(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) In genre-literature fandom, there is this incredibly unfair cliché that the average “mainstream” literary novel is nothing much more than a college professor writing about upper-middle-class ennui, tawdry affairs, dysfunctional families and pretentious pseudo-philosophy. In this light, The Ice Storm hilariously become an example of the form despite a few references to the Fantastic Four comic books. It is about upper-middle-class ennui and tawdry affairs, as husband and wife from different couples have an affair that is exposed during the course of the film. It is about dysfunctional families, as the kids of those two families have their own experimental games. The pretentious pseudo-philosophy comes from contemplating comic books, unsatisfying lives and unusual weather events, with a side-order of communal swinging at seventies key parties. The film is sure to resonate with many viewers—the 1973 setting is convincing down to the awful fashion, Ang Lee directs with a sure hand, and the film has a strong cast of then-established actors (Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, all very good) with a miraculous near-handful of then-rising names that have since done much (Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes). But it doesn’t take much distancing to find The Ice Storm slightly ridiculous even as the film reaches for grief in the face of a freak death and familial reconciliation after trying times. From a non-sympathetic perspective, the clichés accumulate at a furious rate, the dramatic heft of the death isn’t earned and the film concludes without having much, everyone still being the same flawed characters than they were at first. But hey—it got nominated for a bunch of awards, so it must be good, right?
(On DVD, August 2017) Is A Fish Called Wanda overhyped, or was I just in the wrong mood for it? No matter the reason, I’m tempted to label this acknowledged classic as mildly amusing and leave it at that. The fault isn’t with the actors: John Cleese is in fine full persona as a stiff upper-lip barrister, seduced by a curiously sexualized Jamie Lee Curtis as part of a larger robbery plot. Various quirky characters populate the edges of the film, none more forcefully than Kevin Kline as a grossly caricatured American villain. The script is densely plotted for a comedy, and it deftly mixes physical comedy with fine repartee (the apology moment is a quote for the ages). The direction is sometimes more dynamic than expected, and that may be a clue to A Fish Called Wanda’s more humdrum reception today: What may have been striking back in 1988 is the norm today. I may have been partially inoculated to the film’s charm by having watched its “equal” Fierce Creatures a few months ago—the two films share the same sensibilities, and the first one seen may end up feeling like the better of the two. Still, it’s not as if I disliked A Fish Called Wanda: I merely found it good but underwhelming, and there are worse critical assessments out there.
(In French, On TV, July 2017) It turns out that there’s more to Sophie’s Choice than the titular choice made famous by thirty-five years of pop culture: In addition to the Nazi concentration camp drama, there’s a 1947 Brooklyn twisted love triangle featuring a nice-guy writer, damaged Sophie and a volatile schizophrenic. Alas, for audiences without patience, there isn’t much more to Sophie’s Choice than that—at nearly two hours and a half, the movie tests viewers used to a faster pace. It does help that Meryl Streep’s performance is a tour de force, and that she’s able to hit the various emotions asked of the role. (Having watched the film in French, I didn’t get the vocal part of her performance, but the almost ridiculously accented translation suggests that there was a lot of it.) Meanwhile, Kevin Kline (in a debut performance that has little to do with his latter screen persona) is surprisingly disturbing as a character capable of the worst. To contemporary audiences, Sophie’s Choice suffers in two ways: The pacing is far too slow for such a familiar story, and it all leads to a choice that has been spoiled in various ways since 1982. The second isn’t that big of a problem—good movies don’t hinge on twist endings or big revelations—but the first one definitely is: at times, I was struck by the thought that much of the film’s plot would be a sub-plot in a more ambitious film or TV series. See Sophie’s Choice for Streep’s Academy Award-winning performance, but otherwise steel yourself for a dull watch.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) It’s interesting to read that writer/director Lawrence Kasdan interprets the meaning of The Big Chill as the disillusionment that hits thirtysomethings once they trade young ideals for practical realities. Watching the movie, I was most struck by the way is comfortingly presents a small group of friends spending a mostly relaxed time together—i.e.: chilling. But, hey, it’s his film, and a fascinating aspect of The Big Chill is how, nearly thirty-five years and two generations later, it remains intelligible as an expression of friendship, drama, love, lust, regret, grief and mid-thirties reflections. It remains engrossing despite having few laughs and even fewer thrills. Part of its enduring effectiveness has to do with the actors assembled for the occasion. These are early roles for notables such as Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Meg Tilly. (Pay attention, and you will even see Kevin Costner’s hairline.) The nearly all-hits soundtrack is also quite good. For a movie that wrestles complex relationships between no less than eight people (that’s 28 different relationships, if my math is OK), the story remains relatively clear at most times. Perhaps most surprising is how somewhat unusual things (hitting on your dead pal’s girlfriend at his funeral, a wife arranging for a friend’s natural insemination by her husband, insider trading, an adulterous affair while the husband’s away with the kids, etc.) are portrayed as being no big deals. The ending is weak, but there’s an upbeat wistfulness (if such an expression isn’t oxymoronic) that permeates the final moments of the film. The Big Chill couldn’t possibly have been more reflective of the late baby-boomer generation, yet it remains relevant today. And despite all the icky things in the movie, it still feels heartwarming and relaxed. Go figure.
