(On TV, June 2019) Over the past few years, I gradually realized that Hocus Pocus had attained cult status for an entire generation a decade younger than me. Of course, I was 18 and not inclined to kids’ movies back in 1993—no wonder it passed me by. But now that 1980s nostalgia is leading to 1990s nostalgia, here we are celebrating the youth classics of a new generation, hence Hocus Pocus’ 25th anniversary and an occasion to find out what the fuss was about. To my surprise, Hocus Pocus does hold up—from the surprisingly dark opening sequence (child-murdering witches!), to the twists and turns of the plot with a few false endings, all the way through a gleefully campy tone, it’s actually a good time to watch. Bette Midler is clearly having fun hamming it up as a buck-toothed elder witch, but Sarah Jessica Parker is just as hilarious as the most dim-witted (and cutest) of the lead witchy trio. Early performances by a pre-teen Thora Birth and a zombie Doug Jones are worth noticing, but the ensemble cast does seem to have a good idea of the kind of film it’s in. The pacing rarely flags at barely more than 90 minutes, and even the creaky special effects have their own charm—including a surprisingly convincing talking cat. (On a similar note, the feline Binx pleasantly reminded me of my other favourite 1990s talking black cat, Salem from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.) For adult viewers, there are a number of racy references in Hocus Pocus that feel even more surprising coming from a Disney movie, and a fair number of good one-liners. Add to that the generally timeless feel of the film (and yes, “I put a Spell on You” is catchy), and there’s enough here for everyone even today.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) Nicholas Cage and Las Vegas make for an interesting coupling ((he’s apparently now a resident of the city), especially given how each one of the movies in which they come together are so different. Leaving Las Vegas is a depressing tragedy, Con Air is a brash action spectacular, and Honeymoon in Vegas is an offbeat romantic comedy featuring no less than a troupe of parachuting Elvises (Elvii?) at the climax. Writer/director Andrew Bergman certainly seems to have fun in setting up the film’s premise, as a couple (Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker) travels to Vegas to be married, only to run into an Indecent Proposal-like situation in which a rich man (James Caan) offers to erase the protagonist’s gambling debts in exchange for a weekend with his soon-to-be wife. (Indecent Proposal was released in 1993, although the original novel predates Honeymoon in Vegas.) There’s some plot weirdness about Parker looking like the rich man’s dead wife, but never mind the justifications: Much of the film’s fun is in seeing Cage’s character chasing his wife, only to come back in style by jumping out of an airplane with a bunch of Elvis impersonators. As they say—what goes on in Vegas … warrants a movie. The result is a frothy funny film, not particularly deep at all, but offbeat and likable enough to be worth an unpresuming look. Cage is surprisingly fun as a romantic hero, and the Honeymoon in Vegas itself offers an interesting contrast to his other Vegas movies. Still, it may work best as a chaser for Leaving Las Vegas.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) I you want to hear me at my cantankerous best, just get me started on the hyperbolization of language and (in parallel) the tendency of ironic catchphrases to get normalized to clichés. Never mind my person crusade to teach everyone the deadly origins of the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”: one of my current bugaboos is how perfectly good middle-ground descriptive words have been perverted into value judgments. “Mediocre” means “ordinary,” but most people now take it to mean “bad.” “Exemplary” means that something is a perfect example of something, and not necessarily among the best. So when I say that Failure to Launch is an exemplary mid-2000s romantic comedy featuring Matthew McConaughey (not as small a sample size as you’d think), then I’m just saying that it’s representative, not a superior example of the form. The plot is the kind of high-concept contrived nonsense that was a staple at the time, this time about a relationship specialist (Sarah Jessica Parker) who can be hired to boost the self-esteem of young men staying at their parent’s house long after they’ve overstayed their welcome. It’s not prostitution, insists Failure to Launch in the rare moments when it actually cares about the implications of its premise, except that parents do hire her to send their boys away from home. The plot built upon that premise is executed by-the-numbers, but as with many examples of the genre the charm of the film lies in the execution, the subplots and the supporting characters. The charm of the leads is considerable (there’s a reason why McConaughey found a niche in romantic comedies for so long—he nearly overpowers the material), and there is a lot of fun to find in the more interesting romantic B-story featuring Zooey Deschanel and the film’s obsession about animal bites. Bradley Cooper and a pre-hair implant Steve Carell show up in minor roles. There’s a funny subplot about a mockingbird. Despite its familiarity, Failure to Launch is not a difficult film to watch: it’s not exceptional, but it’s well-made enough to be entertaining.