Comedy

Erik the Viking (1989, Terry Jones)

Erik the Viking is a great example of when the director doesn’t know how to direct the script. What makes it peculiar is… director Jones wrote the script.

The film, an absurd comedy about a group of Vikings trying to end Ragnarok so they people will stop killing each other, starts with the the very not comedic scene (though the film gets to laughs really quickly, which is rather impressive) of lead Tim Robbins, having completed his looting and pillaging, moving on to the raping part of the Viking code. His intended victim is Samantha Bond. Only Bond’s not into being raped, which throws Robbins for a loop—he’s never done this raping part before and doesn’t have the predilection for it. Instead he and Bond have what becomes a life defining conversation (for Robbins anyway) right before his comrades show up to rape her and he kills them.

And, accidentally, her as well, which throws him into a right funk. He can’t stop seeing Bond’s face, whether in a crowd, in the distance, or laid over another woman his comrades are torturing. Empathy’s a very un-Viking value, something Robbins’s grandfather (Mickey Rooney in a wonderfully unhinged cameo) tries to explain.

Rooney, rightly, doesn’t reassure Robbins, so Robbins heads up into the mountains to talk to recluse Eartha Kitt (in a good but sadly not great cameo, partially just due to the terrible composite shots showing the landscape outside her cave) and she tells him how he’s going to have to quest to the mystic land, Hy-Brasil, retrieve a magic horn, blow the horn to get to Asgard, then again to wake the gods, then again to get home.

To accomplish this task, Robbins has to put the band together. There are tough guy Vikings Richard Ridings and Tim McInnerny, McInnerny’s dad, Charles McKeown (who doesn’t think McInnerny’s tough enough), Christian missionary Freddie Jones (who’s the butt of endless great jokes, even when he’s saving the day), John Gordon Sinclair as the wimp (he’s great), and Gary Cady as the heartthrob blacksmith. Now, turns out Cady doesn’t want Ragnarok to end because he’s a blacksmith and capitalism; you stop the looting, pillaging, raping, and murdering and he’s out of business. So he gets his sidekick, Anthony Sher, to go and narc to local warlord John Cleese (of course) about Robbins’s mission. So Viking is basically Robbins and company on their quest, while avoiding Cleese trying to kill them all.

The quest takes them to the aforementioned magical land, which is a violence-free paradise with Greco-Roman style architecture, ruled by Jones. Imogen Stubbs plays Jones’s daughter, who becomes infatuated with Robbins. The attraction is mutual but only when Robbins forgets his secret mission—to bring Bond back from the dead. The questing will also take the band to Asgard, where they find the gods don’t live up to expectations but are a lot realer than anyone could anticipate. Because Jones, as writer, has a bunch of great ideas and a lot of good sequences, he just can’t figure out how to realize them on screen.

Making it stranger is the fantastic production and costume designs from John Beard and Pam Tait, respectively. Good photography from Ian Wilson, good music from Neil Innes; not good editing from George Akers, but you really get the impression it’s because Jones, as director, didn’t get enough coverage for him. Viking has great sets, great costumes, great make-up, so it never makes sense when it doesn’t look right. Sometimes it’s those bad composite shots—but the miniature special effects are excellent—and then the third act has some really bad optical effects.

I’m zealous about special effects not dating, they just sometimes don’t work and Erik the Viking’s special optical effects for the finale… they just don’t work. And the film relies way too heavily on them. Nicely, the film’s able to—more or less—skate by to the finish, which has this really oddly profound moment for the characters and you wish Jones (the director) could’ve visualized it better onscreen. It works but not enough to lift things up. The whole third act seems rushed and cramped in ways it shouldn’t, both in terms of story and setting.

Good lead performance from Robbins, with great support from some of his comrades; Stubbs is good, Bond’s excellent, Cleese is fun (it’s a fluffed out cameo)… Sher’s really good as the turncoat.

Erik has almost all the right pieces for success; Jones not being able to crack his own script is the dealbreaker.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terry Jones; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by George Akers; music by Neil Innes; production designer, John Beard; costume designer, Pam Tait; produced by John Goldstone; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Tim Robbins (Erik), Imogen Stubbs (Princess Aud), Richard Ridings (Thorfinn Skullsplitter), Tim McInnerny (Sven the Berserk), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad), Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith), Antony Sher (Loki), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless), Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable), Samantha Bond (Helga), Mickey Rooney (Erik’s Grandfather), Eartha Kitt (Freya), Terry Jones (King Arnulf), and John Cleese (Halfdan the Black).


The Ref (1994, Ted Demme)

Every once in a while, The Ref lets you forget it’s just a comedy vehicle for stand-up comic Denis Leary and so doesn’t need to actually be a good drama and just lets you enjoy the acting. Demme’s direction is simultaneously detached, thoughtful, and sincere. He and editor Jeffrey Wolf craft these wonderful comedic scenes. Sure, they’re usually some mixture of smart and crass and good old shock vulgar, but they’re good. They’re funny. The Ref starts as a straight-faced spoof of a hostage drama. Lovable master thief Denis Leary takes viciously fighting and profoundly unhappily married Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey hostage. On Christmas Eve. Eventually their extended family shows up and the film culminates in Leary, who’s spent the movie refereeing the fighting couple—refereeing, The Ref, a little punny but, you know, fine. Makes you think about sports not the movie actually being a Bergman spoof.

