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Meet the Parents (2000)
Good idea, shame about the movie
On the inside of Meet the Parents is a great plot idea, struggling to get out. Actually, that's not strictly true - the plot is actually realized pretty well; it's the supposed timing and unrelenting nature of the events that, for me, make this film no better than mediocre.
The premise is simple: About to propose to Pam (Teri Polo), his girlfriend, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) realises he's expected to ask her father's permission first. Of course, Jack (Robert de Niro) turns out to be every suitor's worst nightmare: demanding, condescending, belittling. Worse, it seems Greg can do nothing right.
The bulk of the film documents everything that happens over a weekend at the parental home. Pam's sister is getting married, so it's a big get-together with family and friends. The battering starts immediately; Greg's luggage goes missing. Jack makes snide comments over the colour of his rental car and choice in pets. Greg even causes chaos when opening a bottle of wine.
He is mocked for his choice of career - he's a nurse. Guess what: half the guests are doctors. He's intimidated by Pam's previous boyfriend, the seemingly perfect Kevin (Owen Wilson). His surname makes him an easy target. He manages to lose the family's pet cat, so he buys a replacement which looks nearly identical - which promptly tears the wedding dress to shreds. His luggage turns up, and Jack searches it, finding a pile of women's clothes - because, of course, it's not his bag.
It transpires that Jack is a former CIA agent - except Greg becomes convinced he's still involved in some covert operation. So he blurts out what he knows - and, wouldn't you just know it, he's put his foot in it again.
Taken individually, each incident is at least passably funny; some are hilarious; some make you cringe on Greg's behalf. But it's the whole thing - the relentless progression from one minor disaster to the next - where I felt the movie fell down. At first, it's pretty funny, watching this guy make a complete fool of himself; but when it goes on and on, and you realize you're in for an hour where nothing, NOTHING goes right, it just gets depressingly tedious.
And it's not all perfect. The surname gag grew old fairly quickly; the way people addressed him using only his surname was downright rude rather than funny; one leaking toilet would NOT flood a yard, no matter how full the septic tank (and what kind of planning is it to hold a big wedding party with the tank ready to blow?) The happy ending was also pretty unconvincing.
I haven't really said anything about the performances. I felt everyone did a reasonable job, nobody excelled. de Niro *can* do comedy - Brazil, Midnight Run - but here, I thought he was too deadpan, and the role just a bit *too* psycho. Stiller was a good choice for the lead, and Owen Wilson is great as the all-too-perfect ex. But, as I said, it's the pacing that spoils things. If they had spread the pain out a little - shown meetings over several weekends - along with scaling it back a little, I'd have enjoyed it a lot more.
What a disappointment: Indiana Jones and the Overblown Sequel
Temple of Doom is, by some distance, the weakest of the three Indiana Jones films. The plot isn't inherently bad, but the characters are almost all weakly drawn, deeply irritating or both, and the action sequences feel lame.
The bad news starts from the first frame. Raiders of the Lost Ark has one of the best opening sequences in cinema history; it establishes Jones as a swashbuckling archaeologist, and also brings in his enmity with Belloq. By contrast, the Temple sequence is embarrassing; is it a musical? Comedy? Parody? Frightening? It tries for all the above, and unsurprisingly just comes across as an awful mish-mash.
Not even Jones' character works; he is supposedly exchanging a priceless relic for a fabulous diamond in the opening exchanges. That hardly fits with him being a voraciously acquisitive archaeologist. Had it been him offering the diamond, then it might have worked.
Most others have commented on the startling annoyance levels achieved by Kate Capshaw's character, so I won't comment further beyond agreeing with them. But also, there's no on-screen chemistry with Harrison Ford. The first night in Pankot Palace, the two seem to go from barely tolerating each other to being ready to jump into bed with each other, for no discernible reason.
From there, the film descends to a non-stop underground action sequence that occupies the rest of the film. This not only tries the audience's patience, but also their credulity; the mine cars chase is, on several levels, impossible. The cars are unpowered, yet get up to high speeds. This is fine, if the track goes steeply downhill, but it looks level. Then, after getting a good headstart, Jones' car is caught by two chasing cars. How the other cars go faster, with all of them relying on gravity, isn't explained. There are two parallel tracks, built across a wide-open chasm of molten lava; why there are two tracks here but not elsewhere, and how the tracks got there, aren't explained. Finally the tracks end, a tidal wave of water punches its way out, and we see they are near the top of a cliff - so the tunnels leading downhill come out high up? And there's a pool of lava in the middle of a cliff? Stop worrying, give up and accept that when they were plotting all this, logical consistency wasn't high on the agenda.
