(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) I miss 1990s standalone thrillers, and Presumed Innocent is a fine example of the form—adapted from a novel, it drops viewers right in the middle of a complex story and challenges them to keep up. The accumulation of subplots makes things more interesting than the rather simple core premise would suggest, with enough layering of legal system cynicism to provide the gritty atmosphere. I liked the dense beginning far more than the increasingly linear ending, which ends on a five-minute monologue that ends up sucking a lot of punch away from a striking revelation. This being said, Alan J. Pakula’s understated direction does leave full space for the focus to be on the story—this is not a film that would benefit from an overabundance of style. Harrison Ford is OK in the lead role, his stoic persona playing well with a character not prone to bursts of emotion. Elsewhere in the cast, Bonnie Bedelia is not bad as the protagonist’s wife, while Raul Julia is very cool as a top defence lawyer. Still, Presumed Innocent is a plot-driven film rather than an actor’s showcase, and at a time when so few top Hollywood movies run on pure story, it only makes me realize how much I miss it.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) Now there’s a strong contender for the title of the most 1980s movie ever. Working Girl came at a time when Hollywood seemingly couldn’t get enough of Manhattan’s Wall Street ambience, in between Wall Street and The Secret of my Success and Baby Boom and many others released in barely a three-year span. Unlike many of those, however, Work Girl clearly has (from its title onward) a clear idea that it wants to talk about class issues in the United States, especially when the Manhattan office environment can be used to put the very poor right alongside the very rich. Director Mike Nicholls approaches the topic with two ideal actresses at each pole of the story: Melanie Griffith as the heroic low-class girl whose smarts exceed those around her, and Sigourney Weaver as her high-class, low-morals opposite. The opponents having been defined, the rest is up for grabs: the job, the prestige, even the boy-toy (Harrison Ford, good but not ideal—the role is funnier than he is) will be given to the winner. Good performances abound, with some surprising names (Joan Cusack! Alec Baldwin? Oliver Platt!! Kevin Spacey as a lecherous pervert?!) along the way. Still, this is Griffith and Weaver’s show. Only one of them shows up in lingerie, though. Now, Working Girl is not a perfect film—it does use a few shortcuts on the way to a sappy romantic conclusion, and it bothered me more than it should that the characters would assign so much importance to the idea as having value—in the real world, execution is far more important, but it doesn’t dramatize so well. Still, that doesn’t take much away from Working Girl as class conflict playing out in late-1980s Manhattan. It’s not a complicated film, but it is very well crafted. (One more thing: Weaver’s character’s name had me thinking of evil Katharine Hepburn, which led me to think about how the two women looked like each other, which had me thinking about how they could have switched many roles, which had me thinking about Katharine Hepburn as Ripley in Aliens. Hollywood, if you’re listening, I know you have the CGI and lack of morals to make this happen.)
(Fourth or Fifth Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) I do have a soft spot for Return of the Jedi: I don’t hate the Ewoks as much as some pretend to do (heck, keep in mind that they’re probably going to eat those fallen Stormtroopers) and as a kid who was eight when the movie came out, cinema couldn’t get any better than the sequence in which the Millennium Falcon goes inside the Death Star to blow it up. Decades later, I still get a kick out of that sequence, especially given its place in the three-ring circus that is the last act of the film. Richard Marquand does a fine job directing a complicated film, and the result it still fun to watch. I’m not happy with some of the digital alterations made to the movie since its release—the celebration sequences set on planets that would be introduced in the prequels are the worst. Mark Hamill is a much stronger presence this time around (even though the short timeline between the two movies don’t support much of his growth), while Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are up to their standards. (Fisher never looked better than in this film, and I’m not talking about the Jabba-the-bikini sequence as much as her long hair extensions down in the Ewok village.) While revisiting the original Star Wars as a not-eight-years-old was a serious let-down, the two immediate sequels are still fine—as long as you learn to live with the various idiocies of the science-fantasy adventure tone requiring so many contrivances along the way.
