(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, December 2019) There will always be a very special place in my heart for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, for reasons almost entirely unconnected to its quality as a movie—it was the first movie I decided to go see in theatres, along with a bunch of friends. Given that I saw maybe a handful movies in theatres before I was sixteen (growing up lower-middle-class in a small Eastern Ontario town with the nearest movie theatre twenty kilometres away meant that I only started “going to the movies” once I had my driver’s license), I will always consider Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country the movie at which point I started seeing new releases in theatres rather than on TV. At the time, my love for Star Trek ensured that I would assess the movie as terrific—but as it turns out, writer-director Nicholas Meyer’s work still holds up as one of the best of the Trek movies. It’s not quite as tight as The Wrath of Khan nor as funny as The Voyage Home, the plot has its dubious moments, and it’s often far too obvious about its humour, its Shakespearian references or links to circa-1990s geopolitics, but The Undiscovered Country is about as good as TOS Trek ever gets—there’s some good material here between the characters, core values of the series and movie-grade production values (despite some dated early-1990s CGI) to make this a very decent swan song for the Original Crew. The plot blends series-altering changes, a murder mystery, galactic politics, humour, courtroom drama, a prison break, a rather good space battle with a triumphant finale and some welcome character evolution in having Sulu captain his own ship. The core trio of the series (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Kelley Deforest) takes a bit too much space, but there are a few guest stars such as Christopher Plummer (hamming it up Shakespeare-style) and Iman to keep things interesting. To modern viewers, I suspect that the film will feel a bit stodgy—compared to modern aesthetics (as demonstrated by the 2009 Star Trek reboot, for instance), it does feel a bit stage-bound, a bit made-for-TV especially now that TV often has higher production values. Still, for those who were sixteen in 1991, I still found a lot to like in this revisit to The Undiscovered Country.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, October 2019) I remember bits and pieces of having first seen Dreamscape as a teenager, but I clearly remembered only the best part of it—the oneiric third act, and the wham-shot of the climax. As it turns out, there is more than that to the entire film: a thriller in which (decades before Inception), scientists use parapsychological mumbo-jumbo to justify someone entering another person’s dreams and manipulating them to good or ill effect. A young Randy Quaid makes for a likable hero, a psychic reluctantly recruited into a secret program while Kate Capshaw is the heroine. Christopher Plummer (evil) and Max von Sydow (good) provide supporting performances as the ones pulling the strings. The result is far more inventive than many other movies of the period, and remains surprisingly entertaining. There are weaker moments, of course: a dream seduction scene has become uncomfortable today at an age where consent must be fully informed, and Dreamscape becomes ordinarily dull in its third quarter as it focuses on conspiracy shenanigans rather than the premise of entering dreams. Special effects are employed effectively even if limited by mid-1980s technology. I’d ask for a remake, except that we already had one with the superlative Inception. It remains quite a fun film, though, especially if you approach it as just another B-grade 1980s SF movie.
(In French, On TV, June 2019) This is the first Peter Sellers film I’ve seen since diving deep into Sellers’s biography, and it’s fair to say that the disappointment at uncovering the actor’s worst traits definitely has echoes in the way that I’m reacting to the film. But not that much, as The Return of the Pink Panther is Sellers at his most rote and formulaic: Donning costumes, affecting different mannerisms (alas, the French dub means that I didn’t get the voices, even if that “alas” is qualified by how much I don’t particularly care for the accents). My appreciation for the Pink Panther sequels isn’t high to begin with: I didn’t like the Pink Panther sequel I watched a few months ago, and I still don’t here. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for The Return of the Pink Panther, it’s not a complete waste—some of the plotting is amusing, some of the costumes work and for all of its repetitiveness, some of the slow-motion scenery destruction is worth a chuckle or two. Christopher Plummer does have presence as the master-thief villain, as does Catherine Schell as another one Clouseau’s inexplicable string of love interests. Sellers himself is willing to do anything for a laugh, but it is a bit too much and the same considering the superficial variations in disguise. At this time in the series, this was the fourth Clouseau film and the third to star Sellers—you can argue that the series hadn’t yet degenerated in further self-copying. But even at this relatively high level of quality, The Return of the Pink Panther can feel as annoying as it is entertaining.