It’s not. I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s a mainstream comedy with just the right amount of jokes at people and with people, once you get over the nastiness between Spacey and Davis. The opening scene is them in marriage counseling—an uncredited BD Wong plays the overwhelmed counselor who’s just there for the eventual movie trailer… and to normalize their behavior. Their exceptionally mean comments to each other. Hateful, spiteful, so on and so forth. The film’s giving us permission to laugh at Spacey and Davis trying to manipulate and hurt one another. It comes right after an Americana intro to the rich, idyllic suburb where the action takes place. We meet the friendly, personable cops, the children looking in the window at Christmas decorations, on and on. There are a lot of disparate pieces to The Ref, like Raymond J. Barry as the weary police chief with the department of lovably dumb cops, the It’s a Wonderful Life anecdote scene with a bunch of those lovably dumb cops, or J.K. Simmons as a blackmailed military school administrator. The movie makes them all fit. Sometimes with help from composer David A. Stewart, but always thanks to Demme and editor Wolf. The Ref’s got a great flow.

So then too is credit due screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss; Weiss has a story credit but LaGravenese is top-billed so there’s a story, I’m sure. Maybe it explains why the melodramatic writing for Spacey and Davis—because Spacey and Davis need meat, they need something they can devour. They both get various solo scenes throughout where they get to let loose. Showcases, really. Because in addition to having a lot of funny scenes, The Ref is about watching Davis and Spacey do these character examinations of what would otherwise just be caricatures. They’ve got to be funny being dramatically mean and hateful to each other, while building the foundation to support the performances when the roles finally get stripped to the bone and laid bare for melodramatic purposes. While in what’s basically a sitcom situation involving Leary pretending to be their marriage counselor while he waits for his getaway boat to be ready. See, Spacey’s got an evil mom (Glynis Johns, who’s inexplicably British) and remember it’s Christmas Eve so it’s going to be Johns, apparently Spacey’s moron brother Adam LeFevre—nothing’s more unrealistic in the film than LeFevre and Spacey being brothers; they don’t exchange any lines; it’s like the film wanted to avoid it. LeFevre’s monosyllabic and lives in fear of wife Christine Baranski, who’s nasty to their kids—Phillip Nicoll and Ellie Raab but in a stuck-up White lady sort of way. Yeah… sitcom is the way to describe The Ref, actually.

Anyway.

Then there’s Spacey and Davis’s son, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., who’s fine. The movie doesn’t ask too much of him and Demme directs him well. He’s a burgeoning criminal mastermind, a sophomore shipped off to military academy. He’s a plot foil more than a major supporting player—basically the film demotes him in the second act because it’s not fun watching Spacey and Davis berate each other in front of Steinmiller, which isn’t a great situation.

The filmmakers do what they can but there’s an inherent unevenness to The Ref. It feigns being different things—wry hostage spoof, hateful family Christmas movie—without ever trying to actually be those things. It’s comfortable just relying on Davis, Spacey, and Leary to get it through.

Because Leary’s the emcee. The film hints at giving him some stand-up rants throughout but soon makes it clear it’ll never interrupts the action for them. It’s a Leary vehicle but not a base one. He’s excellent. Not clearly profoundly talented like Davis and Spacey—which, note, is much different than their performances being profound—but excellent in the part. He’s very good at making room from his more talented, second and third-billed costars.

The Ref’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, based on a story by Weiss; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; produced by Ron Bozman, LaGravenese, and Jeffrey Weiss; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Denis Leary (Gus), Judy Davis (Caroline), Kevin Spacey (Lloyd), Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. (Jesse), Richard Bright (Murray), Raymond J. Barry (Huff), Glynis Johns (Rose), Christine Baranski (Connie), Adam LeFevre (Gary), Phillip Nicoll (John), Ellie Raab (Mary), Bill Raymond (George), John Scurti (Steve), Jim Turner (Phil), Robert Ridgely (Bob Burley), J.K. Simmons (Siskel), Rutanya Alda (Linda), and BD Wong (Dr. Wong).


The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018, Susanna Fogel)

The Spy Who Dumped Me has, rather unfortunately, a punny title. It’s an accurate title—the film’s about spy Justin Theroux dumping his civilian and not aware he’s a spy girlfriend Mila Kunis—but it doesn’t capture the mood of the film. No doubt, it’s a hard one to title—because even though it starts with Kunis going to Europe to help Theroux on a mission (after a very well-executed gun fight), it becomes more about Kunis and best friend Kate McKinnon as they find their respective knacks in life as spies. Or at least, movie spies, who have to worry about gun fights in public places, evil trapeze artists, and “Edward Snowden” cameos. Spy purposefully goes all over the place (and all over Europe), with the core mystery being engaging enough but never the point. Spy’s all about its performances, not the MacGuffins.

Which makes Sam Heughan’s smooth British spy guy stand out as a fail. He’s fine. He’s even charming at times, but he’s… nothing special. When Kunis has her pick of spies, Theroux or Heughan, she goes Theroux—who’s got his issues too—but at last he’s got some character. Heughan looks like a British spy caricature, acts like a British spy caricature. He’s no fun. Theroux’s not really fun either, but he doesn’t have to be fun. But Heughan? He’s the straight man to partner Hasan Minhaj, whose thing is just being a boring straightedge and he’s so fun at it. Or their boss, Gillian Armstrong, who plays a British spy supervisor caricature and makes it seem like a real character. Heughan’s fine, but he’s a bummer. Theroux’s… a bummer. At least one of them needs to be better.

Nicely, everything else is great so the two supporting dudes being a little lackluster doesn’t matter. And Heughan’s good with the fight stuff; he gets sympathy for being such a surprisingly solid action star. Spy gives Kunis and McKinnon a lot, keeping an undercurrent of humor. Heughan doesn’t really have the humor. Sometimes he’s got Kunis and McKinnon giving audio commentary, which brings some humor, but director Fogel handles it differently. Probably contributes to keeping Kunis and McKinnon in danger. They’re not because it’s still a fish out of water buddy comedy and it can’t kill either buddy but the film’s got to put them in danger for about an hour straight before a resolution. Spy isn’t short—it’s real close to two hours—and it’s really well-paced and keeping tension in an action comedy isn’t easy. Luckily there’s a lot of violence. Spy goes all in on the action violence; lots of great action set pieces; they’re what make the movie work in the first act. It demands attention.

