(On TV, June 2018) Some films are so successful that they sabotage their own legacy, and if MASH doesn’t feel quite as fresh or new or daring as it must have felt in 1970, it’s largely because it was followed by a massively successful TV series and embodied a new cynical way of thinking that would come to dominate (North-) American culture in the following decades. Obviously commenting on the Vietnam War by using the Korean War, MASH shows us disaffected doctors treating the war, and the entire military institution, with obvious contempt. They’ve been drafted, they belong elsewhere and their attitude encapsulates what many Americans had come to think about the military by 1970. Such things are, to put it bluntly, not exactly new these days—and you could easily build a mini-filmography of films in which military heroes behave badly. MASH also suffers from an episodic, largely disconnected plot—there’s a new episode every ten minutes, and it doesn’t build upon those adventures as much as it decides to end at some arbitrary point. Director Robert Altman’s shooting style is also far more similar to newer films than those of 1970—inadvertently scoring another point against itself. It’s not quite as interesting as it was, not as innovative as it was, not as shocking as it was. As a result, it does feel more inert than it should. It’s still worth a watch largely as a historical piece, but also as a showcase for an impressive number of actors—starting with Donald Sutherland, alongside Elliot Gould and a smaller role for Robert Duvall. The metafictional ending works well, but it still leaves things unfinished.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) In-between MASH, Kelly’s Heroes and Catch-22, 1970 was a banner year for using other conflicts to talk about the Vietnam War. MASH transposed late-sixties war cynicism on the Korean front, while Catch-22 talked disaffection among WW2 bomber crews and Kelly’s Heroes has greedy American infantry soldiers teaming up with a hippie-led crew of tankers to go steal a few million dollars’ worth of Nazi gold. This certainly isn’t your fifties war movie—in between the self-interested soldiers, corrupt officers, friendly fire incidents and a long-haired tank leader memorably played by Donald Sutherland (who was also in MASH), it’s obvious that Kelly’s Heroes had far more on its mind than just a WW2 adventure. It’s clunky (legend has it that the filmmakers didn’t quite get what they were going for, largely because of studio interference) but it still works on a pure entertainment level largely because of the terrific cast. Sutherland aside, there’s Clint Eastwood in the heroic role, supported by Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Harry Dean Stanton in a small role. The adventure gets going quickly and gets weirder and wilder the deeper in enemy territory it goes. The final resolution has the so-called good guys bribing Nazis to get what they want (with cues echoing Sergio Leone), which is interesting on its own. Kelly’s Heroes is more palatable now that it must have been at the time—we’ve grown used to anti-heroic portrayals of the military, and Vietnam-era attitudes toward war and war movies are now far more familiar. Still, the result is entertaining enough, and while many prefer more straight-ahead drama along the line of Where Eagles Dare, there’s no dismissing that Kelly’s Heroes can still be watched eagerly today.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) Sean Connery as an impossibly cool criminal masterminding a gold robbery from a moving train? All aboard! Adapted somewhat loosely from an early Michael Crichton novel, The First Great Train Robbery isn’t much more than a romp, but it’s a superbly executed romp taking us through the Victorian underworld and what was then cutting-edge technology. Not only is Connery terrific in the lead role, but he’s supported by actors such as Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down in a script from Crichton himself, who also directs and cleverly adapts his material to a far more entertaining tone with an upbeat finale. The pacing is uneven, with some lower-interest segments toward the middle of the film, but it picks up in time for a spirited final sequence that build and build until we’re running on top of a moving train, with stunt sequences that have palpable pre-CGI energy and danger. We’ve seen this kind of film before and since, but The First Great Train Robbery is executed well enough to be a fun film even today.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) Frankly, I thought that I would have enjoyed The Dirty Dozen quite a bit more than I did. Part of it may have been shaped by modern expectations—in modern Hollywood, movies based on the premise of bringing together hardened criminals for a suicide mission are meticulously polished to ensure that the criminals aren’t too bad, or that they meet a morally suitable comeuppance. Our heroes have been unjustly convicted, or operate according to a sympathetic code of honour that may not meet official approval. Their adventures, first in training and then in combat, are calculated to meet focus group approval. But The Dirty Dozen, having been forged in the years following the breakdown of the chaste Hayes Code, is significantly rougher and grittier than the modern ideal. The dirty dozen members are in for reprehensible conduct, not pseudo-criminal malfeasance. The attitude of the film, as Hollywood was pushing the limits of what was acceptable in terms of violence, also permeates everything. While tame by contemporary standards of gore, The Dirty Dozen nonetheless feels … dirty. There are a lot of characters, and they’re often short-changed by the film’s juggling of roles. This being said, The Dirty Dozen is also a showcase of actors: In between Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy and an impossibly young Donald Sutherland (among many others), there are a lot of familiar faces here, and that has its own appeal. If you can go along with the film’s disreputable atmosphere, it remains a competent war film … but it may be difficult to do so.