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Review: Bright Lights Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (TV) (2016)

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fisher_reynolds

When a documentary on the famed mother/daughter combination called ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ was in the works last year, it already promised to be a notable event.

Reynolds and then Fisher both had been part of pop culture for over 60 years and had rather similar careers; both had one film that defined their lives, both were multi-talented enough that when their film careers stalled they were able to successfully branch out into other areas (Fisher with screenwriting, Reynolds on Broadway and cabaret) and both had messy private lives that often played out in public

But when they tragically died almost simultaneously late last year, this documentary carried extra weight and poignancy to it and its release was brought forward due to public interest.

The documentary isn’t a traditional biography on Reynolds & Fisher; it’s more a potted history of them mixed with fly-on-the-wall observations of their lives interspersed with old home movies. Also, while this documentary is portrayed as a joint Reynolds/Fisher take, it really is largely from Fisher’s point of view and is mainly her story and her perspectives on her mother and life in general.

As a take on Carrie Fisher’s life, the overall impression one gets is that she was finally at peace with herself and the life she had lived. She was at peace with the tumult of her childhood when her father Eddie Fisher left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor which became a huge international story. While it isn’t directly said, clearly the whole saga had a major impact on her psyche for decades; how could it not?

We see Carrie at peace with her relationship with Debbie, which had at times been on rocky ground in previous decades. We see them live next door to each other with both of them bantering and conversing like they’re an older version of the mother/daughter from The Gilmore Girls.

Also, we see Carrie at peace in her relationship with her father Eddie Fisher. In perhaps the most poignant segment of the documentary, we see Carrie taking care of Eddie only months before his death in 2010. To see Eddie – once one of the most popular singers in America – sickly and incapacitated sharing tender moments with a daughter who’d he had a difficult relationship with, is genuinely moving.

And we see Carrie at peace with her eternal fame from the Star Wars franchise. We see her at a fan convention (something she only took to late in life) signing autographs and conversing with people of all ages who see her as a heroic figure. Fame overwhelmed her when it hit in the late 70s (especially as she had no desire to be an actress) but as she discusses after the convention she clearly has come to terms with how much her role and performance have meant to others.

A great asset of the documentary is the plethora of home movie footage it shows of Reynolds/Fisher in the early years right down to Carrie at The Great Wall Of China in the 1980s. The most significant home movie footage from a Reynolds cabaret show in the early 1970s where a reluctant Carrie is brought on to stage to impressively sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. To then see Reynolds in the present day get emotional at how Carrie never wanted to sing publicly is touching.

As for Reynolds, we get to see her perform in the present day in her one-woman shows. It’s rather sad in one way as she clearly struggles at times (her health problems are a constant theme throughout the documentary) but the admiring older audience at the shows don’t seem to mind and are glad that she’s still performing after so many decades.

As a documentary, ‘Bright Lights’ is rather frustrating at times. It jumps about in time constantly and feels a bit messy, although the closing stages surrounding Debbie receiving a SAG Lifetime Achievement award helps give it focus. Also, one feels that the documentary might’ve had better structure and purpose if the documentary had been told from the perspective of Carrie’s brother Todd (who does provide observation & narration on occasion).

But perhaps ‘Bright Lights’ is better served by its rather messy style than being a more traditional style as it isn’t about providing a comprehensive analysis of Debbie & Carrie’s lives, but capturing what made them tick and observing the chaos and contradictions they lived through. And especially with Carrie, it does seem to capture her essence as a personality and what made her so appealing to the public during her life.

Overall, ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ is a worthy celebration of two remarkable lives.

Review: Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

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When trying to understand the significance of a great filmmaker, sometimes it’s more insightful to look at their less successful films or when their career is in decline. A good example is famed writer/director Billy Wilder and his 1964 film ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’.

Wilder had many peaks during his lengthy and illustrious career but his run of three exceptional films from 1959 to 1961 – ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘The Apartment’ & ‘One, Two, Three’ was never bettered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilder’s career never reached such heights again and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ was made when Wilder’s career was beginning its steady decline, culminating in 1981’s abysmal ‘Buddy Buddy’.

But ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is probably more valuable for study anyone interested in Wilder’s career as it showcases his significant strengths as a filmmaker but also the weaknesses that began to develop in his work from this point onwards.
The plot of ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ sees Orville Spooner (Ray Waltson)as a small-town frustrated piano teacher looking to break out of his dreary lifestyle by becoming a famed songwriter with friend Barney (Cliff Osmond). Their opportunity arises when they dismantle the car of popular singer Dino (Dean Martin, obviously playing a variant on himself) driving through town. But because of Dino’s voracious sexual appetite, Orville is obliged to send his wife out of town and have local prostitute Polly (Kim Novak) pretend to be her. But things get only more complex from there.

‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fascinating mix of old-style and modern cinema. Watching the film in its black & white photography, long takes and limited camera movement, the film could easily pass for a film made 10, even 15 years before.
But whereas its filming style wasn’t ‘modern’, its content certainly was. In fact, the film not only feels modern by 1964 standards, watching it today one is surprised by how it didn’t just stop at innuendo but actually followed through with multiple infidelities carried through by central characters. Even in this era of ‘raunchy’ comedies, if a mainstream film like this were made today it wouldn’t go as far as ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ does.

Also, like most of Wilder’s post-1961 films, ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ feels slower and longer (at around 124 minutes) than it needs to be. Perhaps this is because Wilder was first and foremost a writer and was reluctant to condense his words when possible and didn’t have the deftness the best directors have to make a film more succinct without any value being lost.

Probably the film’s biggest problem though is the casting (or miscasting) of Ray Walston as Orville. In a role crying out for Wilder regular Jack Lemmon, Walston displays none of the vulnerability or likability required to pull off a difficult role. Indeed, an early comic scene where he chases a music student out of his home out of paranoid jealousy leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth because of the way Walston plays it. One wonders if a more likable central performer had been in the role, that all of the claims of moral indecency wouldn’t have surfaced?

But for all that’s wrong with ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’, there is a lot that’s right with it and that includes Wilder’s script (written with long-time collaborator I.A.L Diamond). It may be not the best script they ever wrote but compared to many of today’s comedies that almost try to make virtues of having no sense of timing or narrative, it feels like a comparative masterpiece. One of the refreshing aspects of a Wilder film is how well-organised and structured they are. And ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is very well put together from a plot structure point of view with all the main characters reaching resolutions of some kind.
Wilder/Diamond scripts always felt well-structured plot wise in that they accommodated narrative and key character resolutions and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is no exception. And their famed comic one-liners are backed up by lots of nice little details; for example how a local hardware store is incorporated deftly into the film.

Apart from the Walston,, the cast does a pretty good job and it bats pretty deep with the likes of John Fielder, Alice Pearce and even Mel Blanc appearing in small roles. Dean Martin is obviously having a ball mocking his own persona and Kim Novak (someone who I’d previously felt was a dull performer) gives the film zest as Polly.

