(YouTube Streaming, December 2019) It almost amuses me to realize that even after nearly fifty years of increasingly gory cinema, we can still point at Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and say, “Wow, that’s an incredibly violent film.” That’s part of its point, I think: Violence can be an attitude more than red-splashed visuals and there’s still something profoundly disturbing in how the film was put together and presented. The story of an American intellectual heading back to his wife’s childhood rural home in England, Straw Dogs gets going once the locals don’t take kindly to someone quite obviously unlike them. The film hits its most violent peaks when the wife is raped in an excruciatingly long sequence, the locals decide to kill them and the protagonist decides to take revenge. As an exploration of when normal people decide to become instruments of revenge, Straw Dogs is not meant to be clinical and detached: the later half of the film constantly sinks lower and lower in exploitation thrills (including the threat of a second rape sequence) in order not only to make its points, but to ensure that no one can possibly miss them. The result is fundamentally ugly even today. (The remake softens a few things along the way.) I don’t particularly like the result, or anything that violent for that matter, but there’s clearly a daring element from Straw Dogs that is indissociable from the New Hollywood of the early 1970s, daring the old-school audiences to be offended while providing blood-soaked revenge thrills to the younger audience that was fuelling movie theatre profits at the time. It’s one of the many reasons why I dislike the New Hollywood period, but not the only one—and Straw Dogs provides almost all of them, including the grainy gritty cinematography, the abandonment of heroic characters (what with Dustin Hoffman being the designated protagonist), the messy script and the ugliness of the results. I can see what the fuss about Straw Dogs is about—but I don’t have to like it.
(On TV, November 2019) I have a soft spot for movies celebrating (however cynically) the wonders of imagination and featuring off-beat characters, and I suppose that this is what Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium has in spades, what with Dustin Hoffman playing the titular Mr. Magorium, who built a fantastic toy shop and is now planning on leaving the Earth. His plan is to pass the mantle over to a young assistant flatly played by Natalie Portman, cute but otherwise unremarkable in a somewhat thankless role. Jason Bateman looks like he’s having slightly more fun as an accountant who loosens up throughout the film. Still, the point of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (what a title!) isn’t the plot or the characters as much as it’s the sight gags, magical devices and fantasy wrinkles (such as a building growing sullen) that are perfectly at ease in the universe created for the purposes of the film. Surprisingly enough, this isn’t adapted from a YA book—writer-director Zach Helm thought up the entire thing, and it’s the kind of colourful magical fantasy that can’t really exist just on the page. It’s all a bit childish, of course, but that’s part of the point of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium —imagination, creativity and fantasy don’t have to belong to kids exclusively. In fact, when adults take them up, it’s renamed as eccentricity … and that’s a message I can support wholeheartedly.
(On DVD, September 2019) One of the problems for modern viewers in delving too deep in the classical Hollywood western catalogue is the depiction of Natives in the subgenre. At best they’re ignored or acknowledged as sympathetic but secondary figures with valid viewpoints. At worse (and oh boy does it get worse), they’re mindless killing hordes to be destroyed in order to secure white colonialism and manifest destiny. It took, as with so many other things, the New Hollywood to start shifting things, even if in a matter of degrees. In portraying the picaresque life of a white man equally at ease in the white and Native worlds, Little Big Man is not, today, the most exemplary of films: The hero definitely remains a white man, the native characters are sympathetic but not developed to the extent that Custer, even as an antagonist, is characterized. But for a 1970 movie, it’s a welcome change of pace compared to film made even ten years earlier. The result, partially motivated by the growing affirmation of native populations that found a receptive ear in the late 1960s, does spend a lot of time depicting the late-1800s native lifestyle sympathetically. Our protagonist is adopted in a tribe after tragedy, then sent back to the white world thanks to massacres, and spends the rest of his life going back and forth between the two universes, often motivated to shift due to while people massacring native populations and revenge for those massacres. Custer featuring increasingly often in the story, and not in a sympathetic light. Dustin Hoffman stars as a then-unusual kind of protagonist. The tone, despite the seemingly endless slaughter, is often unusually funny, all the way to a final sequence meant to lead to an elegiac moment that, finally, doesn’t happen. Little Big Man is not always very fast-paced, the framing device is disappointing and the constant back-and-forth of the protagonist can be heartbreaking. Still, it has survived far better than one would expect, and much of this lasting good impression is based on a core of compassion that is entirely missing from earlier westerns.
