(Google Play Streaming, December 2019) It’s perfectly understandable for anyone to approach Brian de Palma’s movies with a guilty-pleasure mindset—even the better ones. Throughout his career, de Palma has repeatedly aimed for excess, and shocking the rubes was part of the point. Dressed to Kill is no exception, what with its familiar blend of de Palma themes (violence, eroticism, doubles, voyeurism, gender-bending and aberrant psychology) that would make the film recognizable as his work even under a pseudonym. The opening of the film still has the power to shock, as it begins by following one character and, after a moment of explosive violence, switches perspectives to follow another. Michael Caine turns in one of his strangest roles here as a psychologist involved in murder, with Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen co-starring. The plot barely makes sense—this is one of those “psychological thrillers” with tropes that aren’t impossible, but have never happened. But as with other de Palma movies, the point here are the bloody images, the suspense sequences, the atmosphere of dread where anything can happen and the troubling twists along the way. Dressed to Kill is certainly not a respectable film—borrowing liberally from slashers, giallo and noir, it’s clearly a genre film that revels in including as many provocative elements as it can. But it works, and still lead to several “I can’t believe this film is going there…” comments.
(archive.org Streaming, December 2019) I have some admiration for movies that attempt ambitious or over-restrictive premises, and Sleuth certainly qualifies—it’s a bit of a spoiler to say that the film only has two actors (but not really, I mean—you can recognize Michael Caine in any kind of disguise) but that’s part of the film’s interest: An actor’s duel between Caine and Laurence Olivier, as two characters with plenty of secrets spend the entire film engaged in line-by-line combat. There was a chance that a film with such a limited number of actors could run dry, but fortunately there’s enough of a convoluted plot about thievery, lovers, deception and murder to keep things interesting. In the theatrical tradition that inspired it, much of the movie takes place in an elaborate library with plenty of visual interest. It’s quite a lot of fun, and with the calibre of the actors involved (the entire cast was nominated for best acting Oscars, a rare but not unique feat) it’s easy to be swept in the film’s high concept. Directed with a veteran’s ease by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Sleuth manages to sustain attention with two actors and some great writing.
(On TV, October 2019) As I’ve mentioned before, every Jaws sequel gets worse and worse, and Jaws 4: The Revenge is a bad movie even on the bad movie scale. Not content with having a mere white shark on the prowl, this one has a roaring white shark tracking down surviving family members of a shark opponent all the way down from the northeast United States to the Bahamas. It’s … something all right. Built on such shaky premises, the rest of the film doesn’t go far. In between the incoherent plotting, lame character development and dull sequences, Jaws: The Revenge is an inglorious end to the series. And you won’t believe that inept ending. The best thing the film may have produced is the following quote about lead actor Michael Caine: “I have never seen it, but, by all accounts, it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!” What else can we add?
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2019) There’s a surprisingly strong subgenre of movies exploring what it would be like to rewrite your own history and see the outcomes of different choices. From the angels-driven plot of It’s a Wonderful Life to the more recent examples justified by quantum mechanics mumbo-jumbo, you can see the appeal of the plot device in order to deliver a statement on the human condition. But it’s the execution more than the premise that will determine the impact of the film, as Mr. Destiny clearly suggests. Clearly made for a mass audience, the film’s hackneyed approach to alternate realities for our everyman protagonist isn’t particularly impressive, nor is its cavalier approach to respecting the integrity of the parallel timeline (helpfully pointed out by the magical character, asking our protagonist if he isn’t behaving reprehensibly by wooing another woman than his now-wife). Moral issues aside (and it’s tough to put them aside, because they are significant and do lessen the impact of the lesson the film think it’s teaching us) Mr. Destiny’s biggest problem is the complete and unvarying predictability of the result as it goes through the expected paces. It doesn’t help that two of the headliners are Jim Belushi and Jon Lovitz, two actors who are obnoxious on their best days and actively irritating on all others. More fortunately, Linda Hamilton and Rene Russo are sights to behold, but they’re not quite enough to make the film interesting—and their place in the plot, as mere prizes to be juggled by the white male protagonist having a not-even-mid-life crisis, betrays some ugly scripting issues. Michael Caine is perhaps the only likable character, but he comes across as ineffectually pointing out basic problems caused by the protagonist’s selfishness before it doesn’t matter and we get out of the dream sequence anyway. There are some far better movies tackling more or less the same issues out there—there’s no need to even watch Mr. Destiny.
