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A film as lazy as its character
The adventures of Garfield the cat were at a premium throughout the 80s and the mid 90s. Jim Davis's wry cartoon strips about the lazy, lasagne-loving couch potato hold a fond place in my childhood. What astonishes is how the character grew to such a phenomenon. How often does it happen that three panels about a fat, flabby tabby cat becomes not just a widely successful comic strip, but also grew to several animated specials, mass-produced merchandise, and Garfield dolls staring out the back windows of cars all over America?
Which is why there seems something decidedly odd about a Garfield movie being made about ten years after the hype had died down - it feels like its come too late in the day (although it still grossed a blockbusting 200 million at the box-office). One suspects it wanted to compete with all of the other CGI talking animal movies that were greenlit following the mega-success of Babe, but unfortunately, judging from the finished product, it has more in common with the similarly misjudged Scooby-Doo rather than the delightful Babe.
I must admit to not being a fan of the CGI talking animal genre. Babe may have been the one that got the ball rolling, but all the ones that followed in its wake studied its technology but not its thinking. While on the one hand Babe was wowing us with its effects, at the same time the filmmakers crafted a strong story being enacted by a cast of delightful animal characters. But all of its imitators are far more concerned with animals referencing things they couldn't possibly know about, e.g. the latest films and celebrities as well as anachronistic pop songs that only date the film that much quicker, etc.
In some sense, Garfield could get away with that, since one of his favourite things to do is watch TV, when he's not sleeping the day away or eating his owner Jon Arbuckle out of house and home (and lasagne). But for a film about such a beloved character, it still emerges as a big disappointment.
To its credit, Garfield doesn't come off as cringeworthy as most talking animal movies (just look to Bill Murray's fellow Ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd's Yogi Bear to see how bad Garfield could have been). The requisite film references and animal flatulence that have become sad staples of the genre are kept to a merciful minimum, and all of the characters are here, e.g. Garfield, Jon, Odie, Liz the vet, Nermal, even Pookie, Garfield's beloved teddy bear, etc. And when it comes to Garfield's lazy sarcasm, who better to play that than Bill Murray?
But one wishes the lip-service had been worth it, because the story is nothing to get worked up about, only because we've seen it in so many other talking animal movies. Talking animals going on a big adventure is just Homeward Bound, while the villain of the film wanting Odie for nefarious purposes is 101 Dalmations. Even Garfield softening up is something Bill Murray has done before in Scrooged to Groundhog Day (the connection is more overt with GD's Stephen Tobolowsky cast as the villain Happy Chapman).
If the plot seems slight, that's because of a fundamental flaw at the heart of the film. How do you turn a three-panel comic strip into a treatment worthy of a feature film? I'm not sure you can, and the film we get is evidence of that. The characters we know are there, but the plot is too threadbare for us to care for any of it. Breckin Meyer's Jon and Jennifer Love Hewitt's Liz bring nothing to the film, even though Liz is an unfeasibly sexy vet. The movie is just as idle as Garfield is.
Also, where Garfield should have been the triumph of the film, the special effects are not. Although the other talking animals are done with conviction, the film's biggest special effect, Garfield himself, is a failure on all levels. Just like the then recent Scooby-Doo, he looks too cartoony. He never seems integrated with everyone else, which makes me wonder why he couldn't have been animated just like the other cats in the movie.
The film does have an ace in the hole in Bill Murray. Although the script isn't worthy of a comedic actor of Murray's calibre, his dry, wry, laconic voice is perfectly suited to the character. This is hardly one of Murray's funniest performances but he can enliven any film just by showing up. Although he's reduced to a voice, his instantly recognisable sarcasm is the one true success of the movie.
The talking animal movie is an extremely difficult thing to pull off. And while I would argue that there are worse, there are better ones too. Garfield falls into neither the former, nor the latter, and certainly without the presence of Bill Murray, Garfield would be a completely throwaway movie. And he's a character who deserves far better than that.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
A wonderful film at any time of the year
It's a Wonderful Life - the greatest Christmas movie ever made, or the greatest film ever made, period? Although a strong contender for the former, I'm not sure about the latter. One is hesitant about pronouncing any film something that eclipses all others, because that means every film you watch thereafter will seem inferior somehow, and I love movies too much to be pigeonholed.
The film's genesis is an interesting one; to my knowledge, It's a Wonderful Life is the only movie in history to originate from a Christmas card. Written by Philip Van Doren Stern, and originally titled The Greatest Gift, it told the story of George Bailey, and how his guardian angel Clarence shows him a glimpse of what life would be like if he had never been born. Stern shopped the story to various studios, and many of them turned their noses up at what sounded like such a frivolous idea for a movie.
But when it fell into Frank Capra's hands, he loved it, and wanted it expanded into his first feature after World War II had put his directing career on hold. After selecting fellow war veteran James Stewart as his leading man, and a rather troubled production, It's a Wonderful Life got the go-ahead.
But the film was met with indifference, where the public seemed to share in the studio heads distaste for the source material. It wound up forgotten about for several years, until the 1970s when copyright expired and the film landed in the hands of the public domain - suddenly It's a Wonderful Life was hailed not only as a Christmas classic, but a shining icon of cinema itself.
What is it about It's a Wonderful Life that has earned it that distinction? When reading other reviews on various sites, one thing that doesn't come through about the film is how little of Christmas there is in it. The framework Capra was working from only took up the last half-hour of the movie - nearly everything before that isn't even set at Christmas. It's a long road that we're on before we even get to George on that snowy bridge, considering suicide on that dark and frigid Christmas night.
Frank Capra takes his time with the story, investing plenty of development in the character of George Bailey. George has lived his whole life in the town of Bedford Falls; he has lofty ambitions to take him far, far away from this place, but he's forever having to make sacrifices for others.
Although he puts on a brave face while giving up his dreams of travelling the world and a college education, secretly a frustration burns deeply within George. He has to take over the Bailey Building & Loan, a job he really has no love for, and he watches friends and family go off and live their dreams and even become war heroes, while he feels trapped in Bedford Falls.
This type of story could easily become saccharine in the hands of a lesser director, but Frank Capra's skillful direction makes sure the film avoids all of the obvious pitfalls (something the film's imitators often fall into). If George had taken each setback with a smile and a kind word, that would be unrealistic, and I'd agree the film is worthy of the term Capra-corn that It's a Wonderful Life coined.
In fact, this is a dark, relentlessly harsh Christmas film. Just look at George's face fall when he knows he must take over the BB&L to thwart the ambitions of the town miser Mr Potter, or when he forces a smile at the news that his brother Harry has gotten married and accepted a job offer, meaning the burden of responsibility over the future of the BB&L now rests in George's hands.
James Stewart was never better as George Bailey - as his life snowballs into an avalanche of misfortunes, he handles the increasingly depressing situation perfectly. Even he believed this was his finest role. But equally good, if not better, is the film's villain, the heartless and chilling miser Mr Potter, played to perfection by Lionel Barrymore.
Potter makes Ebeneezer Scrooge seem a wimp; this is a man with no redeeming qualities - none whatsoever. He leans on the town of Bedford Falls like the Devil atop of Bald Mountain. He has no respect for the people who live there, and crushes anyone who dares challenge him, with George his favourite victim. He delights in seeing George's ambitions come to nothing, and vindictively pockets money that if not recovered, will bankrupt the BB&L and ruin George. He doesn't even get any kind of comeuppance - Potter is one of cinema's most chilling villains.
The final 30 minutes is where It's a Wonderful Life becomes ever more wondrous, and is the film at its blackest. George's failures have finally bested him, but just as he's about to end it all, Clarence Odbody, his guardian angel falls to Earth and shows him what Bedford Falls would be like without him. The town becomes a dark, twisted shadow of its other self, with Potter as its king and the people as his subjects. It's the film's darkest chapter, and a stunningly nihilistic vision of how things might have been.
The fact that things end on a happy note is never in doubt of course, but those who say seeing the townspeople come to George's rescue is Capra giving in to the soppy stuff before the end missed the point. After such a thoroughly miserable ordeal, George deserves his happy ending, and truly earns his redemption, like all the great film heroes. It's a Wonderful Life is often thought of as an upbeat, sentimental Christmas fable. What utter tosh! This is a film that takes us on a journey fraught with raw emotion, and rightfully earned a hallowed place in the Christmas pantheon.
The classic horror that's out of this world
The Thing From Another World birthed the alien invader film, and the theme proved so popular it quickly became its own genre. Where most of these, especially The War of the Worlds, showed aliens arriving en masse in gigantic spaceships to obliterate humanity from the face of the Earth, TTFAW and its ilk took the same basic idea and ran with it to more invasive places.
And Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the finest example. At the time it was made, it was one of the most terrifying alien invader films yet to emerge. There are other worthy examples but few have unsettled audiences like this dark and eerie film.
Jack Finney wrote The Body Snatchers up as a serial and then expanded it to a novel. The book is an efficient read but Don Siegel makes a much more interesting story out of it. Indeed, The Body Snatchers has such a fertile idea its been adapted to film no less than four times and spawned dozens of imitators.
Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is the local GP of Santa Mira. Coming back from an out-of-town conference, his patients come to him with the same story. Friends and loved ones no longer seem the same people. They look the same. Talk the same. But on the inside, they're different - or more accurately, something is missing. Miles is sceptical, until a friend brings him a featureless replica of himself. Miles realises an alien influence is slowly taking over Santa Mira.
Many people have read into Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an unconscious metaphor against McCarthyism and Communism. Siegel and Finney have always denied this, although screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring had Hollywood run-ins with blacklisting, so there may be something to that. Besides, what else are you supposed to think when the lead actor's last name is McCarthy?
Political overtones aside, I just liked the film for what it is - a chilling horror story. The film gains its effect from the way Don Siegel brings the invaders into the story and just waits for the audience to catch on. In fact, he's so successful at this that the film didn't really need Miles providing an ominous voice-over (but more on that later).
In the first scenes at Santa Mira, Siegel establishes the apparent normalcy of the town with everybody going about they're business as if it were any other day. But the invasion of Santa Mira has already begun, and Siegel litters the film with clues from the off-set. Like a little boy running into the path of an oncoming car, like he's trying to get away from something. Or a man mowing the same patch of lawn over and over again.
None of these things are conclusive, but as the story presses on, these things become harder to ignore. People think there's something weird going on, and then retract they're claims. And when featureless clones of the townspeople start appearing in cellars and basements, the clues all point to something we hadn't even considered - an alien invasion.
Siegel structures IOTBS like the film-noir thrillers he made his name with. Harsh silhouettes, long shots inside of cramped corridors, tight closeups, an edgy piano score. One of the most effective tricks he springs on us is where the film stops in the midst of it, and tries to convince the characters (and I think the audience too) that none of this is real, that we're imagining the invasion of Santa Mira.
The duplicates that cropped up in the cellar are now suddenly gone. They didn't leave any fingerprints so there's no proof they were ever there. And when the film brings in a psychiatrist who explains with calm rationalism that we're all part of a shared delusion, its something that almost succeeds in making you rethink yourself.
Of course that type of second-guessing doesn't last for very long, but it was great while it lasted. When some unusual sea-pods crop up in Miles' greenhouse, giving birth to a replica of himself, you realise you were right the first time. Siegel saves his scariest scenes for the second half, when Miles and his girlfriend Becky go into hiding.
One of the eeriest scenes is one that takes place in broad daylight, when some strangers from out-of-town are passing through, and as soon as they're gone, the townspeople crowd in from all sides in perfect silence. That scene stays with me more than anything else in the movie. Equally creepy is the pod-people trying to reason with Miles and Becky, telling them its so much better this way. And ultimately they don't have a choice in this.
Siegel refuses to compromise (except right at the end). Miles and Becky are forced up into the hills, they separate for a moment and upon Miles' return, he looks into Becky's eyes and sees nothing there. When the reality sinks in that she's been took over, its as scary as it is tragic. But Siegel even manages to top this with that classic scene with Miles getting to the highway screaming about the oncoming invasion, and being dismissed as a lunatic.
That would have been a fantastic ending. But unfortunately it wasn't to be. The studio were quite taken aback by what Siegel had created, and forced upon him an ending that promised hope to the audience. Where Miles is relating his story to a therapist, who calls in the FBI to deal with the threat. Its an extremely silly coda that ends the film on a big anticlimax. Actually, Jack Finney didn't get it right either. The book ended on the ridiculous notion of the aliens giving up on they're world domination plot and returning home.
In spite of that, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a timeless classic. Its so-called metaphors are easily dismissed in the face of such an absorbing icon of genre cinema.