A fascinating part of the film from a sociological perspective is how the dream of the central characters is to become great songwriters as they were not only financially successful but were revered figures in American culture. Indeed, many of the most famous ones like Cole Porter were household names. And yet just as the film was getting made the new wave of popular musicians like The Beatles (who are referenced in the film) and Bob Dylan were becoming famous for not only being great performers but writing and composing their own material. As a result the role of the pure songwriter/composer was – while not redundant – going to be far down the pecking scale when it came to fame and fortune.

Back to Billy Wilder, why did his career gradually decline from mid-60s onwards when his skills, cynicism and preparedness to take on ‘adult’ subjects suggested he could’ve prospered in the permissive Hollywood cinema of the 1960s and 1970s? One reason is – as already mentioned – a technique issue as his old-style filmmaking would’ve seemed out of whack with the increasingly inventive, risk-taking and ground-breaking style of 1970s cinema.

But more significantly while Wilder was always prepared to attack aspects of American society, it would usually only go so far. Often he’d direct his scorn towards those on the lower rungs of society as being full of deviousness and hypocrisy such as struggling screenwriters, scheming lawyers or those trying to make a quick buck. But Wilder never seemed to direct his criticism at American society as a whole and its institutions that helped create a culture develop where ordinary citizens would act so cravenly. And in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s that tended to criticise American society overall and show more empathy for those at the bottom of the social ladder, Wilder’s satire felt more brittle and nasty instead of incisive as it had once been.

Nevertheless, despite these issues ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fine film worth seeking out, especially for those despairing at the standards of modern mainstream Hollywood comedies.

Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

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wotw (warning: contains spoilers)

I first saw Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds when it was first released in 2005. Critical response hadn’t been great and star Tom Cruise’s antics while doing publicity were creating a negative aura around it. But I generally enjoyed it although my only vivid memory of it over the years was a scene of throwing a baseball between Cruise and his son that leads to a broken window.

As the years marched on, it’s reputation seems to be cemented as one of Spielberg’s lesser films, a missed opportunity that magnified his weaknesses (especially for the relatively upbeat ending which many critics felt was misguided). Having not seen the film in over a decade, I decided to watch it again the other day and see how it has held up.

This version of WOTW has Cruise playing crane operator Ray Ferrier who is divorced and estranged from his children. While his children are visiting, unusual weather patterns signal something is awry and when an invading alien force arises in the local town, it begins to incinerate most of the nearby humans. Ray and his family escape but with a seemingly unstoppable alien force devastating society, how will they survive?

The startling thing I found watching the film this time is how grim and depressing it is; even in this present day of big-budget films often being cynical and downbeat, WOTW is a particularly harrowing film to take at times.

Undoubtedly the most striking aspect of the film is in the first half when the aliens start to attack the general population. Spielberg manages to genuinely convey the horror of an unstoppable superior force wiping out human lives in an instant, especially through random individuals being turned to dust. It makes one think of the endless modern wars humanity has suffered and the countless lives wasted by an unstoppable military power. Later scenes which briefly show humans being harvested by aliens for their blood and matter-of-factly rummaging through personal human belongings further underline that.

When the focus shifts to Cruise and his family in the film’s second half, the film loses a some of its impact (although still reasonably effective) because it feels a bit misguided and redundant. While perhaps inevitable under conventional narrative structure, WOTW would’ve been a powerful if it had a broader scope and focussed on the whole fate of humanity.

And it’s the prime reason for the most criticised aspect of WOTW – namely the final scene where not Ray returns his daughter to her mother (curiously in a part of town unscathed by alien attacks) and his seemingly dead son returns unscathed. The critical consensus seemed to be that the finale was too positive and unlikely considering the devastation that had occurred previously. I think this criticism is valid to an extent but the seeds for it are laid in the decision the film makes to move its focus from society getting attacked by the aliens to primarily Cruise and family being attacked. Once the film chooses that path, the final scene is inevitable.

Another criticism of the film was that Cruise as a working-class parent (albeit a divorced one) was unconvincing. It is true that this is a very atypical role for him (even now he’s still playing individualistic action heroes) and he doesn’t seem a natural fit for such a role. But that sense of awkwardness actually works in the film’s favour because Cruise’s character has clearly been a poor parent (and husband) that even his own kids are reluctant to call him Dad.

And the underlying theme of the story is how Cruise’s character matures in the most heinous situation possible and becomes the strong parent that he would never have been without the alien invasion. When you factor in all the physicality required for the role, Cruise in the role makes sense and he generally does a good job with it.

Apart from Cruise, there isn’t a chance for many other actors to make an impression. One of them is Dakota Fanning as Ray’s daughter who starts off as one of those know-it-all pre-teener who only seem to exist in the movies and then, when the aliens attack, becoming understandably hysterical at the fear and horror that is surrounding her. Perhaps the filmmakers made her character a self-assured preteen to outline how useless this attitude is in real life? In anycase, while there seemed to be criticism of how hysterical her character was that seemed far more believable than the early scenes.

Another performance of note is Tim Robbins who plays a disturbed individual whose residence Ray and his daughter hide out with for a brief period of time. What’s most effective about his character (helped by Robbins’ whose perfectly cast in the role) is that he has that uneasy mix of being seemingly perceptive one minute, then clearly disturbed the next minute. Eventually it becomes clear that he’s someone who can’t be trusted, leading to a grim realisation from Ray about what must be done.

Overall, WOTW holds up as a generally impressive experience. It misses the potential for greatness by not looking at the big picture of how such an alien invasion would impact humanity on a grand scale and instead focussing on the small beer of the fate of one family, but it’s a fine film and an undervalued work in Spielberg’s career.

Review: California Suite (1978)

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californiasuiteposterThe screenwriting career of playwright Neil Simon fascinates me not because of the quality of his work but the critical & popular context they exist in during his heyday and today.

From roughly 1967 to 1983, a film written by Neil Simon was one of the safest guarantees of a hit in mainstream Hollywood; a very rare case of the screenwriter being the main selling point. Simon’s peerless ability for comic one-liners and amusing, relatable characters not only made him popular but critically respected. He got 4 seperate Oscar nominations for his screenplays but multiple actors won Oscars in his films.

And yet today, Simon’s film work has severely diminished in reputation. For example in 1977 Simon’s ‘The Goodbye Girl’ was competing as a Best Picture Oscar nominee against someone not entirely dissimilar in style – Woody Allen for ‘Annie Hall’. And yet while Annie Hall is considered a modern classic whose reputation has grown over the years, The Goodbye Girl is largely forgotten.

Perhaps what seemed amusing and biting in Simon’s work back in the day is now perceived as safe and brittle; certainly few would disagree that he an excessive tendency to rely on one-liners instead of genuine dialogue.