(In French, On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m not sure what I expected from Beginners, but I got a lot more than I thought. The story of a man dealing with the death of his father as he’s trying to decide whether to pursue a romantic relationship of his own, Beginners is considerably funnier than you’d think considering the subject matter. As our protagonist pieces together his life, the life of his father, and what happened since his father came out as a gay man, the film is remarkably free-form and entertaining in taking us inside the character’s head. This is not a big film, but director Mike Mills’s execution is almost maximalist at times—non-chronological, expressionistic, surprisingly humorous and able to wrap up this slice-of-life narrative with a satisfying finish. Mélanie Laurent is quirky and cute as a free-spirited love interest but this is not her film: Ewan McGregor gets a strong dramatic role here, although he’s sometimes overshadowed by Christopher Plummer’s sheer presence. Beginners wraps up nicely as a film that sits between genres—not a comedy, not a drama, but something that clearly understands what it’s trying to do.
(On DVD, September 2018) For science fiction fans who like the genre for its take on fact-based extrapolations, anticipation of the future or explorations of the possibilities of science, it can be a bit hard to make a space in the SF tent for the unusually robust sub-gene of time-travel romance, in which the mechanics and possibilities of time-travel take a distant back seat to star-crossed romance. Rachel MacAdams has a trilogy of such films in her filmography, but the genre is considerably older than twenty-first century views can expect, and one of the references in that steam is 1980’s Somewhere in Time. The time-travel mechanism is incredibly flimsy—just wish really hard!—although to the film’s credit this becomes a climactic plot point. But the justification is not the point—the point is to allow a young playwright the opportunity to go back a few decades in time to meet and romance an actress. The wish fulfillment is baked into the plot, as is the unrepentant nostalgia presented as unabashed good by the film. It’s a specific kind of film, and I suppose that it does have its audience. Christopher Reeves is noteworthy as the romantic protagonist, ably supported by Jane Seymour with Christopher Plummer playing the heavy as only he can. Somewhere in Time pulls no stops on its way to a timeless tragic romance, so know what to expect. It’s not bad, but aspects of it will strike a few hardened cynics—I plead guilty—as irremediably silly.
(On Cable TV, August 2018) Some movies become famous because of the actors that are in it, but All the Money in the World is a rare reverse example, famous for who’s not in it. Namely Kevin Spacey, whose sexual misconduct became widely publicized in the short span of time after his important supporting role in the film as J. Paul Getty was shot but before the film was released. Rather than shrug their shoulders and release the film as-is, the producers, along with veteran director Ridley Scott, decided to take another riskier path: Recast the Getty role with Christopher Plummer and reshoot all the scenes involving the character. This isn’t quite as insane as it sounds, considering that the character is mostly confined to mansion rooms in one of the film’s subplots. And it worked: Not only was Scott able to replace one significant actor in a ridiculously short amount of time while the film was nearing its release date, but you really can’t tell in the finished product: It’s as if Plummer had been there the entire time, and his performance is rock-solid enough that he ended up nominated for an Oscar. In comparison to the production drama, the story in All the Money in the World seems almost pedestrian, portraying the kidnapping of the grandson of one of the richest men in the world back in the 1970s. There’s an intriguing re-creation of mid-seventies Italy, dark machinations by an incredibly rich man not inclined to negotiate with kidnappers, and some funny business between the kidnapped man’s mom (Michelle Williams, better than usual) and the specialist hired to get him back (Mark Wahlberg, rather ordinary). The drama is solid even though the film itself feels sombre, ponderous and overlong in the middle. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the finished result is a demonstration of the way excessive wealth alters the world around it, twisting human relationships, corrupting individuals (the Getty patriarch is really not a nice person) and inviting predators to make their moves. Alas, not quite enough time is spent on this idea, as the film flirts with romance and spends a lot of time kidnapped by its own subplots. (It doesn’t help that the film has numerous deviations from the historical record.) It’s not a bad movie, but it could have benefited from a lighter and shorter touch. But then again there’s Plummer delivering yet another great performance.