A Close Shave (1995)
Better than A Grand Day Out, but slightly lesser than The Wrong Trousers
Wallace & Gromit made a likable debut with A Grand Day Out. The film had some problems to iron out, but by the time of The Wrong Trousers, Nick Park had gained a command of the stop-motion process, and captured lightning in a bottle. The Oscar-winning success of the film turned Wallace & Gromit into household names.
Aardman were quick to find the funds for a third instalment. With every Wallace & Gromit film, the animators refine they're craft a little bit further. They become more ambitious. The plots run even deeper. And the animation becomes ever more polished. This is all certainly clear to see in A Close Shave. The Wrong Trousers has a slight edge over it, but A Close Shave is yet another lively, hilarious Wallace & Gromit adventure.
A Grand Day Out had a giddy innocence to it. But it was obvious from The Wrong Trousers that Nick Park was taking the characters in much darker directions. A Close Shave goes even deeper, and is further proof that the Wallace & Gromit series is now in a very different place from where it first started.
Wallace & Gromit are into a new business venture, window-cleaning. Wallace falls for Wendoline, the owner of a wool-shop he (or rather Gromit) does the windows for. But Wendoline has a secret. A secret that ropes Wallace & Gromit into an adventure with sheep rustlers and a dog who is not the good shepherd he appears.
Every film in the series develops an increasing maturation. Not just in the way they're made, but also in the way they're written. Its difficult to remember at this point that A Close Shave was made by the same team of animators who produced the light romanticism of A Grand Day Out. Aardman are working from an all new rule book.
The Wrong Trousers had a seriousness to it over its predecessor. But it took some time into the film before we began to notice. With A Close Shave, its impossible not to see it. Heck, the film even abandons Julian Nott's signature theme music, and dives right into the storyline.
Right from the opening frame, an unmistakable dourness permeates the picture. Wendoline and Preston pull up outside Wallace and Gromit's house in the dead of night. The way Preston is dressed, you know he's got crime on his mind. His face is stern, no-nonsense. Right away we know he's the villain of the film. We need to remind ourselves here that we're watching a Wallace & Gromit picture.
That doesn't mean the film isn't funny. We get the usual sidesplitting scenes with Wallace's inventions. Especially good is Wallace gearing up for work with chutes and levers, while Gromit just sits in a sidecar waiting for Wallace to finish up.
This film is also a departure from the others in the series by having the first character, other than Wallace, who can speak. Anne Reid gives a sympathetic voice to Wendoline's plight, and never comes between the delightful double-act of Wallace and Gromit, always the heart of the series.
One of the best things about The Wrong Trousers was the surprising poignancy Nick Park managed to make us feel for Gromit, watching Feathers McGraw slowly oust him from Wallace's house. He pulls off the same trick again when Preston frames Gromit for sheep-rustling. Seeing Gromit sitting in a jail cell without a friend in the world is a raw, emotional moment. Especially when he gets a present, a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and he starts crying. Its impossible not to feel real sadness for the character.
A Close Shave ups the action quotient too. Everyone remembers the train set chase in The Wrong Trousers, but Nick Park and his animation team have gone all out to top that sequence with even more dizzying thrills and spills. Gromit's sidecar going over a cliff and turning into an aeroplane is just as exciting as anything in a James Bond film.
And A Close Shave gets itself together for a marvellous climax, when Preston is revealed to be a robot underneath. Gleefully cribbing The Terminator, the sequence with all of the characters on a conveyor belt trying to avoid being crushed is as breathless as it is funny.
One criticism you could make of the film is that it isn't as tight as The Wrong Trousers. The film makes many swoops and dives, and the plot line is an engaging one. But A Close Shave takes several viewings to get a proper grasp of the narrative, meaning its not as dramatically taut as The Wrong Trousers, or as instantly accessible as A Grand Day Out.
We would have to wait a staggering ten years for the next instalment, Wallace & Gromit's feature film debut, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a delightful story just as engaging as any of the shorts.
A Close Shave is yet another worthy addition to the canon with plenty for everyone. And look out for Shaun the Sheep, who steals any scene just by being in it.
The Wrong Trousers (1993)
The Wallace & Gromit movie all others are measured against
Wallace and Gromit exploded onto TV screens in 1989 with A Grand Day Out. Although a little rough around the edges, it was consistently charming, and left us breathless with anticipation for they're next adventure. And four years later, Aardman delivered with The Wrong Trousers.
The Wrong Trousers is by far Aardman's masterpiece, and the best adventure we've seen with Wallace & Gromit to date. Where the first film had some obvious kinks to work out, The Wrong Trousers is all that A Grand Day Out should have been.
Nick Park has polished his craft immeasurably in the four years since. Everything about The Wrong Trousers works. It gives us many things A Grand Day Out didn't have. It pays more attention to plot. The characterisations are deeper. The writing is tighter. Each scene adds something. The animation is flawless. Its the perfect Wallace & Gromit movie.
Wallace and Gromit are a bit strapped for cash. And to make ends meet, Wallace takes in a lodger, a penguin called Feathers McGraw. Feathers doesn't waste any time at all making himself at home, in Gromit's bedroom no less. Feeling neglected, Gromit decides to move on, but not before he discovers that Feathers is really an escaped jailbird. And he plans to use Wallace to pull off a diamond heist, with Wallace's latest invention, the Techno-Trousers.
Nick Park has made a conscious effort not to repeat the mistakes of A Grand Day Out. Although charming, that film was let down by a skinny storyline driving it all. But with The Wrong Trousers, Park depends on a more substantial plot to spur the film on. Park has ironed out all the deficiencies, and turns in a tightly scripted, slickly directed stop-motion feature.
One of the things that strikes you about The Wrong Trousers is the far darker tone. A Grand Day Out was made with a light exuberance. But The Wrong Trousers, right from the very beginning, is a more sinister story that takes Wallace & Gromit to some very dark places. This is surely indicative of the opening title sequence where we see the Techno-Trousers in harsh silhouette, and Julian Nott's playful musical score rushes to an abrupt halt.
The film begins innocently enough, with Nick Park showing Wallace & Gromit doing they're usual routine. This film sees the debut of Wallace's outlandish way of getting up in the morning. Full of chutes, mechanical arms, and ready-made long-johns. But as soon as Feathers McGraw comes into the picture, there's a palpable sense of tension. Right away we take an instant dislike to him. And its hard not to feel for Gromit as Feathers slowly ousts him from Wallace's home.
The film begins to resemble nothing so much as classic noir. When Gromit gets wise to Feathers, he trails him through dark alleyways to a museum, where Feathers is sizing the heist. I love the part when Gromit keeps him under surveillance by cutting a pair of eye-holes through a box, not realising the box has a picture of a dog on it, and he cut the holes where the eyes would go. Who in the audience didn't jump when Feathers sees someone (from Gromit's POV) peering at him?
If you run A Grand Day Out and The Wrong Trousers side by side, the differences are clearer. The former is light, escapist entertainment. The latter pushes the envelope far more than small-screen stop-motion had ever gone before. When watching the film prior to writing my review, it was inescapable how serious it was. Nick Park doesn't have as much time for the witty sideswipes of the first film. The Wrong Trousers is a film carried almost entirely by plot.
Every time you think the film is about to do something funny Park subverts it. The sight of Wallace in the Techno-Trousers is funny by itself, but when it comes to the robbery, instead of playing it for slapstick, Park milks the scene for suspense. Feathers remote controls an unsuspecting Wallace, getting him to scale the museum, hang from the ceiling, and try and grab the diamond in a claw like one of those grabbing games. It could rival anything in Oceans 11.
Park pulls out all the stops in the last ten minutes. Just because its animated doesn't mean it will patronise the audience. When Gromit threatens Feathers with a rolling pin, who could have predicted that the bird would respond by producing a gun? And one that fires real bullets too? What kind of a film are we in here?
The highlights of Wallace & Gromit are almost certainly the frenetic action sequences and the climax is a thrilling chase around the living room on a model train set with Wallace in the Techno-Trousers running wild and Gromit frantically trying to keep up with Feathers without running out of track all at the same time.
The Wrong Trousers is a triumph in every possible way. The 30 minutes are over before you know it. It holds up in all the right places, even in repeat viewings. And who didn't cheer when Feathers gets his comeuppance? The film won a well deserved Oscar, and although I love all of the subsequent movies, The Wrong Trousers is still unsurpassed, and remains Wallace & Gromit's, and Aardman's finest hour.
A Grand Day Out (1989)
To The Moon, Wallace
Aardman Animation started as a small company founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in the mid-70s. They're speciality was the almost lost art of stop-motion animation, particularly with claymation figures. They enjoyed some success with the eye-popping Peter Gabriel music video Sledgehammer. But the company really found its feet when novice animator Nick Park joined the studio.
It was Park who would put the company on the map, and introduce two of the most endearing animated characters the world would ever see, Wallace & Gromit.
The Wallace & Gromit world is a most peculiar one. Wallace is a scatterbrained, cheese-obsessed inventor, always working on the next madcap invention. Gromit is his faithful dog, and much smarter than Wallace ever will be. With his incredibly expressive monobrow, he watches in silent dismay as Wallace's cock-ups get them into the wackiest adventures.
Each one of the Wallace & Gromit shorts has been a delight. So far we've seen the likes of a skiing oven, robotic trousers, a cyber-dog, a cereal killer, and with they're feature film debut, a Were-Rabbit. The films manage a perfect blend of laugh-aloud comedy and smart visual invention. My mouth always waters at the prospect of the next adventure.
And A Grand Day Out is where it all began. Wallace and Gromit are lounging they're Bank Holiday away, so Wallace wants to go somewhere exotic. With not a piece of cheese in the house, Wallace on an impulse decides to build a rocket ship and fly to the Moon (which is made of cheese, to Wallace's thinking). But when they get there, they instead have to contend with a ski-obsessed oven/cooker, who won't leave them in peace.
Even in they're debut, Wallace & Gromit and A Grand Day Out is a charming adventure. All of the things we would come to expect about them are plain to see, albeit in a slightly rougher, uncut form. They're characterisations have already been established, with Peter Sallis nailing Wallace's dimwitted inflections. And Aardman's love of nutty contraptions is there too.
The film comes with many delightful sight gags tucked around every corner. I especially liked the rocket ship's wallpapered interior, and the throwaway sight of a handbrake on the control panel. But the most inspired idea is a coin-operated oven lying neglected on the Moon. I've always been an enormous fan of silent comedy (why I like Gromit so much as a character). And Park and Aardman create an intriguing character with this oven.
Wisely, they don't give it a voice of its own (perhaps the budget wouldn't stretch that far?). Instead, they just build a character out of incidental details and its all enacted in total silence: the cooker's daydreaming of skiing; writing out a parking ticket to Wallace's rocket; gluing the surface of the Moon back together; trying to hit Wallace with a truncheon only for the money to run out mid-swing, etc.
Nick Park directs it all with such a light touch that the film breezes by. However, as much as I enjoyed the film it does have its flaws. A Grand Day Out is probably the weakest of the Wallace & Gromit shorts. The animation is a little rough around the edges, and lacks the pristine sleekness of the subsequent entries. It also falls down in the plot department.
All of the other Wallace & Gromit films are driven by far stronger stories. This one is quite thin. For instance, we never learn how the cooker wound up on the Moon in the first place. (you'd swear it's one of Wallace's failed inventions). The plot, such as it is, is made to take a backseat to the (admittedly funny) visual puns and Wallace & Gromit's effortless double-act.
Perhaps A Grand Day Out hasn't aged as well as the other films, but a lot of the things we've come to love about Wallace & Gromit are already in place. One area where it does have the edge is its the most conceptually ambitious. All the other films in the series have remained earthbound and A Grand Day Out is the only one so far to aim for something more profound. It touches upon themes rarely seen in animation today. If it had the budget accorded The Curse of the Were-Rabbit then perhaps A Grand Day Out may have become something extraordinary rather than just an engaging entertainment.
To look at it in the harsh light of day, A Grand Day Out is the prototype. It was The Wrong Trousers that really set the style for the series, and struck up the balance between top quality writing, sidesplitting comedy and fabulous animation in all of the right places. Still, a highly promising debut nonetheless that rightfully converted an entire nation.
13 Going on 30 (2004)
Rip Van Twinkle
Just when it seemed the fad for bodyswap comedies had been consigned to the 80s, the 00s saw a surprising revival of the genre, with the amiable remake of Freaky Friday carrying the banner, and 13 Going On 30 one of the first to emerge in its wake. A teenage girl wishes for womanhood, and is magically transformed into an adult. Her future self is a high-flying magazine editor, but she's still a kid at heart.