The best way to assess Simon’s work is of course to look back in his films and one such example is the 1978 film ‘California Suite’, directed by Herbert Ross.
Visitors From New York – About a divorced couple meeting up for the first time in years due to a runaway daughter, this all the hallmarks of Simon at his worst; endless one-liners instead of actual dialogue and based on the simplistic contrast between uptight New York lifestyle and the relaxed California lifestyle. But it works, thanks largely to the excellent performances of Jane Fonda and Alan Alda who make it much more substantial than it should be.

Visitors From London – About a married couple visiting for the Oscars ceremony, this is the best of the segments, mainly because (by Simon’s standards) it’s deftly characterised as it’s only at the end we understand what makes the marriage tick. As the wife, Maggie Smith got the Oscar in real life (she doesn’t in the film) but Michael Caine – atypically playing a softly-spoken upper-class type – gives the more impressive performance.

Visitors From Philadelphia – A comic tale about a husband trying to cover up a one-night stand from his wife, the pairing of Walter Matthau and Simon worked wonders in many films. But not here. The slapstick is weakly written and staged by director Herbert Ross and Matthau tries to make up for this with some desperate overacting where he sometimes sounds like Pee-Wee Herman. Elaine May is always a pleasure on-screen but even she can’t save this.

Visitors From Chicago – This story about two married couples and friends bicker relentlessly, leading not to only verbal fights but various physical disasters, is a total misfire. Even at only 25 minutes or so it is over-stretched. The main problem is that there is no context about the constant resentment and niggling between the two husbands; if they can’t stand each other why are they on holiday together? Director Ross’ lack of skill with staging physical humour doesn’t help. Even at the time of release this was seen as the clear weakest segment and the appearance of the now-pariah Bill Cosby in one of the main roles makes it even more uncomfortable to watch.

Overall, California Suite is a good example of Simon’s strengths and weaknesses. At his best, he’s a sharp and funny writer who can create memorable characterisations of a particular milieu. But he also had significant limitations and these are probably why his film work have not lasted the test of time that a contemporary like Woody Allen’s has.

Review: Now You See Me 2

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Now_You_See_Me_2_posterRealism and believability were never strong suits of the 2013 magic/heist film ‘Now You See Me’ but but it had enough inventiveness, verve and joie de vivre to make the film an enjoyable experience.

However, the makers of the sequel ‘Now You See Me 2’ (with a new director, Jon M. Chu) in an attempt to outdo the original have ramped up the magic tricks on display to such an absurd level that it makes the first film seem like a gritty Sidney Lumet 1970s New York film. The sense of fun isn’t completely gone but the lack of realism is so shameless that it’s hard to care about the plot or characters this time round.

One minor example of the film’s absurdities occurs at the very beginning where it has a flashback to 1984 where a magician is going to attempt to break out of a safe buried at the bottom of a river. They have much of this scene filmed from the perspective as a live news broadcast hosted by… Morgan Freeman’s character from the first film Thaddeus with the title on-screen of ‘magic debunker’. That someone like this would be hosting a live news broadcast is nonsensical but considering what follows, it feels almost realistic.

Throughout the film the central group of magicians (‘The Four Horsemen’) regularly perform tricks and illusions so impossible that it seems the screenwriters took turns thinking of what would be the most logic-destroying trick imaginable. At one stage Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) falls on his back surrounded by hundreds of people and when he hits the concrete, his body has disappeared but his clothes have remained. These people aren’t characters anymore, they’re cartoonish superheroes.

The height of absurdity is an extensive scene where The Four Horsemen are trying to escape from a heavily-secured room with software chip stuck on the back of a playing card (don’t ask). When they are searched by security, they flick the playing card amongst the four of them in the most elaborate ways possible (why one of them doesn’t hide it after they’ve been searched is a mystery to me).

Scenes like that are so laughably nonsensical that it’s hard to care about any of the narrative or plot elements after this point as it’s clear that depending on plot or character requirements, The Four Horsemen will be able to get out of an impossible situation or get trapped in seemingly easier situations. It’s so arbitrary that one largely loses interest and it feels pointless even going through a rote description of the plot.

Interestingly, the film’s best acting comes from newcomers to the franchise. Radcliffe is fun as the chief villain, Lizzy Caplan with her charisma and comic timing proves to be an improvement over Isla Fisher as one of the Horsemen and Woody Harrelson has campy fun by playing the twin of his character from the first film. However, virtually all of the returning main actors make little impression because there’s nothing new to their characters (or banter) and they’re just going through the same patterns and shtick from the first film.

To be fair to NYSM2, the film still provides some entertainment and fun, especially if you enjoy magic. And the central trick involved in the finale is actually fairly well done (and by the standards of the film, semi-plausible). But overall the film is tiresomely slick and frankly rather tedious to get through. While there’s apparently another sequel planned, it’s one I’ll almost certainly be skipping.

Review: The Animatrix (2003)

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the-animatrix-posterWhen the Wachowski’s sci-film “The Matrix” first released in 1999 it’s impact on film culture was immediate and immense. With action scenes that were genuinely innovative and an array of sophisticated ideas and concepts that were usually anathema to mainstream action fans, it broke all the rules yet was a major popular and critical success.

So therefore it was of little surprise that a pair of Matrix sequels were commissioned for released in 2002-03 (called The Matrix Reloaded & The Matrix Revolutions respectively) and were enormously anticipated by fans of the original film worldwide. Alas, they largely disappointed as what was groundbreaking action in 1999 was now seen as rote and passe while the innovation of the ideas in the original were replaced by pretentiousness.

As disappointing as the sequels were, there was a film released at this time that built on the ideas and concepts that the original Matrix film had provided and added fresh new perspectives of its own. That was “The Animatrix”.

The Animatrix was an animated anthology film that while generally had a direct-to-DVD release, was released briefly into cinemas (where I first saw it) in countries like Australia as an appetiser to the hotly-anticipated Matrix sequels.

While far from perfect, The Animatrix is the sequel to The Matrix that Reloaded & Revolutions should have been. It builds on the universe created in the original film by going into more detail about it and build on it. In its series of stories, it shows what its like to live in The Matrix oblivious to its true nature, to be a human consciously fighting the forces that control the Matrix, even what’s like from a robot’s perspective what it’s like to be converted to the side of the humans.

The Animatrix contains nine separate stories and inevitably some stand out more than others. ‘The History of the Matrix’ segment (needlessly broken up into two parts) isn’t one of the high points but is notable for the misanthropic tone it has towards humanity, implicitly saying they deserved their fate to be effectively destroyed by machines because of their cruelty towards them. Notably this misanthropy was absent in the original Matrix live-action movie and it undoubtedly would’ve been far less successful had it been in it. As well, the attempts to make analogies between the oppression of the machines with the oppression of various peoples in the 20th century is awkward and misplaced.
One of the best segments is “Kid’s Story” which has a melancholy, sad but hopeful feel that lingers in the mind long after viewing it. The story concerns a disaffected teenager who finds solace from a hostile world by connecting with Neo (voiced by Keanu Reeves, continuing on his characters from the live-action films). The teenager is prepared to sacrifice his life but instead of death he finds rebirth as one of the people fighting The Matrix (and in becomes a character in the sequels). There is a moving and tragic aspect to this segment in that should one feel empathy for his devastated family or because within The Matrix and their lives are essentially fake, it doesn’t matter?

