(In French, on Cable TV, August 2017) Given the western genre’s continued tendency to reach for dour drama, it can be a relief, even decades later, to encounter a light-hearted western. It feels even more refreshing to see it use its western setting as a springboard for a gambling conman comedy. In Maverick, Mel Gibson is practically perfect as a wisecracking protagonist equally adept with cards and guns, bluffing and shooting his way to a high-stakes gambling tournament. It’s a fine performance in his best persona, but it’s equalled by Jodie Foster in an atypical western bombshell role—Foster’s long been known for playing mostly cerebral, often desexualized roles, so it’s a bit of a delight to see her play up blonde curls and tight dresses. Other name actors round up the cast, in-between James Coburn, Dan Hedeya, James Garner, Graham Greene and Alfred Molina … plus more cameo roles than you’ll be able to recognize. Director Richard Donner’s rapid pacing helps its entertainment value, but there is considerable charm in its setting and attitude—not many westerns have steamboats, and fewer include rapid-fire romantic repartee or wryly funny native characters. The script, by legendary William Goldman, is as good as you’d expect, with a pile-up of confidence games and triple-crossing characters in addition to the western backdrop. Maverick is not a great movie, but it remains a really good one.
(In French, On TV, July 2017) The good news are that Assassins is a crazy movie in the best sense of the term: It’s disconnected enough from reality to be enjoyable as a big basket of overdone action sequences and familiar genre elements. The not-so-good news is that it’s not really a good movie—much of the storyline is dull and for a movie involving the Wachowskis and Brian Helgeland, it fails to capitalize on its sizzle factor. Thanks to veteran director Richard Donner, there are some good sequences here and there: the taxicab blocked-by-a-bulletproof-window duel is ingenious in the way more of the movie should have been. Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas ham it up enough as competing assassins. But the best thing about Assassins may be Julianne Moore: For an actress who has such a firmly established persona of mature dignity, it’s a real treat to see her in a pre-stardom role that asks her to be trashy/techno in one sequence, then doe-eyed/cute for the rest of the film. Assassins is also the source of the delightful “Antonio Banderas’s Laptop Reaction”.gif, so there’s a tiny bit of internet meme history along the way. Assassins isn’t a major movie in any way and has already ended up as a footnote in other people’s careers, and it should be approached as such: Not as a movie expected to be good, but a grab bag of things that may be interesting.
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2017) Ah, there it is—Superman, the granddaddy of the superhero genre. Has it aged well? Not really, but perhaps better than you’d think. Structurally, Superman doesn’t do anything truly different from countless other superhero origin stories—although it does take its own sweet time to get there, and even includes sequel-setup elements in the prologue (I had to pop open the DVD tray and double-check that I hadn’t accidentally inserted Superman II in the player, because I honestly did not remember Zod being part of the first film). What works is that, at times, the script does try to reach for something beyond the silly humour and into drama—either the missing-parent subplot, or romantic hijinks. That does keep the movie afloat now far better than the slapdash humour of much of the rest of the film. Nowadays, though, the script has serious tonal issues in-between its serious protagonist and silly antagonists: Gene Hackman is rather good as Lex Luthor, and I can’t say enough nice things about Valerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, but Ned Beatty is insupportable as a henchman too dumb for words, let alone supporting a so-called genius of crime. But so goes Superman, torn in-between actual artistic ambitions for its characters and a reluctance to see comic-book origins as anything but a big joke. Other issues abound. The ever-popular “Superman is a schmuck” theory is bolstered by more than a few sequences, while the ending sequence (with Superman going back in time) is still worth a disbelieving groan. On the other hand—and this is an important point—Superman manages to float above its worst flaws by virtue of honesty. It believes in its own protagonist and it does try to explore what it means to be Superman. It tries to ground itself in-between its flights of fancy, and the seventies period details now looks deliciously retro rather than dated. It also helps that, beyond Margot Kidder being good as Lois Lane, Christopher Reeves is fantastic both as Clark Kent and Superman—his performance as one is unlike the other: far more than making us “believe that a man can fly”, Superman’s greatest achievement is making us believe in the difference between superhero and alter ego. Director Richard Donner had enough experience to do justice to the script using what was available at the time—while the film’s special effects now look amateurish, they still make their point even today. Superman is still a big grab-bag of various qualities and problems, but it can still be watched with some pleasure today. If nothing else, it’s not gratuitously dour or dark like some of the latter representation of the character, and I believe that it will endure decently because of that uplifting tone. Cue the theme music…
(On DVD, April 2017) Many horror movies from the seventies have not aged very well, and The Omen hovers in that strange zone between ridiculousness and effectiveness. What generally works is the atmosphere of dread, the middle section, the period detail and the refreshingly older protagonist (Gregory Peck, sixty years old at the time of the film’s release) anchoring the film. Those help The Omen maintain freshness even in light of everything that now look stupid about the film: The predictable nature of the bad-seed plot, slow pacing, familiar rehash of Catholic mythology, badly-staged horror sequences… It’s difficult, even psychopathic to think that you’d laugh at a plate-glass decapitation … until it happens and you think “gee, couldn’t this have been more convincing?” If nothing else, this sequence is a lesson in less-is-more—a tastefully restrained approach of not attempting to show the actual decapitations would have been far more effective. The Omen may have codified its share of horror clichés, but they are now clichés and the film suffers from their overuse. Still, there is some decent mainstream ambition from director Richard Donner in making this horror story a decent film for large audiences (rather than going the genre route) and it’s one of the reasons why, even if it does feel faintly silly, The Omen still reverberates today. [May 2017: Ah-ha! I finally remembered that I had read about The Omen’s decapitation scene in Harlan Ellison’s An Edge in my Voice … and that after seeing the actual result, it’s obvious that Ellison’s completely tone-deaf in describing his appalled reaction at audience laughter during the scene. The scene is over-the-top and almost designed, as is, to provoke laughter. Sorry Harlan—you’re not always right!]