(Fourth or Fifth Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) Popular opinion has it that The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie, and even a recent look as a jaded middle-aged man (who’s happy not to be eight years old any more) does little to convince otherwise. The much-better dialogue helps a lot, but it’s impossible to discount the impact of three memorable locations (Hoth, Dagobah and Bespin) along with a sombre finale that raises the stakes for all characters. Irwin Kirshner is also a better director, and the actors understand what they’re trying to do—Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher still run circles around Mark Hamill, but the film benefits a lot from the addition of Billy Dee Williams as the truly cool Lando Carlissian. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett (a written SF legend) does her best work in spinning the Han/Leia romance carefully through a series of antagonistic interactions. The special effects are generally successful, and I’ll note that the 1997 digital enhancements seem more natural here than in the overstuffed re-edit of A New Hope. I hadn’t seen the film since its 1997 re-release in theatres and I found it much better than its immediate prequel.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) I suppose that given my positive-but-not-enthusiastic reaction to the original Blade Runner, the same is true and unsurprising for its sequel Blade Runner 2049. There are plenty of things I like about it—it’s mature, cerebral Science Fiction handled with a great deal of skill; it pays homage to the original film while expanding its themes; it features some impressive visuals thanks to Roger Deakins, and it does suggest a lot of depth to its imagined future. Alas, I can’t quite be enthusiastic about it. For one thing, it’s yet another dystopian vision of the future, and it feels far less distinctive than even the now-cliché original. The level of violence is high, the character motivations are opaque, and the final fight drags on and on. (Actually, much of the film drags on and on.) Harrison Ford is brought back from the mothballs in the latest example of his latest “hey, I used to be in all those great movies!” tour, but he’s allowed his wrinkles whereas Sean Young is digitally re-created to youthful perfection. There’s also a sense of intense déjà vu to the point of meaninglessness to the themes taken on by the film—it doesn’t help that in-between a dozen movies released between 2010 and 2014, as well as two seasons of Westworld, there’s only so much you can say about humanity and its android creations. What’ the point of resurrecting Blade Runner after twenty-five years if there’s not a whole lot to say about it? At least Ryan Gosling is maturing nicely as an actor, and there are plenty of good supporting performance—from Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista and others—to make the viewing interesting despite the far too long running time. I couldn’t be happier that the current master of filmed science fiction happens to be a French-Canadian, but I’d like Denis Villeneuve to make more movies like Arrival and fewer retreads of tired old properties. I suspect that twenty-five years from now, we will still talk about the 1982 movie and not really about the sequel.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) For a film often derided as “Harrison Ford among the Amish”, Witness does have quite a bit running under the surface. Its somewhat predictable story does hide a well-executed thriller with a few surprising moments and a fairly harsh tone throughout. It rarely makes any compromises when it comes to presenting the danger of its thriller elements: there is blood, numerous violent deaths, real danger for most characters and pervasive paranoia once the outline of the corrupt cops becomes clear. Harrison Ford is rather good in the main role, a policeman who seeks refuge with the Amish once he’s badly hurt and surrounded by people who want to kill him. The romance that emerges between him and another Amish woman is handled decently (I did not expect this much nudity…) and resolved in a somewhat atypical manner. Better yet is the climax, which sees the non-violent ways of the Amish overcome a dangerous man with a gun: the film does make a point of espousing the virtues of its subjects, and the consequent respect of Amish values help make Witness more than a curiosity piece even today.
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2016) I have watched Blade Runner at least once before, but it was a long time ago and I can’t guarantee that it was in one single sitting. It was probably in the mid-nineties, at a time when I was diving deep into nerd culture and the film was de rigueur viewing—the only accepted conclusion to watching the film was to brand it an undeniable classic. Actually sitting down to watch its Final Cut in one gulp twenty years later, however, I find myself somewhat more reserved. Oh, it’s still a good film, especially when measured against the Science Fiction movies of that time: It’s considerably more mature, refined and ambiguous. From today’s perspective, however, it’s not quite as fresh. There are (especially on Blu Ray) annoying differences between the image quality of the shots, sometimes grainy, sometimes blurred. The special effects are limited and used sparingly (even often literally repeated), the themes have been reused almost endlessly since then, and the pacing is notably slack—by the time the classic ending came by, I was surprised at how little had happened. This isn’t to take away from its achievement, but to put it in context as a tremendously influential film. While the vision of a multicultural rain-soaked neon-lit Los Angeles was, at the time, unlike anything else, it crossed over to cliché roughly twenty-five years ago. It’s a testimony to director Ridley Scott, as well as to actors Harrison Ford, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer that the film still holds up today even after inspiring so many other works. In a way, the fact that we can’t watch Blade Runner in the same way today than in 1982 proves how much of a classic it is. But as a film, it’s not perfect—so mark me down as nominally interested in the idea of next year’s sequel.
