(On Cable TV, July 2017) After the relatively successful 7 Days in Hell, HBO is back with Tour de Pharmacy, another 45-minute comedy special tackling a pseudo-historical sports event—in this case, the 1982 Tour de France, in which so many athletes were disqualified for doping that only five participants remained … and special participants they were. A mixture of talking heads reflecting upon the event and low-budget mockumentary footage, Tour de Pharmacy is in line with the inspired lunacy of 7 Days in Hell: the humour is often absurd, taking off in tangents whenever it feels like it. A bunch of good comedians help sell the results, from Jeff Goldblum to John Cena to Andy Samberg (who also produced and whose signature on the result is obvious) to Will Forte to Orlando Bloom to Maya Rudolph and many, many others. As you’d expect from a modern R-rated comedy, there is a lot of full-frontal male nudity. More daringly, the film does have a string of gags revolving around Lance Armstrong as an “anonymous” source who ends up blatantly revealed early on. It all works relatively well, but largely because the film doesn’t overstay its welcome—at barely 41 minutes, it delivers the jokes and concludes without too much slack. For HBO subscribers, it’s a small tasty summer treat.
(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.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) If memory serves me right, I saw Jurassic Park on opening night, which happened to be my last day of high school classes. A fitting anecdote for a movie that pretty much redefined the modern blockbuster, with top-notch special effects, near-perfect direction by Steven Spielberg and iconic performances that are still references even today. Revisiting Jurassic Park nearly twenty-five years later is not unpleasant. The movie holds up far better than most of its contemporaries—the blend of practical and digital effects is still largely effective and the pacing of the movie remains exemplary. In-between Sam Neil, Laura Dern, peak-era Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough (not to mention Samuel L. Jackson in a minor role!), the movie benefits from an embarrassment of thespian riches. Still, the star here is Spielberg—Other than Jaws (which I’ll revisit soon) I’m not sure he’s directed a better suspense film than Jurassic Park—the T-Rex sequence is an anthology piece, but the Raptor climax is really good, and there’s something justifiably wondrous about the first glimpse at the dinosaurs (ba-ba-baaa, ba-ba). Ironically, the thing that dates the film most are the glimpses at the computer screens—the CGI itself, save from some imperfect compositing, is still pretty good. It helps a lot that the script is so slick at what it does—from the “Mr. DNA” exposition sequence to the great way in which the script improves upon Michael Crichton’s original novel (which was quite a bit more scattered and needlessly dark), David Koepp’s work on the script remains exemplary. Jurassic Park is the complete package: great lines, great actors, great direction, great scenes, and great special effects. It remains a landmark for a reason, and could be the best movie of 1993 if it wasn’t for that other Spielberg film Schindler’s List. Two near-perfect movie in a single year: peak-Spielberg time.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) I will reluctantly concede a certain audacity in drafting a follow-up to Independence Day twenty years after the first film. In positing a fictional universe advanced by twenty years of international co-operation and repurposed alien technology, Resurgence takes us in relatively new territory as far as alien invasion films are concerned: As much science fictional on the human side as the alien side, rebalancing the usual power dynamics of the situation. Unfortunately, this ends up being largely window-dressing for bigger action sequences: the lunar tripwire gets ripped quickly, and it doesn’t stop a spectacular disaster sequence from picking up Abu Dhabi and dropping it on London (no, really). Twenty years later, advances in special effects technology do look like alien technology to 1996 state-of-the-art, and if Resurgence definitely has something going for it, it’s the quality of its special effects. As anyone would have anticipated, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the film is as good. While the script does acknowledge its own absurdity (“They do go for landmarks”, says Jeff Goldblum as famous monuments are destroyed), it doesn’t quite manage to build an interesting cast of characters, nor take us on a steadily engrossing adventure. In fact, the fan-service calling back the first movie does get annoying at time, hampering the film from managing something better than another battle on the desert flats. Among the cast, Jeff Goldblum is very enjoyable as an older but just as cynical version of his character in the first film, William Fichtner is exactly what’s needed as a solid military figure, Maika Monroe almost makes us forget that she’s taking over Mae Whitman’s role. Will Smith is sorely missed, with no one quite managing to step up as a replacement. As a catastrophe movie, the large-scale destruction is what director Roland Emmerich usually does best, and so Resurgence at least delivers on those expectations. Still, it does have enough promising elements to be disappointing in the way it puts them all together. There may or may not be another sequel, but the movie works hard at ensuring that we wouldn’t care one way or the other.