Kunis is a good lead, but McKinnon walks away with it. She’s really funny. Even when the scene isn’t really funny, McKinnon’s really funny. And her third act stuff is impossible and she makes it happen. Fogel’s careful not to showcase McKinnon too much—without not showcasing her either—and giving Kunis her time but… it’s McKinnon’s show. She’s part of all the best material. Kunis gets most of it, but third act is all McKinnon’s. Also Kunis and McKinnon are great together, which makes everything feel a lot more even throughout. It’s just… Kunis gets a romance subplot and McKinnon gets to be hilarious. Shame Kunis doesn’t have better dudes in the triangle. But Heughan’s fine.

He’s fine.

Great cameos from Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, and Fred Melamed. Ivanna Sakhno’s awesome as the Bond villain assassin out to get Kunis and, especially, McKinnon.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is really good at being really funny and good enough when it’s not being really funny.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susanna Fogel; written by Fogel and David Iserson; director of photography, Barry Peterson; edited by Jonathan Schwartz; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Marc Homes; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Brian Grazer and Erica Huggins; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Mila Kunis (Audrey), Kate McKinnon (Morgan), Sam Heughan (Sebastian), Hasan Minhaj (Duffer), Justin Theroux (Drew), Ivanna Sakhno (Nadedja), Jane Curtin (Carol), Paul Reiser (Arnie), Lolly Adefope (Tess), and Gillian Anderson (Wendy).


Grumpier Old Men (1995, Howard Deutch)

The first half of Grumpier Old Men is such an improvement over the original, it could be a paragon of sequels. Director Deutch knows how to showcase the actors amid all the physical comedy. There’s a lot of physical comedy and sight gags in Grumpier. There’s Walter Matthau doing the Saturday Night Fever strut while in his mid-seventies and in a bathrobe in rural but probably not that rural, they just never talk about it, Minnesota. Grumpier has a lot of laughs. It’s learned from the experience of the previous one; screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson has, as far as setting up scenes for this particular cast, learned.

And Deutch has just the right take on the material, just the right balance between laughing at the characters and with them. And it’s sometimes hard to laugh with Matthau and fellow septuagenarian rascal, Jack Lemmon. They’re dicks to new girl in town Sophia Loren, who’s just an Italian bombshell with a heart of gold trying to find the right man even though her mama (Ann Morgan Guilbert) thinks she’s cursed in love. Grumpier definitely never feels like an homage to an Italian melodrama from the late seventies, but you can at least imagine Loren and Guilbert having these arguments for the last forty years. You can’t really imagine Lemmon and Matthau when they’re not in the middle of a movie adventure; this time they’re planning their kids’ wedding—Lemmon’s daughter, Daryl Hannah, is marrying Matthau’s son, Kevin Pollak—then Loren comes to town and there’s the whole run the new girl out of town because she isn’t going to sell live bait in the boys’ old bait shop. Frankly, it’s a disappointment Ossie Davis doesn’t show up as a ghost. It’d be a bad move, but a likable one.

Because halfway through Grumpier Old Men, the film runs out of energy and then realizes it hasn’t been doing much with the story. The first half is Matthau mugging for the camera and fight-flirting with Loren. Lemmon’s the sidekick; outside a couple solid laughs, Lemmon and Ann-Margret are entirely support in the first act. They come back at the end of the second, when we get a preview of the spin-off melodrama where Capulet Hannah and Montague Pollak discover they can’t make the marriage work because their bloodlines hate each other. Actually, a divorce melodrama with this cast would be amazing. And might be a more appropriate use the Alan Silvestri score.

Because the third act solution to the kids’ relationship problems, manipulate Daryl Hannah. For her own good. With the help of her child. Because Grumpier Old Men isn’t older adult empowerment as much as it is the Little Rascals with Lemmon and Matthau. There’s the preview of that eventuality when they pull pranks on Loren before she opens her restaurant because they want to run her out of business. Loren’s solution? Cleavage, a red dress, a Monroe wiggle, and trying to seduce Matthau in the depressing town bar. Some of its optics distract from other of its optics and Loren and Matthau are really funny so… it gets a pass but it was probably foreshadowing for the second and third act problems.

Especially since they also get themselves out of every subplot’s narrative pickle in the laziest, most manipulative way possible—particularly taking into account the target audience, White grandparents and their grandchildren, stuck together on a holiday afternoon. Deus Deus Ex: Grumpier Old Men and BLANK: For now they kill me with a living death. But no spoilers. You can guess, though, if you’re familiar with the actor. Nudge nudge.

All those complaints made… it’s kind of a lot of fun for a while. Matthau’s schtick is great. Loren’s great. Burgess Meredith—as Lemmon’s foul-mouth-and-minded ninety-five year-old dad—is hilarious. Lemmon’s fine. Turns out he’s funnier in the outtakes, which is a weird way to end the movie, showing how much funnier it could have been if you weren’t going for so bland. Ann-Margret gets the worst part, outside Hannah. And Pollak, because Pollak’s unlikable. Especially when he gets stale, scene-ending one-liner observations about the human condition in middle class nineties America, especially with aging parents; part of Deutch’s lack of personality is his obvious inability to say no to bad ideas; it makes him a tragic figure in the Grumpier mess.

It’s kind of worth it for the cast.

It’s also definitely more successful than the first, even if it ends up disappointing. Matthau gets a solid part. Loren’s got a much better part than anyone else in the movie besides him… which is a qualified compliment but… it’s cute. In an absurd way. Especially given it’s appropriate for all ages but wants to keep everyone in the audience awake.

So maybe the droning, simplistic, brain-addling Silvestri score sends subliminal messages to knock out anyone who’d be offended by all the dick jokes. They were going to have fart jokes too—because it’s a theme in the outtakes—but apparently someone decided fart jokes would be too far.