(On DVD, November 2016) As a frothy tropical comedy featuring intergenerational romance, Six Days Seven Nights almost exactly what it claims to be. As a young woman (Anne Heche) and an older man (Harrison Ford, up to his usual grumpy persona) are stranded on a tropical island, misadventures pile up until they include bad weather, plane crashes, pirates and tropical survival. Most of it is in good fun, with the added appeal of tropical scenery. The main plot works reasonably well, but I can’t help but feel that it’s sabotaged by the subplot, in which the partners of the lost couple indulge in adultery and ultimately dictate the disappointing ending of the film. (This is one of the few romantic comedies in which it’s understandable not to root for the lead couple to remain together, as mismatched as they are. I give them six months.) David Schwimmer is OK as the abandoned subplot fiancé, but pales in comparison to Jacqueline Obradors’ far more spirited performance in the same vicinity. Otherwise, veteran comedy director Ivan Reitman keeps things moving and if Six Days Seven Nights doesn’t rise up much above the usual, it’s done in a genre that’s more agreeable than most. (As long as you can forgive the ending, that is.)
(Second or third viewing, On TV, September 2016) Forgetting something isn’t usually a cause for joy, but forgetting enough of a great movie to make it possible to rediscover it as a great movie is an exception. So it is that I remembered enough of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to remember that it was a good movie, but not enough to spoil the moment-to-moment joy of watching it again twenty years later. A far more decent follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark than the disappointing Temple of Doom, this Last Crusade quickly fires on all cylinders the moment Jones Senior (Sean Connery in one of his most enjoyable performances) shows up to rival Jones Junior. The interplay between Connery and Harrison Ford is terrific (especially when Alison Doody’s temptress character is involved), and confronting the Nazis in their backyard is a great way to heighten the stakes. Steven Spielberg is also remarkable in his action-adventure mode, cleverly building up suspense and working his audience like a fiddle—the tank sequence alone is a masterclass in how to build an action sequence. Faithfully taking up the thrill-a-minute rhythm of the serials that inspired the first film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one of the good adventure movies of the eighties, and it still works remarkably well today. For best results, watch it soon after the first film.
(Third or fourth viewing, On TV, September 2016) What a movie! I probably saw it more than twice before I started keeping online reviews in 1997, but it had been so long that I almost rediscovered the film in watching it again. It hasn’t aged much: while some of the special effects now look charmingly quaint, the pacing, shot construction, acting performances and overall sense of fun remains timeless. Harrison Ford has one of his career-best roles here, and Karen Allen is simply fantastic as Marion. Steven Spielberg directs the film with uncanny precision, and much of the practical effects are still convincing today. The use of Nazis as antagonists is guilt-free, while the mystical overtones of the story perfectly complete it rather than confuse it. Even looking at the film through the now-familiar Protagonist Redundancy Paradox (i.e.; Does Indiana Jones actually change anything through his actions?) doesn’t take away any of the thrills of the results. I’ve been revisiting a number of classic movies lately, and most of the time the reassessment isn’t kind. But with Raiders of the Lost Ark, I’m just as thrilled now as I was when I first saw the movie as a kid. What a movie!