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Hoo boy, Independence Day. I first saw it on opening day back on July 4, 1996, and the whole thing remains vivid in my mind, from the time (at my uncle’s farm, lying down in the muddy straw, doing mechanical repairs on a baling machine) that I decided that I was going to see the film that evening to my naively infuriated reaction to the film’s scientific absurdities and self-satisfied stupidity. (I used to have a nicely hysterical 1996-vintage review of the Independence Day novelization on this site, but I did the world a favour since then by taking it down when I purged some of my more juvenile content.) For years, Independence Day (or, eek, ID4) was my go-to reference for “dumb Hollywood SF movies” in my smarter-than-thou rants. I may not have matured much since then, but I’d like to think that I’m slightly less deliberately abrasive—I was bizarrely looking forward to re-watching the movie, and not just as an exercise in checklist-marking before watching the sequel. Upon re-watch, you can’t exactly mark me down as a fan of the film, but I think I’m better able to see its strength and place in history. Perhaps the best thing it did was update a classic SF trope for a new generation of special effects. The alien-invasion story has been done many times before or since, but Independence Day takes a refreshingly blunt approach to it, with a large cast of characters reacting in their own way, still-spectacular destruction sequences and plucky humans mounting a satisfying revenge upon the invaders. Independence Day still doesn’t make a shred of sense (I spent much of the first half-hour muttering, “no, that’s not how it would happen. That’s not how any of this would happen.”) but I will reluctantly admit that it’s clever. Clever in how it moves its pieces, clever in how it acknowledges that the audience is in on the joke (there are at least three moments in which the film cuts to something, except to reveal that it’s not what we’d expect) and clever in how it maximizes every single opportunity it has for spectacle or overwrought drama. I still think the presidential speech sucks. I still think that the dog should have died. The special effects are dodgy, but there are a lot of them. I still think that as a Science Fiction film, it’s a blunt instrument at a time where we could use more scalpels à la Arrival. But Bill Paxton, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith deliver persona-defining performances, the film moves at a decent pace once the throat-clearing ends, and writer/directors Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin understood what audiences wanted from a summer blockbuster. In some significant ways, it seems obvious that Independence Day revitalized movie SF for a few vital years, playing with new special effects technology and proving the box-office potential of the genre for a few good years. I’ll even go as far as identify the quasi-nostalgic hunger for an Independence Day-style movie experience as a driver for the 2010–2014 resurgence of alien-invasion movies, the best of whom were good SF movies in their own right. Over a sufficiently long time, I think that most critical opinions reverts to the mean (either a tempering of praise, or a softening of condemnation), and Independence Day illustrates this better than most other movies I can think of at the moment. While I may have been willing to burn the movie poster in a one-star rant back in 1996, by 2017 I’m okay with a measured middle-of-the-road three-star critical essay.
(On TV, October 2016) Although presented as a mostly-innocuous romantic comedy (by definition, almost every film featuring Jennifer Aniston is bound to be innocuous), there is a troubling streak to The Switch’s titular premise (which has to do with, ah, mislabelled insemination) that makes the film challenging to enjoy on the level at which it’s offered. By the time the paternity issues are matched with the weighty passage of years, The Switch becomes far more unsettling than your average rom-com. It still manages to work, largely because of Jason Bateman’s blend of sympathy and antisocial faults. (I used to think of him as a likable straight man in his immediate post-Arrested Development film career, but if you look carefully at his roles since then, his persona has developed this growing streak of repellent behaviour—in other words, he’s become a credible bastard.) Meanwhile, Aniston’s persona seems to be a prisoner of the film’s plot twists—much like her character. Jeff Goldblum does show up periodically as a sympathetic boss, while Juliette Lewis continues to prove that she’s often best used in small comic roles. The Switch does end rather well, but there are a few squirm-inducing moments along the way, and the result may be more sombre than anyone expected.
(On TV, June 2013) As amazing at it may seem, I had actually forgotten that The Fly was directed by David Cronenberg. Don’t worry, though: within moments, it all came rushing back… as did the memories of being utterly terrified by bits of the film at age 12. Seen from the perspective of an adult, The Fly isn’t as terrifying at a purely visual level. It is, however, quite a bit more insidious about its body horror and the gradual devolution of its character into a mindless beast. Jeff Goldblum can still look upon this as one of his most defining performances as the mutating scientist, while Geena Davis strikes just the right notes as a journalist who finds herself with a lot more grief than she expected chasing a good story. What really doesn’t work so well is John Getz’s character arc going from creepy ex-boyfriend to shotgun-wielding saviour. Cronenberg’s craft means that the film still, more than twenty-five years later, works quite well despite analog effects and sometimes-torpid pacing. The Fly is worth a look, and not just as part of Cronenberg’s filmography.