(On TV, November 2018) Twenty-first-century cinephiles may be forgiven the occasional pang of synthetic nostalgia for some periods as depicted by the movies. 1960s London, for instance, has been portrayed in exuberant ways by an entire sub-genre, celebrating the excesses of the time while downplaying its less playful aspects. Ironically, it takes another movie to deconstruct the archetype of the 1960s London playboy: Alfie, made at the height of the Swignin’ Sixties, pulls no punches in depicting the kind of flawed personalities that would embrace such a lifestyle, and the consequences that come with it. One of Michael Caine’s earliest claims to fame, Alfie follows a young man with more “birds” than a pet shop, and with enough charisma to turn to the camera and tell us, the viewers, what he’s thinking. Alas, the charm grows thin and the self-deception becomes impossible to ignore the longer the film goes on as his romantic problems grow bigger, he’s afflicted with health issues and distances himself from his own son. It gets much, much worse. And even then the protagonist tries to make light of the situation by trying to get the audience on his side. It doesn’t work, though, not in the film’s second half. It’s difficult to realize today how groundbreaking the film was by the standards of the time, not only in showing the playboy lifestyle, but also the darker side of it. But seen from today, it feels like a near-contemporary commentary (much like Saturday Night Fever) on something that later movies have attempted to romanticize beyond recognition. Alfie remains a good movie … but don’t be surprised to realize at the end that you will never want to watch it again.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) Tone and atmosphere are crucial to comedies, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels manages to keep up a delicate balance between its reprehensible hijinks and the charm of its lead actors hamming it up on the sunny French Riviera. Pleasantly harkening back to earlier decades (it’s a remake of the 1964 comedy Bedtime Story with added complications), it’s a comedy that leaves plenty of room for stars Michael Caine and Steve Martin to riff on their own comic personas, especially when they portray conmen with vindictive streaks. Their banter is infectiously fun, and they manage to neutralize most of the contempt that we would hold for such criminal characters. Glenne Headly is also quite good as the completing piece of the romantic triangle, although it’s a role that requires her to fly under the radar for a while before taking centre-stage in the finale. The French Riviera seems to be a supporting character in its own right, providing the right backdrop for the kind of breezy comedy that director Frank Oz intended. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may not be all that deep (although there’s enough plot to keep things interesting even for those who have seen the original), but it’s well-executed enough to keep audiences smiling.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) Watching A Bridge Too Far, I was struck at how closely the film initially seemed to follow the template of The Longest Day: A lengthy WW2 drama covering both sides of the war, with a lavish re-creation of the fighting and an ensemble cast of superstars including Sean Connery, adapted from a non-fiction book by Cornelius Ryan. But the comparisons only go so far, especially as the movie advances and the military operation goes sour. It’s certainly worth noting that a significant cultural shift happened in-between 1964’s The Longest Day and 1977’s A Bridge Too Far: The Vietnam War did much to affect the public perception of war and audiences having digested MASH and Catch-22 and Kelly’s Heroes in 1970 alone were far more willing to embrace a film about an unsuccessful operation. (Even A Bridge Too Far’s opening narration is a bit off-kilter, suggesting a level of built-in cynicism that would have been unheard of fifteen years earlier.) While there are plenty of enjoyable wartime heroics in A Bridge Too Far, mistakes in planning, insufficient intelligence, bad communications and plain old happenstance all contribute to a costly failure. Still, if the events described by the film may be frustrating to watch, the film itself is entertaining enough. The historical re-creation of the massive airdrops is impressive, the massive explosions are numerous and the sheer number of recognizable actors is also notable. Connery gets a great character to play, but there are equally interesting moments for Michael Caine, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman and even Anthony Hopkins in a very early role. The film does not describe a particularly glorious moment for the allied forces, but that may add to the sense of discovery while watching it—I’m a modest WW2 buff thanks to having read many histories of the era as a teenager, but I had either not learned or forgotten much of Operation Garden Market until A Bridge Too Far refreshed my mind. It’s quite a spectacle, and it’s not quite as well-known as other WW2 movies. In any case, it’s worth a watch if the subject matter interests you.
