(On Cable TV, July 2018) There are a couple of interesting things in Papillon, not the least of them being a narrative structure that never quite goes where you think it does. Adapted from a true story, the film spends much of its first half obsessing about its protagonist’s escape from a tropical prison … only to keep going and going and going well after that escape fails and then another succeeds. We follow the main character through a few decades as he lives various adventures on his way to recapture freedom and yet more evasions. Steve McQueen makes for a likable action protagonist, with Dustin Hoffman acting as an interesting intellectual foil to his character. Filmed in lush Caribbean locations, Papillon does have exotic scenery and unpredictability on its side, although the overall impact may not be as strong as expected. Surprisingly oneiric at times, which more hallucinations than you’d expect. It does feel long, trying and unpleasant—something not diminished by the film’s taking place in a prison or on fleeing through desperate environments. I would have liked to like it more, but felt surprisingly uninvolved by everything.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) To put it bluntly, The Blob is not a good movie. And yet it endures even today, frequently showing up on retro movie channels and ranking high on the list of quintessential fifties movies. Part of it is certainly due to this being Steve McQueen’s first film—a 28-year-old actor playing a much younger teenager trying to save his town from alien invasion. McQueen being McQueen, the film largely revolves around his innate charisma, and it’s not a bad thing to see him as young as he gets in movies. The titular Blob almost steals the show … but not quite. Special Effects limitations being what they were, this is a fifties sci-fi horror film that is definitely not horrific even as some characters get dissolved by the alien menace. (The amusing title song is worth a listen.) Aside from MacQueen and a rather droll tone, The Blob is perhaps most remarkable as a gentle visit to mid-fifties small-town America, where the grocery store and the local movie theater are important landmarks and the local police chief harbours small grudges against specific people. It’s not good, and perhaps it still works because it never was. A rather inconclusive ending takes on a new meaning sixty years and one climate change crisis later.
(On DVD, February 2018) I partially grew up on seventies Disaster films (they were a popular staple of French-Canadian TV in the early eighties), and while I don’t remember a lot of about them, there is the occasional ping of recognition as re-watch them in middle age. My fuzzy memories of The Towering Inferno were a disservice to the film, which is quite enjoyable in its own bombastic way. Never mind the fascinating backstory to the film (two studios meshing together similar projects based on different books) when the end result brings Steve McQueen together with Paul Newman in a big cooperative battle of manly heroes. The film is long, but the leisurely opening act does set up a premise of fiendish promise: an enormous skyscraper, fire risks everywhere, and human failings exacerbating an already dangerous situation. It all culminates in a titular conflagration … and it works pretty well. There are a lot of familiar faces here, including O.J. Simpson as a security guard, Robert Vaughn in his usual evilness, and one last great appearance by Fred Astaire in an effective dramatic role. (He won an Oscar for it, properly understood to be about the rest of his career.) The film hits harder than expected, with plenty of sympathetic character deaths in addition to the expected reprehensible characters burning along the way. At times techno-thrillerish and at others always-getting-worse, The Towering Inferno does benefit from its mid-seventies vintage. The special effects haven’t aged well (mostly by limiting the way the disaster is portrayed—no CGI flybys of a burning tower surrounded by helicopters here) but the overall atmosphere of the film is fun. Far more successful than I expected to be, The Towering Inferno mostly holds up today … but be prepared for a long sit.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) My life circumstances at the moment mean that I rarely get to watch a film from beginning to end, uninterrupted: I often have to watch films in 30-minutes intervals and while that usually annoys me, it proved to be a relief in taking in 12 Years a Slave, as unflinching and dismaying a depiction of slavery in the antebellum American south as anything we’ve seen on-screen –at least since the deliberately more exploitative Django Unchained. The true story of a black free man kidnapped and pressed into service for more than a decade away from his family, 12 Years a Slave is designed to be infuriating and depressing at once. Once stuck in the slavery system, our protagonist gets no say over his well-being; in fact, the first thing he understands is that the truth will not set him free, and may serve to kill him. The second thing we viewers learn is that a system of slavery means that everyone is prisoner of that system; even kind and god-fearing people are beholden to its requirements, making any escape seem remote. Director Steve McQueen never shies away from the shocking moments, and sometimes even designs his films to confront viewers with the horrors of the situation: witness the agonizing minutes-long hanging shot, or the uninterrupted whipping sequence. Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent in the lead role, but the film benefits from strong supporting performances by the likes of Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who serves as the audience’s conscience by playing a Canadian. I tend to expect the worst from movies that play up their social-conscience themes, but 12 Years a Slave shows self-confident filmmaking savvy, and stands out as a fantastic piece of work even with the harsh subject matter. Don’t miss it, even if you have to take a break from the horror once in a while.