(On TV, June 2019) At this point, I’ve seen enough of Danny DeVito’s movies as a filmmaker (The War of the Roses, Duplex and Death to Smoochy come to mind) to understand his very dark and twisted sense of humour. In that context, Throw Momma from the Train becomes understandable, perhaps even inevitable. Its main idea is to recreate the premise of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, except as a comedy. Two men with problems, wishing for someone else to take care of it. Except, well, there are complications: One of the men doesn’t quite understand that you don’t always really mean it … and so on. Billy Crystal isn’t bad as a writer with a grudge against his ex-wife, but it’s DeVito who steals the show as a dull-witted mama’s boy who pushes the absurd plot in motion. Don’t fret if you haven’t seen Strangers on a Train: The film explicitly refers to its origins, and only riffs on the premise: the movies are otherwise nothing like each other. It’s not a bad comedy, even though DeVito can be grating, and Anne Ramsey is deliberately irritating (impressively so, though). The dark laughter accumulates until a not-so-dark ending, leaving everyone happy along the way.
(In French, On Cable TV, March 2019) There’s a good reason why The War of the Roses is often brought up, decades later, in conversations about dark comedies: As a story of a warring couple, it will make most people’s divorces look positively tame in comparison. Featuring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as the warring couple in their third outing together, it’s directed with devilish glee by Danny DeVito—who also gets a good role as the film’s narrator. It’s clearly not a laugh-a-minute comedy, but the film does an admirable job at controlling its tone (always an issue in dark comedies) as things simply get worse and worse with no upper limit. By the morbid ending, it’s not as if we haven’t been prepared for it. Douglas and Turner were arguably at the height of their own respective fame by the time the film was made, and there’s an interesting aspect to the film capturing those performances at that time. The obvious caution here is that The War of the Roses may not be a film to be watched at anyone at any time—although, ironically enough, it may be most suited to those in the middle of a divorce themselves as a reminder of how bad things can get.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) Following up on Romancing the Stone barely a year later, The Jewel of the Nile once again teams up Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner (and Danny DeVito) for a comedic adventure far away from home. Heading for the Middle East rather than South America, the characters soon find themselves embroiled in a revolution against a despot, and trying to work out their marital issues along the way. This straightforward adventure is powered by Douglas and Turner’s charm, as they bicker and reconcile over the course of the film. While generally tepid, the film does hit a high mark during an escape sequence featuring a land-bound F-16 jet. Perhaps unfortunately, the plot doesn’t do as much as it promises early on in exploring the fantasy/reality frontier that comes naturally by having a novelist in a lead role. In some ways, the film is about rerunning a romance with a bit more information about each other, belying the theory that you shouldn’t make a romantic sequel because everything has been said the first time. In that context, The Jewel of the Nile doesn’t stand by itself, and greatly benefits from having seen Romancing the Stone (a generally stronger film) not too long beforehand. It’s watchable enough, but not a great or even good movie.
(On TV, April 2017) I managed to avoid most of the Arnold Schwarzenegger early comedies the first time around, but now that I’m checking off the last few titles in his filmography, I can’t say that I feel as if I truly missed something. After being underwhelmed by a first viewing of Kindergarten Cop and a second look at Last Action Hero, here is Twins to underwhelm me once more. The basic premise is actually amusing: What if Schwarzenegger played an impossibly perfect guy who suddenly discovers that he’s got a fraternal twin brother played by… Danny Devito. The two offer a striking visual contrast, and their respective styles of comedy are also an interesting match. Unfortunately, once you get past the poster, Twins doesn’t have much more to offer. There’s a bog-standard plot to move things along, but nothing truly interesting other than a clothesline on which to hang the expected comic bits. Some of the humour isn’t tonally consistent—the climactic chain gag seems to belong in another film. It doesn’t help, I suppose, that by 2017 (or, heck, by 1994’s True Lies, four comedies later) we know how Schwarzenegger can actually play comedy—the shock value of seeing an action star mugging for laughs is considerably diminished. I’m not saying that there’s nothing to see here: There’s a funny moment in which Schwarzenegger measures himself against a Stallone poster, Kelly Preston is very likable as half the love interests and DeVito does manage to get a few laughs of his own. But the movie itself is a bit dull and unfocused. Twins still holds interest through its high-concept premise, but the execution isn’t quite up to its own requirements.