(Google Play Streaming, November 2018) I’m a surprisingly good audience for movies that stake out the interesting middle-ground between reality and fabulation, and Secondhand Lions does manage to create a satisfying film from those elements. The premise has to do with a boy being left with his two elderly uncles living on an isolated farm. To say that the uncles (played wonderfully by Michael Caine and Robert Duvall) are eccentric is putting it mildly—they seem to be financially comfortable enough to give in to their whims and fancies (including purchasing a lion), and they keep telling their young charge about their fantastic youthful adventures. You can probably write the rest of the plot yourself, but Secondhand Lions is at its best in the small incidents and adventures, and in bringing their tall tales to life. The conclusion brings all the threads together in a satisfying coda. It’s not a great film or a memorable one, but it’s rather good at what it attempts to do, and provides enough closure to the audience to be worth a look.
(In French, On TV, October 2018) Oh, Michael Caine, how could you? I suppose that every long and distinguished career has its duds, but it’s still rare to associate such a great performer with a project as ill-advised from premise to polish as Blame it on Rio. It’s bad enough that the film has a fortysomething man having an affair with his friend’s 18-year-old daughter—the script does no one any favour as treating it as a sort of life-affirming comic experience for everyone involved. (Conveniently enough, the protagonist’s wife is later revealed to have had an affair with his friend … and the film thinks that explains and forgives everything.) For once, you can’t blame 2018-era viewers for revulsion as something that was de rigueur back in 1984—contemporary reviews of the film were just as horrified by the premise and nonplussed by its execution. Taking the form of a farce, Blame it on Rio compounds the wrongness of its premise by treating it as a source of wacky hijinks. How droll that the friend talks about killing his daughter’s unknown lover right in front of the protagonist! Even worse is the obvious approach of the film, which seems designed to cater to fortysomething fantasies rather than a realistic (or, heck, an empathetic) examination of the situation. No—in this film, the teenagers are merely fantasy figures actively looking for middle-aged lovers. (Try not to retch when the film makes a point of highlighting that the protagonist has known his teenager lover since she was a baby.) There is a remarkable disconnect between what the film assures us is normal, even light-hearted behaviour and what we suspect would happen if that scenario played in real-life. The whole thing feels dirty, and not the good kind of dirty—the kind where I can’t even bring myself to mention the name of the actress playing the teenager for fear of perpetuating the film’s voyeuristic exploitation of her nudity. To be fair, Rio is beautiful, there’s some material here that is mildly funny, and Caine gives it all he’s got—but the jokes fall flat considering the context, and we feel sorrier for Caine-the-actor than the character he’s playing. As a final indignity, the soundtrack is also too terrible for words. I thought last week that OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus was the worst film I’ve seen about Rio (and that came soon after Moonraker), but that title didn’t last long. Don’t blame Rio. Oh, Michael Caine, how could you?