(On Cable TV, August 2019) It’s kind of amazing that the 1985 filmed version of Death of a Salesman would be so widely regarded (and still replayed) today. It was a made-for-TV film and so prospects for its longevity weren’t exceptional—after all, there’s been five other filmed adaptations of Arthur Miller’s play so far, and that’s from a play that goofs around with very theatrical conventions. But this version happened to star two powerful actors (Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich, even a young Stephen Lang) and earned an impressive list of accolades at the subsequent Emmys and Golden Globes. It’s still the most popular filmed version of the play, and the one most likely to be rebroadcast. While it can’t quite transpose the unusual conventions of the theatrical play to the big screen (what with its characters deliberately crossing over the symbolic décor, and playing along several timelines), it does some unusual and interesting things with its own staging, and certainly gets the point across. Death of a Salesman does not replace a good theatrical production, but sometimes (especially for such a glum work) a viewing at home is what’s indicated. The downbeat nature of the story is credibly rendered, and it’s a good thing that we’ve got at least one decent version of the story available on film.
(On Cable TV, August 2019) What I like best about Hero is the way it engages with a question that most would rather avoid—the nature of heroism. Especially in movies, where heroism is the kind of pillar value of spectacular entertainment. Movies are not where regular people live—it’s where we get to indulge in idealized characters doing things that go beyond the ordinary. Accordingly, it’s refreshing to see the film focus around a small-scale criminal who suddenly finds himself in a position to perform an act of undeniable heroism—even as he uses the situation to his advantage. The ethical questions that follow are fascinating and rarely explored—weighing public perception versus private intentions, feelings of shame and further complications. It’s fertile material, even if Hero doesn’t quite manage to execute its material in better-than-average fashion. There’s a lack of focus to the film that eventually makes it feel longer than it should (even at 112 minutes), with its philosophical questioning more diffuse than it would have been in a more concise format. There’s a lot to like in Dustin Hoffman’s lead performance, though—under Stephen Frears’ direction, he’s able to take on a thankless role with a great deal of panache—I wonder how many A-list actors without Hoffman’s dramatic background would have been willing to take on such an inglorious role. There’s a decent depth to the supporting casting, all the way to numerous uncredited cameos. Hero’s not a perfect film, but it does ask unusual questions and manages an honest result despite a number of missed opportunities.
(In French, On Cable TV, March 2019) For at least a decade, Ishtar was a punchline among movie fans for anything having to do with a high-budget bomb. Even despite featuring no less than Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, and a shoot in a far-flung exotic location, Ishtar got swept in a storm of production problems involving a perfectionist first-time director, two stars with massive egos, a vicious studio reorganization, and incredible budgetary overruns. (Seriously; a summary of Ishtar’s production history reads like a train wreck in motion.) By the time the much-delayed and infamously troubled Ishtar made it to the public, critics were positively salivating for blood in taking down the film. Thirty years later, well, Ishtar’s not entirely bad. Nominally, it’s still about two mediocre songwriters getting swept in revolutionary intrigue in a Saharan country. Perhaps the worst thing we can say about it is that it’s underwhelming. It’s occasionally funny by force of dialogue or absurdity, but writer-director Elaine May’s direction is often badly handled and much of the film’s self-satisfied tone is clearly irritating. It gets off the wrong foot with annoying characters and then never recovers from it: While the idea of having Dustin Hoffman being the suave one and Warren Beatty the socially inept one is a funny bit of counter-typecasting, the novelty of it quickly wears off. What’s left is decidedly less interesting than what the critical savaging at the time suggested—especially if you’re expecting a terrible movie: the reality is far more middle-of-the-road. Ishtar remains just your average malfunctioning comedy, albeit one with a much bigger budget and star power than you’d expect.