I thought 13 Going On 30 had a lot of promise, no matter how much a rehash of Big it sounded. It brought into the spotlight the welcoming presence of Jennifer Garner, the lovely and talented star of TV's smart spy series Alias. It co-starred Mark Ruffalo, one of the most underrated American actors. And it was directed by Gary Winick, who had just made a splash at Sundance with the edgy teen comedy Tadpole. But 13 Going On 30 emerges as a thorough disappointment.
The film has obviously taken Big as its main inspiration, but Jennifer Garner never captures the same authentic sense of a child lost in an adult world. Tom Hanks gave a career making performance where both he and director Penny Marshall had they're fingers on the pulse of lost childhood innocence. Winick and Garner by comparison barely get to grips with it.
Hanks' gangly body language and boyish expressions were a perfect fit for Big. Garner's girlie affectations never seem like an actual performance. Ironically, she seems to be doing too much acting for the role, and misses the natural ease that came through so effortlessly in Hanks' delivery.
Aside from that, Big was a film that delighted in its own sense of fun. Everybody remembers Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia playing Chopsticks on a gigantic keyboard in an upscale toyshop. The scene became an instant classic. The nearest 13 Going On 30 ever gets to that is Jennifer Garner leading a group performance of Thriller, which just doesn't amount to anything and is quickly forgotten once the film is over.
I expected something more interesting from the director of Tadpole, where Gary Winick was quite attuned to the mixed, conflicted emotions of teenage years. Since the theme was a teenage boy growing up too fast, Winick seemed an ideal choice to make 13 Going On 30. But it seems by abandoning Tadpole's indie sensibilities, Winick's direction just disappears into a blandness. He fails to make anything of the situation, and never explores it the way Penny Marshall did with Big.
Sadly, the promise Gary Winick showed on Tadpole quickly evaporated with each and every film that he made thereafter. His career became a series of production line mediocrities until his sudden death of brain cancer last year. Tadpole was the only film he should ever be remembered for.
One of the things also gratifying about Big was the way it explored all the different permutations to Tom Hanks' situation. The way he fumbled through the adult world, seeing it through childlike eyes. Trying to hold down a job. Forming relationships and struggling to fathom the meaning of commitment. The sense of losing touch with your own childhood innocence to survive in a grownup world.
But 13 Going On 30 makes things incredibly easy on itself, where Jenna Rink not only wakes up as an adult, but has a home of her own, a lucrative job, and a relationship all magically handed to her. Big never bothered with a time travelling aspect and worked perfectly well (arguably better) without it.
I found it difficult to care for Jenna's dilemma. As she grew older, she cut her family and her only friend out of her life. And she discovers she's really a backstabbing b***h who thinks nothing of peddling other people's ideas to rival publications. When she tries to rebuild relationships with her parents and Mark Ruffalo, and tries to turn the fortunes of Poise around for the better, all of this is rendered irrelevant anyway as soon as she wishes herself back into a kid so you wonder why they bothered with this at all.
The film could have salvaged itself with an interesting coupling fronting the film, like Tom Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins. I know I keep returning to Big, but it gets everything right that 13 Going On 30 manages to fumble so badly. Certainly the film has two engaging performers, Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo, but Garner's natural intelligence only works in combination with an excellent script. This film just doesn't have one.
And then there's Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo is one of the most versatile actors currently working in Hollywood. Just look at his excellent work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and In The Cut. But 13 Going On 30 makes the woeful mistake of trying to turn him into a romantic lead, and Ruffalo looks decidedly uncomfortable with the arrangement. He's an actor who loves to be challenged, or likes to sign onto films that travel to very dark areas. The fact he agreed to be in such an eminently predictable film is surprising, and something I wouldn't pay to see again.
13 Going On 30 is a film that was so promisingly put together its dispiriting to see it flop as badly as it does. Fans of Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo are advised to steer clear of the film. I wish I could take that advice.
Toy Story opened up a whole new market for animation. It was a quantum leap forward and showed us the infinite possibilities of computer animation. After it put Pixar on the map, other studios were quick to jump on the bandwagon, with DreamWorks emerging as the first to go where only Pixar had gone before.
Pixar and DreamWorks are arguably the premier studios in this field. All the others vie for the same type of acceptance but have never wrested the crown from them. But when it comes to computer animation, Pixar have the edge over DreamWorks by a very wide margin. They manage an effortless blend of involving stories, characters we care deeply for, beautiful animation, and a rich vein of humour for adults as well.
On the other hand, I'm not quite as excited when DreamWorks animated features hits cinemas. A lot of them wind up infected with a modern cynicism, as well as an annoying habit of filling them out with film references and product placement. But they're animated debut Antz is definitely one of they're best, and one I have no problem watching time and time again.
Its interesting that Antz was released the very same year as Pixar's A Bug's Life. There are uncanny similarities. They're both about a misfit worker ant at odds with the society they live in. A relationship between the hero of the film and an ant princess. And even a similar climax where the colony must learn to combine as a whole to save it from destruction.
Of the two films, Antz is better. It does much more with the conceit of an idealist out of step with the rest of his colony. Also, where the hero of A Bug's Life was rather too anonymous, Antz has a fabulous protagonist, Z.
Z has always felt like an outsider. He was the middle-child in a family of five million. He derives no satisfaction from his job. And he has a problem with following the unblinking, unquestioning work ethic of the ant colony. This is all revealed to us in the opening scene where Z is in therapy, running off a list of inadequacies to a counsellor.
The voice of Z comes from none other than Woody Allen. How DreamWorks ever managed to land him I'll never know, but it was a stroke of genius. This opening monologue is classic Allen and could easily set the stage for Manhattan or Annie Hall.
Z comes in the unmistakable "world is against me" neurotic vibe Allen's perfected over the past four decades. I've never liked Woody Allen the actor as much as I like Woody Allen the director, but he's perfectly at home here. He's not really stretching himself, nor is it any different from what he usually does in any of his own films, but he's the perfect choice for Z.
In fact Antz has a very interesting lineup - Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft, even Sylvester Stallone. Its even more interesting to discover how good they all are at voicework. You wonder why they've never attempted it before now.
Antz is a film that could never be made in the traditional hand drawn animation style. Not without compromising it. Toy Story could be done like that, because there was nothing in it that couldn't be accomplished the old fashioned way. But the computer animated medium allows Antz greater freedom. We see sweeping vistas of hundreds upon hundreds of ants, all performing individual tasks as far as the eye can see. You can imagine a hand drawn animator going blind trying to achieve the same thing.
One thing I especially liked about the film is the way it credibly depicts an ant colony. The animators have made an effort not to make them seem too warm and cuddly. They come in all the right colours, and the world they live in is a gritty and dirty one. Whereas A Bug's Life went the other way and bent over backwards to make them much more accessible to the kids in the audience.
Antz is not afraid to do things that might be considered shocking to an audience. The most striking setpiece in the film is when the ants go to war against they're mortal enemies, the termites. And its a nightmarish sequence. It comes out like a collision between the Battle of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan and the souped-up bug hunt of Starship Troopers. This type of carnage is something that never assailed the safer horizons of A Bug's Life.
Not only that, and unlike most kiddie films today, Antz will kill its characters, even the likable ones, with no chance of a return from the dead cliché. When the ants are nearly wiped out en masse at the climax, there is never any question in your mind that they're lives are in danger. You really wind up feeling for they're plight. There's also a level of casual swearing that quite surprised one. The film's PG certificate is well deserved.
One of the unpalatable things about animated fare nowadays, and DreamWorks is a particularly guilty offender is the way they play to a modern audience. Because Antz is they're first animated film, its not as overtook by product plugging and film referencing like DreamWorks' subsequent films. All you have to do is hold it up to Shark Tale and Shrek 2 to see what I mean. The scenes at Insectopia have a few intrusive brand names but never enough that they have the run of the film.
It all gets itself together for a thrilling climax, even if General Mandible doesn't get the end a villain of his stature deserves. But Antz is a real charmer with a smashing soundtrack. Antz fired the starters pistol between DreamWorks and Pixar, and while Pixar are normally a sure bet, this is the one time where DreamWorks outstripped Pixar in every possible way.
Mum's the Word
Tadpole made a splash at Sundance, announcing the arrival of Gary Winick. But after Tadpole provided him with a ticket to the mainstream, Winick showed a predilection for blander, more middling material. The increasingly dire likes of 13 Going On 30, Charlotte's Web, Bride Wars and Letters to Juliet. This dreary, undistinguished career would have probably continued until it was suddenly cut short when Winick succumbed to brain cancer.
Tadpole was quite risqué for the normally conservative Winick, and the one shining light in an otherwise throwaway career. You have to wonder what it was about Tadpole he got right that he managed to get wrong on everything else. And when a theme is a teen being romanced by a woman twice his age, something bound to raise the eyebrows of more than a few in an audience, Winick's accomplishment seems all the more remarkable.
Winick seemed to fancy himself a Martin Scorsese or a Steven Spielberg. Someone with the capacity to take on any genre regardless of what it was: family films; rom-coms; fantasy, etc. Tadpole seemed to be Winick's attempt at a Woody Allen movie. It lacks the same introspection, but compared to everything still ahead for Winick, its a gem.
Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) is visiting his parents in New York for Thanksgiving. He's got all the girls swooning over him, but he's only got eyes for Eve. She's smart, classy, sophisticated. Everything he wants in a woman. She's perfect, except for one pesky detail. She's his stepmother! Oscar hasn't even finished prep school yet, and just sees the age barrier as a hurdle to surmount.
While his father Stanley (John Ritter) tries to set Oscar up with every teen girl on the Upper East Side, things spiral out of hand when Oscar falls into bed with Eve's best friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth, delightful). She's quick to brag about it, while Oscar tries to sort out mixed emotions before Thanksgiving dinner.
There's a scene in Tadpole when Oscar is described as having the soul of a man in a teen's body. Gary Winick later conducted a gender reversal on that idea, to much blander effect in 13 Going On 30. Tadpole was one film where Winick pulled everything together. Since he never pulled off that trick a second time, I suspect it was more to do with the excellence of the cast, and having such a witty script at his disposal.
Admittedly, Tadpole makes things easier on itself by having a male teen (instead of a teen girl) caught in a love triangle with two older adults. Aaron Stanford is also too old to credibly play a teenager. But the script is deft the way it deals with Oscar's romantic entanglements. Part of the reason for this is because scriptwriters Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller place Oscar at the centre of a marvellous triptych of conflicting adults.
Eve, Stanley and Diane are all well defined. Sigourney Weaver gives Eve a great injection of class. Its obvious why Oscar loves her so, even if she is his stepmother! John Ritter plays Stanley with perfect indifference to the insane situation going on around him. But the performance that lights up the film comes from the vastly underrated Bebe Neuwirth.
Its great the way Neuwirth walks a fine line between spicing up her love life and committing such a reprehensible act. Diane doesn't mind sleeping with a teen who showed interest in a woman her age. Granted he was drunk at the time but Diane can learn to live with that! What amazed me more than anything about Tadpole is that for such a potentially squeamish topic, and something Winick never managed with the far safer Bride Wars or 13 Going On 30, is that the film is funny in spite of that.
I did find it difficult to believe that Diane would want to boast to the girls in her age range about Oscar, but Neuwirth's delight at watching the situation snowball into a sublime comedy of errors is joyous. It all blossoms into one wonderful scene in a NY restaurant, where Oscar, Eve, Stanley and Diane are all at dinner together. Weaver's sobering intelligence, Ritter's condescension and Neuwirth's glee at Stanford's discomfort play off of one another superbly.
The one thing that lets the film down is a bland visual scheme. Tadpole was made extremely low budget, and it shows. The film looks like its being captured through the lens of a camcorder, but not like cinema verite. I think that was all they could afford on the budget they had at hand, but because the actors are working from such a terrific script, that's enough to carry Tadpole over the rough spots.
Another plus is Winick is content to let the actors lead the show without too much interference from him. He just lets them tell the story without resorting to obvious signposting. Something that seemed to escape him on Charlotte's Web and Bride Wars. The nearest it ever gets to that is the constant quotations from Voltaire. I'm not sure the film needed these because they tend to get in the way of the narrative, and what with only a running time of 78 minutes, they feel more intrusive than informative.
Still, Tadpole is a film of surprising charm. It never does resolve the dilemma it sets up for itself, and Oscar is more naive than he likes to believe. I also would have preferred an extended running time, and it works better as comedy than it ever does as drama, but Tadpole is winning, sharp and very insightful. All things you can never say about any other Gary Winick movie.
Charlotte's Web (2006)
This Little Piggy...
Babe reinvented the talking animal movie by using (what seemed at the time) cutting edge effects to give the appearance that animals could talk just as much as any human could. It was a delightful fable of many charms. Such success never goes unnoticed by Hollywood, and Babe opened a floodgate of similar talking animal movies.
