(On DVD, August 2017) Is A Fish Called Wanda overhyped, or was I just in the wrong mood for it? No matter the reason, I’m tempted to label this acknowledged classic as mildly amusing and leave it at that. The fault isn’t with the actors: John Cleese is in fine full persona as a stiff upper-lip barrister, seduced by a curiously sexualized Jamie Lee Curtis as part of a larger robbery plot. Various quirky characters populate the edges of the film, none more forcefully than Kevin Kline as a grossly caricatured American villain. The script is densely plotted for a comedy, and it deftly mixes physical comedy with fine repartee (the apology moment is a quote for the ages). The direction is sometimes more dynamic than expected, and that may be a clue to A Fish Called Wanda’s more humdrum reception today: What may have been striking back in 1988 is the norm today. I may have been partially inoculated to the film’s charm by having watched its “equal” Fierce Creatures a few months ago—the two films share the same sensibilities, and the first one seen may end up feeling like the better of the two. Still, it’s not as if I disliked A Fish Called Wanda: I merely found it good but underwhelming, and there are worse critical assessments out there.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2016) Given that I have no perceptible affection for the slasher genre, revisiting the Halloween series twenty years later via Halloween H20 is more interesting for what it shows about the evolution of the genre in two decades and where the slasher genre was at the end of the nineties. Comparing the original 1978 Halloween (and its inseparable first sequel) to this nineties remake shows the gradual taming of the subgenre over the years. The 1998 version is slicker, glossier, occasionally sadistic but just as often hesitant to go too far. (e.g.; no killing kids in public restrooms, thankfully!) The focus on teenagers remains, even though this late sequel cleverly makes middle-aged Jamie Lee Curtis the hero of this belated fight with Michael Myers. Perhaps most of all, though, is Halloween H20’s demonstration that the nineties slasher genre was profoundly dull. Once the film spends the first 30 minutes setting up the plot pieces, everything else follows without much surprise or interest. It predictably builds up to a culminating fight in which the final girl presumably kills the villain … at least until later filmmakers change their minds. The problem is that Michael Myers is remarkably dull even as a quasi-supernatural psycho killer—he has no personality to speak of, and he feels less like a mortal threat than an annoyance you can’t get rid of. It’s possible to damn Halloween H20 with the faint praise of competent execution, even though even that has its limits: Much of this 90-minute film feels far too long, stretched beyond impatience through endless “suspense” moments in which we wait for the next predictable event to occur. At least there is some fun in looking at the cast: Beyond a competent Jamie Lee Curtis, there’s the big-screen debut of Josh Hartnett, an early appearance by Michelle Williams, a minor character for LL Cool J and a very short role for Joseph Gordon-Lewitt. It says much about the film’s interest that there’s more fun talking about the cast than in what happens in the film. Slasher movies periodically rise from the grave to annoy new generations, but few people seem to miss them when they go away.
(On TV, November 2016) Slicker, gorier but ultimately less interesting than its predecessor, Halloween II at least has the distinction of picking up moments after the original, making for a surprisingly integrated sequel from a narrative point of view. Of course, the match isn’t perfect: Having disposed of much of the cast in the first movie, the follow-up has to reintroduce new characters to kill by moving the action to a nearby hospital. Audience expectations being what they were in 1981 at the height of the slasher craze, the sequel is also significantly gorier, with bigger hints of nudity than the original. Then, of course, is the nature of the antagonist, here even more mysterious and invincible than in the original. There’s also a generally useless revelation regarding the link between heroine and psycho-killer that is best forgotten. But in “improving” upon the original in this way, the sequel also moves closer to the average eighties slasher. As a result, the things that still make the first Halloween remarkable aren’t to be found in the sequel. At least Jamie Lee Curtis isn’t bad as the heroine. Still, the best argument for watching Halloween II is that it closely continues and completes the first film’s story—if you get it in the same DVD series pack, then why not watch it as well? It’s barely more than 90 minutes long, so you can actually watch the two films one after another in the same evening.