Another strong segment is “Beyond” which is about a group of children of various ages who – because of a glitch within the Matrix – find an abandoned area where all the laws of gravity and physics cease to exist and wonderful experiences like floating on air can occur. It is closed off by the authorities almost immediately and what resonates in the story is how this brief experience will impact on the children for the rest of their lives and how they had that special afternoon that seems like a dream they could never recapture.

The Animatrix isn’t a total success – the animation in some of the segments isn’t particularly appealing and overambitious although it is to be appreciated seeing so many different animation styles in one film. But what one appreciates about this film is that all of the segments – for better or for worse – are about adding something new to the Matrix universe and culture.

In contrast, it’s hard to remember anything much about the Reloaded/Revolutions live-action sequels. The first sequel Reloaded does have some good ideas and the fresh aspect of showing us the world of Zion (headquarters of the human resistance). But the Zion scenes are largely wasted on dreary dialogue and uninteresting characters that feel like they belong in the dullest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After the exhilaration and excitement of the original film, too much of Reloaded is unforgivably rote and uninspiring.

The next film Revolutions is an even bigger disappointment. Not necessarily because it was particularly bad but because it was forgettable which is the worst thing a sequel could be to an original that was so vivid and groundbreaking. I saw Revolutions at a cinema upon its original release and today can remember virtually nothing about it (I had to check Wikipedia to see how it ended).
Today the Reloaded/Revolutions sequels are remembered – if they are at all – as criminal wastes of complimenting a famed and revered original film and instead being the umpteenth example of sequels that seemed to only exist to make money.
But if one wants to view a followup to The Matrix that – if not a genuine sequel – captures the spirit of the original, The Animatrix is the best film to view.

Review: Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

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DOWAR

The trailer for the 1962 film ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ (link) has an unusual event halfway through as instead of the usual selection of scenes, it switches to star Jack Lemmon as himself says this was a role he wanted to play more than any other he’d played previously.

Considering he’d already had great roles in memorable films such as Mister Roberts, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, it seems a surprising claim to make. But it’s only when you see the film and Lemmon’s performance you understand why Lemmon says this.

In DOWAR, Lemmon plays Joe Clay a PR man who largely hates his career and seems full of self-loathing, which only seems to be contained by his constant alcoholic drinking. One day during his work he meets Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick) and after a rocky beginning they fall in love and get married.  But Joe’s drinking and Kirsten’s non-drinking causes tension on their marriage which – instead of Joe becoming sober – sees Kirsten decide to drink with him… a decision that leads to disastrous long-term consequences.

Films about alcoholism haven’t been uncommon in cinema over the years but it’s doubtful that few of them have been as uncompromising  emotionally as DOWAR. When released in 1962, the level of its intensity would’ve been like a bolt of electricity to an American cinema

That DOWAR came from a TV play isn’t surprising as live US television dramatic productions was a significant provider of authentic realism (starting with 1955’s Marty) from the mid-1950s to early 1960s to an American cinema that was dominated by big budgets, safe subjects and conventional filmmaking.

There are several reasons for the film’s success and prime amongst them are the performances of Lemmon  and Remick. This film was a significant moment in Lemmon’s career as while he’d already produced a lot of great work, it was generally of the lighter, comedic variety and he always carried with him a level of charm and likability that made even flawed characters he played in ‘The Apartment’ appealing.

But Joe Clay is a different story. Here Lemmon’s charm has turned rotten and seedy so that Joe is always vaguely pathetic and self-loathing (although never unsympathetic) as his attempts to be likable seem rather desperate and needy. It was the first film that showed what Lemmon was capable of in straight dramatic roles and what he’d be capable of on occasion for the rest of his career. When he spoke in the trailer, Lemmon could clearly sense this.

Equally is good is Remick and she has arguably the more difficult role as she has to make Kirsten transition through various phases. In the early scenes she seems haughty and stuck-up, then becomes loving and considerate and then begins a path of self-destruction that is even more severe than Joe’s. It’s a highly challenging role and Remick (an underrated and underappreciated actress) handles it with aplomb.

Also deserving of credit are the writer JP Miller (who also wrote the 1958 original teleplay this is based on) and director Blake Edwards. In the context of Edwards’ long film career, DOWAR is certainly appears to be an atypical film as his career was littered with bold, brash, comedies. But he quite often displayed an adeptness for dramatic interplay between characters in films such as ‘10’ and he showcases throughout DOWAR.

As intense and emotional DOWAR is the film at times, it isn’t especially sensationalist or melodramatic.  Edwards has the confidence in Miller’s script to let scenes develop at their own pace and rhythm (and indeed the entire narrative itself) so that the climax has maximum impact. Take for example Joe’s breakdown into total hysteria in the greenhouse; the scene is actually quite a protracted one as at first it seems Joe is being his usual immature and reckless self. But gradually as see Joe’s increasingly desperate search for the hidden bottle of liquor the true horror of the situation is revealed before us and we see how much of an alcoholic wreck Joe is.

Edwards also is excellent at framing scenes so that what could easily have been conventional  two-character conversation scenes compelling and insightful. With the help of Phil Lathrop’s stylish cinematography, the film truly transcends the TV play it was based on and feels cinematic. Watching this, it’s regretful that Edwards didn’t direct more dramatic and suspense films during his career.

The film is largely flawless… but not quite. The final third of DOWAR is a shade weaker as once Joe going to Alcoholics Anonymous occurs, it goes from being an insightful socio-economic look at why Joe and Kirsten fall into the abyss, it becomes a rather abstract take that alcohol is the only factor in their downfall and not to bother looking into the reasons why people turn to alcohol. Not only does this weaken the film but it leads to some rather trite dialogue like, “You remember how it really was? You and me and booze – a threesome. You and I were a couple of drunks on the sea of booze, and the boat sank.”

As well, the title song with its syrupy lyrics seems jarring and out of place with the realism and intensity of the rest of the film. Naturally, that song was the only part of the film to win an Oscar.

Neverthless, despite these issues DOWAR is a significant triumph for Lemmon, Remick, Edwards and Miller and even over 50 years since its release has quite an impact. For once, a trailer was a viable guide to the film.

Review: San Andreas

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San Andreas is a film about how to repair your marriage through the use of a major catastrophe. It also is one of those movies that implies the deaths of thousands of people in a kind of awe-struck way, what I guess you could call mass-destruction porn.

