(On Cable TV, November 2018) On the one hand, Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is an imaginative, clever, exuberant fantasy film. On the other, it’s the kind of film that appears severely limited today by circa-1988 technology: it swings for the fences, but doesn’t have what it takes to pass muster today. It’s also a story of the one-thing-after-another variety, meaning that the picaresque structure may not feel as if it’s tied up together. Still, it’s good fun to see John Neville justifiably hams it up as Munchausen, along with such notables as Sarah Polley, Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman and Robin Williams in grander-than-life roles. The fantasy between reality and fantasy here is thin, and I’m not too sure that it makes the most out of this quality. Still, as part of Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” after Time Bandits (which I didn’t like all that much) and Brazil (which is an all-time classic), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ranks as a solid, um, average. I like what it’s trying to do, I appreciate that it was almost impossible to accomplish back then, but I’m not all that enthusiastic about the results.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) Social trends shift over two decades, but if some aspects of The Birdcage are now slightly dated, the film itself remains quite a lot of fun to watch. There is, mind you, quite a pedigree to this American comedy—it’s an updated Americanization of 1978’s French farce La Cage aux Folles, which was itself a movie adaptation of a 1973 play of the same name. (And I’m not getting into the sequels to the French film nor the American musical.) In other words, the roots of The Birdcage go back to before I was born. But no matter the year, the premise is the same: A half-flamboyantly gay couple has to hide who they are as their son comes to visit with his fiancée and her ultraconservative parents. The key word here is “flamboyantly”—while issues between gay couples and social conservatives continue to be a rich source of conflict, the portrayal of the gay couple in all versions of the story does include a very camp gay character with a vested drag queen identity. The Birdcage bathes its gay characters in a warm sympathetic portrayal, which helps it a lot in being just as amusing today—the portrayal of the social conservative characters haven’t aged so well, but then again some caricatures are necessary. Now, of course, gay couples can now marry even in the United States and social conservatives are slightly more approving of them—and The Birdcage is often mentioned as one of the movies that helped move things along. Still, even though some of the details have changed, much of the movie does remain a lot of fun to watch: Robin Williams plays, if you’ll pardon the expression, the straight man to Nathan Lane’s far more exuberant character, with Hank Azaria making quite an impression as a supporting character and Gene Hackman playing ultraconservative like few others. The shrill screaming, snappy snarking and outlandish outfits clearly benefit from the drag club atmosphere, but the moral message underneath it all couldn’t be more wholesome, and the film’s portrayal of all of its characters is immensely likable. Breezy and fun, The Birdcage remains surprisingly good even more than twenty years later.
(Popcornflix streaming, September 2018) I grew up on Popeye cartoons (in French, mind you), but somehow hadn’t seen the live-action adaptation until now. I can’t say I missed much, because for all of director Robert Altman’s skill in recreating a cartoon-inspired seashore village, much of Popeye simply falls flat with simplistic character motivations, too-long musical numbers and an overall impression of … dullness. It’s not all bad: Robin Williams is good as Popeye, but Shelley Duvall is terrific as Olive Oyl and Paul L. Smith is remarkable as Bluto. The sets are splendid (almost too good, in fact—we don’t really want to spend any more time there) and there is some occasional good staging for the physical comedy. But otherwise, Popeye remains surprisingly boring: The film feel self-satisfied, prone to excessive sentimentalism and unwilling to make its narrative advance. Williams’ constant mumbling of malapropisms as Popeye in in-character, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less annoying. In some ways, Popeye also seems made for those who already know Popeye—I’m among those, but we’re literally a dying breed and I wonder what audiences new to the character would make of the film. I certainly had to pause and think a bit about those Saturday morning cartoons to be reminded of why the film followed a certain path, who those annoying people were and why it was so stylized. Overall, I’m disappointed at the result.