(On TV, March 2017) The dangers with slapstick comedies are numerous. Badly handled, they become juvenile, offensive, repetitive and annoying. Well-done, preferably combined with other kinds of humour, slapstick can bring a lot of energy in a comedy. The Steve Martin remake of The Pink Panther doesn’t avoid the worst pitfalls of its subgenre, but it generally succeeds more than it fails, and crucially gets significantly better toward the end. The point of the movie is the character of Inspecteur Clouseau, often bumbling, usually disaster-prone but (this is important) someone who can eventually piece together the mystery in the end. So it is that the first half of The Pink Panther accumulates all of the problems of slapstick. It’s brought down to a kids’ movie worst-common-denominator level, has little subtlety or wit, keeps doubling-down on gags that aren’t funny in the first place and often skirt discomfort at the physical violence of some jokes. Clouseau’s antics are more likely to make audience cringe than laugh. But here and there, we can see signs that the film knows what it’s doing. A few recurring gags and over-the-top madness combine to have a cyclist crash into a newsstand that then explodes, earning the first laugh of the film and reassuring us that the filmmakers are truly going for excess. As the movie goes on, we get to understand its sense of humour better and succumb (at least occasionally) to it. The ending, during which Clouseau pieces everything together in a dazzling sequence of deductions, does quite a bit to endear us to the movie, even as flawed as it is—it’s one thing to have a completely incompetent hero, but it’s much better to see them pull it together in the end. Martin is decent as Clouseau—my memories of Peter Sellers as the original Clouseau are so far away that I don’t have a lot of material for comparison, but he sells both the verbal and the physical comedy. Meanwhile, Jean Reno has a rare (and imposing) clean-shaven role as a sidekick, Kevin Kline has the sadistic-boss role wrapped up, Emily Mortimer is unusually cute as the romantic interest (she gets two or three of the film’s best scenes) and Beyoncé Knowles shows up in a bid to be taken seriously as a comic actress, with middling results. Jason Statham and Clive Owen also very briefly show up in too-small roles. The Pink Panther isn’t particularly good, but it is occasionally effective, and its dedication to slapstick makes for an unusual entry in today’s comedy styling.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) So it turns out that I was in the mood for a farce and didn’t even know it. Upon its release, Fierce Creatures soon became known as “the not-as-good companion film to A Fish Called Wanda”, featuring many of the same cast and crew and resonances in plotting. Not having seen A Fish Called Wanda yet (this will change soon), that freed me to enjoy Fierce Creatures on its own merits and while not all of it works as well, it does have considerable charm and strong moments. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the film (besides the zoo environment, and the sympathetic role given to the animal minders) is how clever the script can be in acknowledging and responding to comic clichés. The first half of the film, for instance, has a ton of dumb plans that end up easily detected and defused by the protagonist: in lesser films, those dumb plans would have carried the day. (It also heightens the stakes for the film’s last fifteen minutes, in which another dumb plan it set up –will it be detected and defused as well?) Otherwise, the film features strong roles for John Cleese as the gradually sympathetic protagonist and Kevin Kline as two imbecilic antagonists, while Jamie Lee Curtis unusually plays up her sex-appeal. The innuendos work, the sight-gags can be very funny and if the film’s first fifteen minutes feel a bit disconnected, much of the film is pleasant enough to watch, building up to a few good set-pieces. (The running gag about the protagonist’s perceived insatiable sexual appetite gets funnier and funnier.) Nearly twenty-five years later, Fierce Creatures remains a well-executed comedy that stands on its own.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) Hollywood is growing old alongside a significant proportion of its audience, so it’s not surprising to find more and more movies aimed at older audiences. Suffice to say that Last Vegas is at least better than The Expendables series is confronting how yesterday’s superstars can go gently into semi-retirement. Focusing on four older men coming to spend a wild weekend in Vegas to celebrate one of their own’s nuptials to a (much) younger woman, Last Vegas soon turns to debauchery of a gentle kind, winking in The Hangover‘s direction without quite committing to such outrageousness. It’s sort-of-hypocritical to see stars like Michael Douglas and Robert de Niro (both of whom married significantly younger women) espouse the rightness of marrying age-appropriately, but when the object of their affection is the astonishingly good-looking Mary Steenburgen (still seven years their junior, one notes), it’s hard to complain that much. It helps that the film has a middle-of-the-road comic sensibility, amusing without being outrageous, and carefully pacing its development to gently lull viewers to a surprise-free climax. Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman provide able supporting performances in filling an aging brat-pack. De Niro sort-of reprises his tough-guy persona (De Niro scholars are already talking about the self-referential second half of his career), Douglas oozes a slightly-oily charm, Kline does fine comic work, while Freeman is fun just being Freeman. Director Jon Turteltaub faithfully directs a decently-structured but timid script, and Vegas’s attractions do the rest. Last Vegas doesn’t amount to much, and that’s probably the point: this is mass-market comedy aiming older, and there’s no need to be bold or outrageous when nostalgia and gentle chuckles will keep the target audience happy. So it goes that the film is light entertainment, almost instantly forgettable but decently pleasant while it plays.