(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) Social trends shift over two decades, but if some aspects of The Birdcage are now slightly dated, the film itself remains quite a lot of fun to watch. There is, mind you, quite a pedigree to this American comedy—it’s an updated Americanization of 1978’s French farce La Cage aux Folles, which was itself a movie adaptation of a 1973 play of the same name. (And I’m not getting into the sequels to the French film nor the American musical.) In other words, the roots of The Birdcage go back to before I was born. But no matter the year, the premise is the same: A half-flamboyantly gay couple has to hide who they are as their son comes to visit with his fiancée and her ultraconservative parents. The key word here is “flamboyantly”—while issues between gay couples and social conservatives continue to be a rich source of conflict, the portrayal of the gay couple in all versions of the story does include a very camp gay character with a vested drag queen identity. The Birdcage bathes its gay characters in a warm sympathetic portrayal, which helps it a lot in being just as amusing today—the portrayal of the social conservative characters haven’t aged so well, but then again some caricatures are necessary. Now, of course, gay couples can now marry even in the United States and social conservatives are slightly more approving of them—and The Birdcage is often mentioned as one of the movies that helped move things along. Still, even though some of the details have changed, much of the movie does remain a lot of fun to watch: Robin Williams plays, if you’ll pardon the expression, the straight man to Nathan Lane’s far more exuberant character, with Hank Azaria making quite an impression as a supporting character and Gene Hackman playing ultraconservative like few others. The shrill screaming, snappy snarking and outlandish outfits clearly benefit from the drag club atmosphere, but the moral message underneath it all couldn’t be more wholesome, and the film’s portrayal of all of its characters is immensely likable. Breezy and fun, The Birdcage remains surprisingly good even more than twenty years later.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Considering my criticism of the Poseidon remake, I find it almost amusing that much of what I don’t like about the original The Poseidon Adventure is what didn’t work decades later. Much of the film feels like a repetitive loop as the survivors of a capsized cruise ship try to make their way out of the wreck: Encounter an obstacle, lose a member of the cast, and proceed to the next obstacle. There’s a high point during the initial disaster, and the plot does get slightly more interesting in the last half-hour, but much of The Poseidon Adventure feels too long and repetitive. The premise does have a whiff of originality to it (arguably extinguished by the remake), and it’s mildly interesting to see Leslie Nielsen pop up in what could have been a major role in any other movie. Otherwise, Gene Hackman is not bad as a priest questioning his own faith, and Ernest Borgnine makes for a capable foil throughout the ensuing adventures. The special effects are occasionally good, although the CGI achievements of the sequel clearly outshine the original in that area. There is a characteristic early-seventies feel to the entire film that some viewers will like. As for which version is better I’m curiously ambivalent—I usually prefer the originals on ideological grounds, but what I’m finding here is that the original The Poseidon Adventure doesn’t have much to recommend over its remake.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) There’s no denying that Bonnie and Clyde still carries a strong mystique even today. It’s a reference that pops up every single time there’s a man-and-woman criminal team. It’s also a film that showed very clearly the state of Hollywood by the end of the sixties, sufficiently emboldened by the end of the Hays Code to start showing blood and gore in big-budget entertainment. I can’t quite picture how revolutionary or upsetting the film must have been at the time, with elaborately constructed scene in which people are shot in the head by criminals portrayed as heroes. Such things are, for better or for worse, far more common these days and so Bonnie and Clyde is approached differently today without the element of shock. Personal preferences certainly come into play—I had a surprisingly negative reaction to the film myself: being generally unreceptive to the stereotype of the heroic outlaw, I was unable to empathize much with the murdering anti-heroes. (I’m also Canadian, if that helps: “Peace, order and good government”) The film does have its qualities—Warren Beatty is at the top of his young roguish persona here, and let’s not forget Faye Dunaway’s presence either. Screen legends such as Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder also pop up in small roles, although modern viewers may be disappointed at their ineffectual characters or small roles. The infamous ending remains upsetting. Bonnie and Clyde, taken on its own fifty years later, is a great deal less special than it must have been. Despite remaining a pivotal film in Hollywood history, I’m not sure that it has aged all that well.