(On TV, October 2016) I have no affection and only little academic interest in the slasher genre. It’s not a kind of film that I enjoy (although I’m not opposed to other supernatural horror genres), but in trying to build a coherent picture of the horror genre over the past few decades, it’s often necessary to watch some reprehensible films along the way. Halloween remains a reference largely due to its influence on the horror genre in the following decade, in which an explosion of similar films dominated the lower rungs of the B-movie ecosystem. (I was five in 1980 and ten in 1985, so you can imagine the nostalgic memories of discovering VHS stores at the time and their terrifying cassette box art.) Knowing this, the biggest surprise in watching Halloween is how restrained it is: While there is disturbing violence, it rarely revels in the gore and terror of the victims. While there is teenage hanky-panky, there is no nudity. While the film sustains an atmosphere of dread and suspense, it feels far less exploitative than many of the films it influences. There’s a fair case to be made that Halloween is closer to a thriller than to horror and while I don’t entirely agree, this is a film now most notable for the tropes it does not use. Director John Carpenter is at the top of his game here, and the direction of the film remains remarkable even today. (The opening point-of-view sequence is still upsetting even at an age of found-footage films.) It’s also difficult to avoid mentioning the iconic soundtrack of the film, which set an example that would dominate a slew of eighties films. A very young Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic in the lead role. While the film remains a slasher, it’s a competently executed one even today (and especially considering its low budget). It’s striking, however, how much of Halloween’s impact is now dictated by the movies it influenced than by itself.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) In one way, I’ve been waiting more than twenty-five years to watch Trading Places,—spurred by an intriguing comment in High-School economics class that it was a movie that featured a stock-market crash. But watching it today, the one distinguishing characteristic of the film, and the one that ensures that it’s still relevant today, is the charged racial humour, as a street-smart hustler is set up as a patsy for a stock-brokering scheme. Eddie Murphy is very good as the hustler made respectable, with Dan Aykroyd as the naïf who becomes far more world-aware after being disgraced. Jamie Lee Curtis also shows up (sometimes naked) as a prostitute with a solid plan for her future. Trading Places is obviously a product of its time—the technical references are charmingly dated, the portrait of a wintry Chicago is pure period, the World Exchange Towers show up in an eerie cameo, and much of its financial shenanigans aren’t revelatory given a few more economic crises and the rise of the day trader. Still, the class-warfare component of the film remains just as pressing today, and the jokes still work pretty well despite a slightly slower pace and some strange plot loops toward the third quarter of the film. Watching Trading Places has been worth the wait, though—Seeing Murphy in top form is always a delight.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) So it turns out that I was in the mood for a farce and didn’t even know it. Upon its release, Fierce Creatures soon became known as “the not-as-good companion film to A Fish Called Wanda”, featuring many of the same cast and crew and resonances in plotting. Not having seen A Fish Called Wanda yet (this will change soon), that freed me to enjoy Fierce Creatures on its own merits and while not all of it works as well, it does have considerable charm and strong moments. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the film (besides the zoo environment, and the sympathetic role given to the animal minders) is how clever the script can be in acknowledging and responding to comic clichés. The first half of the film, for instance, has a ton of dumb plans that end up easily detected and defused by the protagonist: in lesser films, those dumb plans would have carried the day. (It also heightens the stakes for the film’s last fifteen minutes, in which another dumb plan it set up –will it be detected and defused as well?) Otherwise, the film features strong roles for John Cleese as the gradually sympathetic protagonist and Kevin Kline as two imbecilic antagonists, while Jamie Lee Curtis unusually plays up her sex-appeal. The innuendos work, the sight-gags can be very funny and if the film’s first fifteen minutes feel a bit disconnected, much of the film is pleasant enough to watch, building up to a few good set-pieces. (The running gag about the protagonist’s perceived insatiable sexual appetite gets funnier and funnier.) Nearly twenty-five years later, Fierce Creatures remains a well-executed comedy that stands on its own.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2015) I have very dim memories of seeing the original 1976 Freaky Friday as a kid, but I don’t think that it changed me or anything. This remake won’t have much of an impact either, given how closely it sticks to its body-switching premise and the most obvious implications of it. Here, Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan play a mother/daughter pair who, thanks to mysterious Chinese magic, swap bodies on a most inconvenient day. It goes without saying that the mom is an overachieving control freak and that the daughter is a just as stereotypically rebellious teenager. Both of them learn valuable life lessons, they learn about walking a day in the other person’s shoes and the universe goes back to normal. The script slickly sets up all of the target it later takes down, leading to an experience that’s as professionally put-together as it’s intensely predictable. Given that it’s aimed at teenagers, the film plays dumb often, failing the “would this happen in our reality?” test several times. The shortcuts to show adolescent rebelliousness are crude, which is reinforces by a mildly annoying soundtrack that repurposes older songs in a punk style. (Let’s face it, though; as a teen I probably would have thought this would have been awesome. Alas, I’m closer to parent of a teenager than a teenager nowadays.) Still, Freaky Friday does have its redeeming qualities: Jamie Lee Curtis is pretty good when she’s letting her inner teenager run rampant, and a pre-downfall Lindsey Lohan shows what comic skills she once had. There are a few chuckles here and there despite the rote nature of the film, and I suppose that everything could have been a lot worse. The film’s heart is in the right place, and by the time the happy ending rolls around, I doubt that anyone cares.