(On Blu-ray, April 2016) It’s not that The Force Awakens is un-reviewable—it’s that there’s so much to say that a full review would take a few pages, encompass the recent business state of Hollywood, meander on commodified nostalgia, indulge in insufferably nerdy nitpicking, and yet deliver an assessment not that far removed from “wow, competence!” This is a capsule review, so let’s start cracking: My first and biggest takeaway from The Force Awakens is that I’m not 7 years old, watching Star Wars on French-language broadcast TV and being so amazed that I can’t say anything bad about it. The Force Awakens is far from being perfect, and it doesn’t take much digging to find it crammed with problems. Even on a first view, I’m not particularly happy that thirty years later, The Rebellion hasn’t managed to establish a workable government and seems stuck in an endless echoing battle against evil. (Heck, they still haven’t changed their name, apparently.) My mind boggles at the economic or political absurdities of what’s shown on-screen, and the moment I start asking questions about basic plot plausibility is the moment I start making a lengthy list of the amazing coincidences, contrivances and plain impossible conveniences that power the plot. The jaded will point out that director J.J. Abrams has never been overly bothered by plotting logic and The Force Awakens certainly bolsters this view. Worse, perhaps, is the pacing of the film, which often goofs off in underwhelming ways rather than go forward. Then there’s the way this return to the Star Wars universe seems unusually pleased in echoing the first film’s elements, all the way to another who-cares run through a Death Planetoid’s trench. On the other hand, echoing is forgivable when the point of this film is to reassure everyone that the soon-to-be-endless Star Wars franchise is safe now that Disney took it away from George Lucas. In that matter, The Force Awakens is a success: it feels like classic Star Wars, from the visuals to the music to the elusive atmosphere of the first three films. Sometimes, a bit too much so: The decision to shoot the movie on actual film introduces film grain issues that sometimes vary from shot to shot, which is enough to drive anyone crazy. (Witness the Rey/Finn shots in the cantina…) Star Wars clearly isn’t as much about story than characters and set pieces, and that’s also where The Force Awakens succeeds: Harrison Ford seems timelessly charming as Han Solo, while John Boyega, Daisy Williams and Oscar Isaac are also easily likable in their roles. (Boyega and Isaacs are effortlessly cool, but Daisy Williams has a more delicate role as a stealth superhero.) Adam Driver has a tougher job as the intriguing Kylo Ren, riffing but not copying the series’s iconic villains. Then there are the set pieces, which often work despite shaky logic, implausible premises and nonsensical engineering. Coring a new planet-killer out of a planet may not strike anyone as the best plan, but it’s good for some fantastic images and at some point, that’s what really counts. Especially when, in the end, we’re left satisfied that this seventh Star Wars film is better than the prequel trilogy, and are left looking for more. Mark these words: There will now be a Star Wars movie every year for at least a decade and probably more. This one’s special, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t age well once the sequels start piling up.
(Video on Demand, September 2015) As a Science Fiction film fan with annoying analytical tendencies, I’m often fascinated by those romantic movies that hinge on a clearly science-fictional device (usually time travel or a variant thereof) but otherwise don’t really belong to the SF genre. The Time Traveller’s Wife, About Time, Premonition, The Lake House… take your pick, and add The Age of Adaline to the list, given how a thin (but definitive) scientific rationale is provided to explain how a woman in her twenties stops aging in 1938 and makes it to 2015 by avoiding permanent relationships. Much of the film is about what happens when she finally dares to face love, and what happens when the past comes back to haunt her. Blake Lively is very good in the lead role, while Harrison Ford finally gets to act for the first time in years. San Francisco is used to lovely effect (although it strains credulity to imagine that an immortal would spend most of her time in such a small city) and Lee Toland Krieger’s direction is quite good. From a genre Science Fiction perspective, it seems provocative that the comet metaphor doesn’t make any sense, but particularly that the SF intrusion would be perceived as stifling, the heroine only reaching personal growth when it is removed from the world. (The word “flexibility” is used toward the end of the film in a most telling context.) That’s the kind of detail that illuminates why while The Age of Adaline may be a film with a Science Fiction element, it’s not really a Science Fiction film… although that shouldn’t be seen as a problem for what is, after all, a reasonably entertaining take on romantic drama musings.
