Monthly Archives: November 2017

Stranger than Fiction

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: The mundane life of IRS employee Harold Crick is turned upside-down when he starts hearing a voice in his head. The voice belongs to Karen Eiffel, who is writing a book with Harold as the main protagonist; unfortunately for Harold, not only does she have writer’s block, but she’s famous for killing off her main characters – just as he’s falling in love and starting to enjoy his life.

It seems unlikely that Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) would be the hero of anyone’s book, since – apart from having a talent, bordering on a penchant, for numbers – his life is thoroughly ordinary. He works for the IRS, lives alone, doesn’t really have a hobby or social life to speak of, save for his trusty watch. However, one morning his ablutions are disturbed by a voice in his head, narrating what he’s doing.

Naturally, his first instinct is that is that he’s going mad, which is unfortunate given that he’s auditing and falling for feisty baker Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a conscientious tax objector who also, understandably, objects to Harold ogling her. When the narrator reveals Harold’s deepest thoughts back to him and also the fact that he is marked for death, he’s alarmed and struck by the literary turn of the voice in his head (‘Little did he know…‘).

He shares his concerns with literature professor-cum-lifeguard Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who sceptically asks Harold to keep a tally of whether he’s in a tragedy or comedy. The results aren’t promising, even if Ana slowly softens to Harold’s uptight honesty. Anyway, the owner of the voice – writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) – is desperately researching ways to kill off her lead character. Can Harold reach her before she overcomes her mental block?

Authors will often say (I do, at any rate) that their characters ultimately take on lives of their own and will begin to make suggestions about what they’re going to do or say next, and this simple premise drives Stranger Than Fiction. It’s not particularly original – plenty of characters have confronted their creators – but Marc Forster’s film takes the idea and runs with it confidently and nimbly. It’s an idea which (like close cousin Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind*) only makes sense as long as you don’t prod it too hard – exactly when did Harold wink into existence, for example? – but the film manages to be clever without being clever-clever, by which I mean that it asks questions about the nature of fiction in books and film (neither Eiffel nor Hilbert are ‘real’, after all) without shouting from the rooftops that it’s doing it.

It’s cutely written as well: there’s a great verbal and visual pun which I won’t spoil for you. That said, the theme – if you have a life, make sure you go out and live it – is a pretty standard one in recent times, American Beauty being just the first example that came into my head: having your author narrate your mundanity to you is simply a novel (no pun intended, though it‘s rather a good one) way of announcing a mid-life crisis.

The appearance of a comic actor in a straight role is not the only feature of Stranger Than Fiction that brings The Truman Show to mind. Harold is almost a negative of Truman: where Carrey‘s character was a ‘real’ person living a fake life, Ferrell’s is a fictional character somehow living in the real world. Both undergo a revelation, a revolution in their lives, and come face to face with their ’Makers.’

It’s tempting to say that Eiffel beats Christof solely because she doesn’t wear a beret, but I won’t be so flippant. Neither will I reveal whether she ends the story as comedy or tragedy, but the denouement is both effective and touching. High praise must be given to Ferrell for reining in his natural exuberance, and while his chemistry with Gyllenhaal doesn’t exactly burn up the screen, she’s as sympathetic as I’ve seen her and they make for a sweet couple.

Hoffman plays his role effortlessly (I hope he works hard to make it look so easy, it would be annoying if he didn’t), while Emma Thompson is just wonderful as Karen Eiffel; her mannerisms and haunted expression bring enormous gravitas to the film, much needed since Hoffman is doing breezy and Farrell couldn’t do deep if he tried (neither of these things are criticisms, by the way).

Nonetheless, it’s not all good news. Though she’s perfectly decent, I saw no reason whatsoever for Queen Latifah’s character to be in the film. She plays Penny, a writer’s assistant who tries to nurse Karen’s book to completion, and for all the impact she has on the story Thompson might as well be talking to her semi-smoked cigarettes. Stranger Than Fiction is also enamoured of its own story, when Harold’s decision to live his life to the full is neither particularly profound, original, nor (to be honest) full – his relationship with Ana is lovely, if familiar, but the guitar playing doesn’t convince – so I’m not persuaded that Karen’s novel is quite the sensational tale Jules makes it out to be, even with its intended ending.