Grumpier Old Men could be a whole lot worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Deutch; written by Mark Steven Johnson; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Maryann Brandon, Seth Flaum, and Billy Weber; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; produced by John Davis and Richard C. Berman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Sophia Loren (Maria Sophia Coletta Ragetti), Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Ann Morgan Guilbert (Mama Ragetti), Ann-Margret (Ariel Gustafson), Daryl Hannah (Melanie Gustafson), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman), Katie Sagona (Allie), Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson).


Grumpy Old Men (1993, Donald Petrie)

If Grumpy Old Men weren’t so scared of its ribald humor—giving almost all of it to dirty oldest man Burgess Meredith, who’s just there to make sex jokes and serves no other purpose in the film—you could probably just as well call it Horny Old Men. At least in Jack Lemmon’s case. He hasn’t gotten horizontal since 1978, which might be when his wife left. Grumpy’s pretty vague with its backstory, maybe because writer Mark Steven Johnson is far more comfortable with Lemmon and nemesis Walter Matthau bickering; or maybe he’s just not good at consistency in the exposition. Given the general ineptness of the narrative, it seems more like the latter.

Because even though the film’s principal cast is entirely AARP eligible, it’s not some empowering story about older adults living full lives; if it weren’t for Ann-Margret moving in across the street and reminding Matthau and Lemmon to perv at her through their windows, they’d be just as happy sitting around alone doing nothing. Sure, Matthau’s got his TV and Lemmon plays chess against himself, but their lives are just waiting for their kids to need them. The kids—Kevin Pollak is Matthau’s son, Daryl Hannah’s Lemmon’s daughter—are the only supporting characters with a full arc. Though… arguably, Lemmon is the only of the the main characters with a complete arc. Once the third act hits, Matthau and Ann-Margret act entirely for Lemmon’s benefit, even as he’s offscreen for a bunch of the finale.

Lemmon’s arc mostly involves him dodging IRS guy Buck Henry—who’s well-utilized and quite amusing in an otherwise bland little extended cameo—because (we learn) he wasn’t paying enough back when his ex-wife was working so he owes a bunch of money and they’re going to take his house. He’s not telling anyone about these problems—and the film isn’t telling the viewer either so it can double-up expository impact when Matthau finds out about it late in the second act—so it’s hard to take the problems seriously. You’re obviously not supposed to take Grumpy Old Men very seriously, from vulgar nonagenarian Meredith to Lemmon and Matthau’s mean-spirited bantering slash full-on slapstick physical comedy; Lemmon’s money problems, despite being the biggest plot (sorry, Ann-Margret), don’t make much impact. Lemmon’s great at fretting but fretting solo can’t compare to he and Matthau going thermonuclear. Especially since Matthau’s got zip to do except go thermonuclear.

Because they’re not really Grumpy Old Men in general, just specifically as it relates to the other. They’ve hated each other since childhood; despite being pals until puberty, the first girl to come between them broke the friendship early, which must have made it awkward when Lemmon then married the girl, had a couple kids—a son died in Vietnam to remind everyone it’s actually kind of serious but in a “this was very serious thirty years ago and not since” way—and was miserable with Matthau’s dream girl. Matthau meanwhile married a good woman—the way they talk about Lemmon’s ex-wife is… problematic. Though the script’s often problematic with its female characters. The boys initially suspect Ann-Margret is a free-love type, for example, and it’s impossible to fault them because her writing is so bad for most of the first act. She’s supposed to be a passionate literature professor living her best life as a widow, which involves snowmobiling a lot. And a sauna so they can show fifty-two year-old Ann-Margret can still cheesecake.

It’s also unclear why Ann-Margret’s only three options, dating-wise, are Lemmon (sixty-eight), Matthau (seventy-three), and Ossie Davis (seventy-six). Especially since she’s not just drawing stares from the oldest guys. Of course, the film’s not really interested in fleshing out the setting. Besides Lemmon, Matthau, Ann-Margrets’s homes, the frozen lake where the men all icefish because it’s Minnesota (Davis runs the bait shop and lunch counter), a bar, and a pharmacy, Grumpy Old Men doesn’t go anywhere.

The best performance is probably Matthau, just because he doesn’t get too much to do, whereas the script fails both Lemmon and Ann-Margret (mostly her). Davis is cute, Pollak is good, Hannah’s fine. Technically it’s competent. Petrie does fine showcasing the physical comedy and the banter. Johnny E. Jensen’s photography is better than it needs to be. The Alan Silvestri super-saccharine score is a tad much though.

Grumpy Old Men has got some solid laughs and not much else.

Oh, and listen fast for John Carroll Lynch.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Donald Petrie; written by Mark Steven Johnson; director of photography, Johnny E. Jensen; edited by Bonnie Koehler; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, David Chapman; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; produced by John Davis and Richard C. Berman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Ann-Margret (Ariel Truax), Daryl Hannah (Melanie), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman), Ossie Davis (Chuck), Buck Henry (Snyder), Christopher McDonald (Mike), and Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson).


Troop Zero (2019, Bert & Bertie)

Troop Zero is heartwarming but not too heartwarming. It doesn’t promise the stars as much as it promises a gradual slide to fairness; it promises redemption to some but not the ones who really need it. It avoids any seriousness to instead provide consistent, constant entertainment. Often in the form of amusing montage sequences with good soundtrack accompaniment and excellent editing from Catherine Haight. But as anything other than consistent, constant entertainment? Troop Zero’s got a lot of problems.

The film’s the story of a girl living poor in rural Georgia in the late seventies (Mckenna Grace, who’s likable and perfectly fine but has any great moments; she’s a solid child actor, who isn’t doing anything special). She finds out if you’re in the Girl Scouts (they’re called something else, obviously), you might be on the gold record NASA is shooting out into space on a Voyager spacecraft. If you’re wondering why there’s not a Star Trek: The Motion Picture reference right about now, it’s because it’s too hard. Needless to say, I tried.