(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I must have seen Dead Poets Society on TV back in the nineties, and revisiting it today makes for a complex mixture of remembrance, rediscovery and mild mourning that Robin Williams is gone. There is a small but definite dramatic subgenre out there that could be called “inspirational teacher” movies (and once you lump mentors, coaches and grumpy old guys teaching young men a lesson in there, it becomes a rather large subgenre) and Dead Poets Society seems to be its flagship title. A throwback at the boarding academies of the late fifties, this is a film that glorifies English classes to an admirable degree. Poetry has seldom been so cool (well, maybe in 8 Mile) and the link between English literature and taking ownership of one’s life is unusual enough to be interesting. It helps that, having been conceived as a period piece from the start, Dead Poets Society hasn’t aged much in nearly thirty years. The only thing that makes the movie wistful is Robin Williams—at times, it seems as if half of the film’s appeal is “wouldn’t it have been cool to have Robin Williams as your teacher?” and the circumstances of Williams’ death since then do make the film even more poignant. (Alas, I suspect that it also gives his character a free pass on a few disputable choices … as the film says, “free-thinking at seventeen”?) The atmosphere of the boarding school comes with a heavy dose of nostalgia that isn’t as unpleasant as you’d think. It all amounts to a decent film, even a powerful one for those who find that it has resonance over their own experiences.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) I’m not sure what I was expecting from Awakenings—seeing Robin Williams as a doctor, maybe something along the lines of Patch Adams? What I did get was more than expected. The first half of Awakenings is good without being particularly striking: Here are patients immobilized by a rare disease; here’s an unconventional doctor trying a new radical therapy to improve their condition and break them out of their catatonia. When, against all odds, it works, it’s the film’s big triumphant moment: People are free to live again, experience the world and blossom against all odds. The film’s real kicker, however, happens when the therapy stops being effective, and the newly awakened patients are dragged back in catatonia. It does give to Awakenings an efficient dose of wistfulness, and a stronger “experience life before it’s taken away from you” message. Robin Williams is good and not overbearing in a more serious role than usual, while Robert de Niro turns in a respectable performance as a patient who comes out of catatonia before facing the prospect of sinking back into it. Awakenings may be best approached with low expectations—it’s not a great movie, but it’s noteworthy and far from being as sappy as it could have been. It’s not comfortable and works better because of it.
(On DVD, April 2017) This is not quite a “first viewing” review. I have, after all, seen quite a lot of Aladdin by sheer virtue of being a dad. But living with a preschooler-in-chief means that most kids’ movies have to be seen in bits and pieces, always in French and in-between fetching, cleaning or food-prepping. Over time, I have grown accustomed to the ever-growing DVD library of kid’s movies that I’ve seen but never really watched. Well, it’s time to remedy that. (My daughter was scandalized that I would want to watch one of her movies in the original English while she was busy playing—note to self; for The Little Mermaid or The Lion King, wait until after bedtime.) Now that I’ve had the chance to watch the movie from beginning to end, let’s acknowledge a few things: It’s a tight take on the Aladdin story, filled with enough humour, action, suspense, romance and adventure to entertain everyone. The animation is pretty good, with an impressive early integration of CGI and 2D animation at a time when such a thing was only becoming possible for top-notch studios such as Disney. The film is worth viewing in the original English if only for Robin Williams’ remarkable tour-de-force vocal performance at the genie. Not only does the film come alive when he’s on-screen, but his rapid patter is typically Williamsesque to a point that gets lost even in the most well-meaning translation. I’ve long suspected that Jasmine is one of my favourite princesses, and this film confirms why—you can clearly see in her nature the template for the feisty female characters that would form the core of the Princess archetype during the Disney Resurgence period that continues even today. At roughly 90 minutes, it’s a film that doesn’t have a lot of dull moments. (Although I would redo the introduction: Not only does it come across as a bit racist, it inelegantly contextualizing the film as being “from somewhere else”, contrarily to the approach taken by more recent film such as Frozen or Moana that takes us inside the other culture from the first few moments.) Small nice moments abound, such as the two-faceted nature of the villain animal sidekick (another performance worth savouring in English, by Gilbert Gottfried), or the surprisingly deep bond of friendship between Aladdin and the genie. Musically, I like Aladdin’s introduction songs (both of them), and the effective “Friend Like Me”. All in all, Aladdin remains quite satisfying for the kids, pleasantly funny for the adults who can catch the anachronistic references, and a family film in the best sense of the expression.