While technically on a par, most of these have failed to repeat the things that Babe did so well. What these imitators never understood about Babe was that it wasn't merely a special effects show. It was also a timeless story about clear, delineated characters we cared for, it had an involving plot and a genuine magic.
These other films by comparison let loose a litany of pop-culture gags, animal flatulence, and an all too familiar monotony. In the field, Babe was and still is the first and last word on the subject.
And so that brings us to Charlotte's Web, based on the classic children's book by EB White, and a perfect stable-mate to The Sheep-Pig. Thankfully, the film doesn't fall into the same company as Racing Stripes, a perfect example of how not to make a talking animal movie. But neither is it in the same league as Babe, by a very wide margin.
The story is so familiar that I really don't see the need to go into detail about it. Everything has been faithfully rendered. Wilbur the Pig, Charlotte the Spider, Templeton the Rat and Fern the Girl (Dakota Fanning).
And certainly the film starts well: Wilbur as a runt can't get any milk from his mother because all the other piglets are bigger than him; Fern saving Wilbur from the axe; bottle-feeding him; taking him to school; pushing him in a pram, etc. This all evinces a genuine affection for the character. For a time, it seems like Charlotte's Web is on the same wavelength as Babe.
But ironically, what kills the film stone-dead is the very thing that made Babe so magical. Once the animals start talking the novelty it once had has worn off. The effect has become blasé by now. There was something so natural to the first ten minutes, where Fern and Wilbur's budding friendship was warm and genuine, and not at all false and artificial.
But as soon as the voiceovers come into the film (Sam Shepard's narration is an especial irritation), it felt to me like Charlotte's Web was constantly nudging me to feel emotions at any given time. Practically underscoring every dramatic point with a bludgeoning heavy hand.
I can't say that's a surprise when the director is Gary Winick. Winick got off to a promising start with Tadpole, an insightful coming of ager. But he soon gravitated to throwaway fluff like 13 Going On 30, Charlotte's Web and the later likes of Bride Wars and Letters to Juliet, before a sudden death of brain cancer. Tadpole was the one shining light in an otherwise undistinguished career, where the success of that film must have been more to the script and the performers than anything on Winick's part.
All of Winick's typical shortcomings are present and correct on Charlotte's Web, where he feels the need to spell everything out to an audience in broad brushstrokes. The crucial failing of the film is that Winick lacks faith in the story's ability to tell itself. To see how it should be done, look no further than the 1973 version from Hanna-Barbara, where they got the essence of EB White's writing down perfectly. They managed to impart the same messages without having to lecture on anything.
Winick assumed he was a director of many faces. Coming of agers. Children's films. Rom-coms. But he was just a one-trick pony who put talented actresses like Jennifer Garner, Dakota Fanning, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried at the mercies of disposable material they were clearly uncomfortable with.
The biggest crime of the film is Winick lets an immensely gifted child actress like Dakota Fanning go to waste. As the plot progresses, he does very little with her, and allows her to fall by the wayside. She becomes less important to the film, and her relationship with a farmboy never connects.
The special effects are as good as you'd expect. Wilbur, Charlotte and Templeton all look and move with conviction. I barely saw the joins, but its a more gimmicky film than Babe. Babe used effects as a means and not the end. Charlotte's Web is constantly in your face with dazzling CGI shots of Wilbur backflipping or Templeton scrounging through the maze of his rathole. It really becomes quite tiring.
The fact that its a Walden Media production also says something about the film. Aside from Bridge to Terabithia and City of Ember, Walden's track-record has been banal at best. Charlotte's Web fits in nicely with they're production-line family fare with a vaguely Christian agenda. What else are you supposed to think when a film has the tagline "Help Is Coming From Above This Christmas."
With so many talented performers, Charlotte's Web is a real disappointment. There are no jive-talking animals and endless film references, so its more tolerable than most talking animal movies, but unlike Babe, this little piggy should have stayed home.
Letters to Juliet (2010)
If E-Mail existed 50 years ago, we would have been spared
The only notable thing in Letters to Juliet is its the last time Gary Winick's name will headline a movie. He passed away this year of terminal brain cancer. Not to disrespect the dead, but the passing of director Gary Winick is hardly the same as if Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese had pegged it. That would be something to mourn about.
From the onset of the Millennium, Winick went from edgy, indie films like Tadpole to mainstream slush like Letters to Juliet. Starting with the tepid bodyswap comedy 13 Going On 30, Winick let himself be swallowed up by the romantic comedy genre, until he was turning out drivel like Bride Wars and this.
Letters to Juliet isn't as bad as Bride Wars. That film would have been a sad, dreary epitaph to end his career on. But neither is this anything special. There is a bit more of a plot driving it than his penultimate movie, but its a film unworthy of the talent on display.
Amanda Seyfried is a lovely young woman with a promising future. I first noticed her in Mean Girls in a supporting role, where she did enough of a good job of endearing me. She was then propelled to the A-list with the massive hit of Mamma Mia! The film unmoved me and I'm not much of an ABBA fan, but I could see Seyfried coming into her own, and tapping into her true potential as a lead actress.
With the odd exception of Jennifer's Body, Seyfried is in danger of becoming typecast in fluffy, romantic comedies like Dear John and Letters to Juliet. I think Seyfried has much more to offer as an actress. I would love for someone to cast her in a vehicle that encompasses everything she has in her arsenal. Letters to Juliet is not that movie.
The Italian setting reminded me more than anything else of the Woody Allen film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a warmer, humane and much funnier romantic comedy. As he sadly demonstrated in Bride Wars, Gary Winick lacks the ability to draw anything of substance out of the material, and instead substitutes simplistic storytelling all but written in red ink.
Sophie (Seyfried) is on a pre-honeymoon holiday with her fiancée Victor. While staying in Verona, Victor is more interested in perfecting recipes for his restaurant than spending time with his budding bride to be. So the lonely Sophie wanders the streets of Verona and encounters the "secretaries of Juliet."
They pin letters to a wall in a courtyard that once belonged to Juliet from Shakespeare's play. Letters from women who have had they're hearts broken. Sophie becomes enchanted by a letter written 50 years ago from a woman called Claire. Claire lost touch with her beloved Lorenzo, and Sophie answers it.
Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) arrives with her refined grandson Charlie, and the three of them set off on a journey throughout Verona to reunite Claire with Lorenzo. All the while Sophie and Charlie are falling for one another, forcing Sophie to reexamine her upcoming nuptials to Victor.
Even before seeing the movie I had a problem with Letters to Juliet. The fact that women send letters voicing their private thoughts to a fictitious woman from a Shakespearean play sounds like a cry for help. There are surely far better ways to deal with nursing a personal heartbreak. And wouldn't it be easier to track down Lorenzo through a simple skim of the phone book?
The film almost justifies itself with engaging performances. Seyfried is a natural lead actress and steps into the role with her usual charm. But I can see her struggling with the fluffy, undemanding material Winick keeps forcing upon her. You can tell she wants to prove herself, but she's got nothing to go on.
The one member of the cast who gives more than the film really deserves is Vanessa Redgrave. She rises above the frivolous plot with a grace and dignity that goes far beyond the call of duty. Her hunt for Lorenzo could seem mawkish in a lesser actresses hands, but she makes it seem sincere. The fact that she and Franco Nero (playing Lorenzo) are married in real life helps enormously.
But even Winick doesn't see that, and instead focuses on the less interesting relationship between Sophie and Charlie. Everything about it moves in predictable circles. They start out hating each other, and then eventually melt one another's resolve. She comes to see no future with Victor, and falls into Charlie's arms (on a balcony, of course) just as much as you'd expect.
What kills the relationship's credibility more than anything is Christopher Egan. He's playing a role that surely would have been given to Ryan Phillippe a few years ago. Phillippe would have sizzled in the role but Egan disappoints. He's as flat as the Italian scenery, and even Seyfried upstages him.
Letters to Juliet is a rom-com that falls somewhere between the sunny delights of Vicky Cristina Barcelona or the soul-searching of Lost in Translation. Naturally it recaptures nothing of either. Pity this idea wasn't lost in the mail.
Bride Wars (2009)
War Brides would have been better
Bride Wars is a right waste of celluloid. Its a no-account, laugh-absent rom-com with absolutely nothing going for it. Even twentysomething cosmopolitans waiting for the fairytale wedding to fall into they're laps will no doubt be turned off by this one.
Liv and Emma (Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway) have been friends since birth practically. In one of the film's more amusing moments, the two as kids practice walking down the aisle, with Liv as the bride and Emma as the groom (Make of that what you will!). By the time they're 28, they're impatiently waiting for they're boyfriends to pop the question (my low-attention span for the movie means they're names escape me).
When they finally do, Liv and Emma start planning they're dream weddings. Its always been the plan to hold it at the Plaza Hotel, but the waiting list is huge, and thanks to a clerical error, they wind up booked on the same day. Neither bride wants to postpone, so they go all out to sabotage the big day for each other.
Bride Wars crowns a compost heap of wedding movies we've seen in the past few years. Along with 27 Dresses and Wedding Crashers, this one isn't much cop as well. It didn't have to be that way. The potential for a scathing black comedy is bubbling beneath the surface. But sadly, the film has been lumbered with a director with no affinity for the material.
The late Gary Winick once seemed a promising talent, with the sharp and incisive coming-of-age tale Tadpole. But towards the end of his life, he then fell into light, frothy fare that was much less interesting. In fact Bride Wars reminded me of Winick's first venture into Chick Flick territory, 13 Going On 30, where Jennifer Garner played a teen trapped inside of a woman's body. Compared to the far superior Big, which still remains the definitive word on the subject, 13 Going On 30 was a pallid rehash with none of the same laughs or insights.
And Winick fails again with Bride Wars. He fails to bring out the good things in the material, and produces only the bad. The film seems to want to be a cutting satire on the wedding industry - something ripe for lampooning. But Bride Wars never escapes the padded kid gloves Winick directs it with.
Winick directs it down at the level of a cuddly, bubbly rom-com, with all the black comedy bled out of the material. Where he could have used Liv and Emma's dilemma as a way of exposing the vapid world of wedding planners, instead he turns the girls into goofy, dislikable airheads. For instance, we get scenes like Liv tampering with Emma's tan, turning her bright orange, almost like a female Oompa-Loompa. And in response, Emma secretly feeds Liv so many chocolates, she's too fat to fit into her wedding dress.
Perhaps I would have laughed a bit more if Winick had taken the time to develop Liv and Emma. But they're little more than polar opposites. Liv is a decisive, go-for-broke lawyer. Emma is a prissy, reticent schoolteacher. I found it difficult to care for these two, and I cared even less about the outcome.
Anne Hathaway is certainly a talented screen presence. She has natural beauty and acting ability, but she's not always a good judge when it comes to picking decent scripts. Perhaps when she signed on to Bride Wars she was expecting a clever, witty film hidden beneath a glossy polish, like The Devil Wears Prada. Sadly, Bride Wars is all gloss and polish, supported by an unfunny script that's neither clever, nor informative.
Another problem is that Bride Wars isn't nasty enough. The things Liv and Emma do to each other are just silly, and the one-joke nature of the screenplay isn't enough to support the film for the whole running-time. Another film I'm reminded of is The War of the Roses, the merciless black comedy about two people trying to destroy one another. What made it more shocking was these people were married to each other. But it still saw it through to the very end. It was a film that shone a very uncomfortable light on the darker corners of divorce.
But Bride Wars doesn't have a Danny DeVito pulling the strings. Gary Winick has no flair at all for black comedy, and unlike DeVito, he sees the need to redeem the girls at the end. Is there any doubt at all that Liv and Emma will come to realise that friendship is more important than petty rivalries?
As is often the case of Hollywood rom-coms, the laughs come more from supporting players. Its nice to see Candice Bergen back, who's been away from screens far too long. Her dry sarcasm is well suited to the wedding planner narrating the tale (like DeVito's lawyer in The War of the Roses). And Kristen Johnston amuses as Emma's lazy, self-involved maid of honour. Hathaway and Hudson haven't got a prayer whenever they're in the picture.
Bride Wars is a soggy, sour footnote in Hollywood's beloved romantic-comedy genre. Its never as funny as it thinks it is, and the story's not involving in the slightest. Its a shame that Gary Winick didn't live to see Bridesmaids. Then he could have seen how the story should have been done.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Night of the Evil Dead
Its always interesting watching future greats in their feature debuts. When talents at the start of their careers are forced to work with minimal resources some of them turn out superb work as a result. Like Steven Spielberg with Duel. John Carpenter's Dark Star. James Cameron and The Terminator. And Sam Raimi with The Evil Dead.