(On TV, December 2017) “There are a lot more Nazis here than I thought” applied to a surprising number of political headlines in 2017, but it’s still a valid commentary on The Sound of Music. While everyone remembers Julie Andrews skipping through the Alps, first-time viewers of the movie may be surprised at the number of Nazis in the film and how prominently they figure in the film’s third act. This being said, much of the film’s first half (and at nearly three hours, it’s a very, very long film…) is indeed about Judy Andrews and singing in the Alps. (Weeks later, I’m still unaccountably humming “Do [e], a deer, a female deer…”) I’m hit-and-miss on musicals, my biggest gripe being that the pacing on musicals grinds to a half during songs. The Sound of Music is a near-perfect example of that issue: The film moves glacially even during spoken segments, and whenever the music starts, well, you can take a break. This being said, it’s not a bad film—Andrews is quite good, and so is Christopher Plummer in the lead male role. The dramatic component becomes more urgent in the film’s Nazi-infested second half, reflecting (some of) the von Trapp family’s real-life story as they escaped Austria to sing in allied countries. It’s a generally good time, although I can best imagine repeated viewings of this film as background noise.
(In theaters, May 2011) It’s not a good sign when you can feel the film’s final act locking itself into position, think “Already?”, look at your watch and find out that the film’s barely past the 65-minutes mark. There may not be all that much to say about Priest, but at least it has the decency to wrap things up in less than 90 minutes. Anything more would have been wasted, mind you: Even though the film seem very loosely adapted from a presumably richer Korean graphic novel series, there just isn’t a whole lot of plot here to gnaw upon: Setup, two dramatic confrontation and we’re already on to the third act. At least there’s a bit of eye-candy to contemplate during that time: The techno-grunge atmosphere is a bit tired, but it’s reinvigorated with the somewhat less usual industrial-western feel of the film’s middle section. Paul Bettany also gets a good role as priest with quasi-supernatural ass-kicking powers: After seeing him in so many dramatic roles (including Charles Darwin in Creation), it’s entertaining to see him re-team with Legion’s director Scott Stewart for action-movie credentials. Otherwise, well, Maggie Q is fine as another renegade Priest, Karl Urban chews scenery like he enjoys it and Christopher Plummer earns a pay-check as the face of the shallow-but-oppressive Church. But it’s all flash and pretty visuals here: no depth, little originality and even less substance. That doesn’t make it a bad film as much as it makes it a very forgettable one. The future for Priest is clear: an unceremonious DVD release, and then onward to cultural oblivion.
(In theaters, June 2008) Both good enough to be entertaining and bad enough to be amusing, this drama benefits from a good script by Curtis Hanson (who would later achieve notoriety with L.A. Confidential), capable actors, and a very Torontonian setting to overcome thirty years of bad editing, ridiculous replies and stiff direction. This low-budget film has definitely aged, but more in individual moments rather than overall story: The plot (about a bank clerk who matches wits with a robber) still works wonderfully well today, as the protagonist (Elliott Gould) proves both resourceful and sympathetic in a cornered-sad-dog fashion. A slick-faced scenery-chewing Christopher Plummer plays the devilishly evil antagonist, while John Candy makes an appearance as another bank employee. People familiar with Toronto will get plenty of small thrills as the film is largely set in the Eaton center, features shots of City Hall and the CN Tower, and even has its characters talking while driving a convertible down the Gardiner Expressway. The film isn’t so successful in its shot construction, reflecting the stiff pre-digital low-budget conventions. But once that’s past (and once given the indulgence to laugh over some unexpectedly terrible moments), The Silent Partner remains an effective little crime drama, with unexpected twists, a better-than-average duel between protagonist and antagonist, and a uniquely Canadian flavor.