(On Cable TV, October 2019) As I go through the 1980s back catalogue, it feels as if every new Chevy Chase movie I see highlights how badly his abrasive comic persona has aged. Or maybe been overexposed: his arrogant man-child persona has been repeated ad nauseam by other performers such as Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, and I found it all more annoying than funny in Spies Like Us. Whoever thought he was even remotely likable as a womanizer has now been proven wrong and unfortunately, we’re still stuck with the result. The film takes the low road to international comedy, by featuring two bumbling Americans being pressed into the spying business as decoys for other more competent operatives. Of course, the rules of comedy mean that they’ll end up being Big Heroes by the time the nuclear missile flies. (This shouldn’t be a spoiler.) It’s easy to see why director John Landis would be interested in a script with large-scale comic set-pieces, international vistas, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase and half-a dozen cameos from comedy directors that you have to be a cinephile to catch. Spies Like Us is not bad, but it does drag much longer than necessary and it relies far too much on Chase’s unpleasant comedy persona—Aykroyd is far more sympathetic. I do wish we’d see more ambitious big-budget comedies these days (rather than the improv-type stuff), but I don’t miss Chase at all.
(Second Viewing, In French, On TV, April 2019) There’s no use soft-pedalling it: The Twilight Zone: The Movie is an uneven anthology of stories inspired by the classic TV show, but it remains far more noteworthy for an on-set accident that killed Vic Morrow and two child actors, an accident that required changing much of the film’s first segment and considerably soured the films’ production—not to mention its critical reception. The behind-the-scenes drama is fascinating (there’s an entire book about it) but what’s on-screen is not quite as interesting. The opening sequence is cute but overlong. John Landis’ first segment, the one that led to the shooting deaths, is left as a trite morality tale—and while I think that unrepentant racists getting a taste of their own bigotry is wholesome entertainment, the segment feels like obviousness piled upon obviousness. The second segment, directed by Steven Spielberg, is far too cute and unsurprising to be interesting. Things do get quite a bit better with Joe Dante’s take on the omnipotent kid trope, with stylish directing (making the most out of the visual effects of the time) and an overall feeling of dread that makes the segment work even if we know about the twist well beforehand. But the best is kept for the end: the well-known (and much-parodied) remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 feet,” a typically intense George Miller production featuring John Lithgow as a terrified airplane passenger who glimpses something frightening on the airplane wing. That segment is a little marvel of tight editing, impressionistic direction (including bulging eyeballs in a split-second moment), Lithgow’s great acting and good execution rather than a striking premise. Those last two segments do much to erase the bland impression left by the first two stories, but the overall feeling left by The Twilight Zone: The Movie is very uneven, and a waste of solid premises made even worse by its cost in human lives. I actually remembered a few things from seeing this film when I was a teen, but my current disappointment with the film is newly renewed.
(Second viewing, On DVD, October 2018) It’s easy to see why noted film buff/historian John Landis would jump at the occasion to direct Three Amigos—among many other things, it’s a chance for him to re-create a small part of Hollywood history, specifically the early days of silent comedy films. Add to that the idea of satirizing Seven Samurai, as well as working with comedians such as Martin Short, Chevy Chase and Steve Martin … it certainly looks like a great project. Alas, the final version of Three Amigos is missing something. It’s not dull or bad, but it’s certainly duller and worse than it could and should have been. When I saw the movie as a teenager, my favourite sequence (and the only one I could remember thirty years later aside from the salute) was the one with the signing bush and the (fallen) Invisible Gunman. As a middle-aged man, it’s still my favourite sequence, and I think it shows just how wild and absurdly funny the rest of the film could have been—I liked the too-brief look at silent Hollywood, but I would have enjoyed Three Amigos far more if its tone had been consistent with the crazy singing bush/invisible man sequence. The rest often feels perfunctory and well-mannered despite a few good stunts and the potential to go beyond the obvious. Would it have been so hard to do just a bit more?
