(On TV, March 2017) The dangers with slapstick comedies are numerous. Badly handled, they become juvenile, offensive, repetitive and annoying. Well-done, preferably combined with other kinds of humour, slapstick can bring a lot of energy in a comedy. The Steve Martin remake of The Pink Panther doesn’t avoid the worst pitfalls of its subgenre, but it generally succeeds more than it fails, and crucially gets significantly better toward the end. The point of the movie is the character of Inspecteur Clouseau, often bumbling, usually disaster-prone but (this is important) someone who can eventually piece together the mystery in the end. So it is that the first half of The Pink Panther accumulates all of the problems of slapstick. It’s brought down to a kids’ movie worst-common-denominator level, has little subtlety or wit, keeps doubling-down on gags that aren’t funny in the first place and often skirt discomfort at the physical violence of some jokes. Clouseau’s antics are more likely to make audience cringe than laugh. But here and there, we can see signs that the film knows what it’s doing. A few recurring gags and over-the-top madness combine to have a cyclist crash into a newsstand that then explodes, earning the first laugh of the film and reassuring us that the filmmakers are truly going for excess. As the movie goes on, we get to understand its sense of humour better and succumb (at least occasionally) to it. The ending, during which Clouseau pieces everything together in a dazzling sequence of deductions, does quite a bit to endear us to the movie, even as flawed as it is—it’s one thing to have a completely incompetent hero, but it’s much better to see them pull it together in the end. Martin is decent as Clouseau—my memories of Peter Sellers as the original Clouseau are so far away that I don’t have a lot of material for comparison, but he sells both the verbal and the physical comedy. Meanwhile, Jean Reno has a rare (and imposing) clean-shaven role as a sidekick, Kevin Kline has the sadistic-boss role wrapped up, Emily Mortimer is unusually cute as the romantic interest (she gets two or three of the film’s best scenes) and Beyoncé Knowles shows up in a bid to be taken seriously as a comic actress, with middling results. Jason Statham and Clive Owen also very briefly show up in too-small roles. The Pink Panther isn’t particularly good, but it is occasionally effective, and its dedication to slapstick makes for an unusual entry in today’s comedy styling.
(In French, Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I know I’ve seen Léon at least once twenty-some years ago, but I didn’t remember much more than one or two images for it. Count that as a good thing, because it allowed me to rediscover Léon in most of its glory. It’s not a triumph of plotting, but of execution: writer/director Luc Besson’s a flawed filmmaker, but in Léon has managed to play to his strengths such as action, atmosphere and iconic characters, while minimizing most of his weaknesses like stupid dialogues and tiring anti-establishmentarianism. Well, most of his weaknesses, because if you go down the rabbit hole of the movie’s deleted scenes picturing a romantic relationship between the two lead characters and then match that to Besson’s own personal romantic history you will be screaming, “No, Luc Besson, no!” faster than you’d expect. But moving on: Léon distills a strong but uncomplicated story to a few action set pieces and clever character moments. It’s almost uncluttered (save from some oddities such as the shooting-the-president comic sequence), focuses on its better moments and showcases three great actors: Natalie Portman in her screen debut, Jean Reno in what’s perhaps still his best-known role (luckily, he dubs his own voice in the French version), and Gary Oldman in another great role in a long and varied filmography. The action beats are impeccable, and the atmosphere of a bustling but slightly rotten New York City is fantastic. Léon holds up all right, especially considering how often the teenage-assassin idea has been redone since then.