Named after the fault that runs up the spine of California, San Adreas hearkens back to the disaster movies of yore. But in a switch, unlike the Irwin Allen films of the ’70s (including Earthquake), San Andreas does not have a large, all-star cast, with one of those posters with small photos of all the recognizable actors. Those films jumped from actor to actor–one may be stuck in an elevator, or one may be incinerated while having an affair. Instead, San Andreas basically focuses on only three characters.

Dwayne Johnson is the big name here, as it were. He is a super-duper rescue helicopter pilot for the L.A. fire department. In a prologue, we see him and his team rescue a young woman from a a car teetering on the edge of an abyss. Forget about the team, though, as when the “big one” hits he completely abdicates his duties to the citizens of Los Angeles to save his ex-wife and daughter.

Before that though, we get Paul Giamatti as a seismologist who is developing a way to predict earthquakes. He happens to be right on top of Hoover Dam when an earthquake rocks it. In films, disasters like this only happen at recognizable landmarks. Giamatti has the sad task of giving us all the scientific info in grave tones, including, in a warning to San Franciscans, “God help you all.” How he was able to give his lines without laughing is testament to his talent.

So we see L.A. destroyed, and Johnson (and his biceps) rescue his estranged wife (Carla Gugino). She’s now living with an architect (Ioan Ruffud) who is building the tallest building in San Francisco (foreshadowing!) Johnson’s daughter (played by Alexandra Daddario and her spectacular breasts) is up in Frisco when she’s trapped in parking garage. Her would-be step-father abandons her, but a plucky young Englishman and his even pluckier kid brother rescue her, and try to get to high ground.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Gugino play a game of planes, trains, and automobiles getting from L.A. to San Francisco. This is all intertwined with some pretty great special effects of buildings crumbling, a cargo ship crashing into the Golden Gate Bridge, and the TransAmerica building falling over. (where’s the shot of Alcatraz dissolving to dust?) I read an article on how scientifically accurate San Andreas is, and of course, not much. There is no concession to the way buildings are built in California now–they wouldn’t topple like houses of cards. Also, an earthquake along the San Andreas would not cause a tsunami because it is not underneath the water.

San Andreas is pretty dumb but fun, as long as you view it in the right circumstances. My girlfriend and her son enjoyed it, and I got into it, identifying all the cliches that abound (Johnson and Gugino had another daughter who drowned–foreshadowing!). Johnson may not be suited for Shakespeare, but he is perfect for lines like, “Let’s go get our daughter.”

My grade for San Andreas: C.

TOMORROWLAND review! Gone Elsewhere Exclusive!

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Tomorrowland_poster“Whatever you think this movie is about, you’re wrong.” So began Brad Bird’s introduction to his latest film Tomorrowland. He immediately clarified by saying that it’s more accurate to declare that you’re only partially right. Mr. Bird has been adamant on social media and in interviews about not wanting to ‘spoil’ too much and requesting that the public to exercise self-control in trailer-watching & analyzation. In that vein I will announce that mild spoilers are included but you won’t find much detail that affects the story.

I had the privilege of attending a special screening of the film at a fundraiser for the Walt Disney Family Museum held at the ILM/Lucasfilm theater in the Presidio. Bird was there and had a great deal to say about the legacy and influence of Walt Disney on the film but also on his idea of the future in general. Disney and his companies, partnerships & employees developed many technologies that are old news to us but were really quite revolutionary. His original ideas for EPCOT inspired what Tomorrowland in the movie is designed to be.

Bird believes that we as a society have become disenchanted with the idea of the future (every YA novel must be set in a dystopia) whereas not that long ago the future was full of endless possibilities, solutions, peace & harmony. This is stated quite obviously in the “second” opening of the film where teenager Casey Newton (played endearingly by 25-year-old Britt Robertson) is frustrated with the fact that everyone is describing the plight of the world but no one wants to fix it. Her father works for NASA, and she thinks of him as a genius, but his position is set to end when the site that he is working at is scheduled to be torn down. Casey tries to find a way to sabotage the equipment meant for dismantling and this is why we find her at the police station with the Tomorrowland pin as seen in the teaser-trailer and those that followed. That pin leads her from Florida to Houston to New York (& beyond) to find the man who knows what it all means.

I earlier said “second” opening of the film because the first is told by Frank Walker (George Clooney) about what happened to him at the 1964 World’s Fair (again a huge Disney connection). A young John Francis Walker (played with equal amounts determination and wonder by Thomas Robinson) has invented something that he believes could inspire people, but it doesn’t quite work. It does, however, catch the attention of a young girl, Athena (a very impressive Raffey Cassidy who I can’t talk more about without fear of spoiling too much), and she invites him to be a part of something much larger than even the World’s Fair: Tomorrowland. The relationship between Frank & Athena is shown only for a few minutes in the opening and later in some flashback snippets, but I wish we could have seen more of that development. You later find out that their interactions are pretty much the emotional undercurrent of the film and I kind of felt shortchanged by what we weren’t shown.

One of the main complaints I had about Lost was that it featured excellent build-up with very little or wholly unsatisfying payoff. And so it is with Tomorrowland, so I believe co-writer Damon Lindelof brought that feeling over to the big screen. The first hour-plus moves briskly in a race to find out what is going on. We are moored to Casey and find out the surprises just as she does. There is much more going on that we just assume will be explained later, but much of that explanation never comes. When the “villain” (Governor Nix) shows up in the last-third it kind of seems like he was forced to be there because someone said they needed a villain. When this villain explains his evil plot in a monologue I couldn’t help but think back to The Incredibles where Bird, through various characters, made fun of such things, but he uses it here to an almost boredom-inducing length.

The resolution to the “problem” doesn’t feel like enough and the ending montage is far too on-the-nose to be effective. There is an environmentalist undercurrent (maybe overcurrent…the real John Francis was a ‘planetwalker’ after all) that is obvious as well. While much of the buildup never quite paid off, many of the references were too transparent to remain fresh. Scientists/engineers named Newton, a person concerned about the destruction of the earth named after a person concerned about the destruction of the earth, a young girl full of wisdom, courage & inspiration named after the goddess of…well, you see where I’m going. At the end of it all I felt that there was so much potential, a great ‘muchness’ welling up inside of the film, that they ended up focusing on the wrong thing and wrapped it up with the standard ‘large thing falls on villain and everyone is saved’ kind of thing.

Hopefully, though, it will inspire the youth to dream and really solve problems. I don’t feel that I’m too old and have given up on the future but Tomorrowland feels like a missed opportunity. The cast was wonderful (with the unfortunate exception of Hugh Laurie who was saddled with frowny dialogue and unclear motivations) and I was pleasantly surprised by Raffey Cassidy’s Athena who was wisely kept out of most of the trailers. There is a wonderful scene with Keegan-Michael Key & Kathryn Hahn as sci-fi collectible shop owners that is equal parts hilarious and terrifying. Sci-fi, comic & movie geeks & nerds will have a field day looking at everything contained in the store. Key gets one of the best entrances I’ve seen in a few years.