(On TV, September 2017) Deftly taking up and amplifying the cartoonish anarchism of its predecessor, Gremlins 2: The New Batch continues in more or less the same vein, taking the mayhem even further. It’s not as good as the original: the effect of surprise isn’t there, and there’s a clear sense that Gremlins 2 is more dedicated at making fun of itself than delivering a story in the way the first film did. So it is full with cartoonish gags, affectionate pokes at its premise (“what if you’re on an airplane?”), anarchic fun and fourth-wall-breaking. The two leads from the first film are back, Gizmo gets tortured and the human antagonist is a blended parody of Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch, but let’s not pretend that the stars of the story are anyone but the Gremlins themselves, especially when a conveniently placed genetics research facility makes them articulate, able to fly or capable of turning themselves into electricity. Under director John Landis’s prime-era imagination, the film is incredibly fun to watch. Various set-pieces stick in mind: While everyone will enjoy the sequence in which Hulk Hogan tells the Gremlins to put the movie back on, Canadians will be particularly pleased by a sequence set in a Canada-themed restaurant with plenty of freeze-frame details. Gremlins 2 isn’t the great movie that the first Gremlins was, but it’s a more than decent follow-up, almost perfectly calibrated to make fans of the first film giddy with happiness.
(On TV, March 2017) It’s a good thing that director John Landis knows how to have fun, because otherwise there really isn’t much to An American Werewolf in London in terms of plotting. Young man gets bitten; young man contemplates the horrors of turning into a werewolf; young man dies. There’s the plot right there, but don’t get angry at the spoilers because this is not a movie about plot. Thanks to jolting dream sequences, sympathetic characters, a good dose of off-beat humour and the kind of why-the-hell-not filmmaking that disappeared after the eighties, An American Werewolf in London is an experience more than a story. The pacing picks up considerably after the first half-hour, if only because the main character gets hallucinations and dream sequences that allow for Nazi werewolves and sustained conversations with a dead decomposing friend (Griffin Dunne, far more interesting than the rather dull protagonist). Jenny Agutter is cute as a British nurse with a thing for lost American tourists, but the true nature of her role is looking sad in the film’s last moments. Otherwise, An American Werewolf in London is about the kind of genre horror practised so joyously in the early eighties. The humour of the film is undercut by the downbeat (but inevitable) ending. The pre-CGI transformation effects remain mildly impressive even today, while the soundtrack has a not-so-sly succession of “Moon”-titled songs. The abrupt ending does feel unsatisfying, but so does the end of a roller-coaster—it’s not the point of the experience.
(On Cable TV, September 2014) Given the renewed interest in self-aware exploitation filmmaking lately (largely thanks to the Tarantino/Rodriguez 2007 film Grindhouse), American Grindhouse offers a quick and entertaining primer on the history of seedy disreputable filmmaking. A talking-head documentary with a copious amount of footage, the film reaches back to the beginning of cinema and makes its way to the present in describing the evolution of less-respectable cinema, ending with the somewhat surprising conclusion that exploitation cinema merged with the mainstream sometime during the seventies as blockbusters such as Jaws took on the lessons of grindhouse cinema. (I’m not so sure –there is alternative cinema everywhere still, although I’ll agree that it’s harder to define as a single coherent entity against a non-existent mainstream) The footage shown and movies discussed are enough to provide anyone with a list of must-see titles, while the various people interviewed collectively reinforce the film’s various theses and explain various topics. (The best interviewee has to be director John Landis, as profane and entertaining as he is knowledgeable.) Writer/Director Elijah Drenner has done a pretty good job of condensing decades of social changes in a mere 80 minutes, illuminating a number of sub-genres along the way. Everyone will be reassured to learn that a film describing lurid movies features equally-lurid footage. American Grindhouse is definitely worth a look, especially if you’re already sympathetic to the subject.
(On TV, October 1998) A mess. Purely and simply. Sometime comedy, sometime action, the mixture just clashes—for instance at the end, where all three main characters have been seriously shot and the film plays is as a laugh-aloud funny moment. The more-than-obvious dialogue given to Eddie Murphy doesn’t help either. The worst thing about this unholy mixture of bad directing and awful writing comes after the last scene, when the credit sequence informs us that no one else but John Landis (Gremlins, The Blues Brothers) and Stephen DeSouza (Die Hard) have produced this piece of garbage. Sure, there are one or two good action sequences (the first car chase, and the ride rescue) but the remainder is bad enough to make you grind your teeth.