(Snagfilms Streaming, October 2018) Social standards of acceptability change over time, and movies such as Zulu can illustrate these shifts with blinding clarity. It is, after all, a film in which a small band of British soldiers defend an outpost against a far more numerically numerous groups of Zulu warriors. Featuring Michael Caine in one of his earliest roles, it’s a war movie with an expansive scope: The battle sequences are inspired by American westerns (which bring up a whole other bag of issues to consider), and they take up the full widescreen. Of course, from our perspective, the film is about something else that we’re not quite as fond of seeing: imperial forces killing native populations. Yet at the time of its release, fifty-five years ago, Zulu was perceived as both a stirring tribute to British imperialism, and as unusually respectful depiction of the Zulu warriors: They are portrayed as clever, organized and deadly. Alas, the film does show its clear allegiances later in the film as the Zulus pay tribute to the resisting Englishmen, once again going back to the increasingly ridiculous trope of having marginalized characters affirm the nobility of our (white, male, etc.) protagonists. This being said, Zulu still plays rather well for most of its duration. Modern sensibilities about seeing groups of humans slaughter each other don’t quite manage to dampen the stirring combat sequences, the heroic sacrifices of the English-speaking characters and the good old last-stand theatrics. I do have a number of issues with the result, but Zulu is what it is.
(In French, On Cable TV, April 2018) If you thought that having seen the 2003 remake of The Italian Job negated the need to see the original, think again, because the original is about twice as inventive and ten times as cool as its remake. It’s off to a roaring start as its protagonist (played with impeccably charm by Michael Caine) gets out of prison and straight into London’s Swingin’ Sixties: In-between the cool car, cool clothes and entourage of beautiful women, he’s living the dream and sharing it with us. The film gets more ordinary as it explains the subsequent caper and assembles the team of specialists to see it through. Noteworthy is the script’s emphasis on a primitive form of computer hacking, as traffic signals are trafficked as part of the caper by a computer expert (played by no less than Benny Hill). Cool scenes abound (“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”), culminating in a demented car chase through Turin featuring three of the original Cooper Minis and a spirited singing of “Getta Bloomin’ Move On.” The only real flaw of the film comes at the ending, which famously ends on a literal cliffhanger and deprives the audience of a truly satisfying ending—although it does trade it for a heavy dose of irony. It doesn’t matter all that much, as The Italian Job remains great good fun from beginning to end. Heck, writing about it makes me want to watch it all over again.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) If Going in Style feels familiar from the first few moments, it’s not just your imagination: there’s been a glut of “old guys going wild” movies in the past half-decade, and they often feature the same actors. Alan Arkin can play old crusties like the best of them, and he almost reprises his The Stand-Up Guys character here to good effect. Morgan Freeman also reprises another character (from Last Vegas), while Michael Caine regrettably doesn’t go full Harry Brown as a pensioner seeking revenge. This is all very familiar stuff, going back to the idea that Hollywood, having maintained those great actor personas for decades, would rather reprise them (with laughter) than dare anything new. Still, under Zach Braff’s direction, Going in Style may be generic stuff but it’s well-made generic stuff. Even knowing where it’s going, the film plays at a pleasant rhythm, the expected set-pieces all falling into place in a comforting rhythm. The actors know what they’re doing, the audience know what they’re doing, and the critique of the excesses of modern American society is carefully kept to a merest whisper as so not to give anyone any ideas. Going in Style is as average as any other Hollywood release these days, but it gets back most of its points on actor appeal and rhythm of execution.