(On-demand Video, April 2012) It feels churlish to criticize a film that’s not meant to be much more than a lighthearted comedy with a female-centric cast, and perhaps even ungrateful to do so when it does deliver a few laughs, but You Again simply isn’t as good as it could be. While the idea of a decade-deferred vengeance between bully and bullied is interesting and definitely can be mined for comedy, this script seems confused between slapstick, retribution and reconciliation. The first act is annoying in how it presents a relatively innocuous situation where an easy way out is dismissed through sheer dramatic inevitability: the main conflict of the film exists because the characters are self-destructive, and the ending doesn’t do much to send an anti-bullying or even anti-revenge message. But, OK, fine: this is not a “message” movie, even though it shoots itself in the foot comedy-wise by trying to reach for a heartfelt moment or two late in the game. It’s perhaps best to focus on Kirsten Bell’s physical comedy in the lead role, or the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver as dueling rivals, or the always-hilarious Betty White and Kristin Chenoweth in small supporting roles. (There are also a few cute cameos.) Meanwhile, the male performers all wisely take a step back in order to let the actresses shine. It adds up to a film that’s not too difficult to watch, but goes through a number of fuzzy plot choices that do nothing to bring You Again out of average mediocrity. Good casting; flat script: could have been much better.
(Second Viewing, On DVD, July 2010) I hadn’t seen True Lies since it was first released in theatres, and while it has visibly aged since then, it hasn’t lost much of its appeal. Beginning like a competent James Bond clone featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film soon takes a then-unusual turn in portraying a secret agent dealing with matrimonial issues. While this trope isn’t so fresh now after such films as Mr and Mrs Smith (and was adapted from French film La Totale in the first place), it’s still rich in possibilities that True Lies exploits relatively well. Unfortunately, what seems more obvious now are the pacing issues: There’s a mid-film lull that more or less coincides with increasingly unpleasant harassment of the lead female character by her husband, and even the reversal/payoff later in the film doesn’t completely excuse the bad feeling left by the sequence. On the other hand, the action scenes are almost as good as they could be despite some dated CGI work: True Lies may be among director James Cameron’s lesser work, but it shows his understanding of how an action scene can be put together and features mini-payoffs even in the smallest details. The last half-hour is just one thrill ride after another, culminating in a savvy Miami high-altitude ballet. In terms of acting, it’s fun to see Eliza Dushku in a small but pivotal pre-Buffy role as the hero’s daughter or Tia Carrere as an evil terro-kitten –although it’s no less strange to see Jamie Lee Curtis get a few minutes of screen time as a sex symbol and I can’t help to think that Schwarzenegger, however great he is playing up to his own archetype, is singularly miscast as a character who should look far meeker. Uncomfortable mid-film harassment sequences aside, True Lies nonetheless holds up fairly well more than a decade and a half later, thanks to a clever blend of action, humor and married romance. What really doesn’t hold up, though, is the bare-bones 1999 DVD edition, which is marred by a poor grainy transfer and a quasi-complete lack of supplements. We know about James Cameron’s reputation for excess during the making of his movies: There’s got to be an awesome documentary somewhere in this film’s production archives.