(Second viewing, On Cable TV, March 2018) I remember seeing Time After Time as a teenager and liking it quite a lot. A second viewing only confirms that the film is a surprisingly enjoyable time-travel fantasy involving no less than H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper travelling through time to late-1970s San Francisco. With Malcolm McDowell (as an atypically heroic protagonist), David Warner (as the Ripper) and the ever-radiant Mary Steenburgen as the modern foil for the Victorians visitors. The plot is a big lend of genre elements, but it’s a measure of the success of its execution that even the hackneyed “fish-out-of-water” moments don’t come across as irritating—it helps that Wells’ character is written as a smart person, and so is able to adjust to the environment as quickly as one could manage. The script gets clever in the last act, although maybe not quite as clever as it could have been—it scratches the surface of what’s possible with access to a time machine, but doesn’t really get going with the possibilities. (And I’m still mildly disturbed that one minor sympathetic character is allowed to die and remain dead because she wasn’t the main sympathetic character.) Still, minor quibbles aside, Time After Time has aged well. The late-seventies San Francisco setting has become a nice period piece, while seeing Wells and Ripper face off is good for a few nice ideological exchanges about the nature of then-modern society. (We haven’t progressed very much in forty years.) Writer/director Nicholas Meyer went on write and direct two of the best Star Trek movies (II and VI) but I’m not sure that he ever topped Time After Time’s blend of suspense, humour and imagination. A strong cast, clever writing and competent directing ensure that Time After Time will remain a good solid genre choice for years to come.
(On TV, August 2016) At first glance, a summary of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape sounds like a word salad, perhaps written by a foreigner whose understanding of Middle America is shaped by Hollywood clichés: Here’s a twentysomething man from a family where the father committed suicide, the mother is morbidly obese, the youngest son is autistic and the daughters are obsessed with pop trivia. Our small-town protagonist has an affair with an older married woman, sees his job as a grocery clerk threatened by the arrival of a big-box store and gazes wistfully at the people passing through… Not exactly promising stuff, isn’t it? But as it turns out, there’s a lot more than a plot synopsis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the most noteworthy of them being the handful of astonishing actors brought together for the occasion. Johnny Depp stars as the brooding over-solicited protagonist, but he’s upstaged by an impossibly young Leonardo DiCaprio as his developmentally challenged brother, a performance so convincing that it’s a relief to know that it’s not real. Elsewhere in the movie, the ever-beautiful Mary Steenburgen shows up as an adulterous wife, John C. Reilly is a hoot as a mildly dumb handyman, and Juliette Lewis makes an impression as a girl passing through town. Director Lasse Hallström assembles a perfectly watchable film from it all, a slice of weird Americana that’s occasionally grotesque, but engaging from beginning to end.
(Crackle streaming, February 2015) I’ve been checking off a list of “unseen must-see movies” lately, and some of my least-favourite ones are those films belonging to the filmography of popular comic actors that I don’t find particularly funny… in this case: Will Ferrell. (Also see; Adam Sandler) Stupidity is celebrated here as two thirtysomething men with the EQ of unpleasant eight-year-olds are forced to live together when their parents remarry. From afar, Step Brothers looks like the dumbest thing to have been filmed, and the actual film often feels like it, what with Ferrell and John C. Reilly doing their best impression of socially-retarded man-children. I can’t deny that some of the sight gags can be amusing, but given my distaste for Ferrell’s typical overgrown-toddler shtick, Step Brothers was often an endurance exercise –especially given how often it relies on the kind of humiliation-comedy gags that I find unbearable. Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins are particularly enjoyable, but their characters suffer the brunt of most of the film’s jokes. A surprising amount of Step Brothers is mean-spirited on top of everything else, so it’s no surprise if my final reaction to the film really isn’t all on the positive side.
(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.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) Newsflash: comedy aimed at middle-class Midwestern Americans espouses and promotes middle-class Midwestern values. In the generally unobjectionable (if rather empty-headed) Did You Hear About The Morgans?, a couple of upper-class newyorkers accidentally see something that lands them in the witness protection program, where they are relocated to an isolated Wyoming town where they discover the values of hard work, law-and-order enforcement and factory outlets. The script practically writes itself around the fish-out-of-water gags and the impending-arrival-of-hired-killer ticking clock, and the result is just about as formulaic as it can be. Fortunately, the film is more or less saved by two pairs of performances: Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as the amusingly estranged lead couple that has to re-learn life in the slow lane, as well as Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen as the no-nonsense cops that host them. Did You Hear About The Morgans? isn’t particularly sophisticated, but then again consider the broad target audience: the easy jokes all line up in a row, and the ending is as pat as it needs to be. The actors don’t have to stretch their usual screen persona, and everyone is more or less happy by the time the credits roll.