The Evil Dead was a film Raimi set out to make on a virtual shoestring. The cast are unknowns. Its confined to a single setting. And its scraped together by a next to nothing budget. But films like these, free of the ministrations of heartless Hollywood often turn out better than they're bigger budgeted cousins.
The Evil Dead has nothing that one could really call a plot. But it works because of what Sam Raimi brings to the film. What it lacks in plotting it makes up for in entertainment. Its not a terribly original film, and Night of the Living Dead was almost certainly an influence on it, but The Evil Dead holds its own as a ferocious, bloodthirsty horror movie.
Five teens holed up in a cabin are besieged by spirits from beyond the grave. After reading from a Book of the Dead that was in the cabin, the five of them wind up possessed, one by one becoming demonic zombies. The only one not affected is Ash (Bruce Campbell's feature debut), and as his friends and loved ones turn before his very eyes, it becomes a non-stop fight to survive the night.
The Evil Dead is a textbook example of how monolithic budgets are not the beginning and the end of Hollywood cinema. All this film needed was a passionate director, a dedicated cast and a loyal production crew. Add to that plenty of blood, guts and pus galore. From what I've read, The Evil Dead was a difficult shoot on everyone. The hours were long and the weather was terrible, but Sam Raimi roused the crew into shape.
Its the sheer confidence he brings that transforms the story. Raimi directs with a fierce energy that enervates the entire movie. The camera seldom stays in one position. It prowls around the cabin, darting into closeup. The restless setups Raimi keeps springing on us make for an intense, almost unbearable experience.
Raimi is content to let the camera do much of the work in the first half. Its in the second half that The Evil Dead opens up and takes on the intensity of a nightmare roller-coaster ride. Some of the scares Raimi dreamt up are totally out there. The one memory people take away from the film more than any other, and what had the film classified as a Video Nasty here in the UK, is the scene where Ellen Sandweiss wanders into the woods and is raped by a tree. Its a wrenching, squeamish thing to watch that not even the climax manages to top. Even Raimi regretted putting it in the film.
But Raimi doesn't stop there. In the latter half, he goes all out to shock at every opportunity. Considering the film was made on a $350,000 budget, the results are astonishing. The cast vanish into makeup jobs, eerie voices, and blood spurts, spits and showers us in a non-stop orgy of mayhem.
The Evil Dead deservedly brought Sam Raimi to attention. But the only member of the cast who went on to any kind of success, and became a mainstay of Sam Raimi's is Bruce Campbell. A childhood friend of his, Campbell mapped out a career as a B-Movie actor. He came to specialise in playing parodies of the lantern-jawed, All-American hero. And later starred in one of this author's favourite TV shows, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
But here, Campbell is a little flat. Campbell hadn't mastered the ability to remain deadpan in the face of absurdity. He would come to hone that on the Evil Dead sequels, and by the time of Brisco County Jr, he had it down to a fine art. Nevertheless, Campbell was a real trooper.
One thing you can count on when a director is a good friend of the lead actor is that they inspire them to do things no inflated paycheck could ever do. Campbell went far, above and beyond the call of duty for The Evil Dead. Constant splatterings. Drenched in blood. A merciless work schedule. But it all paid off in the finished product.
The one other person on the crew who was propelled to success (arguably more than Raimi) was Joel Coen. Before becoming a directing team with his brother Ethan, and carving out an original, consistently brilliant career, Joel Coen served as editor on The Evil Dead.
Although principally a Raimi film, there are times when you can see some of the trademarks of a Coen film. There's none of the idiosyncratic pleasures of Barton Fink and Fargo, but the way the camera observes at a neutral distance the mayhem unfolding before it is classic Coen.
Raimi plays The Evil Dead to a shrieking excess and that's really as it should be. The wild overacting from the amateur cast will no doubt provoke fits of the giggles from some and the gore will invoke revulsion from others. But Raimi maintains a perfect lunatic energy that never flags for an instant. The stuff cult classics are made of.
Child's Play 2 (1990)
Fun if you're in the mood for it
Amongst the slasher cycle of the 1980s, Child's Play was the last stab at unleashing a new horror monster on the populace, with Chucky the killer doll battling stalwarts like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. Even if the idea of a child's toy possessed by the soul of a serial killer sounded silly, Child's Play was more successful then it had any right to be, thanks to Tom Holland's confident direction and a smart screenplay.
Although disowned by the studio, Child's Play was a hit. So Universal quickly bought the rights, eager to launch the character off on a new horror franchise. For Child's Play 2, direction has been handed over to John Lafia, one of the screenwriters on the original film. And unlike the Elm Street sequels, Chucky's encore is a good one.
There's nothing stupendous about CP2, nor does it want to be. But John Lafia's direction elevates a thin script. The film abandons Tom Holland's sober approach. Its still very much a horror film, but a touch of black comedy has crept in as well. It isn't pushed to the extremes that Bride and Seed of Chucky would take it to, but you can see some of it in the film's gleeful tone and colourful set design.
One of the things that became annoying about the Elm Street series was how they kept finding ways to resurrect Freddy Krueger. It didn't matter how many times they killed him off. They would just bring him back for the next instalment whether it made sense or not. And although you could make that same criticism of Chucky, CP2 does to its credit find a way to bring him back to life that isn't totally implausible.
The toy company that builds the Good Guy dolls gets a hold of Chucky, or what's left of him. After he was shot to pieces and burned to a crisp at the end of the last film, the company want to know why one of them went on a rampage. They rebuild the doll from the guts up, but the spirit of Charles Lee Ray is still within it, and as soon as the doll is up and running, so is Chucky!
Chucky has no intention of living the life of a plastic plaything, and there's only one person who can spare him that, Andy Barclay. Chucky's former owner is stuck in foster care, while his Mum has been carted off to the funny farm for backing up her son's "insane" claims about the doll. Chucky still needs to possess Andy's body, before he becomes trapped in the doll forever.
Although Child's Play 2 is often seen as a soulless rehash, I'll admit I enjoyed it. Its certainly well made, and much higher budgeted than the first film. And John Lafia has a slick, firm hand on the material. Where the first film toyed with our expectations about Chucky, Lafia shows no such restraint. In part 1, we had to wait about 40 minutes before Chucky got to do anything. Wisely, Lafia just jumps right in and delivers Chucky at his murdering, swearing best.
Kevin Yagher's puppet effects have come a long way in the two years since. Chucky is allowed more room to move, a range of malicious, animated facial expressions that don't look at all fake, and what with Brad Dourif reprising the role, leaping in with fast energy and zero inhibitions, Chucky is just as much a character as any of his flesh and blood co-stars.
The other person who's polished his act since the first film is Alex Vincent. He was a little blank in Child's Play (even more so than Chucky!) but he's developed into a capable, sympathetic lead, and he gets strong support from Christine Elise as his foster sister. Gerrit Graham is stuck in a one-dimensional role and Jenny Agutter struggles with an American accent, but they both give decent performances as Andy's foster parents.
Although horror sequels come in for a lot of stick, I must say Child's Play 2 is quite suspenseful at times. Like when Andy hunts for Chucky in a dark cellar, or Christine Elise's fight with Chucky in a master bedroom. And the film mounts to an effective climax at the Good Guys toy factory. Where the factory set becomes a bewildering backdrop of packing crates, conveyor belts and oxygen pumps as Andy fights Chucky to the death.
There's never any doubt that Chucky will survive of course, but Child's Play 2 is a sequel that's fun, tight, with never a dull moment. Things you will never say about an Elm Street sequel.
The Langoliers (1995)
An intriguing King mystery hampered down in TV land
Stephen King is the world's most prolific horror novelist. His success lies in his writing, and in the sheer volume of films and TV movies adapting his work. The Langoliers is one of several King mini-series we've seen in recent years. Adapted from a short story in King's novella Four Past Midnight, it represents one of King's occasional detours from horror and into science-fiction.
The premise is something that could easily fill an episode of The Twilight Zone (in fact the plot reminded me more of The Lost Hour, an episode from TV's Eerie Indiana). Ten airline passengers fall asleep on a red-eye flight to Boston. During the flight, the plane flew through a time-rip and when it came out the other side, it catapulted the plane back in time by a day. The sleeping passengers were the only ones to emerge unharmed. All the ones that were awake just vanished into the ether.
When they land the plane, the people on the ground have disappeared as well. Its a dead, lifeless world with no electricity and vigour, and what's worse is the Langoliers, monsters from one of the passenger's childhood stories are coming to gobble them up.
I always felt The Langoliers was one that straddled an uneasy line between science-fiction and horror. When most authors try to tackle different genres at the same time they often wind up shortchanging one at the expense of the other, or even worse is that they cancel each other out.
One suspects the way King wrote the story, it was originally a time-travel piece, but when it got to the airport scenes, he decided to include the Langoliers to give it a bit more dramatic intensity. Without it, he would have been left with a not too terribly gripping storyline. Fill the airplane with fuel. Backtrack to the time-rip. Fly through it. They get home.
The Langoliers was directed by genre regular Tom Holland. Holland emerged in the 80s with two above average horror movies, Fright Night and Child's Play. But then into the 90s, he seemed to disappear into TV land, and vanished after that, much like one of the passengers on Flight 29.
Fright Night and Child's Play showed Holland with a fine grasp of horror mechanics. But whether its because they were feature films or its just the slimness of King's material, his work on The Langoliers disappoints. Certainly it begins well. Once the passengers vanish from the plane, it makes for a highly absorbing mystery. But eventually, the story begins to drag. And its not exactly helped by the TV production values Holland is forced to work with.
The Langoliers are given such an inscrutable buildup (in a nice touch we hear they're approach even when they're still miles away) that when they finally arrive, we're almost breathless with anticipation. But as soon as you see them, you're howling with laughter. They look like giant meatballs with teeth, and the TV special effects play out the scene embarrassingly.
Where The Langoliers is more successful is in some of the characterisations. Dean Stockwell, David Morse and Mark Lindsay Chapman all give capable performances. Especially Chapman, an actor better known for playing smarmy snake in the grasses, but gives surprising sympathy to the part of a special operator with a chequered past. His wry, guarded performance makes his character Nick Hopewell into the most well developed member of the cast.
Kate Maberly has some creepy moments as the blind girl who sees more than the people around her. But even creepier is Bronson Pinchot, giving a highly live-wire performance as Craig Toomey, the psycho in they're midst who knows all about Langoliers from the horror stories his father delighted in telling him as a child. With the rest of the story stifled by TV movie surroundings, he brings a welcome surge of energy whenever he's in it. The other survivors could have been written out altogether to no noticeable effect.
It does get itself together for an effective, slightly tragic finale, but The Langoliers lacks the childhood terrors of IT, or the assured storytelling of The Shining. King has given Tom Holland a slim story to work with, so amongst the TV versions of his work, The Langoliers ranks as one of the more anonymous.
The one(s) that got away
Whenever films hit big with the public, Hollywood is quick to smell success in the air. In the case of Roger Corman, the man was a virtual bloodhound. When Jaws became the monster hit of 1975, its success was something the likes of which even Hollywood had never seen before. It was the film that began the Summer blockbuster, and something Corman was quick to pick up on.
Roger Corman was infamous for producing movies that were veiled imitations of more successful films. Jaws inspired several imitators, and Piranha is probably one of the most blatant. It has a very similar plot. Instead of a shark, mutant piranha fish escape into the river and head for a bustling tourist resort. The owners refuse to shut down because its Summer season, and it isn't long before all hell breaks loose. Piranha is at least to be commended for not trying to hide its a ripoff. One of the opening sequences even has the heroine playing a Jaws arcade game!
Piranha was the sole directing debut of genre regular Joe Dante. Dante is a hardcore horror/SF fan, and every one of his films is jam-packed with affectionate references and cameos from the era. After enjoying some success with Piranha and then The Howling, Dante fell into the company of Steven Spielberg (luckily, he saw the funny side of Piranha), who produced for him the runaway success of Gremlins (Piranha is in many ways a warm-up to that film). Sadly, time has not been kind to Joe Dante. Since the big hit of Gremlins, none of his other films have attracted the same attention. With an increasingly sporadic career, Dante has almost disappeared completely as a key genre figure.
Dante was brought on as a hired gun for Piranha, but many of his trademarks are there. Occasional cutaways to horror movies in the background. Horror icons Kevin McCarthy and Barbara Steele make up part of the cast, and Dante regular Dick Miller makes his customary appearance. But first and foremost, Piranha is exploitation cinema. That demands a certain amount of killings, suspense and lots and lots of blood and gore. So it doesn't have the same personal imprint Dante has on his subsequent films.
For what was intended as a quick rip-off of a far more successful monster movie, Piranha emerges far better than one expects. Its no classic (a surprising number of people say it is) but as B-movies go, its better than most. Joe Dante knows his stuff and handles things like an old pro. And he's working from a decent script too, courtesy of John Sayles. Sayles writes two amusing heroes for the film, Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies).