Anyway. Grace gets her neighbor, pre-gay Charlie Shotwell–Troop Zero has that heartwarming Hollywood take on poor rural Americana when it comes to marginalized people: everyone’s poor and no one cares if you’re gay or Black. There’s a lot of awful bullying in Troop Zero and a bunch of horrific female characters—which is all good because the directors and writer are woman but also maybe not a great look because it implies a lot more seriousness than the film’s ever willing to engage with—but there’s never any overt racism, homophobia, or even sexism. There’s some subtle racism but it’s just to make the main mean girl (Ashley Brooke) even meaner. Sorry, tangents again, which is particularly inappropriate for Troop Zero. It doesn’t have any tangents. When its subplots get attention, it always sticks out because the moments seemed forced in—like top-billed Viola Davis’s law school ambitions or her bonding with stuck-up school principal Allison Janney (who’s redemptive moments seem contractually obligated for all the good they do). So… sorry.

Grace and Shotwell set about getting enough kids for a new troop. See, the manual, which Grace can read and understand because her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a lawyer who never wins his cases but because the clients are always guilty and encourages her critical thinking skills, never specifies gender requirements. They get Christian girl Bella Higginbotham, then bully and extorter Milan Ray, and Ray’s enforcer, Johanna Colón. To varying degrees, the kids are all entertaining. Colón and Shotwell get the most situational comedy, Ray’s got a decent sort of subplot about unexpectedly bonding with Grace (which gets mostly forgotten in the third act), and Higginbotham’s always sympathetic. They never quite bond with troop leader Davis, which makes sense as boss Gaffigan ordered her to take the gig. Will the troop get over their differences and band together to take it to the finals? Will they defeat the mean girls?

Those questions might be important if Troop Zero needed them to decide anything. There’s a definite lack of conflict in the film outside the bullying. Gaffigan’s a sweetheart and in permanently in the red with his law practice, meaning Davis can’t get paid, but they’re always okay. There’s never much narrative danger. Often there’s none at all. So when the film fails to muster enough enthusiasm to seep through on the grand finale, it’s not unexpected. Troop Zero, despite the energetic montages and the directors adequate inventiveness as far as composition—cinematographer James Whitaker ably assists—never has much directed energy. Never much focus. Grace gets scenes to herself, Davis gets scenes to herself, Janney gets scenes to herself. Grace is the de facto protagonist because she narrates the film; otherwise, she’d be sharing focus with Davis, Janney, and maybe even Gaffigan.

And Grace has got a kids’ story arc. It’s got some real depth to it, but it’s still a kids’ story arc. The film’s handling of Grace clashes with its handling of the adults. Davis and Janney, for example, they don’t have kiddie arcs. Widower Gaffigan wouldn’t have a kiddie arc. My pejorative use of kiddie here is just to mean non-confrontational. Bullying aside.

Davis is great, Gaffigan’s great, Janney’s great. Grace is okay. Ray’s good. Colón’s adorable. The kids are all fine—Higginbotham, Shotwell—when something doesn’t work out for them, it’s just as often the script or direction versus the kid.

For the actors’ sake, it’d be really nice if Troop Zero was more successful, less uneven. It’s got a good (albeit unrealistic) heart and a very likable cast. And the grand finale talent show is true delight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bert & Bertie; written by Lucy Alibar; director of photography, James Whitaker; edited by Catherine Haight; music by Rob Lord; production designer, Laura Fox; costume designer, Caroline Eselin; produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Kate Churchill, Steve Tisch, and Viola Davis; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Mckenna Grace (Christmas Flint), Viola Davis (Miss Rayleen), Jim Gaffigan (Ramsey Flint), Allison Janney (Miss Massey), Charlie Shotwell (Joseph), Milan Ray (Hell-No Price), Johanna Colón (Smash), Bella Higginbotham (Anne-Claire), Mike Epps (Dwayne Champaign), Ashley Brooke (Piper Keller), and Ash Thapliyal (Persad).


Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)

Catch Me If You Can is a spectacular showcase for Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t exactly rise up to meet him, not the filmmaking, not the writing, not his costars. With the exception of co-lead Tom Hanks, who’s a whole other thing, the direction, the writing, the supporting cast, they’re all tied together in a less than impressive knot.

Let’s get the filmmaking out of the way first.

Spielberg’s direction is adequate, at least as far as the composition goes. It’s never too good, it’s never too bad. The film opens with these extremely cute animated opening titles, but they go on way too long and the accompanying John Williams music is some of the film’s least impressive as far as the score goes. And the score’s usually middling so to open on a low point… Not a great start. Then the movie goes into the framing device (getting ahead of myself on the script problems) as FBI agent Hanks is trying to get DiCaprio out of a French prison. There’s something very affected about the style, with Spielberg mimicking late fifties and early sixties style without bringing anything new to it. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski don’t show the mid-sixties through rose colored glasses as much as they artificially twinkle the past. Everything shimmers with unreality, which kind of hurts the true story angle as Catch Me rarely shows how DiCaprio is pulling off his cons. Plus the age discrepancies. DiCaprio’s twenty-eight playing seventeen playing twenty-eight. It mostly works, thanks to DiCaprio’s performance but against some of what Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson throw at him; there are significant hiccups.

Like Christopher Walken as DiCaprio’s WWII vet dad. Walken’s sixty; he looks pretty good for sixty. But he was supposed to be some kind of forty-year old grunt in WWII? Again, Catch Me’s fast and loose with its hold on reality but given it’s all about the amazing things DiCaprio’s character was actually able to do… not having to constantly suspend and re-suspend disbelief would be nice. Walken’s actually good, even if he’s a stunt cast and his part is so thin he’s just doing a generic Christopher Walken performance. Nathanson doesn’t do character development or texture. Even when the story needs it. Spielberg doesn’t help with it either; it’s DiCaprio’s movie but Spielberg’s more concerned with Hanks’s FBI agent.

