(On Cable TV, June 2019) As one of John Candy’s less-famous films in the middle of an extraordinarily productive decade, Armed and Dangerous often feels like mid-1980s comedy filmmaking at its laziest, with a workable premise battered through atonal development, fuzzy characterization, cheap plotting, and lazy writing. The premise does show some promise—as an ex-cop and a disbarred lawyer find themselves working as security guards, they come to discover a plot to embezzle union dues. Alas, the development of the premise feels off. I shouldn’t worry too much about the portrayal of a corrupt union, but I do—anti-union sentiment is symptomatic of 1980s Hollywood presumptions, and we now know where that path has led us. To be fair, Armed and Dangerous is dumb enough that it may not quite realize what it’s playing with, and does give equal credence to the idea of corrupt cops as well. The rest of the film isn’t much better—as the plot (already thin at 88 minutes) regularly stops to let Candy go on extended comic rants, it’s clear that the numerous screenwriters have no idea how to keep a consistent tone throughout the film: Candy’s character alone veers uncontrollably between incompetence, silliness and effectiveness in a way that suggests that Candy was allowed to run roughshod over what may have been a more coherent character. Other lazy plot shortcuts abound, including a final sequence with a truck driver blissfully unconcerned with the destruction of his rig—there’s a lot more comic mileage to be made out of this idea, but the film barely even tries. On and on it goes: Candy is up to his usual character, but the more interesting work is by Eugene Levy, turning in a character performance more interesting because it’s not quite part of his later persona. Meg Ryan looks cute, but that’s about it—anyone else could have done just as well. A welcome bit of vehicular mayhem does enliven the film’s last twenty minutes (albeit limited by the film’s average budget) but that’s not enough to make up for the rest of Armed and Dangerous.
(On Cable TV, April 2019) There’s an entire book to be written about Hollywood’s continued fascination with France, which seems consistently overrepresented relative other non-Anglosphere destination from the very beginning of the art form (which makes sense considering France’s early role in the development of motion picture technology). This can be seen in the frequency in which France and Paris become destinations in Hollywood movies, the porosity of French actors with Hollywood careers (from Maurice Chevalier to Gerard Depardieu, Jean Reno and Léa Seydoux) and the generally positive French stereotypes as vehicled in films (even throughout the spectacularly dumb “Freedom Fries” years). As a French-Canadian, I’m not complaining! But it’s in that context that French Kiss is to be considered—even as it seems determined to revisit every cliché of Franco-Hollywood, it exists in a much wider historical continuity. It’s not a perfect fit: the decision to cast Kevin Kline as a Frenchman is a weird one (the role was originally intended for Depardieu, which would have been much better), especially considering that while Kline can do English with a French Accent, his French is mushy with a strong British-English accent. But we’re not supposed to care, as French Kiss is supposed to be this kind of cute reality-adjacent romantic comedy with a dash of deception as an American woman semi-willingly conspires with a Frenchman trying to purchase a vineyard. The French element is indissociable from the script, even if familiar romantic tropes are deployed throughout the film. Still, director Lawrence Kasdan takes a few steps beyond romantic comedy to have a (brief) look as some character-based drama. Is it enough? Maybe—This is one of the films that ensured that Meg Ryan would be called the queen of romantic comedies throughout the 1990s but also the kind of film that fades out when put alongside stronger ones. It’s cute, it’s not a waste of time and it’s certainly nowhere near the worst of what Hollywood could do at the time, but there’s a reason why it’s been forgotten twenty-five years later. Unless you’re an American Francophile, in which case it’s going to exactly fit the bill.
(On TV, March 2019) I am surprisingly underwhelmed by sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll biopic The Doors, and even more so considering that it’s from Oliver Stone, a filmmaker who has amply demonstrated his ability to deliver vivid and exciting takes on American history. He doesn’t fail here—it’s more that he half-succeeds, focusing on one specific element without quite bringing everything else together. It’s not uninteresting by the time the credits roll, but the film does itself no favours with a first half-hour spent in a series of false starts and delirious haze. Stone keeps things moving and the least we can say is that the film rarely stays sitting still for long … but the flip side of that is The Doors’ hectic quality, moody intercuts and scattered attention span. The focus here, despite the film’s title is clearly on lead singer Jim Morrison—bolstered by an exceptional performance by Val Kilmer, the film embraces a portrait of the singer as a death-seeking drug-fuelled paranoid. It’s a great topic for a flamboyant film, but maybe not so much for historical accuracy. Saying that the result is pretentious isn’t a criticism as much as an acknowledgement that it has captured a significant facet of Morrison’s personality even as it has downplayed others. Even then, the film does sport some interesting performances in its corners—Meg Ryan and Mimi Rogers, among others, still manage to be memorable. Which, in the middle of a film with great music and an exemplary rock-and-roll superstar subject, is no little feat.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) Many movies are entertaining, but far fewer are life-affirming. Joe Versus the Volcano is one of them. From the memorable first few moments, as a crowd of workers trudge toward a nightmarish factory to the sounds of “Sixteen Tons”, this is a special film. Tom Hanks stars as a man who, upon learning of an incurable disease, quits his job and decides to see the world before his death. In the process, he meets a girl, finds himself on a deserted island and (as one does in those circumstances) volunteers to be a sacrifice by throwing himself in a volcano. It’s really not as grim as it sounds, though—it’s charming, optimistic, whimsical and far more expressionistic than you’d expect from a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, fitting with the sometimes-outlandish material. Writer/director John Patrick Shanley manages to create a universe flirting with magical realism (people more familiar with his dour 2008 film Doubt will be shocked at how different it is) and keeps playing in this outlandish slightly fantastic sandbox, all the way up to having Meg Ryan play three different roles. Hanks is in full late-1980s charming young lead mode, while Ryan has seldom looked better with straight hair. While the inconclusive conclusion didn’t sit right with me the first time I saw it (this is the kind of film that deserves a full-fireworks kind of triumphant coda), I like it better a few days later. Joe Versus the Volcano is weird, wild, fun and heartening. Not only has it aged far better than many of its more realistic contemporaries, and it probably plays better today given the expansion of mainstream cinematographic grammar in the past thirty years.