Paul is a cynical misanthrope with a drinking problem and a daughter he hardly sees. Maggie is a sunny skip-tracer, looking for two teenagers lost on the mountain where Paul lives a hermetic existence. The two teens stumbled across an abandoned military base and went for a midnight swim in a pool. They had no way to know it was filled with mutant piranha. When Maggie forces a reluctant Paul to lead her there she drains the pool, unknowingly throwing out the piranhas with the bath water. Now its a race against time to stop the piranhas before they reach the resort and the summer camp where Paul's daughter is.
Although working from one of Roger Corman's typical cheapskate production budgets, Joe Dante economises it as much as he can and produces a taut, suspenseful chase/chomp adventure. They can't really show us the piranhas (except fleeting glimpses) because they just didn't have the money for that. But compared to a lot of the other ripoffs of Jaws, Dante uses the same thinking that Spielberg did - make the budget restrictions work for you. If you can't show the monster, imply one. Most of the time, all Dante has to do is show people paddling and that's enough to imply the piranhas as a presence.
Dante proves he's capable of generating fine suspense when he wants to. Like when Paul and Maggie are on a raft heading for dry land and the piranhas start chewing away at the lashings. Or the end sequence when Paul tries to kill the piranhas with pollution from a submerged smelting tank (with some excellent underwater photography) and they start attacking him from all sides.
Like any Dante film, even when making a horror movie, Piranha has a constant sense of humour. The film never takes itself too seriously, and John Sayles' script comes with lots of snarky one-liners. When Maggie asks Paul for a cigarette, he grumbles "I had to quit that. It interfered with my drinking." Or the blackly funny scene when Paul and Maggie are arrested and Maggie stages a jail break. She knocks out the guard with a piece of the toilet lid but the keys are chained to his pants. So she has to take them off! When she moves too slowly for Paul's liking he whines "I would have thought you could get a man's pants off quicker than that!"
All the cast give good performances. The grumpy Paul and the chirpy Maggie are a fun double act. The kiddie scenes come with a tolerable degree of sentiment. And Barbara Steele outshines everyone with her icy stare. Piranha manages to deliver the goods on all counts. It isn't quite the classic creature feature some people like to call it. That is putting it on too high a pedestal. But its a fun, breezy B-movie with a delightfully dark twist in the tale. And who couldn't love a film with lines like "The piranhas are eating the guests, Sir!"
28 Days Later... (2002)
It's all the Rage
Danny Boyle, after a productive stint in television, moved into feature films with the blackly funny Shallow Grave. A confident, terrifically assured crime caper, it established Boyle as an immensely promising new talent burning on the horizon. He followed this up with the grandslam of Trainspotting, a coarse, gritty insight into the surreal life of a drug addict. It was a trippy experience, and one that won it a well deserved cult audience.
The problem with making two impressive features in a row so early in your directing career is that you've set the bar so high for yourself. And when you make a film that doesn't scale the same heights, critics gather like jackals. And certainly since the twin hits of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, Danny Boyle has proved a very hit and miss director.
After enjoying such unbridled success, Boyle plummeted to the opposite side of the spectrum. First there was A Life Less Ordinary, which only wound up baffling audiences. And then the nadir of Boyle's career, The Beach, which was quite possibly the worst film of the year 2000. The Beach is a film that could easily have torpedoed Boyle's career. And to make sure that didn't happen, Danny Boyle would have to come up with something special for his next film.
28 Days Later... isn't quite the classic it seems to think it is. And its not terribly original either. But it was a definite step in the right direction for Danny Boyle. It brought back to him many of the plaudits he had lost on The Beach. And it was the big hit he had been looking for. The one that put him firmly back on the playing field.
Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma to find himself in a deserted hospital. He goes outside to an equally deserted London. It seems he's the only person left in the city. But he's not alone. While searching a local church, he barely escapes a ravenous, red-eyed mob. He gets rescued by Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark, and learns what's happened while he was out.
28 days ago, a group of animal rights activists tried to liberate chimps from a lab. What they didn't realise was the chimps were infected with a virus. When they contracted it, it induced in humans a state of permanent, murderous rage. It wasn't long before it swept the entire country. Only a few have managed to survive. When Mark succumbs and has to be killed, Jim and Selena team up with a father and daughter to reach Manchester, an apparent safe haven from the virus, without being killed or infected themselves.
28 Days Later... definitely sees Danny Boyle regain his stride. He tells a quite involving story of a man who wakes up to a world he no longer recognises. He does a fine job (particularly in the early scenes) of showing us a devastated London. The scenes with Cillian Murphy wandering the streets in almost complete silence are extremely eerie (although it is spoiled somewhat by the unnecessary soundtrack).
The way Danny Boyle shot these scenes is a story in itself. They had to wait until the early hours of the morning to get the proper look of a deserted London. And they could only hold up traffic for a few minutes at a time. Yet the way the camera encompasses the London landmarks, the overturned buses, trash blowing in the streets - it's all quite dazzling in its depth and clarity.
Danny Boyle also has a fine cast at hand. Cillian Murphy is perhaps a bit flat. By the time of Red Eye and Batman Begins, he'd polished his acting considerably. Here he's a bit introverted. He doesn't make a very convincing hero, especially in the second half when he's running around barechested with a rifle. Naomie Harris is much better. She gives a tough, determined performance that completely commands the picture. Yet she also shows signs of vulnerability, just as upset as anyone at the sad state of the world, hidden behind a cynical front.
Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns are equally good as father and daughter Frank and Hannah. Gleeson plays Frank as an ordinary man trying to hold together in extraordinary circumstances. When he gets infected and knows he's about to turn on his daughter, his death is tragic and very affecting. Burns (who hasn't acted since) turns her slight woodenness towards a sad acceptance of what the world has become.
The second half is a bit more predictable. When they get to Manchester, they fall in with a group of troops (led by an excellent Christopher Eccleston) who have lured them there with promises of a safe place, when really they need women to repropagate the species. I managed to predict that long before the characters did, although Eccleston gives a beautifully judged performance of a soldier doing what he thinks is right for a better future. Even if it isn't.
Aside from a plot that's a bit linear, I was a bit disappointed by the ending. The film seems unsure of itself at the climax, as if Boyle and Alex Garland weren't sure where to take it next. The ending comes with a sudden abruptness that leaves everything unresolved. And the various endings that were filmed and storyboarded only confuses the issue further. 28 Days Later... pilfers a bit from The Day of the Triffids and Day of the Dead. And while it never adds anything original to the genre, Danny Boyle's kinesis makes 28 Days Later... a fairly scary world to look on. One I'm glad we don't live in.
The Cable Guy (1996)
Sorely underrated. Nah, I'm just messin' with you!
Jim Carrey had a meteoric rise to fame. After years of playing second fiddle, Carrey's manic energy drew notice when he landed the starring role in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and followed it up with similar hits in The Mask, Dumb & Dumber and Batman Forever. By the time of The Cable Guy, Carrey was getting 20 million dollars a film. Something unheard of in 1996.
Jim Carrey's career was founded on larger than life antics, rubber faced gymnastics and off the wall wackiness, and The Cable Guy was a noble effort to try something different. So not surprisingly it got the cold shoulder from Carrey fans. Many people saw it as his first real flop, although it earned a not immodest 100 million worldwide, which is more then what Ace Ventura brought in. I think people have selective memories.
Its true the reviews were mixed. Many people weren't sure how to accept Jim Carrey in the role of a psycho stalker. (They seemed to ignore that when he played the Riddler the year before. Again, selective memories). But while some have been attempting to redress the balance since, I'm afraid The Cable Guy really has too many flaws to be hailed as some underrated classic.
Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) moves in to a bachelor pad after splitting with his girlfriend Robin. All that's left is cable service. After a four-hour wait, and while he's in the shower no less, Steven finally gets a visit from cable technician Chip Douglas. Chip is all watts and no volts. And he has a smile that can make you queasy. When Steven slips him $50 for free cable, he's made a fatal mistake.
Chip gives him the cable package alright. But to him, Steven's request is an invitation into his life. And he suddenly starts stalking Steven, convinced they're the best of friends. And the more Steven tries to push him away, the more Chip tries to take over his life. Even stealing Robin away from him.
The Cable Guy tackles a subject really quite dark for a comedy. Stalking. But that leaves the film in an awkward position - how to make a film about stalking funny? Well, its very simple. You don't. There is nothing funny about stalkers, so what we have is a comedy looking for laughs in a subject where there's none to be found. Its an unworkable premise.
There are quite a few things wrong with The Cable Guy. One problem is that Steven isn't very sympathetic. When the topic is stalking, we need to sympathise with the victim. But Steven is a bland character. One fails to see what Robin + Chip see in him. Indeed, Matthew Broderick looks awkward in a lot of his scenes with Jim Carrey. Probably because he has no clue what to do when you're sharing the screen with an unpredictable lunatic.
Certainly since he was getting a 20 million dollar paycheck for the role, Jim Carrey puts everything into it. In some scenes he really pulls out all the stops, like when he manically attacks Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" at a karaoke do. In two really sadistic scenes, he takes Steven to his favourite restaurant, Mediaeval Times, and the two do battle with swords, clubs, axes and jousting lances. And then later he beats up a pre-stardom Owen Wilson (for trying to chat Robin up) in a mens room.
I actually found scenes like these more disturbing than funny. And that's largely the problem with The Cable Guy. When it tries to be funny it just comes out weird. When it tries to be sinister, it comes out silly. You'd be hard pressed to find a film more confused. Jim Carrey may have been trying to flex himself as an actor, but its just the same old shtick in the wrong kind of movie.
The supporting cast is more interesting. We have quite a few "before they became famous" names on the credits. Look out for Jack Black, the already mentioned Owen Wilson, Leslie Mann and the film is even directed by Ben Stiller. In fact, one wonders what the film might have been like with a bit of recasting. What if Jack Black had played The Cable Guy and Ben Stiller had played Steven? Black can play tightly controlled mania far better then Carrey can. And Stiller is great at playing put upon schmucks bending to pressure.
Matthew Broderick just isn't right for Steven. He was a perfect Ferris Bueller, and a great teen hacker in WarGames, but as Steven he's just straitjacketed into the role of an uptight yuppie, with all his cocky charisma bled out of the character.
Because the script feels unfinished, a lot of the relationships in the film feel vaguely developed. Why Chip is disturbed is never explained. We guess its because of a lonely boyhood spent in front of the TV. So I think there is supposed to be a hidden message there. How television has saturated its way into society. The numbing effects of television on a person. Steven's doorbell even sounds like a gameshow buzzer.
Indeed, all the people in the film are glued to their sets watching an ongoing court case (with Stiller on trial for murder one). Chip throws himself onto a satellite transmitter, disrupting cable everywhere (one fella decides to read a good book instead), so I think the moral of the film is man's triumph over the effects of television. But that's a muddled message at best. The Cable Guy never really finds a balance between the satire it tries for and the thriller it could (should?) have been. One for die-hard Carrey fans.
Liar Liar (1997)
Could have been more.
Jim Carrey has made a career out of rubber faced antics and slapstick gymnastics since becoming a star with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The Cable Guy was an admirable attempt on Carrey's part to try something different that didn't quite come off because it was just the same old shtick in a whole new movie. The Truman Show was a more successful attempt to flex Carrey's wings as an actor.
After a frosty reception greeted The Cable Guy, Jim Carrey returned to what he knew best in Liar Liar, a film with an interesting premise - a man who lies for a living can only tell the truth. Played with a wider scope of imagination, Liar Liar could have been something akin to Groundhog Day - a single premise put through a rigorous, intensive experiment that scaled greater and greater heights. Or a cruelly hysterical black comedy if made by the Coen Brothers. But in Tom Shadyac's hands, instead it just becomes a one-gag vehicle for Jim Carrey's manic mugging.
I've never been a fan of Tom Shadyac. His films either collapse into silliness like Ace Ventura, or sink into soft-headed sludge like Patch Adams and Bruce Almighty. The one exception on his resume is the delightful remake of The Nutty Professor. The one film he's ever made where he pulled everything together into a successful package. A film as funny as it is sweet.
But Liar Liar sees Shadyac return to his usual weaknesses. The problem I have with the film is it never really knows what to do with its idea. Even at a slim 85 minutes, Liar Liar's one and only joke is stretched. And that's to see Jim Carrey acting like a one-man loony bin. Not for the first (or last) time.