Let me just use that to segue into Hanks. Hanks is not good. He does a questionable and pointless accent, presumably to make the character seem less flat, and there’s nothing else to it. First act, it seems like Hanks might go someplace—and the film does try to force him into a paternal relationship with DiCaprio, which doesn’t work—but it’s a nothing part. It’s not even engaging enough to be a caricature. Nathanson’s a shockingly thin writer.

Okay, maybe not shockingly. It’s not like the script’s ever got any more potential than it delivers. But Spielberg really does just go along with it. The female roles are exceptionally thin; they’re all dumb and easy, whether it’s bank teller Elizabeth Banks, flight attendant Ellen Pompeo, working girl Jennifer Garner, or nurse Amy Adams. Worse is when DiCaprio ends up staying longterm with Adams, it’s never clear why; especially since the movie makes fun of her so much. Though, I suppose, even worse is when Adams brings her parents into the film. Martin Sheen—in a stunningly bad bit of stunt-casting—is bad. Nancy Lenehan is mom, with zip to do, which is actually much better for her than, say, Nathalie Baye as DiCaprio’s mom. Baye gets the film’s worst part by far.

Through it all, DiCaprio manages to keep his head up and keep Catch Me working. He contends with some questionable makeup decisions, never getting to followthrough on set pieces, and the astoundingly bad pop culture reference. There’s a truly incompetent James Bond Goldfinger sequence, which ought to be a gimme but instead Spielberg completely fumbles it.

Spielberg never takes Catch Me If You Can seriously enough, from the casting to the writing to Kaminski’s silly photography. DiCaprio takes it seriously, to good effect. Hanks takes it seriously, to… if not bad effect, at least wanting. It’s a glossy, trite trifle. Could’ve been a lot more.

Though not with the same script, supporting cast, principal crew members, or director.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, based on the book by Frank Abagnale Jr. and Stan Redding; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; costume designer, Mary Zophres; produced by Spielberg and Walter F. Parkes; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Abagnale Jr.), Tom Hanks (Carl Hanratty), Christopher Walken (Frank Abagnale), Nathalie Baye (Paula Abagnale), James Brolin (Jack Barnes), Amy Adams (Brenda Strong), Martin Sheen (Roger Strong), Nancy Lenehan (Carol Strong), Brian Howe (Earl Amdursky), Frank John Hughes (Tom Fox), Ellen Pompeo (Marci), Elizabeth Banks (Lucy), and Jennifer Garner (Cheryl Ann).


Roxanne (1987, Fred Schepisi)

Roxanne is a charming romantic comedy. Wait, I think it might need an additional qualifier—it’s a charming romantic situational comedy. I’m not one to sit around and debate stakes with romantic comedies, but even for a romantic comedy… Roxanne’s got some low stakes. Maybe because of how closely screenwriter (and leading man) Steve Martin followed his adaptation of the source play (Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac) but also maybe not.

Martin is a small ski resort town’s fire chief. His department is made up almost exclusively of volunteers, all of whom seem really bad at their jobs at the fire department and—possibly—even worse at their day jobs. Mayor Fred Willard, for example, has no apparent skills as a firefighter but he’s a terrible mayor. Though good looking enough compared to the other men of the town he can still hang a couple ski bunnies off his arms. Then there’s stereotypical eighties pig John Kapelos, whose best pick-up line involves confusing his target with a recent Playmate because his worst pick-up lines involve his dead animal shop. Martin would be a major catch if it just weren’t for his abnormally large nose, which makes him the target of ridicule—leading to fistfights, which are always a mistake for the teasers because Martin’s a badass—as well as some sympathy. God-sister Shelley Duvall is his only real friend, but more because all the guys are varying degrees of idiot. It’s unclear how the town functioned with the untrained fire department before the film starts, which, again, doesn’t really matter because… situational comedy. There’s a very low bar for reality. Like how the town doesn’t have any sort of law enforcement; even if Martin kicking his teasers’ asses up and down the picturesque streets is self-defense, you’d think there’d at least be a police report. Or hospital visits.

Everything changes with the summer arrival of Daryl Hannah, who all the guys lust after but only Martin really loves for her insides; she’s a smart, accomplished astronomer. They have a cute, funny meeting where Hannah’s locked out of her house and Martin helps her get the door unlocked. Only Hannah’s managed to lock herself out in the nude (thanks to a wonderfully shitty cat—Roxanne knows its cats). Charming. Situational. Comedy.

Simultaneous to Hannah showing up in town (she’s renting from Duvall, who’s apparently an exploitative landlord, something the film doesn’t dwell on but does establish) is professional firefighter Rick Rossovich starting with the fire department. He’s there to help Martin whip them into shape, so it’s unclear why it takes so long for Rossovich and Martin to actually meet. Like, who’s supervising him his first three days. Rossovich lives in the firehouse, how does Martin keep missing him. Oh, wait, doesn’t matter. Situational comedy.

Turns out Hannah’s on the rebound and looking for an easy summer lay and hunk Rossovich is just what she wants. And Rossovich is all about Hannah because… well, she’s blonde and has legs. Actually, her being blonde might not even figure in. The legs get talked about. I’m assuming on the blonde. Only Rossovich has severe social anxiety. He’s also a himbo. And he’s also a slut. But Martin likes Hannah enough he agrees to encourage Rossovich on her behalf, which leads to him writing Hannah love letters ostensibly from Rossovich but really from him. Because romantic comedy.