The film pulls a few fancy tricks that I’m not sure about, too: the graphic visualisations of Harold’s obsessive counting don’t add much, and while his wristwatch is incredibly cool – nay, heroic – its analogue/digital design has nothing to do with the story, so comes across as a gimmick for its own sake.

Let’s be clear about this, though. Stranger Than Fiction is no noble failure. It’s a success, albeit one with significant qualifications. At times it’s over-familiar, at others a bit slow; it’s also unbalanced and won’t do anything for you if you’re looking for a full-on Ferrell comedy. But it’s not a self-satisfied, introspective work either, so as long as you come prepared – don’t expect Elf II – there’s every chance you might really like this quietly provoking tale.

NOTES: The film could easily be a conservative work from Charlie Kaufman, a less fevered variation on Adaptation.



WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Emma Woodhouse uses her privileged status to organise the lives of those around her; firstly approving the marriage of her governess to the widowed Mr Weston, then steering naïve Harriet Smith away from her humble suitor towards Mr Elton, the local vicar. Unfortunately, the scheme backfires when he declares his love to Emma instead; and her involvement in other social intrigues proves equally misjudged. Emma’s long-time friend Mr Knightley can only stand by and quietly despair.

With her governess (Greta Scacchi) newly married to Mr Weston (James Cosmo), the social world of Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) appears to be shrinking fast. She has care of her hypochondriac father (Denys Hawthorne), and fond acquaintance Mr Knightley (Jeremy Northam) is a regular visitor to Hartfield; but otherwise her days are spent administering charity to Mrs and Miss Bates (Phyllida Law and real-life daughter Sophie Thompson), the latter’s loquaciousness rendering her mum mute and Emma extremely impatient.

Little wonder, then, that she sees a project in gauche orphan Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), resolving to remove her affections from lowly farmer Robert Martin and transplant them to Mr Elton (Alan Cumming), who certainly likes hanging around the ladies. However, Elton amazes Emma by pressing himself on her and when she rebuffs him, he takes revenge by returning from Bath with an overbearing new wife (Juliet Stevenson).

Meanwhile, Mr Weston’s son Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), long the source of gossip and mystery, arrives in the county with scandalous tales of an affair concerning Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker), whom Emma considers a rather dull diversion. Emma believes she might be in love with Frank and then, when the feeling passes, considers him a match for poor, heartbroken Harriet; but she’s wrong about most of her headstrong assumptions, most of all the target of Knightley’s affections – and who might love him in return.

It’s frankly odious to keep harking back to the Beeb’s Pride and Prejudice whenever I get anywhere near a review of Austen (or even Austen-ish) material, but the fact is that it instantly became – and remains – the template for how to film the novels properly: long enough to do the plotlines justice and allow each character to take root and grow; expensive enough to convince in costumes and locations, both exterior and interior; and (most importantly) having an innate understanding of Austen, who enjoyed making fun of people’s foibles and weaknesses and their magnification in gossipy, localised ‘society’.

Beginning with a globe showing only Great Britain, it seems at first as though Douglas McGrath’s Emma is going to take all this on board; regrettably, although plenty of money has clearly been spent on the visuals – the countryside looks lovely, and there’s never cause to doubt the period details – it is only in this respect that the film truly succeeds.

The cast are game but Emma doesn’t make it easy for us to warm to their characters. In the title role, Paltrow copies Austen to the letter, in the sense that she portrays a thoughtless and rather spoilt woman whom no one will much like. Emma’s disregard for Harriet’s feelings is appalling, and although there is good in her, it takes a long while for us to see it, giving us time to grow tired of Paltrow’s dainty frame and impressive but over-pronounced accent. Jeremy Northam, meanwhile, lacks authority – and activity – as Knightley and the pair fail to generate much chemistry.

Collette, fresh from Muriel’s Wedding, seems to have been asked to do more of the same, only with an English accent; she’s very good at it, too, but Harriet’s clumsiness doesn’t sit well opposite Paltrow’s neat and petite manners. Elsewhere, McGregor is too glib and self-satisfied as Frank and is never a credible match for Emma; however, there’s much pleasure to be had in charming semi-comic performances from Cumming, Stevenson and especially Thompson as Miss Bates, cut to the quick by Emma’s most scathing put-down.