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) When I say that my pet name for Sex and the City 2 would be “Middle-Aged Women Wish Fulfillment: The Sequel”, I’m not being as dismissive as you may think. For all of the middle-aged male wish fulfillment out there (and 2011 did have its own gender-flipped Dubai-set fantasy in Impossible Mission: Ghost Protocol except no one called it “male wish fulfillment”), there is a need for other kinds of escapist fantasies in cinema. Sex and the City 2 is aimed at a particular audience, and in that context I encourage it to be as pandering as possible given that I’m already getting plenty of pandering for my own demographic subset, thank you. This being said, I can’t in good conscience let the film skate away on the highly problematic sequences that it contains. Never mind the length of the movie, low-octane romantic stakes, general faux pas in making romantic sequels, first-world problems and over-privileged heroines: There’s a lot worse to be found in the way our four protagonists head over to Dubai on someone else’s dime, are lavishly served by indentured servants, flaunt local conventions like ugly Americans and are shocked when there are consequences to what they do. There is a particularly baffling sequence toward the end that has Kim Cattrall’s character acting out in ways that aren’t just offensive to hardline conservative but to anyone with the slightest bit of sense and respect. Sex and the City 2 tries to have it both ways as well, first as vicarious living in luxurious quarters, then by acknowledging the ugly underside of this luxury, then portraying its protagonists as victims of the trouble that they themselves get into. As much as I’d like to like the film (snip away much of the third quarter and it becomes far more palatable), at worst Sex and the City 2 tries to impose its own artificial materialistic/hedonistic values on a clearly identified Other and at best settles for an obnoxious fantasy. And I say this as someone who likes Sarah Jessica Parker, Chris Noth and the others. What a let-down.
(On TV, January 2017) You could retitle Sex and the City as “Wish Fulfillment for Middle-Aged Women: The Movie” and I’m not sure it would be entirely dismissive. But I’m being too harsh: I’m not in the target audience for the series to which this is a follow-up, and even I have to admit that there is a contagious enthusiasm to the movie’s most entertaining moment. Shopping, trips, contentment and inner peace—what’s not to like, even though the details may differ? Watching this as someone with only the barest knowledge of the TV show (to the point of: “Wow, I did not expect that much sex/nudity in a movie called Sex in the City!”) is strange—while the film doesn’t forget to have a plot, it’s often bare-bones in the way it presents its characters or moves them through the motions of their dramatic arc. There are lengthy digressions simply to scratch the wish fulfillment of its audience. It boldly sets off to hyper-consumption for no other reason than it can do so. And yet, and yet … it works. It’s a good time. It’s the kind of movie that reassures you that there is good in the world, even though it may be more easily attainable with a credit card with a ludicrously high limit. Sarah Jessica Parker is very likable in the main role despite odd script-dictated behaviour, and Kim Cattrall remains the most interesting of the three other main cast members, while Chris Noth remains the ultimate Mr. Big. Sex and the City may be a wish fulfillment film, but then again so are most big-budget movies—and for some strange reasons, few movie critics ever mention how we should be dismissing action films as power fantasies of seeing average guys shooting terrorists in the head to save the world/wife/kids. From that perspective, Sex and the City is a welcome complement.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) Newsflash: comedy aimed at middle-class Midwestern Americans espouses and promotes middle-class Midwestern values. In the generally unobjectionable (if rather empty-headed) Did You Hear About The Morgans?, a couple of upper-class newyorkers accidentally see something that lands them in the witness protection program, where they are relocated to an isolated Wyoming town where they discover the values of hard work, law-and-order enforcement and factory outlets. The script practically writes itself around the fish-out-of-water gags and the impending-arrival-of-hired-killer ticking clock, and the result is just about as formulaic as it can be. Fortunately, the film is more or less saved by two pairs of performances: Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as the amusingly estranged lead couple that has to re-learn life in the slow lane, as well as Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen as the no-nonsense cops that host them. Did You Hear About The Morgans? isn’t particularly sophisticated, but then again consider the broad target audience: the easy jokes all line up in a row, and the ending is as pat as it needs to be. The actors don’t have to stretch their usual screen persona, and everyone is more or less happy by the time the credits roll.