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2017) I’m old enough to actually have memories of the promotional material for Superman II (including, if I’m not confabulating, a View-Master disc about the movie) but revisiting the film much later is like seeing it for the first time. The way it is tied to the first film is impressive—although even a quick look at the fascinating making of the movie reveals that it was nearly all shot at the same time as the first one, then largely reshot when Richard Lester took over Richard Donner as a director. Compared to the first film, Superman II does seem a bit less serious and more overtly comic: However, this may make the sequel more even toned than the first film. (But not entirely, as there are a number of gruesome deaths in the film, such as the one of the astronauts, that are almost immediately glossed over.) The inclusion of super-powered villains makes for good spectacle, especially once the film gets down to its showy New York City street fight—with plenty of blatant product placement! The movie does have a few high notes along the way: the de-powering of Superman doesn’t last long nor mean much, but it’s a nice thought and does mark a high point in the Superman/Lois Lane romance. This being said, there are enough plot holes and dumb choices left and right to baffle anyone. Never mind the trips to/from the supposedly isolated Fortress of Solitude, the regrettable exclusion of Miss Teschmacher from much of the story (although literally jettisoning the Ned Beatty character was the wise choice), the abundance of material for the whole “Superman is a Shmuck” thesis or the suddenly ludicrous “Cellophane shield” superpower. Christopher Reeves is once again very good both as Superman and Clark Kent, while Margot Kidder does seem even more comfortable as Lois Lane. Gene Hackman is welcome as Lex Luthor (arguably better here than in the original) while Terrence Stamp is memorable as the British-accented Zod. Superman II, like its predecessor, is now almost charming in its period blockbuster aesthetics—it’s got grand ambitions, but the special effects are often primitive considering the technology of the time and it doesn’t quite have full control over its tone given the various hands that interfered with its production. Still, it’s got a heart and a certain faux-naïve earnestness. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the first one, the second is mandatory viewing.
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2017) Ah, there it is—Superman, the granddaddy of the superhero genre. Has it aged well? Not really, but perhaps better than you’d think. Structurally, Superman doesn’t do anything truly different from countless other superhero origin stories—although it does take its own sweet time to get there, and even includes sequel-setup elements in the prologue (I had to pop open the DVD tray and double-check that I hadn’t accidentally inserted Superman II in the player, because I honestly did not remember Zod being part of the first film). What works is that, at times, the script does try to reach for something beyond the silly humour and into drama—either the missing-parent subplot, or romantic hijinks. That does keep the movie afloat now far better than the slapdash humour of much of the rest of the film. Nowadays, though, the script has serious tonal issues in-between its serious protagonist and silly antagonists: Gene Hackman is rather good as Lex Luthor, and I can’t say enough nice things about Valerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, but Ned Beatty is insupportable as a henchman too dumb for words, let alone supporting a so-called genius of crime. But so goes Superman, torn in-between actual artistic ambitions for its characters and a reluctance to see comic-book origins as anything but a big joke. Other issues abound. The ever-popular “Superman is a schmuck” theory is bolstered by more than a few sequences, while the ending sequence (with Superman going back in time) is still worth a disbelieving groan. On the other hand—and this is an important point—Superman manages to float above its worst flaws by virtue of honesty. It believes in its own protagonist and it does try to explore what it means to be Superman. It tries to ground itself in-between its flights of fancy, and the seventies period details now looks deliciously retro rather than dated. It also helps that, beyond Margot Kidder being good as Lois Lane, Christopher Reeves is fantastic both as Clark Kent and Superman—his performance as one is unlike the other: far more than making us “believe that a man can fly”, Superman’s greatest achievement is making us believe in the difference between superhero and alter ego. Director Richard Donner had enough experience to do justice to the script using what was available at the time—while the film’s special effects now look amateurish, they still make their point even today. Superman is still a big grab-bag of various qualities and problems, but it can still be watched with some pleasure today. If nothing else, it’s not gratuitously dour or dark like some of the latter representation of the character, and I believe that it will endure decently because of that uplifting tone. Cue the theme music…
(On TV, March 2017) Issues-based thrillers aren’t always easy to watch, and there are certainly enough tough moments in Mississippi Burning to uphold this rule of thumb. But it’s also a thriller with a muscular anti-racism message that is also comforting given the atrocities portrayed in the film. The story of two FBI agents investigating the murder of three civil rights activists in rural Mississippi, this is a movie that pulls no punches in portraying the often-unbelievable racism of barely half a century ago. Quite a few buildings burn here, and the constant abuse suffered by the black characters is nothing short of revolting. While the film is certainly problematic in its white-saviour narrative, it’s also curiously frank in the way it embraces this aspect of itself: threatening, torturing and arresting unrepentant KKK members is the next best thing to punching a Nazi in the face in American cinema wish fulfillment, and Mississippi Burning certainly embraces this aggressive approach to the problem. Gene Hackman truly stars as a veteran FBI agent whose folksy bonhomie barely conceals a tough-and-violent approach whenever the chips are down. Contrasting him is Willem Defoe is a curiously straitlaced role as a far more by-the-book supervisor who nonetheless gets to let his wilder instincts run free in the last act of the film. Frances McDormand also has a good turn as an acquiescent housewife who nonetheless gets a few shots in. Far more interesting than the “social issues drama” moniker would suggest, Mississippi Burning turns into a vengeful police thriller toward the end, with satisfying justice being delivered in spades. The relationship to the true events that inspired the story is incidental, the black characters definitely taking second place to the white protagonists but, in the end, it makes for curiously compelling cinema. This being said, Mississippi Burning is exactly the kind of film that other effective anti-racism movies such as The Help are meant to complement: it’s part of the story, but not all of it.