The inconsistency in performances is matched by the unsure tone of the narrative. McGrath seems unable to decide whether he’s filming an earnest period feature or a modern romantic comedy, and the thrust of the storytelling gets lost somewhere in the middle. The Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax subplot is teased for far too long, yet sidelined as soon as it arrives (except in how it affects Emma); and I still don’t know whether we’re meant to find Harriet ridiculous or pathetic in the true sense of the word.

The inevitable ball is staged well, but – sorry – doesn’t crackle with tension like those in the TV P&P, and more often than not the mood is dictated more by the tenor of the score (plinky when being comic, swelling and lush when romantic) than the actions or speeches of the actors. As a result, despite a few neat visual shortcuts, the film sometimes feels stodgy when it should bounce along on the springs of Austen’s wit. It doesn’t help that the film shoehorns in its own un-Austenian jokes – ‘Try not to kill my dogs’ is a passable punchline on its own merits, but it couldn’t sound more out of place in the world of Emma had Mr Spock beamed down to deliver it.

It’s perhaps unfair to Emma that I’ve re-watched it so close to seeing the perky, poppy Clueless for the first time. The story itself remains a thing of beauty and visually, so is this movie. On the other hand, I’ve never rated it as highly as other adaptations, for example Ang Lee’s stately Sense and Sensibility, because I’d frankly rather spend time with the Dashwoods (or the Bennets) than with Paltrow’s surly Miss Woodhouse. Not exactly badly done, Emma, but by no means a bullseye either.

Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Lonely ginger English orphan Benjamin Sniddlegrass wins a place at the Fairport Academy for wits and wittettes, presided over by visiting headmaster, eccentric Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog. Sniddlegrass gets to indulge his love of skiffle and also finds love with older student Scarlett McKenna, but visions of mortal enemy Lord Emmerich begin to invade his dreams. What do they mean? And why are there penguins in them?

It may well be the strangest raison d’être of a film in movie history. Film critic Mark Kermode, in reviewing Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, derides Harry Potter wannabes and says – in an entirely throwaway remark – that you might as well make a film called ‘Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins’. On the other side of the world, Australian Jeremy Dylan takes him at his word and with a gang of friends, and almost no money whatsoever, turns a sarky joke into a feature film packed with wittertaining references.

As narrator Stephen Fry briefly explains in an uncannily familiar set-up, Benjamin Sniddlegrass (Andrew Griscti) lives in the bathroom of his unpleasant Aunt David Morrissey. One day, he’s magically transported from Cockfosters to Sydney, where the mysterious Pentangle (Alec Doomadgee) explains that he’s a ‘wit’, a wizard selected for training at the famous Fairport Academy. Benjamin is an unwitting (sorry) celebrity at the school, since his parents were killed battling the evil Lord Emmerich, also presumed dead; but he has more immediate matters to address, such as a burgeoning friendship with bright-eyed third-year student Scarlett McKenna (Catherine Davies) and a chance to watch long-dead music heroes, specifically skiffle king Johnny Leroy (Jon Sewell).

However, events take a surreal turn when Emmerich – and penguins – start appearing in Benjamin’s dreams, forcing the student to seek assistance and a less-than-magical ‘potion’ to keep him awake, provided by the school’s exchange headmaster, Werner Herzog (Dorian Newstead).

It would be condescending to judge BSATCOP by different standards to any other film, and in a totally objective light you’d have to say it’s not brilliant. The reason for this is almost entirely attributable to the fact that it’s as cheap as – let’s follow the form – nuts, and looks it. I can’t be bothered to count exactly how much of the movie is actual footage and how much is titles or scenes played through a different filter, but to make the film last more than an hour Dylan replays scenes until they become over-familiar, interspersed with what amount to Powerpoint graphics (I think we get four sets of titles, in all).

The film displays all the hallmarks of student film-making, using real locations and making do with what’s available: entirely understandable, but (for example) was there really no better alternative to a grungy student bar for Emmerich’s lair? The plot too is at the mercy of the ultra-low budget (£6,000, roughly), which allows only the most cursory parody of the Harry Potter movies – we’re talking very low-grade magic – and no set-pieces to speak of (unless you count rescue from a pool table as an action set-piece).