(On Cable TV, April 2014) There is very little that new, inspiring or even interesting about Paranoia, a completely average thriller. One young man, stuck between warring superiors in a corporate espionage thriller: we’ve seen nearly all of the bits and pieces in other better movies before, and director Robert Luketic can’t do much to save the end result from terminal mediocrity. Liam Hemsworth is blander than bland as the pretty-face protagonist, but the surprise here is to see Gary Oldman being so… dull even as a shaved-head Harrison Ford gets to chew some scenery as one of the two villains. For a thriller, Paranoia is almost refreshingly devoid of violence: There’s some running around and one solid car-on-pedestrian hit, but the rest of the film plays out in very civilized threats of economic turmoil and career setbacks. What is mildly interesting about the film is the contemporary wrapping around the plot: The hero makes an inspiring opening speech about his generation being robbed of a future by the financial downturn (hey, what about the rest of the 99%, all ages included?), has money problems due to medical costs for his ailing father, and spends much of the movie blathering about smart-phone technology. All are signs of the time, often more fascinating in bad-to-average movies than in innovative ones. Still, that doesn’t’ necessarily make Paranoia any more than a passable, calmer-than-usual thriller fit to entertain only if there are no other more compelling alternatives.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) As a confirmed Science Fiction reader with an extensive knowledge of the genre’s classics (seriously, have you read the book reviews on this web site?), the big-screen adaptation of Ender’s Game after decades of discussion and false hopes (“Jake Lloyd as Ender!”) is a Big Deal. It’s one of the genre’s biggest, most passionately-discussed novels finally brought to a wider audience, with all of the good and bad that this supposes. (I’m going to mention, but not dwell upon, the controversy surrounding novel author Orson Scott Card’s homophobia… except to note ironically that if someone reads Ender’s Game without any clue as to Card’s attitudes, they’re likely to find a sympathetic depiction of a protagonist who may very well be more interested in boys than girls.) The good news are that much of the novel’s plot has been adapted reasonably faithfully. Even the changes feel like a much-needed polish over the novel’s rougher elements: Ender being a more reasonable age, streamlining some of the plot points, toning down the “bugger” slurs, excising the “genius bloggers” angle, and including a redemption for one of the minor antagonists: It makes the novel’s most problematic edges easier to take (and if you don’t think the novel has its share of edges, go re-read it.) Much of the novel’s surprises are included as well (although, yes, the trailer does spoil one of the pivotal images) although telegraphed so hard that readers may find them underwhelming. The use of cutting-edge special effects makes not only for visually pleasing space-fight sequences, but for a convincing Battle Room as well. Gavin Hood’s direction is nicely unobtrusive, while Asa Butterfield makes for a serviceable Ender even as Harrison Ford turns in another fun grumpy-old-man performance. Ender’s Game does feel rushed (the novel takes place over years, making the progression of the protagonist more realistic –the film seems to take place over six months.), doesn’t seem to portray Ender’s isolation and exhaustion as accurately, and takes a few too many shortcuts in an attempt to set up the background information. And while the novel was explicitly written to set up sequel Speaker for the Dead, the film does the same, leading to a truly puzzling conclusion for non-readers that is unlikely to be satisfied by a filmed sequel. For a novel as flawed as the original, the adaptation does its best, and while the result is unlikely to be as much of a classic in the movie realm as the original was in the written, Ender’s Game is a decent-enough Science Fiction film. For years, in speaking with large audience about the reach of written SF compared to filmed SF, I always used Dune as my example: in pitting the best-selling SF novel of a generation compared to a mildly-successful film adaptation, I always found that more people were familiar with the film. Now I’m about to update my example to Ender’s Game: As massively successful as the novel was and as tepidly received as the film is, more people will be familiar with the film than the novel. Even die-hard written-SF fans will have to live with that.
(On TV, April 2013) The true mark of a film isn’t to be found in its premise as much as its execution, and twenty years after its theatrical release, The Fugitive remains as slick and tightly-paced as ever was. The cars are starting to look dated, the Internet isn’t there to speed up the information-gathering but no matter: it’s a well-made film, with a few good suspense sequences and compelling writing. The protagonist is smart, the antagonist equally so, and the plot is able to wring a lot of excitement out of a series of near-misses. Vintage-era Harrison Ford is pretty good as the titular fugitive, while Tommy Lee Jones solidified his onscreen personae with his dogged portrayal of a determined federal marshal. (Elsewhere in the film, keep your eyes open for a short role for pre-fame Julianne Moore) The cinematography is crisp, the city of Chicago is used to good effect and the pacing seldom lets go. All elements combine to make a familiar premise feel fresh and exciting: Twenty years later, thrillers still don’t get much better than The Fugitive.