You can only imagine the decision-making that went on at the studios. "Raiders has been a huge success - what shall we give 'em in the sequel? More! More stunts! More action! More locations! More gross-out stuff!" Unfortunately, that's all we do get - and all it adds up to, is a deeply unsatisfying pale imitation of one of the best action films of the past few decades.
Brilliant story of friendship, and a journey into madness
Birdy is a difficult film to describe. It's about the developing friendship between Al (Nick Cage) and Birdy (Matthew Modine), but it's also about a descent into madness, and the lengths to which Al goes for his friend.
The film starts in the late 60's, in a US military mental hospital. Cage has been seriously wounded, and has had reconstructive surgery on his face, but he's been brought in because Birdy is here. He's uncommunicative and appears to recognise no one, spending all day squatting on the floor of his cell squinting up at the window.
The story is mostly told in flashbacks, either Al recounting incidents in their growing friendship as neighbourhood kids or, later, Birdy remembering other incidents. From the start the two are pretty dissimilar - Al is athletic, outgoing and popular while Birdy is quiet and introverted - a typical nerd. The two are, paradoxically, brought together by Birdy's love of birds, and the stupid things they do - making suits out of pigeon feathers to befriend more pigeons, climbing on (and falling off) factories trying to capture more birds.
Al tries to set Birdy on a 'normal' track; they buy a wrecked car and fix it up, and head off to the beach. But Birdy is just too wrapped up in himself for this to work, and it's a wonder he doesn't alienate Al with his strange behaviour.
In the 'present', the doctor is putting more pressure on Al to get Birdy to respond; if he doesn't, then Birdy will be written off and sent to a permanent mental institution. The flashbacks continue, and it becomes clear that Birdy's love of birds has turned into an obsession, and then into the darker realms beyond that.
The final few minutes of the film cover a lot of ground; Al finally realises that Birdy is pretty well off the deep end; they both go off to fight in the war; Al gets his injury, while we see the incident that left Birdy in his present state. Meanwhile the doctor finally decides that time has run out, but Al decides he's not leaving.
The ending of the film is incredibly powerful, and it should be a criminal offence to give it away. Is it 'appropriate' to the rest of the film? I dunno - but I thought it was pretty damn good.
The film stands or falls on the performances of Cage and Modine - and, for me, it stands tall. Cage is excellent in his role, capturing the bravado of his character perfectly; but Modine is simply brilliant. During the flashbacks he portrays his nerdy character completely believably, but it's the way he handles the scenes in the asylum that amazed me. As soon as you know his obsession, it is crystal clear that he's not squatting in his cell, but perching, wishing to fly.
Alan Parker has made some great films; this might just be his best.
Sprawling, flawed masterpiece
I make my living off the evening news/ Just give me something, something I can use/ People love it when you lose/ They love dirty laundry
Well I could have been an actor, but I wound up here/ I just have to look good, I don't have to be clear/ Come and whisper in my ear/ Give me dirty laundry
The Don Henley song Dirty Laundry, from which those lyrics were taken, is a vicious indictment of the state of television news in the United States. Its cinematic equivalent is Network, one of the highlights in the distinguished career of Sidney Lumet - but in this case, the target is more the relentless pursuit of ratings by the networks.
While the focus is originally a news programme, it could have been almost anything. The original purpose of the show simply vanishes, an inconvenient detail discarded by the station, safe in the knowledge that the FCC is a toothless tiger. What brings about the change is the mental and nervous breakdown that befalls news anchorman Howard Beale - a role played to perfection by Peter Finch, for which he deservedly won a Best Actor Oscar.
The sick man is shamelessly manipulated by Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, against the wishes of William Holden, seemingly Finch's only real friend. All these give virtuoso performances - Dunaway in particular stands out for portraying a woman apparently devoid of human feelings at the office, but capable of love outside it.
For all the excellent acting - not forgetting Ned Beatty's towering monologue, for which he also received an Academy nomination - this film isn't perfect. My principal complaint is that it feels excessively long, and at times too sprawling and unfocussed for its own good. The ending also somehow doesn't ring true; while the TV execs have been portrayed as money-grubbing scum, capable of almost any excess (including giving air time to terrorists) in search of another point on the ratings, the notion that they are capable of ordering the cold-blooded murder of someone seems too far-fetched.