That said, Benjamin Sniddlegrass does – just about – manage to tell a story, and has fun while it’s doing it. The acting from the leads is pretty decent for a student film, and there’s something approaching chemistry between Griscti and Davies, bolstered by a saucy streak that has nothing to do with J.K. Rowling’s work (the banter while playing pool is pure smut, in a good way); the Maurice Binder-like titles are also surprisingly effective, accompanying the bombastic theme song (the music in general is good, depending on your tolerance for skiffle). Dylan makes a virtue of the film’s cheapness, and while it never reaches great heights of excitement, I didn’t have time to get bored either. I enjoyed individual jokes, like the Wicker Basket of Times Past, very much.

The question I haven’t answered so far is ‘Do you have to know the context of the film’s genesis to appreciate it?’, and my answer is ‘I don’t know’. I am a regular podcaster of Drs Mayo and Kermode film review show on Radio 5 Live, and as such did enjoy the little references to the show’s in-jokes and memes – even if no-one directly says hello to Jason Isaacs. However, apart from knowing where the title came from and who Werner Herzog is, I don’t think it does matter much if you’re aware of the film’s background. Anyway, let’s face it, if you’re not a fan of the good doctor (and the fake one), your chances of stumbling on this movie by mistake are pretty slim.

Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins is a brave, not to say lunatic, attempt at making a mountain out of a molehill; and while it would have obviously been a better film with another 20,000 or so dollars thrown at it, it contains enough good material to be perfectly watchable. Personally, I think the film shows some talent – Peter Jackson started off mega-cheap, and look where he ended up.

I’d quite like to see the proposed follow-up, Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Death of Narrative Cinema, and would be perfectly happy – if you’re reading, Jeremy, and the title wasn’t just a joke – to support it getting made. If the director is reading*, he shouldn’t be despondent about the score: it’s an honest rating and puts BSATCOP way ahead of a lot of much more expensive movies. Minute for minute, and balancing assets against flaws, I genuinely thought the film was on a par with Ang Lee’s The Hulk, Eagle Eye and The Da Vinci Code. And it’s a lot better than that particular favourite of Dr K’s, Angels and Demons.

NOTES: When this review was posted on my original website, Mr Jeremy Dylan kindly sent me an email in which he was very honest about the qualities of his debut feature. This makes him unique amongst directors whose films I’ve reviewed – yeah, Scorsese, where’s your email? – and makes me like him all the more. Go to to find out what he’s currently up to Down Under.

Grosse Pointe Blank

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: Vaguely troubled by his anti-social job – killing people for money – Martin Blank is persuaded to attend his 10-year school reunion in Grosse Pointe, Detroit. The trip allows Martin to catch up with Debi, his jilted love of a decade ago, but Martin’s professional rivals are determined to make the journey a busman’s holiday – possibly a very brief one.

Hitman Martin Blank (John Cusack) just isn’t enjoying his work like he used to, and it’s making him sloppy. His feisty assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack) nags at him to take a break by attending his school reunion, while terrified shrink Dr Oatman (the wonderful Alan Arkin) will tell Martin anything he wants to hear just to get rid of him. When a hit happens to come up in Martin’s hometown of Grosse Pointe he reluctantly takes the job, knowing that he’ll face a heap of questions; not least from Debi (Minnie Driver), the girl he deserted before Senior Prom back in ‘86.

Martin feels the force of DJ Debi’s pent-up anger on live radio, but that’s the least of his problems: unhappy with Martin’s rejection of joining a Union of hitmen – and being undercut – The Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) is lingering on the scene, having tipped off NSA Agents Lardner* and McCullers (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) to ‘whack’ him. There’s also a hitman called Felix out to gain retribution for an unfortunate canine catastrophe from Blank’s past. With his life already this complicated, no wonder Martin’s confused by the mundane lives of his classmates, his befuddled mother, and the fact that his family home has become a convenience store.

If the thought of a movie about professional killers being broadly played as a comedy – a romantic comedy at that – troubles you, then a bit of context might come in handy. In the wake of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction (note the cardboard cut-outs in the Ultimart), it was perfectly acceptable to kill people in cold blood so long as the film acknowledged its ironic status: “Hey, I’m only a movie, there are no ‘real people’ dying here”. In this light, it’s easy to understand Grosse Pointe Blank as a smart mixture of Pulp Fiction and something like Grease, John Cusack standing in as a charismatic if melancholic John Travolta substitute. Neurotic, too: Cusack has imported some of David Shayne’s troubles from Bullets over Broadway.