Jim Carrey's given some pretty whacked out performances in his day. But the one he gives in Liar Liar almost makes them seem minimalist. After his son makes a birthday wish that his father can only be truthful for a whole day, it springboards Carrey sky high. There are some who no doubt derive amusement from watching him go completely off his head. But I just found all of the shouting and the yelling and the wailing so wearying.
Carrey throws himself into the role with total reckless abandon. In fact, that's what he does a lot of the time - throwing himself around. Some scenes in the film are just awful and they go on at embarrassing length. Like when he's holding a blue Biro, tries to say its red and he can't no matter how much he wants to. But even worse then that is the scene in a men's room when he trashes the place to get out of the courtroom. It all makes you wonder what lunatic asylum Jim Carrey escaped from.
The main problem with Liar Liar is that Jim Carrey isn't the right actor for the role. Since the theme of the film is a dishonest, inattentive father seeing the error of his ways, then what it needed was someone who can play greedy and sarcastic, and then equally downplay it to meet his redemption. Someone like Bill Murray.
But because this is Jim Carrey, all we get instead is him yelling the house down from start to finish. That's all he ever seems to do. Whether it be the slick lawyer lying through his teeth, the attorney forced to tell the truth, or the changed husband and father who wants to fix things with his son. There's no sense of a man changing into a better one. Just an obnoxious man that knows no limits how far over the top he can go. Its an annoying, one-note performance.
Because Tom Shadyac refuses to rein in Carrey's excesses, Liar Liar just gets more tedious as it goes on. Even before we're halfway through, the film has become like gristle between your teeth that you can't dislodge no matter what. And the film arrives at a ridiculous ending. Something that involves Carrey using a stair escalator at an airport to stop his ex-wife and son leaving on a plane. The fact that they get back together is stupidly contrived. And it seemingly casts aside her relationship with a good man in an irritably cavalier manner.
Liar Liar may have been a sizable box-office success, but I just found it irritating to the max in every way. The comedy. The way Tom Shadyac tries to tack on a false moral at the end. But even worse is watching a potentially good idea wasted on such a lame vehicle. A missed opportunity that really could have been so much more.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
Straight from the hearse's mouth
When I saw Twilight last year, I hadn't read any of the books. When I saw New Moon last night, I'd read at least two of them. Since I don't fit into the teen, female demographic they're aimed at, I was unimpressed. Stephanie Meyer is the JK Rowling of vampire fiction - a bland, unremarkable writer who had one idea in her life that led to inexplicable success. One suspects she'll spend the rest of her career milking that success.
But when I watched Twilight, since I hadn't read any of them, it didn't come with any baggage attached. So, I was prepared to look at it with an unbiased eye. But I found Twilight overrated even before I picked up any of the books. It only seemed half a good film. It worked well enough when Bella was trying to crack the mystery that was Edward Cullen. But when it came to the vampire side of the story, it was tame and toothless. Something I blamed on the certificate (12A) originally, only to find that director Catherine Hardwicke was just being faithful to the book.
When the film became a global phenomenon, Hollywood rushed into production the rest of the series, hoping to start a new franchise along the lines of a Harry Potter or a Lord of the Rings. Having already endured the dull read that was New Moon, I walked into the cinema with the naive belief that the film would rise above it and turn in a far more enjoyable sequel. But one had a sinking feeling about New Moon when I discovered it was made by Chris Weitz.
Weitz had already ruined one great fantasy novel with The Golden Compass, an excellent book with a rich, fully realised culture all its own destroyed by someone with no feel or affinity for the text. After The Golden Compass bankrupted New Line Cinema, that should have made Weitz unemployable. Why Meyer (and Summit Entertainment) would trust him to lay a finger on New Moon is anyone's guess?
New Moon isn't quite the disaster The Golden Compass was, but it's still a disappointment. Weitz has stayed faithful to the book, but therein lies the problem. Like TGC, he recreates scenes on a page without the flavour to animate them. And because Stephanie Meyer has given him a dull story to tell its a dull film as well.
Where Edward and Bella's romance was the heart of Twilight, New Moon pulls us in many directions. After one of Edward's family almost puts the bite on Bella on her 18th birthday, the Cullen clan uproot and head for safer pastures. Bella falls into misery, but also falls into the company of a pack of werewolves. And when she gets attracted to they're dangerous lifestyle, it summons up visions of her beloved Edward, leading her to take more and more dangerous gambles with her life.
For all its faults, at least Twilight was about something. It was a tighter, more focused film held back by a weedy certificate and a prosaic author. The problem with New Moon is it tries to do many things that all add up to no purpose. Like we never find out what is causing Bella's visions of Edward. Whether its some magic ability on his part? Or has Bella's grief become hallucinatory?
The film brings back Victoria, the vamp from Twilight baying for Bella's blood. She wants to kill Bella to avenge the death of her lover. But the film introduces her, and then just forgets about her. That would have made a far more substantial story, and lent the film a dynamic it desperately lacks. To clutter things even further, we get a trip to Italy where we meet the Volturi, a rival tribe of vampires. It even drafts in great performers like Michael Sheen and a grown up Dakota Fanning and gives them criminally little to do.
One of the reasons I anticipated New Moon with some enthusiasm was because I knew it gave Kristen Stewart the chance to take centre stage. I've always been a great admirer of Stewart, ever since her tough, intelligent debut in Panic Room. Compared to glamour models that pass for actresses, Kristen Stewart actually has acting ability, as well as good looks. I was interested to see what she would do with Bella.
But again, Chris Weitz doesn't give his cast a chance to do anything. Stewart is saddled with a boring plot where it just requires her to mope after Edward for much of the running time. And her relationship with Taylor Lautner is woefully unconvincing. He's completely wooden and never fills the role of a werewolf with anything approaching conviction.
New Moon pushes the fantastical element more than the first film did. We get a few gimmicky special effects shots and some full blooded werewolf fights but I always knew they were CGI. Like TGC, Chris Weitz just doesn't have a flair for special effects, and can't direct them without drawing attention to how false they are.
New Moon is also annoyingly geared towards The Twilight Saga's bread and butter...a young, female audience. Most of the male leads swagger in slow motion, take off their shirts regularly and proudly show off their buffed bodies and sculpted abs. Even Robert Pattinson is guilty of this. Its a disgusting tactic purely designed to appeal to a slavish fanbase.
New Moon ends on a cliffhanger, but not one I'm dying to know the outcome of. If it had focused on one single aspect of its story instead of trying to juggle them all like a circus act, it might have made for a better film. Since each one gets a short shrift, it winds up being more a tangle of disconnected strands then a story we can care much about.
Three Fugitives (1989)
Not so much on the run. More like a slow crawl.
I have a personal bias against American remakes of foreign films. They seem to exist to be made only because an English/American audience doesn't relish the idea of having to read subtitles while watching a film. And not many of these remakes work anyway. Look at the dire likes of True Lies and Three Men and a Baby.
Three Fugitives was no doubt inspired by the recent success of TMAAB. They're both American remakes of French comedies, and Touchstone even took the precaution of importing the director and writer of the original version, Francis Veber. I haven't seen Les Fugitifs so I can't debate how closely Veber sticks to his own material, or if he makes any drastic changes, but as it is, Three Fugitives is an amiable caper, if one that never bursts out with gut busting laughs.
Lucas (Nick Nolte) is an ex-con who's decided to go straight. But on the day of his parole, he walks into a bank and right into the middle of a hold-up. Ned Perry (Martin Short) is an incompetent bank robber who wears a nylon stocking for a balaclava. And when the robbery takes much longer then planned, that gives the police enough time to surround the place. In desperation, Ned takes Lucas hostage. But the police, who know of Lucas' track record for armed robberies think he's the robber, meaning these two mismatched men must go on the run together.
I admit to enjoying Three Fugitives far more than Three Men and a Baby. They are quite similar films at heart. Both Touchstone financed American remakes of French originals, and the plots both revolve around a youngster. In this case, Ned's mute six-year old daughter Meg. It turns out Ned pulled the robbery because he needed money to send Meg to a special school after being laid off from his job as a sales manager. Meg hasn't spoken a word since her mother died two years ago.
Three Fugitives has its funny moments. Ned's bank robbery is so hopeless it gets funnier just watching it all go wrong around him. Like when he shoots the ceiling he gets showered in plaster, his disguise splits open, and when a bank teller throws him the bag full of money, it lands in a ceiling fixture. I also liked the scene when Lucas gets accidentally shot by Ned, and Ned has to take him to a vet to get treated (like a dog!).
Its the bits in between that don't really work. All the funny parts come in isolated moments, and Francis Veber's direction isn't fast or frantic enough so the film moves in fits and starts. It seems to take too long for the film to get to anything good. The inclusion of Meg to the plot also seems a miscalculation, and suggests something of the tweeness that capsized Three Men and a Baby.
It never really boils over, even if it lacks credibility. But its not helped by Sarah Rowland Doroff's rather flat performance. Even as she begins to open up, she's just as blank in the second half as she is in the first. Nick Nolte and Martin Short have they're amusements, even if they don't exactly have cracking chemistry. They're only paired up together just to play off of each other's obvious differences. So in other words, you're typical buddy movie.
Three Fugitives still feels a bit shapeless. It just moves from one spot to the next. Some funny (like Lucas getting a job as a locksmith!). Some cringeworthy (like Ned dressed up as a woman to bypass a border check). And the film doesn't end. It just sort of stops without any real attempt at an ending. Sporadically funny. Forgotten the next day.
"You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else!"
Alien 3 would be a daunting prospect to any filmmaker. Ridley Scott and James Cameron left such an indelible mark on the Alien series, you almost pity the poor person who should follow in they're footsteps.
Add to that the hellish problems that plagued the film behind the scenes all before it got to the screen. Directors came and went. Scripts were written and rejected. Constant studio interference. Sigourney Weaver had ideas of her own. She even takes a producing credit for the first time in the series.
All things that add up to a disaster in the making. And not surprisingly when the film debuted, fans savagely ravaged it, finding fault with everything. Although not a flop, it was seen as one because the box-office returns were muted by comparison.
Although I'll admit it's a step down in quality from the first two, I actually quite liked Alien 3. Its not the classic the others were, but its not a failure either. It was after all caught in the unenviable position of appeasing the fans while establishing its own identity at the same time. The fact it manages to do that at all makes it a success in my book.
After many directors hung they're heads in shame failing to make a film out of this mess, the man chosen to helm it was the then unknown David Fincher, one of my favourite filmmakers. He's gone on to make some excellent genre classics like the superb Se7en, the fantastic Fight Club, and fine thrillers like Panic Room and Zodiac.
David Fincher must have been intimidated when given the reins to Alien 3, helming the third part of such a well-respected franchise. And he had no experience as a filmmaker outside of music videos, unlike James Cameron who came from the huge success of The Terminator, and Ridley Scott was no amateur either. But Fincher does surprisingly well in his feature debut. He may have publicly disowned it afterwards, but he more than holds his own.
One of the things I like about the Alien series is how each new director brought something new to it. From a haunted house in space adventure to an all out action extravaganza, one wondered what the novice Fincher would bring to this one? The novelty this time is that its set in a prison. And the whole idea of Alien evil in a place of pure human evil was one that appealed to me a great deal.
The film does an excellent job of keeping continuity with Aliens, when Ripley's ship crashlands on Fury 161, an all-male prison planet. No sooner has she woken up and shaved her head like one of the inmates, her fight with the Alien is far from over. Her constant companion has crashed with her, and its loose. But even worse is that after all the times she's battled the Alien and won, the cruellest irony of all has finally happened. She's got one inside her. And what's worse, its a Queen.
By now, Ellen Ripley is a role Sigourney Weaver could play in her sleep, but she thankfully doesn't. In fact, perhaps because of Weaver's need to take an active role behind the scenes, we get to see some complex new dimensions to Ripley this time around. Ripley is now a tragic figure. She's become resigned to the fact she'll never be free of the Alien. Her epiphany is more haunting than a dozen Aliens.
Ripley has always been the unifying drive of the series. Without her, it wouldn't be an Alien picture. And its her battle that lends the film its impetus. She throws herself into it not with a fanatical zeal, but more of a weary resignation. She only hopes to kill the Alien before the one inside kills her.
What with the run down, grimy, lived-in look of the prison, it seems David Fincher has taken a cue from Ridley Scott rather than James Cameron when coming up with the design scheme for Fury 161. He makes use of some excellent lighting effects that illuminates the mood of the picture. It goes from a brazen, golden hue to a harsh, dangerous red as the film nears its climax.
Alien 3 is the first of the series made during the time of CGI. But using it to create the Alien is one of the few things about the film that disappoints. Whenever it moves, it looks false and cartoonish. An effect that never connects with its surroundings. The prior films relied on good old-fashioned body-suits and that was all they needed. The 1979 Alien looked more real than this does.
