(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.
(On TV, March 2017) The law of diminishing returns is fully operative in discussing The Pink Panther 2, second in a reboot series starring Steve Martin as Inspecteur Clouseau. Much of the surprise of the first movie is gone, replaced by an expansion of the story that, to its credit, doesn’t try to ape the first film too much. Here, a genius thief named The Tornado is stealing precious artifacts around the world—it’s up to a team of criminal investigators, including Clouseau, to catch the villain. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and as the investigation goes to Rome and then back to Paris, The Pink Panther 2 struggles to remain interesting. It pains me to say that, as much as any movie with Aishwarya Rai is like a little bit of sunshine, she doesn’t bring much to the movie—and neither do reliable performers like Alfred Molina or Andy Garcia. Even returning players such as Jean Reno and Emily Mortimer aren’t given much to do … although John Cleese may be a little bit better as Kevin Kline’s replacement. Few of the gags in this sequel are as inspired as some of the ones in the first movie, and while the rather good conclusion also does much to focus the film’s impression, it does come a bit too late to be truly effective. Eight years later, it does seem as if the Steve Martin Pink Panther reboot series ended there and I’m not seeing anyone bemoaning that fact.
(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.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) There’s a common rhetorical defense against unfavorable reviews of bad children’s movies that goes approximately like “But it’s for kids!” as if the young ones deserved swill and as if adults weren’t somehow involved in the process of creating and viewing these films. Of course, the truth is that kids deserve the best just as their parents do, and that parents will end up watching the same films as their young ones. Why settle for less? Such it is that a well-made kid’s film like Winnie the Pooh can charm adult audiences while still appealing to its core audiences. Whimsical, good-natured and rarely dull to watch, this newest Disney-branded adaptation of A. A. Milne’s stories is a complete success. The 2D animation (with a bit of CGI help and a subtle live-action framing) seamlessly transfers Pooh’s iconography to the screen, while the voice talent (including John Cleese as the narrator) strikes all the right notes. The story itself is a charming framework in which the character’s personalities are given a chance to shine. Adults will be especially amused by the meta-textual interludes in which the film plays with storytelling conventions and the transition from page to screen, but the entire family will enjoy the film. Winnie the Pooh runs a bit short at a mere 63 minutes, but it’s a complete success reflected by its gentle self-assurance.
(On VHS, June 2001) Midwest yokels come to New York City and are quickly out of their depth! How funnier can it be? A lot funnier, easily. Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin reprise their usual screen personae, adding nothing and screaming a lot with scarcely any indication of how good they can be in other types of roles. John Cleese is a hoot as usual. The various plot points are pretty much predictable in advance, and aren’t all that skilfully executed either. For a film about New York, there isn’t a whole lot of scenery. There have been worse films, there have been better films, so there isn’t any cause for concern if ever you pass by The Out-Of-Towners and don’t pick it up.
(Second viewing, in French, on Cable TV, December 2018) Watching The Out-Of-Towners remake right after the 1969 original only underscores how much more slap-sticky is the remake. Gone are the more serious undertones and barely-repressed desperation of the original. Instead, we get Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn hamming it up as much as they can stand. The result actually is reliably funny, although unsubstantial to a point where I didn’t even realize I had seen the film seventeen years ago. One good point in favour of the remake: the much more active role given to the female lead — it sure helps that Hawn can be reliably funny on a dime. There’s a surprising cameo appearance from pre-America’s-Mayor, pre-Crazy-Pundit Rudy Giuliani.