(In French, On TV, March 2017) on the one hand, Matilda is a good-natured story in which an adorable little girl manages to overthrow oppression and find true motherly love. It has a unique comic sensibility, great use of narration, a quasi-whimsical feeling and a strong performance by Mara Wilson, with a just-as-likable turn by Embeth Davidtz. Director Danny DeVito occasionally inches close to Tim Burtonesque territory in the way he’s willing to twist reality into an impressionistic version of itself. On the other hand—and I’ll acknowledge that this may be an idiosyncratic reaction—I have a really hard time with child abuse stories these days, especially when the targets of the abuse are young girls. For all of Matilda’s heartwarming ending, whimsical moments and sense that the heroine is never really in jeopardy, I was never quite able to open up to the film. The emotional abuse of a bright kid ignored by ungrateful adults (including parents) is almost too much to bear and that feeling never quite went away during the movie, stopping me from enjoying it all that much. This is one of those films that may be best appreciated upon re-watched, confident in how it’s going to turn out.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) Significantly darker and grimmer than its 1989 predecessor, Batman Returns is at once more frustrating than Batman while being better in some regards. Director Tim Burton is back and obviously has more confidence in his ability to use the character’s mythology to serve his own pet obsessions. Adding two villains works well, although Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman is far more interesting than Danny DeVito’s Penguin. While Batman had a straightforward hero-versus-villain structure, this sequel mixes the cards a bit with additional villains and allies, gets going into heavier themes of abandonment and social validation (Daniel Waters wrote the script!), and seems far more comfortable in its cinematography than the previous film. Alas, some moments don’t work as well: At least twice (the nose bite, the death of the beauty queen, arguably the sad conclusion), the film gets significantly too dark for its own good and wastes some of the viewer’s best intentions. Some rough CGI work is fascinating, but decisively date the film. Still, the set design is arresting, the film moves briskly from one plot point to another, offering a few high points (such as the Masquerade Ball) and smaller rewards from beginning to end. Christopher Walken has a great villainous role, while Michael Keaton remains better than more people remember at Batman/Bruce Wayne. In context, it would take another twelve years (and a superhero wave of movies kicked off by 2000’s X-Men) until Batman got any better on the big screen. Hey, I remember seeing Batman Returns in theatres with friends, back when I actually started going to the movies (which, given that the nearest theatre was twenty kilometres away, was a significant endeavour for a small-town teenager). I can still echo the TV/radio ads: “The Bat, the Cat, The Penguin!”
(On TV, July 2015) There’s a particular type of domestic bourgeois horror at the heart of Duplex, which is to say: what happens when a tenant not only refuses to leave, but makes your life miserable? Ben Stiller, in his classic manic mode, and an unremarkable Drew Barrymore star in this black comedy whose main claim to fame remains that it’s directed by Danny DeVito. Duplex is, for the most part, a reasonably entertaining accumulation of mayhem, as a sweet old lady proves to be the bane of our protagonist landlords. It escalates quite a bit, in ways that don’t feel entirely natural. The point of the film being embarrassment and violent intentions, it’s not the kind of comedy fit to be appreciated whole-heartedly. The deliberately frustrating ending plays along that vein, making this a film for specific audiences. At least it works on a basic level: most of the film is reasonably entertaining, moves from one plot point to another and packages everything in a neat bow (although, once again, you have to wonder about the sanity of antagonists trying those dangerous long-cons.) Neither particularly good nor bad (albeit maybe irritating), Duplex seems to be the kind of film you see once, shrug off and then make no particular effort to see again.
(On TV, July 2015) Early-career John Grisham was often accused of writing the same story over and over again, but it’s a good story, and The Rainmaker boils it down to perhaps its simplest essence: A young Southern lawyer, basely out of law school, takes on the Establishment and wins –although the ending proves to be bittersweet. There isn’t much more to it, and there doesn’t need to be once the atmosphere and details are filled-in. A much younger Matt Damon plays the protagonist with a good deal of naiveté and steely resolve, with Danny DeVito turning in a rather good performance as his much more devious sidekick, and Jon Voigt is deliciously slimy as a seasoned lawyer with all the resources at his disposal. Otherwise, this is a film that uses a basic story as a framework for moments, giving us a credible insight in the life of a young lawyer working way above his head. The Rainmaker may not be the best movie adapted from Grisham’s work (I’m still partial to Runaway Jury) but it’s almost certainly the purest representation of what Grisham has spent a long time doing on the page.