(In French, On TV, February 2019) There are times when I’m tempted to keep reviews strictly factual and let readers figure out the rest. In talking about 102 Dalmatians, for instance, is it really useful to say anything but “this is a sequel to the live-action Disney animal comedy film featuring Glenn Close”? There’s a lot packed in that statement. It implies a continuity of tone, and if you know about live-action Disney comedies of the mid-nineties then there’s not a lot more left to say. Glenn Close is remarkable as usual, but clearly slumming in a cartoonish role. (At least she gets a chance to try out-acting Gérard Depardieu.) Nothing in the film, from script to production design, is meant to be even halfway realistic. The dogs will predictably outwit their human opponents. It does without saying that the previous film’s villain, introduced as being reformed, will snap back to form. (If I was of a more analytical disposition at the moment, I’d probably look at 102 Dalmatians’ troubling portrayal of a former villain going back to evil action, reinforcing contemporary society’s prejudices against those who have suffered from mental health issues or narcotic addition, always considered at risk of relapse.) There is, to be fair, a bit of imagination on display in production design terms, but much of the film feels like a straight rethread of the original, and the innovations aren’t much of an improvement. I mean: what’s with “Digga Digga Dog”, the Snoop Doggy Dog inspired theme rap song? At least it’s catchy.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2017) I recall seeing The Paper on its opening week, happy (as a former high-school paper editor) to see a film where newspapermen were heroes. I kept a good memory of the result, but I was curious to see if it held up two decades later. Fortunately, The Paper remains almost a definitive statement on 1990s city journalism. Tightly compressed in not much more than 24 hours of action, The Paper follows a hectic day in the life of a newspaper editor juggling work, family and citywide tensions. Directed with a lot of nervous energy by Ron Howard, The Paper can boast of an astonishing cast. Other than a top-form Michael Keaton as a harried news editor, there’s Robert Duvall as a grizzled senior editor, Glenn Close as something of an antagonist, Marisa Tomei as a pregnant journalist desperate for a last bit of newsroom action, Randy Quaid as a rough-and-tough journalist … and so on, all the way to two of my favourite character actresses, Roma Maffia and Siobhan Fallon, in small roles. The dense and taut script by the Koepp brothers offers a fascinating glimpse at the inner working of a nineties NYC newspaper, bolstered by astonishing set design: That newsroom is a thing of beauty as the camera flies by and catches glimpses of dozens of other subplots running along the edges of the screen. You may even be reminded of how things used to work before the rise of the 24-hour Internet-fuelled news cycle. (Of all the things that the Internet has killed, “Stop the presses!” is an under-appreciated loss.) The Paper is one of those solid, satisfying movies that don’t really revolutionize anything, but happen to execute their premise as well as they could, and ends up being a reference in time. I’m sad to report that by 2017, The Paper seems to have been largely forgotten—while I caught it on Cable TV, it rarely comes up in discussions, has a scant IMDB following, and is rarely mentioned while discussing the careers of the players involved. Too bad—with luck, it will endure as the kind of film you’re happy to discover by yourself.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I’m not always a good audience for period drama, but Dangerous Liaisons is something else. At times, and at first, it feels like top-class smut, as two obscenely wealthy members of the French aristocracy scheme the seduction of innocent women for nothing more than carnal stakes. There is quite a bit more nudity than expected (especially from Uma Thurman) and the dialogue is first-class. Behind the fine manners, elaborate costumes and lavish historical recreation lies a pitch-black comedy of cynical matters. John Malkovich are Glenn Close are superbly reptilian in their power games—Malkovich in particular is perverse in the best sense of the word. Familiar faces abound, including baby-faced Keanu Reeves and Peter Capaldi in minor roles. But what begins as comic debauchery soon turns to more serious matters, and by the time Dangerous Liaisons ends with death and dishonour, the ending has been amply set up by the journey. Knowing the origins of the story as an epistolary novel turned into a theatre play and then a film, the big-screen adaptation proved adept in incorporating the best elements of its complex DNA—letters end up being essential plot devices, the razor-sharp dialogue is as good as it gets, and the film manages to achieve a few authentic purely cinematic moments, either during the opening “dressing up for war” montage, or the ending sequence collapsing cause and effect of three separate scenes. Unusually for a historical drama, Dangerous Liaisons is fun to watch—either aghast at the character’s actions, or nodding along as those awful people get their comeuppance at the end.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) It’s interesting to read that writer/director Lawrence Kasdan interprets the meaning of The Big Chill as the disillusionment that hits thirtysomethings once they trade young ideals for practical realities. Watching the movie, I was most struck by the way is comfortingly presents a small group of friends spending a mostly relaxed time together—i.e.: chilling. But, hey, it’s his film, and a fascinating aspect of The Big Chill is how, nearly thirty-five years and two generations later, it remains intelligible as an expression of friendship, drama, love, lust, regret, grief and mid-thirties reflections. It remains engrossing despite having few laughs and even fewer thrills. Part of its enduring effectiveness has to do with the actors assembled for the occasion. These are early roles for notables such as Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Meg Tilly. (Pay attention, and you will even see Kevin Costner’s hairline.) The nearly all-hits soundtrack is also quite good. For a movie that wrestles complex relationships between no less than eight people (that’s 28 different relationships, if my math is OK), the story remains relatively clear at most times. Perhaps most surprising is how somewhat unusual things (hitting on your dead pal’s girlfriend at his funeral, a wife arranging for a friend’s natural insemination by her husband, insider trading, an adulterous affair while the husband’s away with the kids, etc.) are portrayed as being no big deals. The ending is weak, but there’s an upbeat wistfulness (if such an expression isn’t oxymoronic) that permeates the final moments of the film. The Big Chill couldn’t possibly have been more reflective of the late baby-boomer generation, yet it remains relevant today. And despite all the icky things in the movie, it still feels heartwarming and relaxed. Go figure.
(On TV, December 2016) Both hilarious and a bit terrifying, Fatal Attraction’s story of adultery gone horribly wrong still rings as a cautionary tale thirty years later. Peak-era Michael Douglas stars as a lawyer who starts an affair with a dangerously obsessive woman (Glenn Close, more scary than sexy even in lingerie) and nearly loses everything in the process. The rather endearing term “bunny boiler” comes from this film, along with a substantial amount of reactionary emotions. Is it an anti-feminism tale, or the kind of story that men tell themselves in order to keep themselves in check? Who knows—what’s for sure is that this is as pure an erotic thriller as Hollywood was capable of turning out back then (I don’t think it can do anything like this any more)—the early sex scenes definitely have some heat to them, and the latter suspense moments do get ridiculously intense. With time, the lines that the movie draws for itself become blurry—a modern take would probably empathize more with Close’s characters. But, of course, such a modern take would quickly fade away—the point of Fatal Attraction’s enduring popularity is that it is extreme and black-and-white and scary and cautionary. Otherwise, why bother … and shouldn’t Hollwyood take note of that?