Those points aside, this is an excellent film. Well worth watching.
Truly Madly Deeply (1990)
Tears, snot, pain - what a wonderful film
Having spent some time in the States, I got to watch the brilliant review programme starring Siskel and Ebert (rest in peace, Gene). I've now got a rather dated copy of Ebert's book, and his review of this film matches my opinions perfectly.
Comparisons of this film and Ghost are fatuous, since the similarities are only superficial. Yes, the main protagonists are a couple where the man dies and returns as a ghost, but that's about it. Truly, madly, deeply is wonderfully involving - it has that indefinable something that makes you care about the characters, and pray that the film makers won't cop out and go for a stupid ending.
Fear not, they remain true to the rest of the film. If you only know Alan Rickman from his 'baddie' roles in films like Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, this will come as a complete surprise. He plays the recently departed Jamie, who must hang around as a ghost until Nina (Juliet Stevenson) finds happiness. The film is slow-paced, but that doesn't matter - it's a wonderful character study.
Of course, it's helped by having Nina played by the utterly wonderful Juliet Stevenson. In the early scenes, when she's grieving for Jamie, her pain is almost palpable. Forget Demi Moore-style teary-eyed, looking ever more beautiful grieving - this is the real thing, floods of tears, almost incoherent, looking like crap, snot-nosed AGONY. The transformation when she realises that Jamie is still around is a joy to watch - as is most of the film, actually.
'Ghost' for adults? In a way, but I think it's comparing apples and oranges. It's a masterful character study, with a great script and a cast on top of their form. Well worth watching.
The Mystery of Men (1999)
Oddball black comedy, with VERY strange humour
The Mystery of Men is a strange little piece that will have done little to explain the mystery - or even which particular mystery the title refers to. The comedy is at times hilarious, at others so black as to be distinctly uncomfortable - and the ending was just plain strange.
The story concerns three drinking partners, at a pub named the Oasis of Sanity. Vernon (Warren Clarke) is a depressive English teacher, going through the motions of life with little notion as to why. Julian (Neil Pearson) is the boss of a struggling regional advertising agency, while Oscar (Robert Daws) is a successful sales executive. Colin (Nick Berry) is the landlord of the pub.
Colin suggests a bizarre scheme - they all take out life insurance, with the others as beneficiaries, so that whoever lives the longest, gets rich. They all go in for this, even Vernon - a depressive, overweight, heavy-smoking drinker.
The programme then follows the unbelievable sequence of events that follows on from this. Without revealing any of the plot, the incidents involve adultery, deceit, three broken marriages, head injuries and a broken leg, a bankruptcy, serious burns to one protagonist, the destruction of the pub and finally a particularly gruesome death.
The humour varies between comical - the reaction of Vernon to the attempts by a student to seduce him - and thoroughly black, including the closing eulogy by the vicar at the funeral of the dead man. Occasionally uncomfortable, so long as your sense of humour veers to the darker end of the spectrum, this is an engaging way to pass 90 minutes.
Two Way Stretch (1960)
Whimsical British comedy
Describing a film as 'lightweight' shouldn't always be seen as a criticism. Two Way Stretch deserves the description, but it should be seen as praise rather than a put-down.
Back in the 50s and 60s, the British film industry seemed able to churn out these comedy films at the drop of a hat. The Ealing Comedies are the best known, but there are also any number starring Norman Wisdom, and also a few gems with Peter Sellers in them.
Sellers takes the leading role here, that of a criminal in the last weeks of his sentence. He and his three cell mates are drawn into a daring robbery - one that involves them breaking out the night before their release, then breaking back in again, thereby ensuring they have a watertight alibi. Just about every character in the film is a caricature - the kind-hearted chief warder, the bumbling prison governor intent on seeing only the best in everyone, the army chief in charge of moving the jewels. Yet it all works, so long as you don't go in expecting some significant piece of cinema.
An excellent cast, with Sellers on top form. Maurice Denham, as the governor, Lionel Jeffries, as the control-freak warder, and Wilfred Hyde-White, as the crook planning the robbery, are worth singling out.
Hill Street Blues (1981)
Realistic, ground-breaking police drama
When Hill Street Blues was being made, here in the UK it didn't get networked. Instead, my local commercial station (Central) picked it up and showed it on a Friday night at 11pm. My opinion of the show can be judged from the fact that I used to get home early from the pub to watch it.