After the first act, Hannah’s just around as romantic conquest, but she’s still really likable. Martin’s great. He’s got occasional comedic set pieces, which usually work. Rossovich is… low okay. The part doesn’t require much and Rossovich doesn’t bring much. He’s also got a decided lack of chemistry with Hannah. It’s not clear from the start—since their relationship is so complicated—but once he starts flirting with bimbo cocktail waitress Shandra Beri, who he does have chemistry with… well, it’s a ding.

Though director Schepisi relies on his cast to do their own acting. Especially the firefighters. None of them are as funny as they ought to be, especially Michael J. Pollard. Though it could also be John Scott’s editing. There’s something off with the film’s cuts. Schepisi shoots it wide Panavision, which works well for the medium to long shots and not so well on the close-ups. Again, might be Scott’s cutting.

Roxanne is funny and cute. Could it be more? Maybe? It’s hard to imagine it with Martin, Hannah, or Rossovich having any more depth though. Martin and Hannah certainly seem capable of essaying that potential depth… Rossovich not so much.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Schepisi; screenplay by Steve Martin, based on a play by Edmond Rostand; director of photography, Ian Baker; edited by John Scott; music by Bruce Smeaton; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by Daniel Melnick and Michael Rachmil; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (C.D. Bales), Daryl Hannah (Roxanne), Rick Rossovich (Chris), Shelley Duvall (Dixie), Shandra Beri (Sandy), John Kapelos (Chuck), Fred Willard (Mayor Deebs), and Michael J. Pollard (Andy).


Nobody’s Fool (1994, Robert Benton)

Nobody’s Fool takes place during a particularly busy December for protagonist Paul Newman. He’s got a lot going on all at once, but mostly the reappearance of son Dylan Walsh and family. They’re in town at the beginning for Thanksgiving, but Walsh’s marriage is in a troubled state—we’re never privy to the exact details, as Walsh remains something of a mystery throughout—and eventually wife Catherine Dent leaves (taking the astoundingly annoying younger son Carl J. Matusovich, leaving older, shy son Alexander Goodwin with Walsh). So Newman, who walked out on Walsh before he turned one, all of a sudden finds himself playing grandfather. Even more surprising… he likes it.

The film also never gets into the specifics of Newman’s failed coupling with (uncredited) Elizabeth Wilson, but Wilson doesn’t fit into Newman’s lifestyle. Even though her husband, Richard Mawe, thinks Newman’s a riot. We get to see more of Mawe and Newman than Wilson and Newman, which seems a little strange until you realize how little that history means to Newman. He’s a child growing older at sixty, still treading water on life, daydreaming about escaping to paradises with boss’s wife, Melanie Griffith. Griffith’s married to jackass Bruce Willis, who spends his night out with other women and his days running his inherited construction company if not into the ground then a lot closer to it than it ought to be. The film opens with Newman trying to sue Willis on a worker’s comp claim and Willis wiggling his way out. Though it doesn’t help Newman’s lawyer, Gene Saks, seems to view the case as a way to keep busy more than a potential success. While the inciting incident of the film is Walsh and family showing up, Newman’s in a new place now thanks to his bum knee. His steady, sturdy life has a major kink in it now—especially since with the lawsuit he can’t really be working for Willis any more and Willis is the only game in town.

Willis and Newman’s relationship in the film is probably its most interesting, because Newman can’t stand Willis but he’s also constantly disappointed in him. He’s never hopeful for him, because—even though Newman’s genial—he doesn’t seem to accept optimism as a rational life outlook. Even small things. Newman’s a medieval serf whose life is mostly unchanging, through entropy is breaking down some of the things around him. Particularly his truck. Whereas Willis is secure enough not to worry about change or the lack of it. Willis takes everything for granted in a detached, positive way, Newman takes everything for granted in a negative way. Yet Newman’s protective of Willis, even as Willis holds power over Newman. Not to mention Newman can’t stand Willis for cheating on Griffith.

Nobody’s Fool isn’t trying to be subtle. It’s a very deliberate character study of Newman, watching him interact with the various folks in his life, like landlady Jessica Tandy or now jealous of Walsh sidekick Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and of course zealous idiot cop Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman and Newman are hilarious in the film. Director Benton goes for laughs all the time. He goes for smiles a lot of the time and laughs all of the time. Newman’s always got something to say, usually the wrong thing, which is a tried and true comedy formula. Nobody’s Fool packages it a little differently—Newman doesn’t just give a strong lead performance, he makes Nobody’s Fool feel very serious, even as it stays genial, even as it goes for laughs. Newman anchors it.

Good performances from everyone. Newman in particular, Vince—Josef Sommer’s awesome as Tandy’s creep bank guy who Newman wants to punch out but can never find the right opportunity. Great supporting cast too—Jay Patterson, Alice Drummond, Margo Martindale. Ellen Chenoweth’s casting is excellent. Walsh is fine but could be better. He needs to be at least as good as Willis and he’s not. Grandson Goodwin is fine, even if he does disappear for a long stretch from second act to third. Nobody’s Fool has that limited present action—Thanksgiving to Christmas—but Benton never relies on it, instead establishing an easy going pace, never rushing things even though logically these events are occurring in what must be rapid succession. Especially with Griffith’s martial troubles; she’s going through a whole lot but we only see her during her respites where she gets to pal around with Newman.

What ends up happening is the supporting cast can’t compete with the film’s momentum—if they’re hands off, like Willis (who’s in the film a lot but treated like a cameo) or Tandy, it works. In fact Tandy’s subplot with son Sommer gets some scenes without Newman; no one else does. But if they’re more directly involved with Newman—so Vince, Walsh, Griffith—it feels like there’s something missing. Not so much with Vince, who’s a combination of comic relief and gentle heart, but definitely with Walsh and Griffith. Especially Walsh. Griffith’s got a more functional part in the story, whereas Walsh is basically the inciting incident personified. His presence kicks off Newman’s self-discovery. Or is at least the final straw to kick it off.