Wherever it comes from, the strange brew – for the most part – works very well indeed. Thanks to a combination of a consistently clever script and a host of nimble performances (from those I’ve mentioned and others I’ve not, such as Jeremy Piven as Paul, Martin’s oafish Estate agent friend), Grosse Pointe Blank entertains throughout. Blank is marvellously awkward at trying to be normal, and normal people are awkward around him – they can’t process his honest answers, he can’t process their uncomprehending responses or the unrelenting awfulness of the reunion.

Furthermore, the appurtenances to Martin’s career are all great fun: Marcella, Aykroyd’s Grocer, the exploding Ultimart and the pissed-off (ex-)employee, the decently-staged fight with Felix. Together with the touching scene featuring Barbara Harris as Martin’s mother and the less touching one at his father’s grave, we get interesting glimpses of Martin’s past and what might have turned him into a killer.

That said, the movie can’t have it all ways. We build up a picture of an eighteen-year-old who, with a life of normality yawning ahead of him, lost the plot, took the amoral way out and found it suited him perfectly. However, while we’re admiring the cool of this emotionless marksman, the film suddenly throws the switch on Blank by presenting him with a baby that turns him, for want of a better word, gaga.

I didn’t quite believe in Martin as the ex-psycho, suddenly turned potential family man, and the film never quite recovers its poise from this moment, despite an excitingly destructive climax. Nor for that matter did I entirely believe that Debi – for all Driver’s good work – was ever a real person, rather than a collection of quippy, off-beat lines. I didn’t feel that either Lardner or McCullers deserved their demises, even if they are little more than low-grade facsimiles of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent and Jules. And couldn’t Aykroyd’s Grocer have made it out alive?

Then again, this being ironic cinema, we know perfectly well these actors are only playing – Azaria and Aykroyd have been in loads of stuff since, and Freeman has…er…well, IMDB says he was in The Dark Knight, so he must be doing fine. In the final analysis, Grosse Pointe Blank is probably too laid-back, too content with its own hipness, to be a contender for greatness. Still, it’s witty in ways most action comedies can only dream of and mostly enormous fun. If nothing else, if you’re of a certain age, you’ll love the soundtrack.

NOTES: 1 “Steven Lardner, aka ‘Steve’”, as Marcella says. My favourite line, alongside the sing-song way Debi says ‘You’re a f**king psycho’.

2 Even Blank’s name is a movie pun as much as it’s a character clue, though I’ve not see Point Blank to let you know whether it’s a good one.

Green Zone

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Hunting down Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Warrant Officer Roy Miller keeps coming up empty – and he wants to know why. His investigations send him on a direct collision course with the Pentagon, who refuse to give up their source, so he goes on a hunt of his own with the reluctant assistance of local ex-soldier Freddy. Unsurprisingly, Miller suddenly finds he has enemies on all fronts.

It’s April 2003, and the US Army are busy searching for Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction among the ruins of the bombed-out cities of Iraq. Leading the search is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), who is frustrated when his ‘intel’ repeatedly turns out to be useless. Miller’s inconvenient questions to his superiors bring him to the attention of CIA agent Marty Brown (Brendan Gleeson), who is trying to keep the country functioning; but he’s struggling against local Pentagon official Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), busy installing a puppet leader and feeding Amy Ryan’s reporter Lawrie with stories from an elusive source called ‘Magellan’.

Marty tells Miller to keep his eyes peeled, so when Iran War veteran Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) tells him about a meeting of Ba’ath Party Generals, including chemicals expert Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor), aka the ‘Jack of Clubs’, he’s more than interested. A firefight ensues during which Al-Rawi escapes, but Miller finds a notebook which may hold the key to his whereabouts. Miller is desperate to catch up with Al-Rawi, but the Pentagon are equally keen to keep Miller off the track; so when the Warrant Officer finds further clues in Abu Ghraib prison, he becomes involved in a violent race with moustachioed Special Forces hardman Briggs (Jason Isaacs), who doesn’t let a thing like being on the same side as Miller get in his way.