It might be a cliche, but this really was a ground-breaking series. Compare it to its forbears, series like Kojak and Starsky & Hutch. Instead of there being three or four central characters, and a single plotline per episode, HSB had a couple of dozen characters and five or six plotlines, each interwoven and often continuing from week to week.
It brought an extra level of realism, too. In previous series, if cops got into a fist fight then they'd remain standing, although maybe with a bloody mouth. If someone got shot, odds on it was the bad guy, with the cops not receiving a scratch.
HSB changed all that. Fights looked real; policemen got shot; the bad guys often got away. And it went beyond that, including police corruption; politics interfering with the job; the way the police reached compromise deals with people like Jesus Martinez, even though he was a gang leader and notionally a 'bad guy'.
You cared about the characters, too. When Joe Coffey got shot, when Esterhaus died, any of a dozen others, they felt like they meant something. This wasn't a show that you watched, then forgot about.
Stephen Bochco went on to series like LA Law, NYPD Blue, Murder One and ER, all of which owe a lot to the style of HSB. It really did break the mould of TV drama; its influence is still clear, even today.
Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Wonderful homage to old-fashioned cinema
The Motion Picture Academy got it thoroughly wrong. Cinema Paradiso should NOT have won the Oscar(tm) for best foreign picture; in fact, it should not even have been nominated for it.
That's because this beautiful, warm, funny and heartbreaking film should really have been up there in the Best Picture category. Whether it could have beaten Driving Miss Daisy, or My Left Foot, or any of the others, is a moot point - but to relegate a film as wonderful as this one to a 'lesser' category, simply because the dialogue isn't in English, ought to be unacceptable.
The story centres around one boy, but is really all about a love affair with the cinema. As such, the two main characters are Alfredo, the outwardly gruff man who runs the local picture house, and Toto, the little boy who works his way into Alfredo's affections. Both of them love the cinema, and there are many wonderful scenes inside the palace, which is clearly one of the main focal points of town life.
There's not much plot - the by grows older, falls in love (which goes unrequited), goes away to do his stint in the military, and eventually moves away and becomes a successful businessman. He returns for Alfredo's funeral, and the whole film is one long reminiscence.
But reducing this film to a precis of the plot is to do it a disservice. This was clearly a labour of love, and it has resulted in a remarkable film. The casting and acting is as near perfect as you could ask for; the ending is so funny and so meaningful it moves me to tears each time I watch. This is a film where you care deeply for the central characters, and even the picture house itself.
I couldn't imagine watching a dubbed version of this; I don't speak Italian, but I think it would ruin much of the film's atmosphere. Please, if you get the chance, see this film - but only with subtitles!
The Right Stuff (1983)
Excellent docu-drama on America's early spaceflight programme
The Right Stuff has been lauded as possibly the best space movie ever. I'm not sure that's right, since there's precious few seconds of this film that actually take place in space.
Instead, it's really a character study of the people involved in the incredibly risky business of taking America's first steps in manned space flight. There are a few action sequences, mostly involving Chuck Yeager, who could have been on the Mercury programme but for his lack of a college education. But this film is really about the people.
Yeager, in the shape of Sam Shepard, provides the early focus of the film, and also illustrates the way that Edwards AFB, and its collection of experimental aircraft, proved an irresistible magnet for the hot-shots of the time - many of whom paid the ultimate price for their bravado. Then, NASA starts hunting for potential astronauts - 'spam in a can', as the job is ironically described.
From this point on, the film concentrates on Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Gordie Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and John Glenn (Ed Harris), with Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) getting a look-in. The astronauts are built up as heroes by the film, albeit flawed heroes; there's some reference to extra-marital affairs, but without going into detail, probably because most of the people involved were still alive. But there's also quite a lot of humour, too, with the 'enema' scene notable in bringing them down a notch or two.
The whole episode has been romanticised, but not in a heavy-handed fashion. Some of the other reviews have criticised it for being too gung-ho, for being too rabidly patriotic, and for not portraying the Russian efforts. Such criticisms aren't valid. Firstly, the film is set when the Cold War was at its height, and success in space was seen as a vital battle in that war. It's portrayed as gung-ho because, quite simply, it was. As for not portraying the Russian programme, that would be a strange thing to do in a film which is so clearly focussed on the people involved in the American effort.
To be taken with a fair-sized pinch of salt, but definitely recommended - over three hours long, but the time simply passed, without the film ever seeming to be stretched too thin.