But I’d really love to see a movie about young Frank & Athena that follows them for 20 years.

My Grade: B (an A+ for the promise & a C- for that promise unrequited)

Tomorrowland opens in theaters nationwide on May 22nd.

Review: The Age Of Adaline (2015)

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Adaline‘The Age of Adaline’ is a romantic fantasy film that has such an audacious plot that the viewer is either going to be swept up and captivated by or reject as insipid drivel.

A woman born in the opening decade of the 20th century (Blake Lively) has by the time she is aged 29 is a recent widow with a young daughter. When she is this age in the 1930’s she is involved in a motor accident which under normal circumstances would claim her life but due to a chance mixture of natural events, she not only survives but is destined to live as a 29 year-old forever.

In present-day San Francisco, Adaline (now operating under various pseudonyms) has adapted to her unique situation to live a prosperous, if emotionally empty, existence. She is unable by circumstance to settle in a job or with friends for long periods and is only able to see her elderly daughter (Ellen Burstyn) rarely. However things begin to change for Adaline when she develops a romantic relationship with philanthropist (Michael Huisman)  which complicates things severely, especially when she meets his father (Harrison Ford) who she knew very well in the past…

For a film like this to even begin to work, it has to convince the viewer of its central premise and on that count it largely succeeds. A prime reason for this is the excellent performance of Lively who manages the difficult task of being convincing as a nearly 100 year-old woman in a 29 year-old’s body.  She does this by always giving her character a refined, old-fashioned style through her speech and body language which makes her come across as much older than she actually looks. As well, she conveys the tragedy of her Twilight Zonesque life with convincing levels of emotion.

Lively is backed up by the rest of the experienced cast. I haven’t come across Dutch actor Huisman before (he’s done a lot of prominent TV and film work in the last few years) but he makes a fine impression here. Not only does he have good romantic chemistry with Lively, but he convincingly gives his character the levels of sophistication and tact required for someone like Adaline to risk her livelihood to get into a relationship with.

The film is also helped by with supporting performances from such experienced people as Ford, Burstyn and Kathy Baker. It was good to see Ford – who seems to have been sleepwalking through his films in recent years – give his most interesting performance in years.

Director Lee Toland Krieger’s previous was the interesting (if forgettable) ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’. This is a more ambitious film and a step up in quality from him. Krieger gives a film an elegant and smooth style which fits in well with the material. Notably, despite the majority of the film being set in present-day San Francisco, it still has an old-fashioned feel to it which compliments the central character and theme.

The film isn’t perfect. A brief segment where Adaline goes into hiding (and away from her daughter) in the early 1950s because of McCarthyist persecution is unconvincingly and clumsily inserted. And the film’s finale is contrived in multiple ways as if the filmmakers finally ran out of inspiration to keep the concept afloat and instead relied on easy solutions to resolve the film’s problems.

Above all else, this isn’t a film for everyone. There would undoubtedly be a fair segment of filmgoers who would find the whole concept ludicrous and be rolling their eyes every few minutes.

But personally speaking, in an era where romantic film seems to be code for turgid cinema, ‘The Age of Adaline’ is a graceful, charming movie.

Rating: B

Review: The Maze Runner

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TMR  Plots centring around people trying to get out of a seemingly impossible predicament have always been of interest to me. The Twilight Zone was famous for having such plotlines (like in the episode ‘Five Characters in Search of an Exit) and I loved them, trying to rack my brain as to seeing what the solution was to the characters’ predicament.

And this is the main reason I went to see ‘The Maze Runner’: its basic concept of characters in an inescapable predicament was a fascinating one to me. But whereas the Twilight Zone episodes took less than 25 minutes to play through its concept, how would TMR manage to hold one’s interest for its 113 minute running time?

The film begins with teenager Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) waking up in an elevator that transports him into a grassy clearing that’s surrounded by an intimidating and elaborate walls. Like the dozens of teenagers that have arrived there before him, he has no memory of his past except for his name.  The group of kids have been able to make a living in the area but with an elaborate maze beyond the walls and mysterious creatures patrolling the maze, escape seems hopeless. But as another character observes, Thomas is a curious personality and immediately he’s shaking up the community and begins to make them believe escape is possible… but  how and to what?

In many ways, TMR is an impressive work with Wes Ball making a fine directorial debut. He displays a good visual style and sense of pacing that ensures the film is never boring and even gets through the rather clunky chunks of early dialogue necessary to explain the plot (as when the other boys explain the setup to Thomas) as well as possible.  At no stage of its running time does the film ever feel boring.

The film also creates a vibrant and interesting dynamic  between the group of characters within the maze. Particularly pivotal is the strong performance of O’Brien as central character Thomas; he creates the right sense of characterisation of someone while not automatically heroic, driven by his courage and sense of curiosity to become a leader and find a way out of the maze.

There are also other interesting characterisations such as Gally (Will Poulter) who represents someone whose so used to life within the maze that he becomes hostile to anyone looking to change the setup, let alone escape from the maze. However the conflict between Gally and Thomas is rather heavy-handedly showcased.

For roughly three-quarters of its running time, TMR is a very strong, captivating work. Alas, as is the case in so many movies/TV shows about people stuck in an impossible predicament, the resolution is usually the weakest part as plot holes and contrivances come to the fore and TMR is no exception.

The film’s final 15 minutes are a letdown in more ways than one. Not only are the explanations and revelations unconvincing and contrived, but they’re conveyed by a character having to deliver large chunks of dialogue as if they’re saying to the audience, “We can’t think of a viable way to resolve this film so we’ll just provide you with this information”. In a film that has been so cinematically and visually strong, it is a disappointment (also because it’s about setting up a sequel as much as anything).

Despite the disappointing ending, I was mostly positive about The Maze Runner. It’s well made, solidly acted, well directed and a generally enjoyable night out at the movies. It’s box office success is deserved and I’ll be looking forward to the sequel.