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) on the one hand, there isn’t much in Invasion of the Body Snatchers that hasn’t been done elsewhere. The idea of seeing neighbours becoming alien is pure paranoia fuel, and it’s exactly the kind of stuff that leads to remakes (2007’s rather dull The Invasion), uncredited rip-offs or overall spiritual successors. Still, what it does here is done well, whether it’s Donald Sutherland’s eccentric protagonist, Brooke Adams as a decoy heroine, the steadily mounting sense of tension or the various set-pieces. Plus, hey, there are minor but solid roles for Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy. Late-seventies San Francisco is worth a look no matter how long it’s been, the special effects aren’t bad (wow, that mutant dog!) and director Philip Kaufman knows what he’s doing in steadily cranking up the tension. The paranoia grows throughout the film, and perhaps the best thing about it is that its third act does not shy away from consequences or magically resolves the increasing bleakness of its plot. Frankly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ ending is still very effective—and is likely to remain so even as modern studio-driven movies desperately try to avoid anything that may upset audiences.
(Netflix streaming, August 2016) It would be tempting but unfair to start holding Mockingjay Part 2 accountable for the faults of the entire young-adult dystopian subgenre. Even though The Hunger Game launched the category in 2012, it can’t be entirely held responsible for the flood of imitations, including those executed as trilogies with split last chapters. Especially not given how many flaws it has on its own. Surprisingly enough, this last chapter in the Hunger Games series holds true to the third book’s second half, even despite the bad reviews and disappointed fans’ reaction to the end of the series. Here, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, once again holding the series on her shoulders) heads to the Capitol for a final confrontation with President Snow (Donald Sutherland, just as good in his slimy-cold mode) as the rebels are nearly done overthrowing the established tyranny. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up one last time in a small role that he manages to make much better. Of course, things aren’t so black-and-white: the rebels once again prove to be just as bad as their oppressors, Katniss is suffering from some significant psychological issues, she’s surrounded by a people she can’t trust and the Empire is ready to throw some tough obstacles in her way. The rest is an urban war movie with enough teenage melodrama (helped along by some brainwashing and questionable character choices) to reach most of the four quadrants. Some bits drag on and on, such as an almost entirely superfluous zombie battle in the sewers. There are a lot of special effects, last-minute betrayals, musings on propaganda and a downbeat ending that (as in the novels) makes a mockery of the first book’s initial triumph. On the one hand: how sad and depressing—are we sure this is what we should be teaching today’s already-depressed young adults? On the other: how daring and unconventional—isn’t such nuance what we’re always saying we want from fiction aimed at younger people? I still haven’t figured out, and so my rating for Hunger Games 3b remains in the middle range. But if there’s anything to push me over to a side in particular, it’s that I’m glad it’s over, because it means another dystopian series I won’t have to keep remembering plot details in anticipation of the next instalment. That may not be entirely fair to the film, but when you can mix-and-match elements from three different series in one common structure, it’s hard to avoid a bit of burnout.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) My memory may be playing tricks on me, because I remembered Backdraft as a more iconic film than this second viewing suggests. Despite the far better picture quality of watching this in HD as compared to standard television (maybe VHS) resolution, the film feels a bit smaller this time around. Oh, don’t misunderstand me: I still think Backdraft is the iconic firefighting movie. Fire plays a lead character in the film, the script manages to play with enough suspense elements to keep things interesting. Ron Howard’s direction is the apogee of early-nineties slickness, while a group of great actors do interesting things together, from a dynamic Robert de Niro (back when he wasn’t playing a caricature of himself), to the incomparable Kurt Russell to an unusually strong turn by William Baldwin. Even Donald Sutherland (seemingly as old then as he is now) turns up in a pair of memorable scenes. The firefighting action sequences remain unparallelled, especially than last scenes with the exploding barrels. But in my mind, I had built up Backdraft as something a bit more grandiose than it is. I’m certainly not calling for a remake, but I’m welcoming this as a reminder not to set my expectations too high as I revisit blockbuster movies I haven’t seen in a long time.