Tuesday, 10 May 2011
Bewitched, Beatrix and Woody remembering to include some jokes - Reviews #67
*SPOILERS AND ONE PRETTY MILD SWEAR WORD*
Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009) – It takes a good 10 minutes to get going and the last half hour is a write-off, but there's 50 minutes of decent stuff here and in terms of Allen's recent work, that's not bad going. Larry David plays a misanthropic physics "genius” (his word) whose life takes a turn for the better when he meets down-and-out Southern beauty pageant regular Evan Rachel Wood - before some unwelcome visitors shove the lever on the old roundabout of infidelity. There are a few problems. Allen invests Wood with a great deal of likeability, but never warms to the idea that people who appear ignorant aren't necessarily unintelligent. And not only does he seem to think the funny thing about Born Yesterday is that Billie is a dumbass, he seems to think we're guffawing at Pygmalion because Eliza is a chav. They're not and we're not. The satisfying thing about those works is the idea that they challenge our initial perceptions and we wind up rooting for these transformed characters as they're given a chance in life and seize it with both rows of teeth. There's also an issue with Allen's portrait of evangelical Christians. Now I'm as sick as anyone of bigoted, gun-totin' idiot-holes giving the rest of us God-likin' folk a bad name, but I flat out refuse to believe that the reason they're big on fidelity and homophobia is because the women are nymphos and the men are all gay. That's true of 50 per cent of them, maximum. And, thirdly, while Allen has never really made a statement on film about the public arse-kicking he got following a certain relationship decision in 1992, this is the closest he's got, as David laments the crusading morality of America's "family values nuts", time and again. Nice, Woody. Very subtle.
Now to the good stuff. Whatever Works has effective performances from David and Wood, a strong first act where their relationship flowers and as many good one-liners – scattered liberally throughout the film – as any Allen film in recent memory. My favourite is a sitcom-ish pay-off, when Ed Begley, Jr. comes looking for his estranged wife, now shacked up with two lovers. "She's got a new man? What's he like?” Begley asks. "He has four arms and two noses,” smirks David. It's a shame, really, that the excessive smugness and disastrous plotting takes it off target, because there's some fine writing here and the potential for a great film, about a talented old grump finding happiness – and hopefully some shred of decency – in the love of a pretty young girl. But then I suppose that's Sweet and Lowdown. And about five million other movies. And perhaps, Woody would say, his own life. (2.5)
See also: To read about how little Woody forgot how to make good films again, read our annoyed review of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger here.
*ONE RUDE WORD*
Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009) – Maybe we've been spoiled by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' spectacular update of the Holmes legend, but this doesn't quite cut it. Whereas that BBC series provided a fascinating, contemporary, utterly convincing spin on the character: dark, apparently autistic and obsessed with crime beyond all reason, Ritchie's film thinks the way you inject danger into Sherlock is to make him a bare-knuckle boxer. It also lacks the knowledge of, and reverence for, Conan Doyle's stories – there's precious little of Holmes' distinctiveness here. And, while the movie exploits the Victorian London setting to some degree, it does so no more than, say, From Hell. Or Shanghai Knights. Added to which: why are the stakes in these action blockbusters always so high? And so stupid? In this case it would appear the answer is at least partly down to marketing. Villain Mark Strong is very keen to mention clearly – and twice – that he intends to take over Britain (yeah, whatever, who gives a shit?) and then AMERICA (oh no, not the Land of the Free!). Having said that, Robert Downey, Jr. (as Holmes) and Jude Law (as Watson) are both quite good, and spark off each other impressively, and the possibly supernatural story – which at times appears ludicrous – does tie up reasonably well at the end. If the sequel can get hold of a smarter script, it might turn out alright. But I'm rather more excited about the return of Sherlock to the small screen in the autumn. (2.5)
While You Were Sleeping (Jon Turteltaub, 1995) – This excellent romantic comedy eschews formula and works so well for just that reason, with a real story about characters you genuinely care about, feeling emotions that humans actually feel. Sandra Bullock is a lonely train station ticket attendant who falls in love with suave commuter Peter Gallagher without having ever spoken to him. When he's mugged at the station, she rescues him from the tracks and, while he's in a coma, is taken to the bosom of his family. The only thing is, they think she's his fiancée. Then his suspicious, quietly charming brother (Bill Pullman) turns up. It's an extremely well-plotted film, never feeling forced or unrealistic, and the performances from Bullock and Pullman are absolutely lovely. It's funny too, with Michael Rispoli offering a hysterical characterisation as Bullock's unwaveringly horny neighbour. (3.5)