(Second Viewing, In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) Back in 1990, Hollywood really wanted audiences to go see Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. After the success of Batman in 1989, it had been designated as the most likely contender for the Summer Box-Office crown. I remember the overwhelming marketing push. It didn’t quite work out that way: While Dick Tracy did decent business, movies such as Ghost and Die Hard 2 did much better. Still, the film had its qualities (it did get nominated for seven Academy Awards) and even today it does remain a bit of a curio. Much of its interest comes from a conscious intention to replicate the primary colours of the film’s 1930s comic-book pulp origins: the atmosphere of the film is gorgeous and equally steeped in Depression-era gangster movies and comic-book excess. A tremendous amount of often-grotesque prosthetics were used to transform a surprising ensemble cast of known names (Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan … geez) into the caricatures of Tracy’s world. Beatty himself shows up as Tracy, square-jawed and willing to give his best to a film he also directed and produced. Madonna also shows up, but she ends up being more adequate than anything else. Dick Tracy’s big twist is very easy to guess, but this isn’t a film that you watch for the overarching plot: it’s far more interesting when it lingers in the nooks and corner of its heightened vision of 1930s cops-vs-gangsters cartoons. Visually, the film holds its own by virtue of being one of the last big-budget productions without CGI: the matte paintings are spectacular, and you can feel the effort that went into physically creating the film’s off-kilter reality. The question here remains whether the film would have been better had it focused either on a more realistic gangster film, or an even more cartoonish film. Considering the original inspiration, there was probably no other option than an uncomfortable middle ground. In some ways, I’m more impressed by Dick Tracy now than I was when I saw it in 1990 (at the drive-in!)—I wasn’t expecting as much, and I’m now more thankful than ever that it lives on as how big budget 1990 Hollywood rendered the gangster 1930s.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) There are a couple of interesting things in Papillon, not the least of them being a narrative structure that never quite goes where you think it does. Adapted from a true story, the film spends much of its first half obsessing about its protagonist’s escape from a tropical prison … only to keep going and going and going well after that escape fails and then another succeeds. We follow the main character through a few decades as he lives various adventures on his way to recapture freedom and yet more evasions. Steve McQueen makes for a likable action protagonist, with Dustin Hoffman acting as an interesting intellectual foil to his character. Filmed in lush Caribbean locations, Papillon does have exotic scenery and unpredictability on its side, although the overall impact may not be as strong as expected. Surprisingly oneiric at times, which more hallucinations than you’d expect. It does feel long, trying and unpleasant—something not diminished by the film’s taking place in a prison or on fleeing through desperate environments. I would have liked to like it more, but felt surprisingly uninvolved by everything.