(On TV, July 2015) The best and worst thing about Couples Retreat is how resolutely predictable it can be. A fairly traditional (albeit PG-13-rated glancing at R) Hollywood comedy about matrimonial reconciliation, it relies heavily on the comic persona of its lead actors: Jason Bateman plays the straight-man with a bit of unpleasantness lurking at the edge of his personality; Vince Vaughn plays the overgrown-frat boy loudmouth; Jon Favreau is a lout… and so on. Characters are established early and seldom deviate from their broad personalities, the reconciliatory ending is a foregone conclusion and the gags along the way tend to be fairly obvious. Much of the details are inane bordering on moronic (I’m still figuring out why Guitar Hero would need a dedicated salesman) but the film goes have the “tropical retreat romantic comedy” atmosphere in the tradition of Just Go With It, Blended or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Even though most jaded viewers may not appreciate the leisurely pace of characters on holidays, there’s a little bit of vicarious living in spending an hour or so in tropical settings. The main players are up to themselves: Bateman and Vaughn don’t really stretch their persona, but Jean Reno makes for a fun self-help guru while Peter Serafinowicz has a small but hilarious role as a demanding host. All of the film’s slight qualities don’t manage to make it stand out as anything but a middle-of-the road kind of comedy. There was potential for something a bit more unnerving (a comparison between trailer and final film suggests that at least one risqué subplot was cut out –although a reference to realized infidelity stays in the film and comes as a bit of a surprise.) but in the end embraces traditional values. And yet, as predictable Couples Retreat can be, it’s also comforting in a way.
(In theaters, December 2009) As far as B-grade action thrillers go, Armored has a number of things going for it. Most notably, it adopts an unusual high concept (protagonist refuses to cooperate with his colleagues during a multimillion heist; finds himself trapped in an armoured truck while they scheme against him) and then spends an hour milking the premise for all it’s worth. Much of it feels mechanical, but there’s no denying that the claustrophobic set-pieces are effective. It feels just a bit fresher than many other thrillers out there, and the trio of familiar actors (Matt Dillon, Jean Reno, Laurence Fishburne) headlining this practically all-male film is a bit amazing considering that in almost all other aspects, it feels like a straight-to-DVD feature. But the problem with Armored is that it simply doesn’t take things beyond the obvious. The actors seems to be slumming in their roles, the character dynamics feel simplistic and contrived; the action sequences are not particularly spectacular and the plot is simple enough that alert viewers will figure out the next plot twist shortly before it occurs. Add to that a number of credibility problems (traceable dollar bills, convenient bottom hatch, etc.) and it’s easy not to be impressed. This is pure formula thriller filmmaking, and while it’s generally enjoyable (it will whittle away a lazy evening), it remains much less than what Armored could have been. Moviegoers with long memories for French-Canadian thrillers will see the film with the added handicap of remembering 1987’s gutsier Pouvoir Intime as another take on a similar premise.
(In theaters, May 1998) First things first: Godzilla stinks. The dialogue is beyond horrendous and well into inanity, the story has gaping holes, the pacing could -should!- have been improved, the characters aren’t very interesting and the attempts at “humor” are embarrassing to watch. (Especially the awful “Siskel and Ebert” bits.) In retrospect, Godzilla stands as a particularly irresponsible waste of good money and even better talent on a more than sub-standard script. If only someone with any storytelling sense had rewritten this script in the vein of Moby Dick, then we could have had a killer movie to watch. Alas… But, to paraphrase Spice World, it was quite entertaining without actually being any good. The setup is intriguing. Some of the set-pieces are a lot of fun to watch. Jean Reno is a delight (but then again, he speaks French most of the movie, which is huge plus for my French-Canadian ears.) The ending car chase is pretty spiffy and the final battle against Godzilla is spectacular. In the meantime, most of New York’s landmarks get trashed quite thoroughly and we get to see some pretty special effects. (It’s a shame that they had to use darkness and rain to cut CGI corners, but we’ll see about that in the sequel.) In the realm of the usually-stinky monster movies, Godzilla stands as a more polished (if not necessarily better) species. Trashy B-movies adapted to contemporary standards. Whether or not you’ll like it still depends on your tolerance for trash…
(Second viewing, On VHS, August 2000) I stand by my original review: Godzilla as made by the “American” team of Emmerich and Devlin definitely has its moments, but they’re constantly dogged by uneven pacing, a script that should be taken out and burnt, below-average acting and too-expensive CGI effects. Compare and contrast with the Japanese-made Godzilla 2000 to see a film made with a lower budget, but whose willingness to trade perfection in effects shot allows for more exciting directing and more storytelling possibilities. Still; the set-pieces here are exciting and if you’re willing to gloss over the pacing in-between Godzilla’s presence on the screen, it’s a pretty good monster movie. Vicki Lewis is absolutely delicious -not to mention underused- as a flirtatious scientist. And Jean Reno is cooler than the sum of the rest of the film.