(On TV, September 2016) I’m mildly surprised that it took me thirteen years to get to Timeline. After all, it’s a science-fiction film, it’s based on a Michael Crichton novel … and it’s not as if I’ve gone out of my way to avoid either watch SF or reading Crichton. But the reviews at the time were bad, and I must have been focusing on something else (yeah, I now see it came out in November 2003—I was obsessively writing a novel that month) because here we are, watching it for the first time in 2016. Much to my surprise, Timeline isn’t as bad as the reviews then suggested. It is, in science-fiction terms, irremediably basic: the time-travelling mechanics are arbitrary, the treatment of temporal paradoxes is entry-level (with an air of astonishment betraying the author’s deliberate lack of SF sophistication) and the plot lines can be seen converging long in advance. And yet, it does offer a mildly satisfying package, a bit of a window into history (as inaccurate as Hollywood history can be) and a conclusion that ties everything together. Gerard Butler takes centre stage as a romantic scholar more at ease in the Middle Ages than in modern times, with notable performances by Paul Walker, Billy Connolly (as a scientist!) and Anna Friel. Veteran director Richard Donner isn’t particularly daring in his choices, but he keeps things running until the end. As far as the relationship between the film and the Crichton adaptation goes, the Hollywood version simplifies things remarkably, gets rid of troublesome ambiguities and notably loses the power of the opening chapter despite re-creating it almost verbatim. For seasoned science-fiction fans, Timeline’s use of time-travelling plot devices may be less interesting than seeing modern characters rediscovering medieval times, and witnessing an assault on a castle. While Timeline isn’t a great film (already, it feels half-forgotten), it’s decent enough to be worth a look through the end.
(On DVD, June 2011) Never having seen The Goonies (I know, I know…), I can’t say for sure if the film holds up for those with fond memories of the original. But seen fresh, the film still has a lot of fun and narrative energy. Sure, the kid actors often overact: Corey Feldman, in particular, seems to be mugging for the camera over and above what a motor-mouth should. The acting is broad and unsubtle: there’s little naturalism in how the characters are portrayed. But up to a certain point, that’s part of the charm: The Goonies is recognizably an early-teen fantasy of adventure and action: in-between wacky inventions, ingenious traps, first kisses, sibling tension, silly criminals and treasure maps, the film aims square at boys and girls and succeeds in portraying the kind of adventure many wished for in late grade school. As a collaboration between producer Steven Spielberg, writer Chris Columbus and director Richard Donner, The Goonies is also a powerhouse of talents who were at their mid-eighties peak: all would go on to make other things, but their reputation would hinge heavily on this film. Even from the first snappy minutes, it’s easy to see how everything clicks in this film. Not every sequence and plot elements works as well (I’m not so fond of Sloth, nor the various plot tricks), but even a quarter of a century later, the pacing is fairly good, the atmosphere between the kids is credible and the spirit of adventure rarely flags. There’s an added bonus in seeing familiar actors in younger roles, from Sean Astin to Josh Brolin to Joe Pantoliano. The DVD does justice to the film, with great picture quality and extensive supplements ranging from a superlative audio/video commentary to a few featurettes about the making of The Goonies. I’m probably one of the last kids of the eighties to see this film, but the wait has been worth it.