Whether or not you have any interest in the politics of the piece, there’s plenty to applaud in Green Zone. The re-enactment of the chaos and carnage of war is brilliantly filmed, once you get used to Greengrass’s nervous, restless camera (and you do); and the film is tightly paced, measuring out regular action scenes amongst the slower sections, which develop the plot and highlight the absurdity of the Americans luxuriating in the Imperial Palace while the civilians they’ve ‘liberated’ go without electricity or water.

The film is packaged in the style of previous Greengrass/Damon projects The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, which means Green Zone is always exciting and kinetic. What’s more, while you can agree or disagree with the politics of the piece, as someone who remembers watching Colin Powell trying to bamboozle the UN with crude computer mock-ups of lorries laden with chemical weapons, the subject matter remains relevant and – bravely for mainstream American cinema – points fingers at those in charge. You may believe the invasion of Iraq was justified in any event, but the uncomfortable fact is that the Allies went in to find WMDs – and found none.

The above praise makes it all the more unfortunate that one key aspect of Green Zone is a real let-down. Though the actors are all game, Brian Helgeland’s script fails to muster a single credible character with a humanising personality, quirk or foible. Everyone is a simplistic representative of a political position: Miller the doubting Thomas, Clark the slimy, scheming face of Washington, Briggs the unquestioning assassin, Marty the overlooked voice of reason, Freddy the noble Iraqi, Lawrie the gullible journalist. The film may have been based on a real-life account of the war, but it seems as though anything that could identify the characters as actual protagonists has been sanded away, leaving the talented cast to play a bunch of largely anonymous ciphers.

Consequently, when the film ramps up the thrills in full-blown Bourne fashion, with helicopters and vehicles and on-foot pursuits, the action partly relayed via state-of-the-art technology, it’s a strangely uninvolving experience. You don’t want Damon to get killed because he’s cuddly Matt Damon, but otherwise his Roy Miller doesn’t have enough about him to feel worth caring about. And while you’re clearly meant to feel for Freddy, he’s far too obvious a symbol of Iraqi self-determination to empathise with as a genuine person – and as others have noted, how the hell does he catch up with the action come the climax?

So what does that leave us with? It leaves us with a paradox, in that the film finds truth amongst lies yet doesn’t ring true itself. Green Zone plays like a cracking action film but fails to hammer home its point, which must have been Greengrass’s chief priority. I couldn’t help but compare the film unfavourably to David O. Russell’s Three Kings, which was seldom believable and occasionally quite unpleasant to watch, but took a much more jaded, scabrous view of the first Iraq War and was more memorable and effective as a result. Alternatively, I think of Black Hawk Down, which dealt with another screwed-up mission and brought the viewer into the middle of the fray, concentrating on the humans stuck in hell rather than the political decisions that caused them to be there.

I don’t want to sound too down on Green Zone, because I enjoyed it. I applaud the idea of exposing the (probably) illegal ‘War’ in Iraq for the sham it was, and I understand that packaging the Allies’ shoddy dealings in an action-cum-thriller wrapper secured the film the largest possible audience (though not, ultimately, very good box office). However, action films need a hero, and Damon’s upright but charmless Roy Miller just isn’t that man. Put simply, it’s difficult to warm to any film that suggests that the Ba’ath Party, given the chance, might save the day.

Grown Ups

WFTB Score: 4/20

The plot: Coming together to remember a much-loved basketball coach, five fully-grown friends turn the event into a big holiday for themselves and their extended families. However, some take to being taken away from their daily lives – and thrown in with strangers – with more enthusiasm than others.

Just once in the career of Coach ‘Buzzer’, he led a team to championship glory. That event bonded five boys in friendship, and Coach’s death calls them together again: Lenny (Adam Sandler), a successful agent with a workaholic designer wife Roxanne (Salma Hayek), ungrateful kids and a secret nanny called Rita (Di Quon); Eric (Kevin James), a big-hearted soul with a flash car, pretty wife Sally (Maria Bello), their own brood and his own secret; Kurt (Chris Rock), a hen-pecked house-husband who gets little respect from his kids, wife Deanne (Maya Rudolph) or his flatulent mother-in-law (Ebony Jo-Ann); Rob (Rob Schneider), a would-be spiritualist with a thing for older women such as Gloria (Joyce Van Patten) and, improbably, two stunning daughters plus a ‘fugly’ one; and Marcus (David Spade), a singleton still walking on the wild side when the others’ party days are over.