(On TV, March 2017) As I’m watching Woody Allen’s filmography in scattered chronological order, I’m struck by how his works seems best approached sequentially—there are definitely phases in his work, and they partially seem to be addressing previous movies. Hannah and Her Sisters does echo other Allen movies—Manhattan (which I saw between watching this film and writing this review) in tone and setting, I’m told that there’s something significant about Mia Farrow’s casting, and there’s a continuity here between Allen’s nebbish hypochondriac and the rest of his screen persona. Absent most of those guideposts, however, Hannah and her Sisters feels a bit … slight as a standalone. It’s nowhere near a bad movie: the quality of the dialogue, twisted psychodrama of unstable pairings and Allen’s own very entertaining persona ensure that this is a quality film. But in trying to find out what makes this a lauded top-tier component of Allen’s filmography, answers don’t come as readily. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Hannah and Her Sisters does things that have since then been done more frequently—Northeastern romantic dramas about a close-knit group of friends and family? Might as well tag an entire sub-genre of independent dramas … at least two of them featuring Jason Bateman. Familiarity, of course, is trumped by execution and so Hannah and Her Sisters does go far on Allen’s script. Allen himself is his own best male spokesman, although Michael Caine and Max von Sydow both have their moments. Still, the spotlight is on the sisters: Mia Farrow is terrific as the titular Hannah, while Barbara Hershey remains captivating thirty years later and Dianne Wiest completes the trio as something of a screw-up. There’s a little bit of weirdness about the age of the characters—although I suspect that’s largely because Allen plays a character much younger than he is, and I can’t reliably tell the age of the female characters. It’s watchable enough, but I’m not sure I found in Hannah and her Sisters the spark that makes an average film become a good one. I may want to temper my expectations—after all, not every Woody Allen movie is a great one, even in the latter period with which I’m most familiar.
(In French, On TV, February 2017) Maybe I’m seeing the wrong movies, but it seems to me that the large-scale adventure film is a lost art in Hollywood. Those seas of extras, trips through treacherous remote locations and against-all-odds stories seem to belong to another time. Maybe that’s for the best, considering the iffy colonial content of The Man Who Would be King. It’s one thing for noted imperialist Rudyard Kipling (a man of his time, and I’ll be forever grateful for The Jungle Book) to write a cautionary tale about two British soldiers becoming god-emperors in a forgotten part of the world; it’s quite another to see this story today through post-colonial lenses. The Man Who Would Be King does have the considerable benefit of a decent third act in which the so-called civilized men are punished for their hubris, but much of the film’s first hour plays uncomfortably, as white men scheme their way to an empire. Still, as a white guy, I have the implicit privilege of being able to picture myself in the lead role, and once I manage to do that, what’s not to like? Michael Caine and Sean Connery together in a single movie, with Connery sporting glorious handlebar facial hair! Shakira Caine (Michael’s wife) in a pivotal role! Christopher Plummer playing Kipling himself! The film does get substantially more interesting in the third act as the façade of the white men’s deception falls away with real consequences. The ending is very good and justifies the framing device. John Huston’s direction is clean and makes the most of the means available to pre-CGI filmmakers. With a scope and sweep that defies even modern films, The Man Who Would Be King is remarkable even today, and the slight discomfort that the first three-quarter of the film may cause to a modern audience is more than redeemed by a conclusion that must have been sobering even to the original short story’s Victorian readers.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) I’m not normally a fan of elliptic artistic films driven less by plot than by contemplation of deep themes, but there is something about Youth that makes the experience entertaining, even gripping at times. Benefiting from the acting talents of Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as veteran creators struggling with the accumulated weight of their lives, Youth ponders issues of life and death, loops into vignettes that have little to do with the plot, veers into dream sequences, and discusses the pitfalls of the creative process and fame. It is alternatively grandiose, pretentious, intimate, funny, surreal, tragic and oblique. On paper, it sounds like a terrible mishmash of everything that the writer/director Paolo Sorrentino has thought about in making the film. And yet it works. I’m not sure why. The humour helps a lot, of course, and the way the film uses Madalina Diana Ghenea’s assets gleefully feels like exploitation. But there’s also a suspicion that Youth talks about life in a blunt way, using experiences that most of us will never have (being solicited for knighthood, being unable to secure a famed actress for our newest screenplay, even resting a few weeks in a five-star hotel in the Alps) to talk spectacularly about universal issues. The quality of the images, as incongruous as they can be, also contributes to a renewed interest in the film. No matter why, Youth does succeed at creating a memorable viewing experience. Not bad for a film that many, including myself, would have thrown dismissively in the “made for Cannes” bin.