From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) is about as good as a crime-thriller-turned-vampire-bloodbath is ever going to be. Tarantino’s script is excellent, the performances from George Clooney, Harvey Keitel and then flavour-of-the-month Juliette Lewis are spot on, and the super-stylised weapons make fighting the undead look like a valid and desirable career option. At least until that massive rat thing turns up. I could certainly have done without a sensationalist subplot about rape, and Tarantino is a flatly terrible actor, but everything else about this Alamo re-imagining hits the bullseye. There's also a bit where the not-entirely-hideous Salma Hayek dances around in her bra and pants, if that's your sort of thing, which it probably is. (3.5)
Bewitched (Nora Ephron, 2005) isn’t a straight update of the enduringly popular ‘60s sitcom, but a film about an update of the series, which features a real-life witch (Nicole Kidman) as Samantha, opposite obnoxious movie star Will Ferrell. I'm not being unpleasant; those are the roles they play. It feels more like a cop-out than a meta-textual triumph, as if comedy veteran Ephron won the right to adapt the series, sat down and promptly thought: ‘Oh no, what the bloody hell have I done?’ It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the film has little obvious fondness for its source – beyond its pop cultural significance – as the remake-within-the-remake scenes are purposefully unfunny. I don’t think the film deserves the comprehensive kicking it received. The story’s nothing new, essentially paraphrasing Bell, Book and Candle, with Steve Carell overacting in the Lemmon stylee as if his life depended on it. And a strong veteran supporting cast, featuring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, is largely wasted (though Caine does turn himself into the Jolly Green Giant at one stage). But it’s entertaining – particularly in the first half – with Ferrell doing his usual shouty improv schtick and Kidman drawing laughs and pathos from a wide-eyed, deadpan naivete, only falling down when she diverts from it. The best moments are in Ferrell’s opening scene, where he enthuses about the merits of the original Bewitched, before a bit of prompting from his agent (Jason Schwartzman) encourages him to embark on an increasingly ludicrous set of demands. It's not magical, then, but not too bad. (I wish they hadn't glibly soundtracked one inane sequence with R.E.M.'s Everybody Hurts, though - that song is too great and too important for such tiresome indignities. The rest of the music is really well-chosen, in the American Werewolf in London manner.) (2.5)
See also: For a write-up of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, also starring Will Ferrell, go here.
Miss Potter (Chris Noonan, 2006) is a pleasant but unremarkable biopic of Beatrix Potter, lit by its minimal use of animated inserts (which interact with their creator) and some good performances. Zellweger is an almost instinctively irritating performer – all ill-judged grins and cloying sentiment – but she’s far better than usual here, bringing both steeliness and an attractive vulnerability to the character. The script’s mostly quite well done too, though it's a little one-note and does turn into a dry study of land reform in its final minutes, which is generally a no-no. Ewan McGregor is ideal as Miss Potter’s publisher and prospective beau. Emily Watson, who apparently wanted the lead and would doubtless have been wonderful in it, is also fine as her confidante. Nice music too. (2.5)
Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000) – Heeeeeeeeere’s Gandhi! Yes, Sir Ben Kingsley (I called you “Sir Ben” like you asked, please don’t glass me) is the goateed psychopath trying to talk ex-crim Ray Winstone out of retirement in sunny Spain, with the aid of repetition, deviation and his fists. This is really just another variation on the classic ‘70s/’80s Lahndahn gangster model, with echoes of both The Long Good Friday and Get Carter, but the dialogue and characterisations are extremely strong, the heavyhanded symbolism in the opening scenes works a treat and the pay-off is particularly sweet. I’m not sure about the jokey twist at the death, though. (3.5)
Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004) isn’t necessarily a very enjoyable film, as Lindsay Lohan’s school newcomer loses her identity, her perspective and her sense of decency as she battles – and ingratiates herself with – reigning queen of mean Rachel McAdams. But there’s no questioning the quality of either the acerbic dialogue or the performances, which are spot on. The plotting does borrow too liberally from the wonderful Heathers, and Tina Fey loses her grip on the realism of the piece in the final third, but this is still an incisive and intelligent teen movie. (3)
Shrek (Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, 2001) - Well, it's not as funny or clever as it thinks it is, but the central story is strong, John Lithgow's tiny villain is good and Eddie Murphy made me laugh a few times. (2.5)