Another criticism is the cast. Aside from the excellent Weaver, there are too few noteworthy performers. There are fine turns from the great Charles Dance as a disgraced former doctor and the late Brian Glover as the prison warden. But they're killed off disappointingly early into the action. The rest of the cast are filled up by a lot of faceless extras which takes some of the urgency out of it.
But the film builds to a powerful climax. Just as the Company comes to claim the Alien Queen inside of Ripley, she sacrifices herself as it bursts out of her. It would have been a terrific, triumphal end to the series. It wasn't necessary to continue, but alas they did with Alien: Resurrection, which if truthfully, is a far more disappointing film.
Alien 3 is more successful then people know. Even now, its a neglected work. And even if David Fincher joined the chorus of ardent haters, Alien 3 is a never less then fascinating, gut-wrenching addition to the Alien series.
Toy Story (1995)
Where Pixar's legacy begins
Before they became the trailblazers of computer animation, Pixar eked out a meagre existence as a small, independent company, forced to provide computer visual effects for other studios just to pay the bills. Although it seems impossible now, there was a time when Pixar hinged on the brink of bankruptcy on a daily basis. And the idea of creating a fully, computer animated feature film seemed a far off, distant fantasy.
After producing several highly acclaimed short films, Pixar's dream of making a full proper feature came to fruition when they entered into a partnership with Disney that still continues today. Thanks to some generous investors, a real team effort and a wing and a prayer, Pixar got the go-ahead on their debut feature, Toy Story.
Toy Story is where the Pixar legacy begins. It was the first of its kind and a huge success. Despite all of the doubts and preconceptions, they had pulled it out of the bag and Pixar's name was made. They created an entire revolution in animation. One that had never been seen before.
But it took a lot to go through to get there. Toy Story had a tumultuous history before it even made it to the big screen. According to the excellent documentary The Pixar Story, the script went through numerous rewrites, particularly with Woody's character. In Pixar's own words, Woody was becoming "the most repellent thing you've ever seen". The film just wasn't working. It was cynical. Sarcastic. It wasn't funny at all. And it wasn't the film John Lasseter imagined when he originated it.
With all that in mind, its all the more surprising how good it turned out to be. Toy Story has all of the qualities we've come to expect from the best of Pixar's work. Its confident. Its witty. It moves at a gallop and its intelligent too. Its one thing to make a whole new kind of film. Its another to make it work well.
The plot is a quite familiar one - toys that come to life when no-one's around. But Pixar put some fascinating spins on that one sentence synopsis thanks to some well etched characters, a fabulous script penned by a great team of writers, a charming musical score and fluid animation. Woody and Buzz Lightyear have become two of Pixar's much beloved creations. With Woody being such a jerk in the early days of Toy Story's conception, it may explain why Pixar brought in Hollywood's Nicest Guy Tom Hanks to voice him.
Some of Woody's character flaws have still made it into the film. But that may be one of the reasons why people were so drawn to it. Because he's not so squeaky clean compared with Disney heroes. A pull-string cowboy doll, the king of his mountain, when his owner Andy gets Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger action figure, and winds up cast aside, he goes mad with envy. He's as flawed as any flesh and blood person. A little selfish too. But not so much that he's irredeemable (which he almost wound up as in the early drafts).
But Buzz Lightyear is an even better character. He's a true original. Because unlike all the other toys around him, he doesn't know he is one. He believes he's a real space ranger. And the film is clever the way it wittily plays into Buzz's delusions about himself. He's so convinced of what he is that its a genuinely crushing moment when Buzz finds out the truth (a nicely played scene when he watches a Buzz Lightyear TV commercial).
Pixar always have a knack for matching the right actors to their characters. And Tim Allen is a perfect Buzz Lightyear. He captures the right blend of cocky bravado and self-righteous intent that the character so desperately needs to endear. Unlike all the other companies quick to jump on the CGI animation bandwagon, Pixar don't pick big name actors to ensure box-office success. They choose the right people to bring their characters to life.
The animation in Toy Story could seem primitive now when compared to the dazzling backdrops of Finding Nemo or Wall-E. The backgrounds are not as detailed and even the climax is not that lavish (Pixar didn't yet have a limitless budget to command) but they don't really need to be because its story is enough of a hook to enthrall us.
One thing they could have done without though is showing us the faces of the human characters. They tend to look too unreal when computer animated. Pixar hadn't quite got the hang yet of making a human face look natural. Not until The Incredibles anyway.
But these are only minor quibbles. In all other regards, Toy Story is a delight. Even at this early stage, Pixar has the formula down perfectly that gets them through each and every one of their films. Great characters, shrewd intelligence, genuine heart and a real sense of fun and adventure. Toy Story 2 is even better. It ups all the good things about this by a quantum factor. A great start for a superb studio.
To Infinity and Beyond!
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Wolverine claws his way back on to the big screen
X-Men Origins: Wolverine joins a whole host of films that's become a genre all its own in the last few years. An established film series taking a character back to its roots to reboot the series. Casino Royale, Batman Begins and the upcoming Star Trek are to name but a few examples.
If you were going to choose an X-Man to frame an origin story around, there is no one better than Wolverine. He's always been the most interesting character in X-Men. Perhaps because while all the others in the team use their mutant powers for the betterment of mankind, Logan's bad attitude makes him something of a wild card. One never to be entirely trusted.
I thought the idea of Wolverine getting his own movie was immensely exciting. Especially when Hugh Jackman agreed to reprise the role. And I'm pleased to say it was worth the wait. Quite a few have been quick to poke holes in the film's script, but I didn't feel disappointed with it at all. I felt it did Wolverine justice. Its a worthy addition to the series.
To side with a few nitpickers, 20th Century Fox and director Gavin Hood have taken a few liberties. Not just with the backstory, but also by breaking continuity with the other films in the series. For one, Logan's metal skeleton has always been the result of an experiment done to him against his will. But in Wolverine, here he willingly goes through with it, to get revenge on Sabretooth for killing his lover.
Also we get to meet a young Cyclops who runs into Logan. But no mention is made of that in the first film. They act like they've never met. Still, in spite of rewriting some of what we already know, Wolverine does a quite excellent job of bringing a lot of Logan's past into focus. All through a combination of Gavin Hood's involving, kinetic direction, David Benioff and Skip Woods' screenplay, and another excellent performance from the great Hugh Jackman.
The opening credit sequence stayed with me more than anything else in the film. We watch as Logan and Sabretooth (half-brothers in this version) grow up and go to war. The Civil War. Both World Wars. Vietnam. And then finally they go to war on each other. They're both recruited by William Stryker (who you may remember from X2) to work in a special covert operations team. But while Logan and Sabretooth may seem similar, they are quite different.
They may be part animal, but Sabretooth likes it a lot more than Logan does. Nor does Logan share Sabretooth's love of killing. So when he strikes out on his own, how much are you willing to bet that it isn't long before Logan's past comes back to haunt him?
It didn't take me long at all to become enthralled in Wolverine's life history. Some people have criticised the idea of Logan and Sabretooth becoming brothers, but I felt it added an additional level of gravitas. It made Sabretooth's betrayal that much more potent. And I quite liked the way David Benioff and Skip Woods attempt to humanise Wolverine.
Some of the best scenes in the film have nothing to do with large scale action sequences or revved up pyrotechnics. Some of the most touching and most moving moments is watching Wolverine trying to fit into a normal life. Away from wars and mortal enemies. And ultimately failing. His relationship with Kayla (nicely played by Lynn Collins), a seemingly ordinary human woman is quite affecting. Watching her take on the near impossible task of taming Logan's primal side is involving. Both Jackman and Collins shine in these scenes. Or the scene when Logan befriends an elderly couple. Who pay a terrible price for taking him in.
But Hood doesn't disappoint on the action front either. Wolverine has some breathtaking action scenes. Logan being chased by helicopter while on a bike is a real adrenaline pumper. And as it moves towards its climax, in a thrilling fight on top of a cooling tower, the film becomes something that makes you want to cry out for joy. This film really needs to be seen on a cinema screen. The photography of the Canadian Rockies provides a dazzling backdrop for the final fight. One suspects the film will lose a lot in the transfer when it goes to DVD.
The acting is all superb. Hugh Jackman is expectedly excellent. He dives into Logan's animal nature with pure, undiluted relish. But more importantly, he always knows the need to dial it down too, giving us that even more crucial chance to see inside the soul of Wolverine. I was a little wary to begin with when I learned Liev Schrieber would play Sabretooth. I just couldn't envision him in the role but he's a revelation. He brings a real meanness to the part. Something Tyler Mane never had in X-Men. You can see in his performance why it is that Logan hates him so much. The two have marvellous sparkage whenever they're paired together.
There are times when the film lapses perhaps too much into the realm of the comic book (I'm thinking of The Blob as I write this), but for the most part, Gavin Hood treats the material with the utmost respect. It ends on a shocking downer that also manages to tie in neatly with the first X-Men film. The script has many surprises that leaves you as jolted and embittered as poor Logan. A highly enjoyable film that exceeds all expectations, and the best X-Men adventure since X2.
The Addams Family (1991)
One of the more successful TV to film adaptations
The Addams Family was one of the more subversive sitcoms on TV screens back in the 1960s. Along with The Munsters, which came out at almost the exact same time, it offered up a cheerfully morbid account of a spooky, bizarre family living in the heart of suburban normalcy. Although it only lasted two seasons, The Addams Family has gone on to become an iconic sitcom, with no signs of it ever losing its popularity.
In 1990, Paramount put up the funds for a Hollywood feature film of The Addams Family. Something that had never really been attempted before. Where all of the old familiar characters are played by new actors, and the series is redressed for the big screen. After the film was a big hit, many others jumped on the bandwagon, turning well-remembered TV shows into features. But many of them have wound up dismal failures. Perhaps because what works on the small screen doesn't always work so well when stretched to fill out a big one.
Also, when The Addams Family was made, the whole idea of seeing a time-honoured show as a film was a fresh idea and not the tired cliché it seems today. And happily The Addams Family is one of the few that succeeds. Largely through Barry Sonnenfeld's confident direction and a perfectly chosen cast. When it comes to actresses playing Morticia, there are few suited to the role like Anjelica Huston. Covered in a striking white makeup job, shocking red lips and black spider dress, she couldn't be more perfect. She carries herself through the film with a real regal authority, and although she looks like a walking corpse, she's just as sensual as Carolyn Jones ever was.
The late Raul Julia makes Gomez into more of a swashbuckler then John Astin did, but he's also an excellent choice. He throws himself into the role with perfect reckless abandon. He also has great chemistry with Huston, making their morbid love for one another that all the more fun to watch. Christopher Lloyd makes it a hat-trick as Uncle Fester. Virtually buried beneath a fat suit and tons of makeup, he's an astonishing dead ringer for Jackie Coogan. He's even got a similar high voice. Charles Addams would have been proud. The success of the film lies as much in the hands of the casting department as it does in the hands of Barry Sonnenfeld.
The Addams Family was Barry Sonnenfeld's debut as director after working as a cinematographer for several years. Usually on Coen films. And working for the Coen Brothers has clearly rubbed off on Sonnenfeld. He seems most at home in the world of black comedy. Something Coen films are renowned for. Which is what makes him such a perfect choice to direct an Addams Family picture. He captures the blackly comical life of the Addams Family perfectly. He never takes the story too far over the top (not until Wild Wild West anyway), and he keeps things ticking along at a sprightly pace.
As his later films would prove, Barry Sonnenfeld is only as good as the script he's been given. And scriptwriters Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson do a good job of providing him with one. Some of the gags are a bit obvious ("I'll sell you a box of Girl Scout Cookies." "Are they made from real Girl Scouts?"), but where the film shines is watching the Addams Family reacting to the strange with perfect acceptance. They cut the heads off roses. Come after one another with butcher knives. Even the rack is pleasant to them.
But even funnier is the second half where after the Addams' have been ousted from their home, we watch them trying to fit in to normal society. Living in a trailer park. Morticia making the witch in Hansel & Gretel into a tragic figure when reading the story to a class of kindergärtners. Thing working as a courier. I especially liked Gomez calling into Sally Jessy Raphael, the topic of the show being witch doctors, and he hoping she can put him in touch with some.
The only real fault with the film is that the plotting is strictly average. Fester may actually be an imposter after the Addams Family fortune. That's a type of plot line that belongs more in a sitcom, and it doesn't make for the most interesting film plot. But the film is still enormously entertaining. The fun everyone is having is very infectious. The ghoulish set designs are great. And so is the music too. Good fun all around. Especially from the enormously talented Christina Ricci, who makes a splendidly sinister Wednesday, and far outshines the entire cast. Her icy stare alone is enough of a reason to see this film!