(On TV, April 2018) The problem with being a generation’s defining statement is that it may not be as compelling to other generations. Contemporary accounts of The Graduate clearly show that it struck a nerve with the baby-boomer generation then coming of age alongside the film’s protagonist. But watching it today doesn’t carry the same message. While Dustin Hoffman ably embodies that generation’s desire to rebel against their parents, his particular struggles seem to belong to the late sixties. Strangely enough, it wouldn’t take much to retell The Graduate today—the big social plot threads are still more or less relevant and technology hasn’t changed much along the way. It doesn’t feel as dated as some of its contemporaries, yet the film simply doesn’t feel all that striking. You can easily imagine a low-budget dramedy telling more or less the same story, but there’s no way that such a film would become the monster hit that it was back then, at a time when “New Hollywood” cinema was waking up from its post-Hays Code stupor. Does it still work today? Well, yes, in its own offbeat way. The film’s first half is surprisingly funny for a film with a reputation as a romantic drama, although the second half really brings the laughs to a stop. It’s remarkably amusing to see firsthand what pop culture has been parodying or sampling for fifty years—you can find echoes of The Graduate in everything from Wayne’s World 2 to George Michael’s “Too Funky.” Hoffman shows his unusual gifts as an actor, while Anne Bancroft is unforgettable as Mrs. Robinson. Simon & Garfunkel provide the score, which is one of the things that most clearly date the film. Still, it’s worth a middling look today—but maybe not for itself as much as for the impact it had.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) In my ongoing understanding of Hollywood history, I’m not sure I’m all that keen on the decade-or-so that led from the end of the Hays Code to the beginning of the new blockbuster populism. The bleak years between those two eras were dark, grim, unsparing and they still carry along their own particular brand of ickiness. So it is that Midnight Cowboy gives us John Voigt as a young Texan would-be hustler freshly transplanted in New York City, and Dustin Hoffman as a conman friend of convenience that falls critically ill along the way. It takes place in late-sixties New York, sometimes in rich penthouses but usually in squatted apartments, dirty streets and disreputable bars. Our dull-witted hero gets his illusion shattered, and even a final escape to Florida proves fatal for one character. For modern viewers, envelope-pushing films such as Midnight Cowboy (which did win an Oscar and thus remains part of the canon even today) present a challenge: While the film brought something new to cinema, helped launched the careers of Voigt and Hoffman and normalized serious hard-hitting drama about the American underclass. Nowadays, such things are far more common, and Midnight Cowboy looks a bit dull compared to what has followed. It doesn’t help that such films are, by their very nature, almost impossible to enjoy in a conventional sense. You take in the drama, reflect on it but never have to see the film again. It has the good fortune of being competently made, though, and that goes a long way in ensuring that it remains watchable, if only as a period piece. But it is bleaker than bleak, and it could have been remade almost verbatim as an early-eighties AIDS story. But of course, and this may be one of Midnight Cowboy’s selling point still—modern studios would never develop such a film: too bleak, not enough superheroes, no chances at a franchise or shared universe. Hollywood may have evolved but it may not have advanced.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) The mid-nineties were a surprisingly good time for solid thrillers, and Sleepers works not because of its atypical revenge plot or unobtrusive direction but largely because it managed to bring together an impressive group of actors. In-between Kevin Bacon, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and the always-compelling Minnie Driver, it’s a nice mixture of generations and styles. It helps that the script is built solidly around an unusual conceit, with an ambitious lawyer doing his best to lose a case but make sure it’s widely publicized to take revenge upon childhood enemies. A blend of courtroom thriller and working-class drama, Sleepers may or may not be based on a true story, but it works well as fiction. Despite revolving around difficult subjects such as child abuse, Sleepers manages to be slightly comforting in how it ensures a victory of sorts for its characters, present a solid underdog story in an accessible fashion, and largely depends on familiar actors doing what they do best. Director Barry Levinson mostly stays out of the way of his actors, and the result is curiously easy to watch despite harsh sequences.