(On Cable TV, May 2019) Considering the continuous parade of dumb movies coming out of Hollywood, it’s probably unfair to single out the 1980s as being a particularly stupid decade. This being said: Wow, the 1980s were a particularly stupid decade, and you don’t have to look much farther than My Stepmother is an Alien as a mortifying example of that. The production history of that film is wild—the first draft of the film, written four years earlier, was meant to be a horror film as an allegory about child abuse. Good luck detecting any of that original intention in the deliberately idiotic result as it appears on-screen, though: Here we have a Science Fiction comedy in which no less than Kim Basinger plays an alien being sent to Earth to seduce a nebbish scientist (Dan Aykroyd) who accidentally holds the key to her planet’s survival. It’s already unpromising, and you haven’t experienced the execution of it all yet. The film squarely feels as if it’s been written for the kids’ market, and not the smart kids’ market. I’d like to talk about the film’s charm, but that’s a stretch—at best, there’s a nod of appreciation at Aykroyd playing a good-dad scientist (to Alison Hannigan, in her first movie role). Then there’s a Basinger, as a naïve (yet incredibly old) alien unaware of the effect she’s having on everyone else. There’s maybe a good film struggling to get out of this mess, but it’s not one we can get from what’s on-screen. The 1980s have produced some memorable films, and some infamous ones, but My Stepmother is an Alien is neither of them—it’s just dumb and forgettable.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) I know that Grease 2 has a terrible reputation (upon release, it bombed so hard that it killed off its male lead Maxwell Caulfield’s career for years), but watching it now doesn’t seem like a terrible experience. Of course, I ended up watching both movies at more than a decade’s interval (is this unique? Both movies came out four years apart, and nowadays most people wanting to watch the sequel would do it soon after seeing the first one) and that probably helped a lot in erasing the comparison factor between this mediocre entry and its far better-received prequel. At best, it’s a bubblegum high school musical going back to the early sixties (but really the late fifties) for harmless teenage antics. A young Kim Basinger is quite good in the lead role, her slightly grumpy attitude doing much to make it fun. It’s also fascinating, as a cinephile, to see a film act as a bridge between newer stars such as Basinger or Christopher MacDonald, and veteran actors of yore such as Tab Hunter. As with many musicals, the best numbers come early on, with “Back to School Again” effortlessly introducing most of the cast, and “Score Tonight” wringing the most out of its bowling alley setting. The songs may not be the pop-culture hits of the original, but the dance choreography remains pretty good. No, Grease 2 is not the original. But when I look at the early-1980s musicals, this one is better than most.
(Second viewing, On DVD, October 2018) There aren’t that many good creative reasons for Never Say Never Again to exist. It’s a movie that owes its existence to a rift between the original James Bond movie creators, resulting in the rights to the Thunderball story and Spectre as a plot element being given to someone other than Eon Productions. Money is a powerful motivator, and so we ended up with a legal James Bond movie not made by the usual Bond people, but somehow starring Sean Connery in one last go at the character, graying temples and all. The story itself is a blatant remake of Thunderball, not only with stolen nuclear weapons being used as a plot driver, but with similar narrative stops at a health clinic and fancy yacht, not to mention similar character names. While the film’s pacing sharply improves upon Thunderball-era Bond, most of the “updates” affirm the early-eighties origins of the film more than anything else—there’s a particularly funny sequence involving Bond battling it out with the villain not on the casino table, but in a video game with deadly controls. That part really hasn’t aged well. But what did age well is Connery himself—there’s a real treat in seeing him, obviously older, taking up the character once more. Speaking of aging well, it’s also fun to see Kim Basinger in an early role (sheer aerobics jumpsuit and all), but it’s a reminder that she looks just as fine today than back then—and she’s now a far better actress too. This being said, Barbara Carrera is often more striking than Basinger, with a villainess role that she embraces with a relish rarely seen from other Bond girls. Klaus Maria Brandauer is not bad as the film’s overall villain, and Rowan Atkinson shows up in a small bumbling role. While Bond’s sexual conquests are still dodgy, they do feel like a step up from the original Thunderball, and the film is notable for suggesting that Bond will live happily ever after in a committed relationship. It ends up being a decent swan song for Connery, far better than the ludicrous Diamonds are Forever. While Never Say Never Again is not part of the official Bond continuity (and probably won’t ever be, even if the film’s rights are now owned by MGM) it does fit in a Bond completist’s viewing order: It’s not a great Bond, maybe not even a good Bond, but it’s worth a look especially if you’re going through the entire series.
(Video on-Demand, May 2017) The Fifty Shades trilogy keeps going with this second instalment and the results as just as dull as viewers of the first film can imagine. While the BDSM content has been toned down in favour of a far more conventional romance, Fifty Shades Darker still plays like a direct-to-video romantic thriller enlivened by more explicit than usual sex scenes. It’s remarkably boring, especially as the plot is so threadbare. Stalkers, ex-lovers, etc.: how ordinary. Dakota Johnson is, to her credit, still the best thing about the movie: her acting runs circles over the impassible Jamie Dornan, and she will probably have a career after this series wraps up. Kim Basinger also has a decent small role, but otherwise there isn’t much to say. There’s quite a bit of wish fulfillment in the way the film lingers in high-priced sets and gadgets. There’s even a bit of sunshine when the two characters take a sailboat out for a day. Roughly half a dozen sex scenes interrupt the dull story for even duller moments—the recurring “panties removal” motif is interesting, but not much else. Otherwise, the film does spend quite a bit of time short-looping its dramatic developments (the boss is lecherous? Wait two scenes and he’ll be gone. Christian Gray disappears after a helicopter accident? Wait two scenes and he’ll be back) while spending its last fifteen minutes setting up its third instalment. We know it’s coming. There’s nothing we can do about it.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) Recognizably cut from the same cloth as the first Wayne’s World, this sequel treads more or less the same style of silly comedy, although it’s really not quite as fresh or good as the original. As the plot devolves into jealousy and music festival mechanics, while avoiding some of the most amusing fourth-wall-breaking of the original, the result isn’t as memorable as its predecessors. (While I was able to quote from the original for years, I remembered maybe two jokes from the sequel.) Mike Myers, Dana Carvey and Tia Carrere return from the original and are in fine form—even though much of Kim Basinger’s subplot feels far too long and is only redeemed by its last joke. Good bits include Charlton Heston being shoved in the film as a better actor, but too often, the film falls in love with its own jokes and runs them into the ground long after they’ve stopped being amusing. Wayne’s World 2 is an adequate follow-up to the first film, but not essential. It hasn’t aged as well, and clearly anticipates issues that would dog later Mike Myers films.
(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.
(In theaters, October 2000) This starts out badly, as a teen addict dumps her newborn baby on the doorstep of her older sister (Kim Basinger, who plays, predictably enough, a child psychologist who can’t have children) and depart for parts unknown. Flash forward six years as the little girl is hunted down by a cult for some nefarious purpose. This unpromising start helps a lot to appreciate the rest of the film, which steadily gets better, and even -gasp!- tugs a few strings in its depiction of the relationship between Basinger’s character and her adopted child. Jimmy Smits had a good turn as a good cop, the Catholic church isn’t depicted as corrupt (though the convent may bring back memories of a Simpsons episode featuring a similar school run by French-Canadian nuns), police procedures are nicely handled, there are a few cool miracles here and there and the film moves with a certain energy that, frankly, simply works better than expected. It’s a B-movie, yes, but a rather entertaining one.