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) I remember two or three jokes from my first viewing of Hook more than twenty years ago, but not a whole lot more. I have noted a certain polarization of opinion about the film—a lot of regular people like it, while critics don’t. I watched the film in regular-person mode, and wasn’t displeased from the experience: Despite claims of this being a sequel to the original Pan, Hook is very much a retelling … so closely so that it gives rise to some vexing issues (as in: “why bother?”) There is a very late-eighties quality to the way the action is staged in Neverland, prisoner of limited soundstage sets and the special effects technology of the time. As a take on the Peter Pan mythos, it’s decent without being exceptional or revolutionary—it’s still miles better than the 2016 Pan, although not quite as successful as 2003’s Peter Pan. Julia Roberts isn’t bad as Tinkerbell, although her unrequited romance is good for a few raised eyebrows. Robin Williams is OK as Peter, but it’s hard to avoid thinking that another actor may have been better-suited for the role. Meanwhile, Dustin Hoffman seems as if he’s having a lot of fun in the titular role. While Steven Spielberg directs, there is little here to reflect his legendary touch. It does strike me that Hook fits almost perfectly with the latest Disney craze of remaking its classic animated movies as live action. Perhaps contemporary opinion about the film will be more forgiving than the critical roasting it got at the time. Until that reconsecration, the result is perfectly watchable and squarely in the middle of the various takes on Peter Pan.
(On DVD, September 2016) Before telling you what I really think about Bicentennial Man, I’ll just take a moment to appreciate what I do like about the film, even if it boils down to intentions. I like the idea of a classic Isaac Asimov story being adapted on the big screen. I certainly appreciate how the film tries to cover a two-century period in two short hours, and I can recognize the attempt at conveying some of that future history through background details. It’s the kind of thing that makes written science fiction so interesting, and it’s rare to see it even attempted on the big screen. This being said, none of those good intentions are enough to rescue Bicentennial Man from some condemnation. The ham-fisted script never misses an occasion to be dumb, sappy, obvious or nonsensical. The vision of the future is all about changing surface and simplistic attitudes, never taking an opportunity to tackle social change in a meaningful way, or escaping funny-clothes laziness. Robin Williams is here in full-blown nice-guy persona, wasting comic energy in a role seemingly built to be as dull as possible. While the film has aged badly in seventeen years (now that we have direct experience with the introduction of technology, the way Bicentennial Man deals with its robots feels worse than off), let’s not kid ourselves: it was pretty bad even in 1999. Laced with cheap sentimentality, flatly directed by Chris Columbus and hobbled by dumb story choices manifested by even dumber character decisions, this (in many ways) showcases how badly Hollywood mishandles Science-Fiction as a genre.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I recall seeing Jumanji on TV in the mid-nineties, but another visit twenty years later only highlights the film’s issues. It’s not simply that the film’s special effects haven’t aged well (and they haven’t—the CGI material looks noticeably disconnected from the live action), it’s the film’s structure, its casual disregard for causality, its refusal to engage in the consequences of its more audacious ideas. Robin Williams is fine in the lead role (although one sense that he’s being restrained with the requirements of the special-effect production) and the script does show some intriguing ideas along the way, but they’re not explored in any details beyond the surface appeal of compelling visuals (monkeys jumping around the kitchen, wild beasts stampeding on the city square). Meanwhile, these are a few horrific ideas dealing with lengthy exiles, the game-as-monster and parallel timelines that are barely and lazily addressed. Of course, exploring