(On Cable TV, December 2017) I’m usually a forgiving audience for older movies—I’m getting into the mindset of forgiving the limitations of the time, and it certainly helps that what has survived until now is usually what deserves to be seen again. But even this patience has its limits, and I could feel it being tested during Little Shop of Horrors, an ultra-low-budget Roger Corman effort that seems memorable more for outrageousness than quality. Reportedly shot over two days for a paltry five-figure budget, Little Shop of Horrors makes up for its limited means through high invention: What if it was a comedy about a carnivorous plant? Of course, comedy is subjective and black comedy even more so—to me, Little Shop of Horror is more grating and mean-spirited than anything else. It is, I’ll concede, memorable: In addition to the ludicrous premise, Jack Nicholson shows up in a manic Jim Carreyesque performance as a masochistic dental client. Still, even at a running time of merely 72 minutes, the film is more of an ordeal than I had expected. Much of its contemporary popularity can be explained by how it’s in the public domain, and was later adapted as a musical and then another bigger-budget movie. As itself, though, Little Shop of Horrors is not as much fun as it could be.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) I will vigorously defend the right of filmmakers to make the movies they want to make … but then again I will also defend the right of viewers to have the reaction they want to the movie they’re seeing. This is relevant to The Pledge insofar as director Sean Penn wanted to make a movie that upended the traditional conventions of a crime thriller. (Warning: Spoilers.) The point of the script—based on a novella significantly titled “The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel”—is to show that not all investigations end up finding the culprit, and some of the time this can be a mere stroke of luck (or bad luck). The ending doesn’t go for full bleakness by killing the killer without the investigator knowing about it, but such meagre comforts do nothing to save the protagonist from ending up a ruined alcoholic mumbling to himself about his failure. Such a downer ending, coupled with the grim premise of a child killer, means that The Pledge will never become a crowd favourite. There are plenty of vastly more entertaining and deliberately satisfying crime thrillers out there if you’re looking for that kind of stuff. On the other hand, there’s quite a lot to like in The Pledge despite its intentionally downbeat nature. Jack Nicholson turns in one of his last good performances as an out-of-persona retiring detective who comes to obsess about the murder of a young girl, and promises to her mom that we will find the truth. Director Sean Penn delivers a rather good movie, handled with some care and unusual flourishes despite insisting a bit too much on some elements at time. I also suspect that Penn is the reason why the film is studded with known actors in small roles, from Benicio del Toro’s early brief turn to people such as Hellen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Mickey Rourke in rather minor roles. There’s even an intriguing plot point midway through, as the protagonist spends his retirement funds buying a gas station in order to gather more information on possible suspects. The Pledge works much better when considered as a drama rather than a thriller: it places more emphasis on the cost of obsession (even justified) and less on the achievement of detection. Still, it is a kick in the gut and I can certainly understand why many won’t like that.
(In French, On TV, October 2017) There is, without question, a lot of fun to be had watching The Witches of Eastwick on a basic level, as three likable women are seduced by the devil incarnate, only to take revenge. Jack Nicholson playing the Devil is as perfect a piece of casting as you can imagine, and there’s no denying the combined sex-appeal of Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon as the titular coven. The film does have a good go at satirizing various relationship conventions (What do Women Want? Indeed) before predictably moving toward a female empowerment finale. But therein lies the rub: There was no other way to finish the film, and it kind of goes wrong in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. I would feel far better if a woman had written the screenplay, because the male gaze (and male privilege) shown here is problematic. I’m not sure that all three women being ga-ga over babies of a dubious father makes sense. (It makes even less sense to consider that one of the female characters already has half a dozen children that practically never show up during the movie—where are they and why isn’t she spending time with them???) In some way, The Witches of Eastwick is an artifact of a time that is hopefully past—a dumb producer’s (i.e.: Jon Peters) brute-force vision of something that should be far more delicately handled. The Witches of Eastwick is funny and sexy, but it’s a guilty fun and an even guiltier sexiness. It doesn’t help that the script seems patched-up at times. The cherry pit-vomiting sequences are just gross and take away from the generally amiable remainder of the picture. (Then again, this is directed by George Miller, who’s made a career to strange tonal shifts) But this was 1987 and we’re now thirty years later—I’d be game for a less problematic remake, but I’m not sure who could step up to Nicholson’s performance.