Rating: B-

Review: Robocop

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ImagePaul Verhoeven said, in a more-recent Robocop interview, he laid-out his intent on his view of Robocop being the “American Jesus” after he had read the script, that he saw the entire “Jesus Myth” of the “American Jesus”, insomuch as it relates to the events of the film and one of Robocop’s final lines in the movie (after having just walked on water): “I’m not going to arrest you”. He viewed his Robocop as a benevolent machine protecting the innocent, giving “due justice” when necessary, but that in the end, he forgets his ‘programming’, forgets his ‘intent’ and becomes what Verhoeven sees as the “American Jesus”, a mythic Che Guevara-like being, who finally uses guns to solve his problem. “And what,” Verhoeven says, “could be more American than that?” Well, in the first fifteen minutes of the new Robocop, we’re treated to a very well-directed, cracker-jack scene, seemingly pulled from another, different, movie, a movie about the very real prospect of robots in a middle-east setting, a town pressed-down by the weight of an eternal war, where the only ability people have to fight back is to use their own lives to be ‘free’ from the tyrannical process of life under machines, where every movement is processed, every person suspect. In the prospect of the first scene, Padilha comments on so many aspects of the modern world, I half-expected to hear Verhoeven’s voice, giving his approval, saying, in his awesomely manic gesturing and great accent that this is what a modern film about robotics is meant to start to say, a slap on the back and an ‘atta boy’, and I smiled, and I was wondering what all of the poor reviews had meant, (What the Flick being an especially good review, and a good review site in general), and I settled in and decided this movie deserved a chance, the opportunity to tell me something. Besides, you also know who is in this movie, from Gary Oldman to Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson and you’re expecting them and it’s great to see them, but then there’s even Omar from the Wire, Michael K. Williams, and you think about the great casting, also, and you think, if just for a moment, “Is this going to be this good?” and then it begins to devolve, and you see it approaching like a ‘Hollywood Derivative Screenplay Freight Train’, this lumbering, unstoppable dread that they’re taking shortcuts, that too many people had too much to say about the genesis of the movie (too many people who want to use it as a ‘recognizable brand’ all over the world) and they’re taking shortcuts and you know this is going to end badly, but you don’t want it to, and then they show a scene where people accept robotics, in a sense that it serves them, in a hospital setting, that these Americans understand robotics is making their lives better, and the contrast can’t be any more stark, or so very-well-played and presented, and you think “Oh, we’re back, here come the ‘big questions'” and maybe it was all too much to ask of this, this Robocop, and maybe I’m being ridiculous and it’s only a movie and you may be right, but Robocop has never just been ‘Robocop’ to me, it’s one of my ‘big 3’ films growing up, one of the Big-3 in my development as a ‘Watcher of Films’ and it means a great deal to me, and I liked the contrast of the rest of the world ‘accepting’, in air quotes, surveillance and robotics and America is denying it, and the O-Reilly stand-in is having an aneurysm asking how so many people can be so adamant of its acceptance and the movie is answering him! and you want to point out that Americans are accepting it, as long as it makes their lives better, and maybe they’re onto something that the rest of the world has no say in, and you think, “Whoa, this Robocop is alluding to the original Robocop in a new and different and of-its-time way”, and you’re impressed and you shift in your seat and wait for them to expound on the notion, to explain what we’re seeing, if our understandings have some basis (but then, no one got what I saw in Gravity, so what do I know) and you wonder: ‘Is this going to be able to keep this up?’ in a Hollywood context that you never even expected to get this close to these kinds of things and you wonder if it’s Padilha’s hand or it’s just a lucky stab-and then a car explodes, and suddenly there’s a Robocop, and wait, who is this guy, and why do we care, and why did you just leave all those questions, those things you wanted to say, and wait, what, he just goes to see his kid, and the kid is sad and we only find out the kid’s significance later, and it’s only a plot machination, but then-why not say that then, and-you remember it’s just to drive the plot to the rote ‘Hollywood ending’, of hedge-fund manager studio owners and well, that’s stupid, in the original Robocop, Murphy had the added pathos of not being able to be what his kid wanted, in a specific, TJ Lazer way, and we empathize with Murphy, how all of this was taken away, but we’re never given anything specific that was taken away, Robocop isn’t even populated by a character, by someone we have come to know, by someone we care about-it’s just another explosion in a world of explosions and millions of kids a day watch people explode and explode themselves like you said in the beginning, with no one there to give them a happy ending and now you’re physically angry at the precipitous slip into mediocrity and Murphy’s son was ever only a cypher in the original, a memory Murphy tries to find, who is able to take his anger out on even more technology and who is writing this and why is this suddenly two separate movies, one good and one so bad and why is he so accepting of his fate so quickly, and whoa, was there a scene that showed his lungs? that was awesome, and who wrote that other line and man, Keaton is growling his way through this, and man, Jackie Earle Haley is a great actor, and why is the Oldman character the ‘stand-in’ for all the things Murphy came to understand about himself through his robotics and wait, did Keaton’s character say “No, the machine is controlling Murphy, so it’s not illegal” and that makes no sense to what the woman just said and it’s worse than the ‘5 gallons for 4 gallons’ explanation in Die Hard with a Vengeance, but that’s forgivable, in a better movie, like it was in Vengeance, and man, get back to the big questions, and it flirts with them, if you look really closely enough, and try, however shortly and with so little thought, a scant couple times more, and don’t get me started on the ending and the ‘I’d buy that for a dollar’ line and its throw-away usage made me physically ill-don’t even put it in-

There’s a movie by Kim Ji-Woon, a ‘Robot Masterpiece’, called ‘Heavenly Creature’. It’s in a little-seen Korean triptych called ‘Doomsday Book’. Robocop is not the progenitor to this Robocop. This Robocop is simply another view of what is a well-respected, still relevant robot movie from the ’80’s, itself a satirical screed of its time, brilliantly-so, and not until ‘Heavenly Creature’ has a movie with a robot protagonist come even close to the level of the original Robocop, a ‘b-movie with big things to say’. Heavenly Creature is difficult to find, and must be viewed outside of the triptych as a whole, as its own stand-alone movie, speaking-to and answering and leaving open the ‘big questions’ of where robotics will lead us into the future, and what that will mean for mankind. Robocop could have set itself apart, with war allusions and surveillance and in different circumstances, and perhaps in different hands (though Padilha is unequivocally a great filmmaker, but perhaps not strong enough to get his way), perhaps this Robocop could have staked its claim to being something different, having something to say. But in this iteration, it most certainly turns its back in all of the things it could have been and said for amateurish Hollywood formula, but man, the framework is there, it’s just such a shame its, as one reviewer said, “-so aggressively mediocre”. I guess what I could say, as James has said, is I liked it, or at least got more from it than I ever expected I would. And in the this new world of hedge-fund-owned studios, that’s a lot more than we can be expected to accept.

Review: The Five-Year Engagement (2012)

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Somewhere within the Nicholas Stoller directed film ‘The Five-Year Engagement’  there’s a really interesting and funny examination of modern relationships waiting to burst out. Occasionally you see it with some sharp dialogue, interesting character interaction, funny scenes and pointed observations. But alas, it’s suffocated by an average script and weak direction.

The plot centres on young San Francisco couple Tom, (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the script with Stoller) who is a sous chef, and Violet, (Emily Blunt) who is a psychology graduate. They are deeply in love and Tom’s rather clumsy marriage proposal at the beginning of the film is gleefully accepted by Violet. But their relationship begins to hit the rocks when Violet gets into a post-doctorate university program which has them move to Michigan with Tom having to take a menial cooking job which he resents. As the strain on their relationship increases Violet’s charming professor Winton (Rhys Ifans) looms on the sidelines.

Probably TFYE’s greatest strength is the likability of the central characters Tom & Violet who are both portrayed and acted sympathetically. This ensures that even during its weaker sections a level of interest is retained.

