of the same ground as the commentary. But otherwise, the DVD is an excellent showcase to a great movie.