(On TV, July 2016) Nearly everyone can quote Jack Nicholson’s furious “You can’t handle the truth!” but watching A Few Good Men highlights how that line works best as a culmination rather than a standalone quote. A somewhat sombre judicial drama in which a hotshot lawyer (Tom Cruise, remarkably good) takes on the US Marines establishment in an effort to discover what happened to a dead soldier, A Few Good Men is the kind of slick mainstream drama that has almost disappeared from the box-office top-ten. Slickly made with a roster of good actors, it has the means to present its story as effectively as possible. The result is a good comfortable film, handled with old-school care. It may not be all that efficient (the opening act is notably slow, and missteps in initially focusing on a character who’s not the real protagonist) but it’s competent and slowly makes its way to a conclusion heavy on shouting and courtroom excitement. Jack Nicholson is good in a surprisingly small role (it looks as if he showed up for a few days of work), Kiefer Sutherland pops up as a soldier, while Demi Moore doesn’t impress all that much in a fairly conventional role that leaves far too much glory to Tom Cruise’s character.
(On TV, June 2015) I don’t often cry while watching movies, let alone slick soulless Hollywood comedies, but taking in a film about men dying of cancer days after attending a funeral for a friend who passed away from leukemia is asking for exceptions. So it is that, uncharacteristically enough, I felt a few manly tears roll down my cheeks during the last few moments of The Bucket List, as I started contemplating life, death, legacies and whether it’s even possible to go gently into the night. I really didn’t expect this from this film, which is as pre-packaged a glossy Hollywood comedy as it comes. But we are creatures of circumstances, and for a few minutes I was able to let go of my usual analytical mind and just feel purely sad. So it is that I’m not going to attempt to review The Bucket List itself: Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson each play to their strengths, and the result just short-circuited my logical circuits. Given how deeply my departed friend was into movies (he was once nominated for a Genie screenwriting award), may this serves as a significant epitaph of sorts.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) At the time of Anger Management’s release, there was something a bit clever in casting Adam Sandler in the role of a meek man who is led by circumstances into assuming his innate aggression: Early-career Sandler exemplified a violent man-child comic persona, so much of Anger Management is spent waiting for the inevitable explosions. (After 2002’s Mr. Deeds, his persona would be softened to a gentler good-guy one.) To see him paired off with Jack Nicholson (who has spent much of his late career perfecting abrasive characters) is a further wonder. And, at times, Anger Management works: there are funny set-pieces, many showcase moments for Nicholson’s ability to be both unpleasant and compelling and Sandler navigates a fine edge between his early aggressive persona and his latter-day amiable everyday-man. Marisa Tomei is likable in a somewhat generic role, with fun performance in smaller roles from Luis Guzman, John Turturro, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. (There are also more than a few celebrity cameos, as is often the case in Happy Madison-produced movies.) Where Anger Management gets in a bit of a mess, however, is in its messy collage of absurd contrivances, late-revealed conspiracy, attempts to link back to a childhood prologue and ultimate claim to be about something else than simple anger management. The last few minutes are a series of “Really? Really??” that don’t add much to the film, especially when its reason for existing is simply seeing Sandler face off with Nicholson –if the film’s poster could get that right, then why didn’t the script? Of course, Adam Sandler films aren’t exactly known for tight scripts and focused scenes – sometimes, it’s best to just enjoy the comic set-pieces and ignore the attempts at making it all mean something at the end.
(On TV, March 2015) While As Good As It Gets was a good box-office hit and a monster award contender in 1997, I had somehow managed to avoid it until now. Featuring iconic performances and oft-quoted material, I thought I knew what the film was about. I was wrong, of course, but the idealized version of the film that I carried in my head remains more satisfying than the one on-screen. Both don’t start to diverge until fairly late in the film: As a confirmed obsessive-compulsive misanthrope who has somehow become a much-loved best-selling author, Jack Nicholson has one of his signature character here, and the cockiness with which he delivers either put-downs or compliments is nothing short of legendary. (And those quotes… they’re ever-green.) Opposite him, Helen Hunt has rarely been more appealing as a single-mom waitress whose boundless compassion is tested by a thoroughly detestable human being. (Meanwhile, Greg Kinnear is just fine as a gay artist overcoming the trauma of an attack, although this is really not his movie.) As Good as It Gets is enjoyable as it forces these characters to be together for a while, their eccentricities and neuroses bouncing off each other through great dialogue and telling details. But the film seems to lose itself somewhere in its third quarter of the film: For all of the interest in the platonic friendship between our two leads, I feel that the film takes a step too far by matching them together romantically. The age difference between the two is bad enough (twenty six years!), but the film itself seems to acknowledge how bad a fit they are, and the small moment of détente at the very end isn’t particularly convincing: I would have been far happier a viewer at seeing both of them heal each other, and evolve in their own respective directions. But, eh, what do I know? As Good as it Gets made money, got great reviews and remains a bit of a reference almost twenty years later. Given that, I’ll take my opinion and keep it for myself.