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Nearly forty years later, there are things about divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer that have aged poorly, but the film itself does still carry a good chunk of its original impact. While single dads are more commonplace nowadays, the pain of divorce proceedings remains portrayed with heart-wrenching effect. Dustin Hoffman is good as an advertising executive suddenly asked to be a single dad after his wife leaves abruptly—the sequence in which he seeks a job on Christmas Eve remains a highlight of the film. Meryl Streep doesn’t have the most sympathetic of roles as the disappearing wife, but she’s amazing in her own ways. The script does appear to cheat in its final moments (and it does come really close to misogyny in portraying Streep’s character—fortunately, she gets a monologue to explain herself), adding even more drama to the entire film. The portrayal of late-seventies New York City is fascinating in itself, and much of the film still plays effectively even today. What doesn’t quite play so well is the reactionary content—while there’s a conscious attempt here to tips the scales and argue in favour of fatherhood, it seems really blunt by today’s standards. Kramer vs. Kramer hasn’t become a more sympathetic movie along the way, though, so viewers may want to steel themselves for an unpleasant experience.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) I remember two or three jokes from my first viewing of Hook more than twenty years ago, but not a whole lot more. I have noted a certain polarization of opinion about the film—a lot of regular people like it, while critics don’t. I watched the film in regular-person mode, and wasn’t displeased from the experience: Despite claims of this being a sequel to the original Pan, Hook is very much a retelling … so closely so that it gives rise to some vexing issues (as in: “why bother?”) There is a very late-eighties quality to the way the action is staged in Neverland, prisoner of limited soundstage sets and the special effects technology of the time. As a take on the Peter Pan mythos, it’s decent without being exceptional or revolutionary—it’s still miles better than the 2016 Pan, although not quite as successful as 2003’s Peter Pan. Julia Roberts isn’t bad as Tinkerbell, although her unrequited romance is good for a few raised eyebrows. Robin Williams is OK as Peter, but it’s hard to avoid thinking that another actor may have been better-suited for the role. Meanwhile, Dustin Hoffman seems as if he’s having a lot of fun in the titular role. While Steven Spielberg directs, there is little here to reflect his legendary touch. It does strike me that Hook fits almost perfectly with the latest Disney craze of remaking its classic animated movies as live action. Perhaps contemporary opinion about the film will be more forgiving than the critical roasting it got at the time. Until that reconsecration, the result is perfectly watchable and squarely in the middle of the various takes on Peter Pan.
(Second Viewing, On TV, December 2016) Movies that age well usually manage to have timeless themes while being set at a precise time and place. So it is that Rain Man still manages to be endearing, largely because it tackles a difficult subject honestly while definitely remains a product of the mid-eighties. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman truly star as the mismatched brothers at the heart of the story: The film would be a much lesser piece of work without Cruise’s yuppie chic and Hoffman’s now-iconic mannerisms. The transformation of the film into a road movie is good for a few chuckles, but it also literalizes a long journey of self-discovery for the lead character. Obvious stuff, but capably executed. Where Rain Man doesn’t work so well any more is in its uniqueness and its treatment of autism: At a time when TV shows are dominated by high-functioning autists being presented as superheroes (and I say this as a confirmed fan of both Sherlock and Elementary), the grab bag of idiot savant mannerisms being presented as typical markers of autists is disingenuous—most severely autistic people are nowhere near as charismatic or skillful as Hoffman’s character … but that’s Hollywood for you. Thirty years later, Rain Man remains a joy to watch, and a striking film in part due to its willingness to give the most reasonable ending to everyone involved.
(Video on Demand, December 2015) Adapting Patrick Süskind’s extraordinary novel Perfume is not impossible (as this film proves), but it’s daunting enough. Part of it, of course, has to do with the central conceit of a story in which smell (with its associated vocabulary and emotional impact) plays such a strong role – how to portray that on-screen? But if there was a filmmaker for the job, then Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas fame) would be it. In his hands, a potentially silly film becomes curiously accessible, despite an oft-unbearable beginning (complete with baby endangerment) and a final mass-orgy sequence (you read that correctly) that could have gone terribly wrong in the wrong hands. This Perfume, though, ends up being reasonably good; certainly beautiful and thought-provoking at times. Ben Whishaw makes an impression as the lead character, a young man gifted with superhuman olfactory senses who resorts to murder in order to perfect the ultimate perfume. Dustin Hoffman shows up for a few pivotal scenes, but this is really Whishaw’s film. Perfume’s most noteworthy characteristic, aside from a daring screenplay, is its splendid cinematography, honed to quasi-perfection as it goes from the dirty markets of Paris to the beautiful countryside of southern Europe. The emphasis on scent jargon and trade secrets is fascinating, and the gradual discoveries of the lead character are narrated effectively (by John Hurt, no less). Warm and harsh at the same time, Perfume is a singular film experience, the kind fit to make jaded moviegoers say “wow, that was pretty good!” It may not, however, be everything to everyone.