After the funeral, Lenny reveals he has hired the lake house at which they celebrated years ago, and the party descends for a week of bonding and self-discovery, though Roxanne and the kids initially hanker for the luxuries of Milan. The men will have none of it, especially when Rob’s beautiful daughters arrive, and stay all week to say goodbye to the coach, enjoy each other’s company and visit the nearby water park. They also confront the simmering resentment of the rival basketball team they bested years ago, who are still around – and still convinced that Lenny cheated his way to victory.

You can imagine the scene: our five stars at the bar at Happy Madison Productions.

“Hey,” says one of them, “why don’t we all star in the same movie? That way we can hang out on set as well as off it.”

“Cool. What’s the story?”

“Story? Come on, we’ve put out some pretty crappy pictures between us – especially you, Rob – and folks are going to see them regardless. Who the hell needs a story?”

They clink Buds, and Grown Ups is born. I say this because the movie, written by Sandler with Fred Wolf, is dismally lazy in both concept and execution, the equivalent of Sandler’s home movies; and we all know how interesting it is to watch other people’s holiday snaps. Characterisations and script are largely built around the actors’ obvious attributes: Eric’s out of shape, Marcus is a sleaze, Rob’s a shortarse; Kurt’s emasculated, which requires a modicum of acting from Rock, while Sandler’s Lenny is cursed with – aside from big ears – the tragedy of being too successful. Bless.

While the five guys rib each other in laboured fashion (entirely lacking the lively edge of The 40-Year-Old Virgin), the secondary characters are stooges: the wives are high-maintenance, the kids appallingly ungrateful and brattish, at least until they come round to the men’s way of thinking.

“Daddy knows best” is ultimately the retrograde message of Grown Ups. Worse, it’s about all the movie has to offer. There’s potential for drama, and occasionally the film threatens to throw a raincloud over the self-congratulatory parade, but it never amounts to anything: Kurt hits it off with Rita (and what’s the fuss over her being a Nanny or not?) – it’s Deanne who apologises for being obsessed with work; Eric displays signs of diabetes and is hiding his lack of success – neither are a problem; Roxanne’s miffed that Lenny is surreptitiously controlling his family’s lives? No worries, ‘cos it’s for her own good in the end.

The film is so satisfied with its objectionable grasp on life that it descends to a platitudinous homily from Gloria and manages to condescend the locals who never made it out of town: Lenny and his friends are winners anyway, they can afford to throw a poxy baseball game against the grateful rednecks. Thank goodness Steve Buscemi’s on hand(s) to give the lazy final act a little oomph.

Still, however unpromising the plot, or theme, comedies can be forgiven almost anything if they have funny jokes. Grown Ups does not have funny jokes, or anything approaching them. Instead, it has the sort of material Rob Schneider revels in: man face down in poo; man kicking another man in testicles; men weeing in swimming pool; woman face down in cake; same woman with disfigured toe; same woman (again) blaming smell of own fart on dog.

There’s also a child still breast-feeding aged four (a gag Little Britain already took to its extreme some time ago) and the idea that sex with older women is, in and of itself, gross. I get that the title Grown Ups is meant ironically, but the level of puerility in a film aimed at adults is unforgivable. That said, Arrow Roulette made me smile, which alone is worth an extra mark.

Regrettably – if inevitably – there’s also a leery sensibility where the attractive girls and wives are concerned, and a pointed meanness about women who are plain, or old, or oversized, or all three at once, even if it does provide a half-decent joke where four of the men end up looking at a tree when their ogling shifts go out of sync (and there’s no denying that Madison Riley’s pins are extraordinary). Grown Ups’ attempt to redress the balance is a gag about a hunk at the water park having a daft voice, which would be fine if it wasn’t ripped straight from The Man With Two Brains.

No doubt the makers of Grown Ups want us to go away musing on the precious friendships we take forward into adulthood; actually, I’m sure they couldn’t care less, so long as the box office is decent (decent enough for a sequel, it seems). Whatever, while the five men appear to be enjoying each other’s jokes, they project precious little towards us, the viewer, except the lowest of lowbrow slapstick and a depressing streak of paternalism. It all makes me want to revisit The Wedding Singer, from the period when Sandler had to work at his craft rather than sleepwalk through most of a movie, and sub-contract the rest.