(On cable TV, April 2012) Watching well-made romantic comedies is so effortless that making them seems easy… and then you find one that doesn’t quite work as well as it could. On the surface, How Do You Know isn’t a hard movie to like: It has four good actors in the lead (Paul Rudd is charming as the co-protagonist and Owen Wilson is almost hilarious as a clueless baseball player but the film’s highlight is that Reese Witherspoon is aging really well –I can’t recall her looking any better), appealing characters, quirky details, a few big laughs and a somewhat witty script. Shot to glossy perfection in the streets of Washington DC, it’s the kind of film fully steeped in movie-magic, fit to send audiences in a feel-good trance. And yet… it never quite clicks. The dialogues, even from the first few scenes, seem willfully scattered. The scenes go on for longer than they should, and no amount of character charm nor scene-setting can excuse the tepid rhythm. While How Do You Know earns a few credits for avoiding the more obvious clichés of romantic comedies, it doesn’t quite replace those clichés with anything remarkably compelling. The look at the struggles of an aging female athlete seems eclipsed by the look at the idiocy of an aging male athlete, while the corporate malfeasance plot doesn’t quite boil at any point in the story. It all amount to nothing much; at best, a pleasantly eccentric but forgettable romance. But then, looking up the film’s production information, you find out that it cost $120 million, almost half of which was spent on five key salaries… and the film goes from unobjectionable to incomprehensible. Really, writer/director James L. Brooks? Did you really need Jack Nicholson to play his same shtick for that amount of money? How Do You Know feels like the kind of low-budget romance given to hungry up-and-coming directors for a quick release a modest box-office… not blockbuster budgets and massive audiences: there’s nothing here to warrant more attention. No amount of “Eh, it was all right” can recoup those losses.
(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): With the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, it’s becoming easier to forget about Tim Burton’s reinvention of the character, before it slid once again in franchise-killing high camp during the Joel Schumacher years. And that’s a shame, because despite some increasingly dated aspects, Batman still keeps an operatic grandeur that resonates even today. The story is thin and eighties-fashion still peeks through the self-conscious blend of historical references, but the entire film remains intriguing. Health Ledger may have taken over the Joker’s look, but Jack Nicholson’s take on the character remains magnetic. Only an underwhelming finale falters visibly: While everyone remembers the Batman/Joker showdown in the streets of Gotham, fewer will recall the following sequence taking place in a cathedral. Two decades after the film’s release, the special edition DVD can afford to be candid about the film’s rushed production, last-minute producer-driven script changes and casting choices. Alas, director Burton’s commentary track could have benefited from judicious editing: His “you know?”s start grating early on and never fade away.
(Third viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I hadn’t watched Batman in more than ten years, but another look was more than warranted given rapid evolution of superhero movies since then. Tim Burton’s Batman turns out to be a significant step in the evolution of Batman’s movie portrayal from sixties silliness to Nolan’s grimmer portrayal. It’s certainly trying to be more serious, but it can’t completely manage it. It doesn’t help that Burton’s vision for his characters (and particularly the joker) is so colourful and exuberant: it’s tough to keep a straight face at what Jack Nicholson pulls off in his completely unrestrained performance. Otherwise, it’s fascinating to see in here the seeds of the modern superhero blockbuster, albeit with pre-digital effects, restrained cinematography and somewhat more silliness. (Not included in the movie, but far more important, are the media tie-in and marketing effort surrounding the film, which I remember more than the movie itself) Michael Keaton is better than anyone may remember as Bruce Wayne/Batman, while Kim Basinger is spectacular as Vicki Vale. The ending is a bit dull (the Joker shooting down the batwing is memorable, but the subsequent cathedral sequence isn’t), but there are enough good scenes along the way to make it worthwhile. It’s probably impossible to overstate Batman’s impact on the modern blockbuster industry, but there’s actually a worthwhile film underneath the hype.