(On TV, November 2017) I’m usually a good audience for romantic comedies and science-fiction movies, but Kate & Leopold falls flat in ways that have to do with an incompetent blending of genres. Even as a time-travel romance (a surprisingly robust category), it falls short. It really doesn’t help that Hugh Jackman signed up to play an essentially perfect character, plucked from history to serve as a romantic partner for an incredibly bland heroine played by Meg Ryan back when Meg Ryan was the it-girl for any romantic comedy. While I can understand Jackman’s enthusiasm for a role in which he is flawless, it doesn’t make for good cinema. Kate & Leopold’s romantic aspect seems rote and featureless, while the time-travel elements scarcely make sense. Not only does it have to do with falling through temporal anomalies by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge (!), there is something deeply dumb about elevators not running properly because their inventor has travelled to the present. By the time hero and heroine travel back in time for good, we can barely muster up enough energy to formulate a perfunctory “I give them six months … or really I give her a year before she’s dead.” To be fair, little of the film’s flaws have to do with its lead actors: Jackman is charming no matter the situation, while Liev Schreiber gets an oddball role as a nerd matchmaker far removed from the tough-guy persona he has since developed. (Amusingly enough, look closely and you’ll see Kristen Schaal, Viola Davis and Natasha Lyonne in very small roles.) While it’s worth remembering that romantic comedies aren’t really watched for plotting or even logical consistency, Kate & Leopold does very little in more crucial matters of characters, dialogue, comedy or struggles to outweigh its serious narrative issues. As a result, it feels both flat and insubstantial—with very little to make it worthwhile except for Jackman coasting with a flawless character performance.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) Back when Meg Ryan reigned supreme as America’s Sweetheart, the idea of pairing her with American Everyman Tom Hanks seemed like a natural fit, and why not? Seeing Sleepless in Seattle, the result speaks for itself. Unusually structured (the two main characters barely meet for much of the movie) but successful thanks to some wit along the way, the film doesn’t revolutionize anything as much as it shows two actors at the top of their game. A lot of it feels like filler, as befits a narrative that holds back reunion for a climax—there’s some back-and-forth about Ryan’s character “settling” for a comfortable life that feels particularly dragged-out. Still, Sleepless in Seattle remains a bit unusual even twenty-five years later. Some of the father/son dialogue is clever, and the way the film moves forward is almost enough to sidestep how contrived it is. Relying on tired clichés about true love, love at first sight and soulmates destined to meet, it’s not a particularly inspiring movie, but the charm of the two lead actors somewhat compensate for a manufactured hollow core. It’s squarely within the confine of the romantic comedy subgenre, but Sleepless in Seattle does play well with familiar elements, and casts them in sufficiently unusual situations that it almost feels fresh again.
(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.
(On DVD, March 2005) It would be too easy to dismiss City Of Angels as romantic clap-trap about angels, impossible fairytale romance and cheap existential questions. It would be even easier to dismiss the film as a slow-moving morass of fabricated sentiment with an unclear mythology and a script that couldn’t be more obvious if it included subtitles about the screenwriter’s intentions. But to do so would be to ignore, unfairly, the delicious frisson of wonder at some of the film’s visuals: The “angels” watching over Los Angeles like so many dark crows. The idea that angels hang out at libraries (oh, c’mon; even stone-cold atheists would like this one to be true). The handful of scenes that make you go “hey… that’s nice.” Dennis Franz’s performance as a fallen angel who has learnt to appreciate life. Granted, in order to get to these things you have to suffer through love scenes between Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. (Ergh.) And possibly fast-forward through chunks of the film. And certainly try not to giggle at the splat-ending, or the contrived death scenes. But even cynics may find two or three things worth keeping about this film, and that’s almost two or three more than they would expect.