(On DVD, March 2017) You would think that after twenty-five years, so-called “revisionism” would be absorbed, normalized, taken as granted and disappear into the background of a changed genre. But as Unforgiven continues to prove even today, revisionism can be an evergreen state of mind. Even now, the film’s treatment of violence in its western setting still rings as faintly blasphemous. As hurt women put a bounty on the head of an aggressor, as greedy killers converge on a town where the sheriff won’t tolerate guns carried by strangers, as a stained hero picks up his weapons in order to keep the family farm afloat, Unforgiven still has something special to offer. It plays with the codes of heroism (few characters are either all-good or all-bad), undermines who should be sympathetic and seems almost aghast when excessive violence does resolve problems. What makes it even more interesting is seeing Clint Eastwood take on the project both as a director and as a star—there’s a finality to his performance that stands as his closing statement on the genre. (This being said, this wouldn’t be the last time Eastwood would puncture his own myth—Grand Torino also has a few things to say about the toxicity of violence as he himself portrayed in a string of earlier movies.) Eastwood is terrific as a retired gunman reluctantly picking up his guns (and being thrown off his horse a few times for his troubles), while Morgan Freeman shows up in a rougher role than usual. Gene Hackman makes for a credible antagonist, unlikable although not purely evil in his goals of pacifying the Wild West by all means necessary. The result is absorbing even for viewers without natural or national affinities for the Western as a genre—Unforgiven manages to escape the western to become a great film of its own.
(On TV, October 2016) Trying to convince someone to see this tepid crime comedy about a mother/daughter pair of con artists quickly takes us to the tawdry: How about twentysomething Jennifer Love Hewitt playing up her cleavage? How about Sigourney Weaver in a lace bodysuit? No? Yet Heartbreakers’ most playful moments are spent playing the naughtiness of its premise (entrap the mark in a marriage, then create an affair and get half his wealth in a divorce settlement), so it’s not as if this is coming out of nowhere. What’s perhaps most disappointing, though, is how restrained the film has to be in order not to offend the masses, play against its stars’ persona and avoid an excessive rating. As such, Heartbreakers often feels like a big compromise, torn between sexiness and prudishness. If it felt free to cut loose with more nudity and explicit references, it could have been better; had it restrained itself and refocused, it could have been better as well. In its weird middle-ground, though, Heartbreakers often feels as if it doesn’t know what to do. Much of the plot points are predictable long in advance, with the conclusion dragging on much longer than it should (past the point most people will care, actually). Weaver’s extended fake-Russian shtick drags on for much longer than advisable, while Hewitt’s prickly romance subplot feels like the same plot point repeated five times. Bits and pieces of the film are amusing: Ray Liotta isn’t much more than adequate, but Gene Hackman cuts loose as a frankly despicable man who falls prey to the protagonists. While the film is a bit too good-natured to be unpleasant, it’s not much more than a mediocre comedy. You’ll smirk a few times, but Heartbreakers could and should have been much better.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I’ve complained about this before, so feel free to tune out as I once again complain about the disappearance of the bid-budget realistic thriller in today’s spectacle-driven cinema. A movie like The Firm, adapted from John Grisham’s best-selling novel, focusing on realistic elements and featuring a bunch of well-known actors would be a much tougher sell twenty years later. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot more to like here than in an umpteenth dull fantasy movie going over the same plot points. While I don’t claim that The Firm is a work of genius, it’s a solid thriller aimed at post-teenage audiences. It did pretty well at the box office, and it’s not hard to understand why in-between good actors such as Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, a bald Ed Harris, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Holly Hunter working at their peak (with surprising appearances by pre-Saw Tobin Bell as an assassin and Wilford Brimley as a notably evil character) and a story that needles both organized crime and government. The thrills may not feel pulse-pounding by today’s standard, but the film makes up for it through semi-clever plotting, a good handle on the revelations of its material and protagonists sympathetic enough that we’re invested in them rather than the action itself. If I sound like a cranky old critic bemoaning the state of current cinema, it’s largely because The Firm is both an exemplary piece of early-nineties filmmaking and a contrast to today’s similarly budgeted films. It’s got this particular pre-digital patina, a serious intent and actors being asked to actually act throughout the film. I’m not as pessimistic about 2016 cinema as you may guess from this review, but I could certainly stand a few more of those movies today.