(On Cable TV, December 2018) Well huh. Turns out that Marlon Brando was a trend setter on his way up, playing characters with raw honesty in the 1950s, and also on his way down, anticipating the whole self-parody of people such as Robert de Niro with 1990’s The Freshman. The references are not accidental—The Freshman features Brando as a mob boss in a film that has characters (including a film teacher) obsessing over The Godfather. It’s intentional, and it does work relatively well at times: Brando doesn’t look as if he’s having any fun whatsoever, but the characters grimacing around him look as if they do. Matthew Broderick stars as a hapless Midwesterner going to NYC to study film, and is immediately robbed upon arrival. We later discover it’s all a big scheme, but never mind the details. The Freshman is merely fine as a comedy: It doesn’t have big laughs, it does’nt build to an amazing climax, but it does the job of entertaining and that’s that. Director Andrew Bergman keeps things moving in the same direction, Penelope Ann Miller makes for a cute love interest and the focus on animals means some visual comedy as well. I don’t think that The Freshman has any staying power beyond seeing Brando poking fun at himself, even in a very restrained way. But it’ll do if you haven’t seen it yet.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) Blending a war movie with judicious social progressivism seems almost de rigueur these days, but I gather that it wasn’t as obvious in 1989, when Glory came out with a relatively groundbreaking depiction of an African-American battalion during the Civil War. As you’d expect from this kind of hybridization, Glory spends its time either indulging in the usual plot mechanics of a military training story, in-between describing the plight of its heroes on social issues. Nearly thirty years later, it’s not quite so innovative, but it’s made well enough to remain mildly interesting. (I suspect that, like all movies specifically dedicated to American social history, it’s going to be more relevant to American viewers.) Matthew Broderick stars as the military commander of the group, but the film’s most interesting performance goes to Denzel Washington, as a surly but ultimately honourable black soldier; Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher are also featured prominently. The familiarity of the film can lull viewers in a comfortable daze, but the finale of the film does much to elevate it—spent in sand rather than the usual open field battlegrounds of Civil War movies, it’s also unusually bleak in how it adheres to historical fact. Glory may not be fun or fresh especially today, but it’s solid and respectable.
(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2017) We can probably agree that a character like Ferris Bueller is a malignant sociopath who would be toxic in real life, but that doesn’t make Ferris Bueller’s Day Off any less than a success as a teen comedy. Issued by the John Hughes mid-eighties teen comedy factory, this is nonetheless a film that escapes from the usual formulas of the subgenre, taking an unconventional approach and defying caution in its ultimate objectives. Bueller himself is a memorable piece of work, manipulative and reckless yet almost immediately charming in the way he directly addresses the audience to gain their confidence. A gifted con artist, he is the driver but not the protagonist of the story, as he brings enlightenment to friends and siblings during the course of a single day off school. Matthew Broderick manages the heroic task of keeping Bueller likable, but it’s Alan Ruck who gets the film’s most dramatically significant role as a perpetually depressed friend shaken out of his rut by Ferris’s actions. Mia Sarah (in a dull role) and Jennifer Gray (in a far better one) are fine in the two female lead roles, although I’ve never quite warmed to Jeffrey Jones’s principal character. Then there is Chicago, lavishly showcased through most of the movie from the perspective of suburban teens heading downtown for fun. Surprising bits of philosophy pepper a script that breaks the fourth wall and attempts a few unconventional objectives. (Everyone likes “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” but I’m more partial to “The question isn’t ‘what are we going to do’, the question is ‘what aren’t we going to do?’”) The humour often veers from its good-natured realism to outlandish absurdity (as in the escalating “Save Ferris” moments), but it’s rarely mean-spirited even in its harshest moments. It’s fascinating that writer/director John Hugues both created a mold for the teen comedy and then broke it with this film—many people have imitated The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains sui generis even today. I saw this film at least once decades ago, but it more than holds up today. Despite the easy and often cheap appeals at defying authority, there’s a countervailing element of living life moment-by-moment that’s hard to ignore.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) I haven’t seen WarGames in over twenty years, although it feels as if that scene in Ernest Cline’s geek-fest novel Ready Player One nearly counts as a re-watch. I’m mentioning the novel because, in many ways, reviewing WarGames in the far future of 2016 clearly shows it to be an epochal film in terms of technological anxiety. Nowadays, a hacker causing a military incident would be a premise for a mildly dull thriller, “ripped from the headlines”, as they say. It certainly was ahead of its time: WarGames anticipates geek-chic through its brainy but clueless hero, clearly shows a primitive form of Internet normalization and correctly taps into an ever-more-relevant issue of pranks having far-reaching consequences ( … and that’s how you elected your newest president, America.) Matthew Broderick makes for an unusual hero, while Ally Sheedy plays a generic role well enough. While the film isn’t always clear on the tone it wants to use (there’s a notably darker sequence near the two-third mark), it does find its way in the third act, and works rather well in the end. WarGames definitely has aged, but it has become a curiously fascinating period piece. A must see for any technology buff, it’s undeniably one of the roots of today’s Internet culture.
(On TV, December 2015) I heard about Addicted to Love long before it showed up on my noteworthy-films-of-1997-that-I’d-missed list. This is, after all, the one where America’s-Sweetheart Meg Ryan ends up playing a short-haired psycho stalker with a fondness for riding motorcycles and making a reference to “a blast of semen”. This is the one where Matthew Broderick turns out to be an equally-obsessed psycho stalker who can’t let an ex-girlfriend go and instead lives into an abandoned building next to her apartment to keep a constant eye on her. This is the film where their characters team up to destroy the life of two rather nice people in the hope that they’ll either suffer or crawl back to them. (I’m sure there’s a fantastic essay somewhere on the web that explains this film’s ludicrousness in excruciating details.) Romantic comedy? So it claims. The bigger problem, though, is that Addicted to Love shows signs that if could have been much edgier, but deliberately holds back. Did Ryan and/or Broderick impose limits on how dark their characters could be? Did the script fall into the hands of a director unwilling or unable to follow the story where it need to go? Did the screenwriter lose his nerve? I’m not sure and while the result on-screen plays considerably better than what you’d expect from the above summary, there’s a sense that it doesn’t go as deep as it needs to. Still, what we get is interesting enough: There’s some inventiveness to the light/voyeurism motif (the protagonist is an astronomer and one of the film’s big gadgets is a camera obscura), some of the scenes are crazy enough to be funny, Tcheky Karyo is good as the nominal antagonist of the piece (yet a more mature character than everyone else) and the film predictably wraps up with a big happy romantic bow. Addicted to Love is not too bad, but it’s not quite what it could have been. For a 1997 film, though, it doe still have some interest, especially considering how it plays off Meg Ryan’s once-unassailable persona as a romantic ingénue.