Excellent production—great photography from John Bailey and production design from David Gropman—and sure-footed direction from Benton. Lovely, omnipresent score from Howard Shore does a lot of the heavy lifting. If Newman’s not doing it, the music’s doing it. But it’s all very safe, like Benton’s goal really is to show how deadbeat dads would maybe be a lot worse if they’d stuck around and they’re worth a second chance once they hit sixty. Newman’s able to get a lot of mileage out of the part, but he’s staying on the track, just racking up laps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by John Bloom; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Arlene Donovan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Sully), Jessica Tandy (Miss Beryl), Bruce Willis (Carl), Melanie Griffith (Toby), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Rub), Dylan Walsh (Peter), Alexander Goodwin (Will), Gene Saks (Wirf), Josef Sommer (Clive Jr.), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Officer Raymer), Philip Bosco (Judge Flatt), Catherine Dent (Charlotte), Carl J. Matusovich (Wacker), Jay Patterson (Jocko), Jerry Mayer (Ollie), Margo Martindale (Birdy), Angelica Page (Ruby), Elizabeth Wilson (Vera), Richard Mawe (Ralph), and Alice Drummond (Hattie).


Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

Emma keeps misplacing things. For a long stretches, it misplaces second-billed Toni Collette (who goes from being the subject of the first half to an afterthought in the most of the second half to just a plot foil in the third act). There’s also lead Gwyneth Paltrow’s painting. The film opens with Paltrow’s paintings of her friends, home, and familiar places, which get used again to identify locations for a bit in the first act, and then the painting becomes a plot point… but then it’s gone, both from the narrative (which could make sense with the plot point if you’re being generous) and the film’s visuals. It’s indicative of Emma’s greatest problem—even greater than Paltrow not really being up to snuff for the lead and often mugging her way through scenes, her costars all doing the double duty of load-bearing and acting—is director McGrath. He’s got some ideas, but he’s rarely consistent with them (outside he and cinematographer Ian Wilson’s astoundingly ill-advised attempt at “natural” lighting), and even if he were… he doesn’t have the chops to pull them off. Not in directing actors (there are some rather oddly bad performances throughout), not in composing shots, and definitely not in establishing a narrative distance. Particularly bad form on the last one, as McGrath adapted the Jane Austen novel himself.

The film’s got two competing narrations, one from Paltrow and one from what we assume is one character but is actually another because getting in a pointless wink is more important than verisimilitude. But the misleading narration—which only works because the supporting cast is so thinly drawn—is just a third act problem. Paltrow’s narration, which kicks off in earnest somewhere in the second half, is from the character’s diary. The diary doesn’t come into play until well after the narration is established and has very little interesting to convey. It’s good writing (so presumably from the source novel) but it doesn’t add anything to the film because the film’s already established itself without needing diary or narration. McGrath’s constantly introducing elements the film’s already shown it can do without. Sometimes they’re competent, sometimes they’re piddling.

Ewan McGregor, for instance, is piddling.

McGregor plays Paltrow’s eventual de facto suitor. So, the film starts with Paltrow just having succeeded in marrying off governess Greta Scacchi to local widow James Cosmo and deciding she’s going to become a matchmaker. Her next subjects? Vicar Alan Cummings (who’s more middling than piddling) and aforementioned second-billed Collette. Now, Collette doesn’t have any money and Cummings is out for a rich dowry only Paltrow thinks love will conquer all. Except the condescending, gently demeaning way Paltrow treats Collette is duplicated in how the film treats her. Collette, and many of the other women in the film, are often used for laughs. Weird since Paltrow getting her eventual comeuppance involves her punching down, you’d think McGrath, adapted the novel, would be able to do something like foreshadowing… but he cannot because he does a poor job of adapting the novel. Seriously; you get done with Emma and don’t even wonder if you should read the novel. Given the film’s from the renewed era of Austen adaptations… it ought to at least encourage readership.

Anyway.

Eventually McGregor shows up as Cosmo’s son and, presumably, Paltrow’s intended. Except he’s playing the part like he’s in a bad Muppet Jane Austen’s Emma and not just because of the hair. In some ways he perfectly compliments Paltrow’s performance; they both mug for the camera, he just does it with more volume, more bluster. Their similarities even potentially become a plot point but not really because of the way McGrath directs the scene, which… is again the biggest problem with the film. McGrath’s well-meaning enough in his direction, just inept with it. And when he does try to show flourish, usually with a silly camera move—one does have to wonder about cinematographer Wilson’s agency—it ends up silly at best.

There are some okay supporting performances: Jeremy Northam’s fine as Paltrow’s male friend, though there’s a way too big performance differential between the two of them and never the right chemistry, Collette’s good, especially given the circumstances, Sophie Thompson’s probably the best, as the woman Paltrow meanest girls. Sacchi’s all right. Cosmo mugs. Denys Hawthorne, as Paltrow’s father, is literal scenery. Juliet Stevenson, as a second half punchline, does a lot better than she should given the part and the direction.

Not great editing from Lesley Walker doesn’t help things. Rachel Portman’s score has its moments but also the ones where it seems more appropriate for an ostentatious adventure picture, which then just introduces the false promise of personality to the filmmaking and what could be, if only McGrath had the chops.

The third act’s particularly disappointing as all it really needs is some narrative sincerity. It doesn’t even need to have Paltrow step up… though I guess it does make some sense how McGrath then takes the movie away from her. It’s like he gives her a vote of no confidence after he’s just made a two hour movie of her.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas McGrath; screenplay by McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by Lesley Walker; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Howells; costume designer, Ruth Myers; produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill), Jeremy Northam (George Knightley), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton), Polly Walker (Jane Fairfax), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), James Cosmo (Mr. Weston), Denys Hawthorne (Mr. Woodhouse), and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates).


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