And there are bright spots in the film – an argument in bed between Tom/Violet is truthfully and interestingly done. The gradual decaying of their relationship in the Michigan and increasingly desperate attempts to keep it alive feels reasonably genuine. And a late scene where two characters carry out a major conversation while doing voice impersonations of Elmo and the Cookie Monster is amusing.

But unfortunately these strengths are outnumbered by its weaknesses. A scene where Tom chases Winton through the streets at night goes on endlessly without any payoff. A scene where two periphery characters give toasts that involve putdowns of a colleague is pointless and could’ve easily been excised from the film. A supporting character who has a penchant for wearing awful jumpers he’s knitted is mildly amusing initially, but is turned into a tiresome running gag.

More significantly, there’s a silly segment where a demoralised Tom turns into a sub-Jeremiah Johnson hunter type, even donning a very rough beard.  While it gets a couple of cheap laughs it’s impossible to believe that Violet would stay with him in this state and it undermines the attempts at truthfulness elsewhere in the film.

Also, the character of Winton is very lazily constructed. A professor who’s pretentious (yawn), arrogant and devious – it’s as if the writers wanted to create a character from the most negative clichés associated with academics (all that’s missing is for him to be smoking a pipe). It’s only due to the work of Ifans that the character has any interest whatsoever.

As an individual film, TFYE isn’t especially noteworthy. But it does gain interest in the broader context that it’s produced by Judd Apatow, a notable figure not only due to the amount of hits he’s been associated with in recent years but that his brand of comedy  has become well-known and identifiable.

I don’t consider myself a fan of the Apatow-style films (I should add I don’t really consider the Will Ferrell films Apatow produced part of this sub-genre). They have their appealing aspects such as a fresh modern style of humour and usually likable characters. But TFYE is a good demonstration of the weaker characteristics – scenes last twice the length they should, very self-conscious low-brow humour, supposedly liberated on the topic of sex but in truth conformist and conservative, etc…

Despite all that, TFYE is not a turkey by any stretch. It’s a tolerable time-waster with some interesting and endearing aspects. I think it’s marginally better than last year’s hit Apatow-produced film ‘Bridesmaids’. But it could’ve – and should’ve – been better than it is.

Rating: C+

Review: As Good as it Gets (1997)

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Watching ‘As Good as It Gets’ for the first time since I saw it at the cinemas almost 13 years ago, what struck me was – notwithstanding the quality acting/directing pedigree it had – how unlikely a blockbuster it was. It had none of the hooks that are considered necessary today (sex, action, appealing to teenage market,  based on famous book or comic character, etc..) to be a major box-office smash. Indeed, a 140 minute ‘dramedy’ entirely reliant on character interaction with not even much of a plot seemed the anti-blockbuster.

 And yet not only did it turn into a critical and award-winning triumph, but it was one of the half-dozen most popular films of 1997 in America.  What was the secret of its success?

The plot centres around three characters. Firstly, there’s Melvin (Jack Nicholson), an acclaimed novelist who has virtually no friends due to an obsessive-compulsive disorder and his serverly obnoxious personality. Then there’s Carol, a waitress (Helen Hunt) who serves Melvin (and the only person Melvin seems to care for) at a local diner  who is struggling with the demands of being a single mother with a sick son. Finally there is Melvin’s gay artist neighbour Simon who is struggling to deal with being brutally attacked in his home and having his whole future jeopardised. Over the course of the film their lives increasingly intermesh and lead to surprising and not always pleasant developments for them.

It’s quite amazing that AGAIG works as well as it does because the central plotline of the film – the romance between Melvin and Carol – doesn’t really work. Mainly because there are  too many years difference (26) between Hunt and Nicholson to overcome (in fact  Nicholson is only a few months younger than Shirley Knight, who plays Hunt’s mother in the movie). When you factor in issues with the socio-economic differences and personality clashes between the two characters that are never quite fully addressed, the romance never convinces.

And yet despite this major problem the film works marvellously well overall which is a tribute to the skills of director/co-writer James L. Brooks. Scenes that would come across as corny or phony in the hands of many others (e.g. Melvin’s final speech to Carol) hit the bullseye here because of the quality of the writing and the deft development of characterisation.

This all comes down the fact that Brooks has the confidence in his ability to maintain interest in the development and fate of his characters and is prepared to let them develop and grow naturally (as naturally as can be done within the confines of a mainstream Hollywood film) instead of going for conventional easy options. 140 minutes seems like an excessive length for this type of film but thanks to the skill of Brooks and his cast, it doesn’t feel a minute overlong.

The most impressive characterisation in the film is Carol. Particularly because instead of taking the easy option of making her an affable and lovable counterpoint to Melvin, Brooks and Hunt have the courage to make her a brittle, often nasty character. In fact she’s probably more callous to Melvin than he is to her. As a characterisation it rings true as someone who has been downtrodden by failed relationships,  the difficulties of scraping by and caring for her sick son – she’s gone through too much to be tolerate Melvin’s excesses. It makes her unlikable on occasion but it also makes her a much more richer characterisation.

In his breakthrough role, Greg Kinnear is also impressive as Simon. He avoids portraying Simon with stereotyped gay mannerisms and goes for more subtle ways in expressing his characters persona. Especially effective is his behaviour in his relationship with Melvin as we see him slowly transform from loathing, to intimidation to accommodation towards Melvin. This is illustrated towards the end when Simon has the confidence to mock and needle him, which Kinnear does very amusingly. Kinnear’s always been an underrated actor imo, and this is one of his best performances.

Perhaps surprisingly, Nicholson’s Melvin is the weak link in the trio. This is partly because his character seems the most contrived of the three – he dishes out horrible insults regularly but they’re treated comically (and many are quite amusing) so as to make his inevitable character makeover during the course of the film more palatable. As well, the way he overcomes his OCD seems too easy. Also, I didn’t think this is one of Nicholson’s top performances. While he’s entertaining and compelling, he seems to coast a bit on his persona and doesn’t create as fully-rounded a characterisation as he could’ve. That he won the Oscar for this is another case of a great actor winning the award for one of his lesser performances.

Despite a fairly weak central romance and some minor contrivances, this is overall an excellent film and one of the best examples of mainstream Hollywood comedy/drama in the last 15 years.

Rating: A-

Review: Avatar or Please bring back the ’90’s Cameron, when he made good movies

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Let’s be completely clear on something here: Avatar misses on just about every level. Yes, you will believe, (especially at the end, when Avatar and human meet in a pretty effective embrace and the real and the cg blend seamlessly into a remarkably affecting scene), yes, James Cameron is a master of his craft and he’s been given a rather amazing toybox to play in, but oh, boy…is it ruined on a bloated, epic slog through the ‘Eden’ of Pandora, a beautiful, fully-realized world ruined, yes, ruined by not only the gimmick that is 3D but especially by the glasses you’re forced to wear, glasses that all but ruin the movie-going experience set before you.

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