Artist, The

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: The advent of the talking picture brings about vastly contrasting fortunes for two stars of the silver screen: George Valentin, a feted actor who struggles to adapt to the new Hollywoodland landscape; and Peppy Miller, an up-and-coming actress whose idolisation of George competes with her ambition to get on in show business.

It’s 1927 and on the surface at least, life’s a bed of roses for matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Together with his faithful Jack Russell (Uggie), he has a string of hit films under his belt and ladies literally falling at his feet in the shape of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who stumbles into George and plants a kiss on his cheek, much to the delight of the press and displeasure of his wife Doris. Sparks fly when Peppy starts working alongside George at Kinograph Studios, the young starlet showing a keen interest in the handsome star; and as bullish studio boss Al Miller (John Goodman) demonstrates, there’s more excitement in the air – talkies.

George dismisses sound pictures as a fad, but two years later the picture is very different; Peppy has risen up the bill to become a big name in the talkies, while George refuses to adapt even when Kinograph stops making silent films. His self-financed feature Tears of Love opens on the same day as Peppy’s The Beauty Spot, with predictable results, and the film’s failure combined with the Wall Street crash results in financial and personal ruin. Even in hard times, George’s chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) remains loyal; however, it seems that nothing – not even the pooch – can rescue the fallen idol from his destructive pride.

It has been interesting to follow the reaction to The Artist evolve over the six months or so since its release, from warm praise of an unheralded novelty to the inevitable backlash over an overhyped, over-marketed commodity. And the curious thing is, both responses are completely valid. I’ll deal with the good bits first. The decision to make the film as a silent feature, complete with Ludovic Bource’s ripe, Bernard Hermann-referring score, is a triumphant case of form suiting function. The story is pure melodrama and the exaggerated emoting of the actors brings it across superbly, disarming modern viewers largely unaccustomed to having their heartstrings pulled in this fashion.

Michel Havanavicius directs expertly, bringing out the full impact of scenes such as the outtakes of George and Peppy losing focus whilst dancing, the full wit of George’s dream sequence, and the full drama of some of the later scenes (assuming it’s not clever CGI, the owners of some of those vintage cars must have had their hearts in their mouths). The cast – yes, including the dog – are all excellent, and it is worth emphasising how natural Dujardin and Bejo look in their roles; and not to give the game away, but the final reveal suggests the cause of George’s fear of the talkies – a real problem for many silent film stars.

All of which is fine if you approach The Artist as a wonderful discovery of a low-key project from an unknown European director. If, however, you go to see Oscar®-winning sensation The Artist from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, featuring Oscar®-winning hero Jean Dujardin, you might just get the feeling that the whole thing has been distinctly oversold. The fact is, the story is as simplistic as they come, and though my knowledge of silent films is extremely limited, I believe they are capable of a much greater level of narrative, emotional and psychological depth than this one. The characters develop in an entirely predictable manner, so you can forecast exactly where their career paths will lead.

Because we know where the film is heading (it never deviates from the path), the viewer is often a few steps ahead of it; and in occasional moments when the movie takes its time to proceed – mostly while George is wallowing in self-pity – it’s not surprising that a little boredom creeps in. Visually, there are few surprises either; in a silent film every image becomes a kind of visual metaphor*, but (as others have mentioned) some of the explicit metaphors in The Artist are obvious to the point of cliché – ascending or descending stairs, standing in the rain.

And on the subject of rain, despite its clever presentation The Artist can’t be considered particularly original, specifically owing many a debt to Singin’ in the Rain. The Artist acts as a negative image to Stanley Donen’s classic, using silent film techniques rather than modern Hollywood apparatus to explore the same subject; but despite some terrific hoofing from Dujardin and Bejo, the newer film can’t quite match the sheer joy of Kelly, Reynolds and O’Connor at their all-singin’, all-dancin’, all Technicolor best. Neither does it have the bite or intelligence of Sunset Boulevard, a much darker meditation on what happened to the stars of the silent silver screen.

Nonetheless, viewed with as neutral an eye as possible, The Artist is still a treat. It assaults your emotions in unexpected ways and sends you out of the cinema with a song and a dance. Recommended, so long as you haven’t built up your expectations too much.

NOTES: Discuss.