those issues further would take Jumanji far away from the romp-for-children that it aims to be… Still, there are missed opportunities in making weighty themes stand too close to an adventure film for kids: I can imagine younger audiences cheering and clapping along while their parents stand there with a queasy grin informed by far too many reasonable fears. If you can let go of this weighty baggage of implications, the film itself works intermittently: Director Joe Johnston can certainly handle special effects set pieces (it’s not his fault if the technology wasn’t quite there yet at the time). For once, the announcement of an impending remake doesn’t bother me too much: Jumanji has a lot of potential, but a lot of it was mishandled by this version. Here’s hoping the 2017 remake does better.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) I’m sure that the filmmakers wanted me to like Mrs. Doubtfire more than I did. Featuring Robin Williams as an immature dad cross-dressing as a way to stay in touch with his kids following a messy separation, Mrs. Doubtfire navigates a tricky line between Williams’ high-intensity comedy and the somewhat more sobering implications of a disintegrating marriage. There’s a layer of duplicity and impossible logistics to the film that makes it harder to enjoy the moment you look closer at it. (Do you know how much close-up face prosthetics cost and how long they take to apply?) For a while, it doesn’t matter very much, especially when Williams is on-screen making funny voices and working without a leash. But anyone expecting a tidy conclusion will have to contend with a romantic rival who’s not despicable, a conclusion that doesn’t patch everything together and an ending where things go on uncomfortably. I’d normally appreciate such a nuanced conclusion, but it merely reinforces a feeling that for a comedy, Mrs. Doubtfire is a sad film, with good people driven to lies and unhealthy behaviour. Much of the same can be said of the film itself: sometimes, we’re torn between opposite impulses, and they end up making a mess of good intentions. Here, the drama undermines the comedy and the comedy undermines the drama, leaving no-one truly happy.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) The Night at the Museum series has its own unlikely formula perfected by this third installment: Magically-reanimated members of the New York museum exhibits get to travel to another museum on some irrelevant pretext, meet the local magically-reanimated characters, have special-effects-heavy adventures and go home. Director Shawn Levy is well-used to the formula by now and it shows in the strengths and weaknesses of the film. Ben Stiller mugs for the camera, everyone else hams it up, cheap jokes abound, there’s some Egyptian woo-woo to hold the jokes together and the movie ends before anyone gets exasperated. It’s familiar to the point that this third installment doesn’t get to try very hard to be witty or clever: Despite taking place at the hallowed British Museum, Secret of the Tomb seems rote and lifeless, coasting on familiar shtick (including a last vigorous Teddy Roosevelt performance by the late Robin Williams) but not pushing the envelope with any of its new characters — except, fitfully, Rebel Wilson’s security guard. The Hugh Jackman cameo is amusing and so is the M.C. Escher-inspired sequence, meaning that the film isn’t entirely on auto-pilot. But it does feel like a re-heated attempt to extend a concept past its prime, and this feeling that it’s about time that the show ends means that the final moments of the film aren’t as poignant as anyone would have liked. There are, thanks to the generous budget and the high-concept, a few things to see. But those aren’t quite enough to make Secret of the Tomb feel worthwhile as more than another attempt to rely on what worked in the previous films of the series. There may or may not be another installment –who cares at this point?
(On TV, May 2015) The weirdest franchises can emerge from Hollywood’s idea factory, and so what we have here is some kind of “museum comes to life, allowing historical characters to interact” CGI-fest, along with actors having up playing grander-than-life personas. This second Night at the Museum is a bit weirdly structured, with Ben Stiller’s protagonist somehow selling a company in order to keep prolonging the franchise. Oh well; it’s not as if we’re really watching the film for its finer plot points as much as Robin Williams once again having fun as Teddy Roosevelt, or Amy Adams really playing it up as Amelia Earheart, complete with snappy period dialogue. The rest of the film is almost entirely based on sight-gags, a copious use of CGI and plot mechanics aimed at kids. It sort-of-works, even though nothing really stick in mind except for Adams’ performance. There should be more to say about the film, but somehow there isn’t.