The War with Grandpa

Cheech Marin, Robert De Niro, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken in a huddle

 

In 2016 Robert De Niro starred in Dirty Grandpa, as the titular disgusting (in lots of ways, but mostly sexually) senior giving uptight grandson Zac Efron lessons in letting it all hang out.

It was a funny film, though a 5.9 rating on the imdb (as I type) suggests that not everyone loved it. I didn’t love it either, but a few good gags and a suggestion that even the oldies like to part-ay is, in these frigid times, enough for me.

The War with Grandpa was made one year later and then sat on a shelf for three more, thanks to the Harvey Weinstein scandal (the Weinsteins were set to distribute it). It’s quite a diffrerent proposition, a family comedy with a plot contained pretty much in the title – Grandpa (De Niro) goes to live with his daughter (Uma Thurman) and family, causing her son Peter (Oakes Fegley) to be ejected from his room so Grandpa can have it. Peter is relocated to the attic, where rats, spiders and what have you lurk. He is not happy and declares war on Grandpa. Grandpa, forced to abandon listening to mawkish 1940s music (Hollywood still not being able to accept that it’s boomers who are now the oldies and 1960s music would be more appropriate), declares war back.

It’s a guerrilla war of escalating tit-for-tat – Peter switches foam sealant for grandpa’s shaving foam, grandpa responds by removing all the screws from Peter’s bed so it collapses when he bounces on to it. Grandpa doctors Peter’s homework. Peter loosens the heads on Grandpa’s golf clubs. A python is let loose at one point. But it’s an honourable war, with Peter and Grandpa swearing to keep this between themselves, so the rest of the family don’t find out (and also conveniently allowing the film to continue).

 

Robert De Niro and Oakes Fegley
Grandpa and Peter enjoy a momentary pause in the hostilities

 

That’s about it, plotwise – they skirmish, practical jokes and physical comedy abound. Fleshing things out a touch are Peter’s schoolfriends, a nerdy bunch who are plagued by a school bully crying out for comeuppance. Grandpa also has friends, played by Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin and – once Grandpa’s recruited her from a local supermarket – Jane Seymour.

It is quite a starry cast and it doesn’t leave much space for Rob Riggle as Peter’s dad. Riggle mugs gamely to camera, making the best of being a virtual unknown in a sea of names, but actually he’s the key to the whole thing. Because what we’re really watching is an updated version of a 1960s Disney live-action comedy featuring smart kids, mild jeopardy, and a good-natured but ineffectual parent (Riggle aka the Dickless Disney Dad) whose job is to act as a catch-up sounding board.

Everything about it is also 1960s Disney Family Movie – its bright looks, the way the family interacts (Laura Marano as the slightly older daughter interested in boys, for example), a game of dodgeball between the seniors and juniors that doesn’t result in a shattered pelvis for any of the oldies, and the sort of humour that’s come out of a tin marked “hoary old standbys”. At one point grandpa grabs a ladder outdoors and climbs up it to fix some party lights up near the guttering. Is the ladder going to slowly swing backwards away from the house with grandpa gamely clinging on and making “Oh-oh-oh-oh-OOOH” noises? Of course it is. Is grandpa going to be seriously injured? Of course not.

Don’t look too carefully and you’ll not notice that the oldies are a bit creaky, or that Marin and Seymour don’t have that much to do, nor does the slightly better used Walken for that matter. But isn’t it great to see them?

Though never a gut-buster, it’s extremely good natured, and relentlessly so, at pretty much every level. Over the end credits is footage of the cast and crew all dancing on set and they do seem to be having a great time. One other plus – De Niro has finally realised that his downturned-mouth gurning isn’t the great comedy motherlode he clearly once thought it was. I think I spotted it only once. Instead De Niro tries acting. He’s pretty good at it.

 

 

The War with Grandpa – watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Sibyl

Sibyl in clingy sexy black dress

 

 

Billed as a drama, Sibyl is in fact a tragic comedy, a brilliantly dry and pitiless one Kafkaesque in its analysis of a person in self denial and also Kafkaesque in being almost opaque until that “ah-haa!” moment comes along.

Director and co-writer Justine Triet, a fan of Hitchcock and Polanski, dives right in. Even before the opening credits we’ve met Sibyl, a shrink and former novelist who now wants to get back in the writing game. “Don’t do it,” boiled down, is the advice she gets from an old editor friend. But Sibyl does it anyway.

Sibyl (Virginie Efira) is also a recovering alcoholic who really shouldn’t have another drink, and certainly shouldn’t be fantasising about the great times – and sex – she had when she was a boozer. Sibyl has a husband (Paul Hamy) and kids but it’s the guy from the alcohol years she’s fantasising about, in graphic scenes. And given that he’s played by Niels Schneider, you may well too.

But what really does it for Sibyl is the new patient she takes on even as she’s closing her practice to concentrate on the writing. Margot is an actor (it’s Adèle Exarchopoulos of Blue Is the Warmest Colour fame) and so desperately in need of counselling that Sibyl makes an exception and takes her on – in spite of a “don’t do it” from her husband.

Unbeknown to Margot, Sibyl starts recording the sessions, to use them as content for her new book – “don’t do it,” says an analyst colleague. Since Margot is an actress, and is pregnant by her leading man in her big-break movie, breaking professional ethics is worth it for material this meaty, in Sibyl’s mind at least.

From here the film forks a bit – we get some more details about teary Margot, her hotheaded lover Igor (Gaspard Ulliel) and the driven director (Sandra Hüller) of the movie they’re making. But mostly the focus is on Sibyl, who is trashing one boundary after another – shrink and writer, shrink and client, sister and sister, mother and daughter, friend and colleague, holiday and work and, at one point, acting and reality. I’m deliberately not going any further into the plot because a) the joy of the thing is in the watching of it and b) it would read as a flat series of events rather than the cosmic fuck-up that Triet turns it into.

 

Gaspar Ulliel, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Sandra Hüller
Gaspard Ulliel, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Sandra Hüller

 

A Sybil in ancient Greece was a prophetess who could foretell the future. In spite of warnings from every quarter, this ironically named Sybil blunders on, geographically winding up on the volcanic island of Stromboli as Margot’s on-set shrink for a climax of brilliant messiness which manages to hook in just about everyone involved in the film within the film.

Efira is one of those beautiful 40-something French women who look good in pretty much everything, and Triet deliberately, almost comically, poses her in a variety of outfits as if to prove it – skinny jeans, sober workwear, party gear, nightwear, hair up, hair down, with spectacles and without, make up on and off, clothed and naked. If nothing else it rings the changes while this maelstrom of self-destruction unwittingly brings the pain. If the “ah-haa” moment never arrives, the visuals are a consolation.

I was also much taken with Exarchopoulos, whose dangerously fragile actor might be modelled on Marilyn Monroe – at one point Margot wears a headscarf that seemed very Marilyn to me – and beneath the tears and suicidal tendencies is actually a tough nut.

You can’t say the same about Sibyl. Beneath the successful exterior, this woman who appears to be calling the shots as she negotiates a complete life change is living in state of blithe self-denial.

But the Furies, the cosmos, the Fates have a way of balancing things out. Sibyl sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind. The cosmic, Kafkaesque joke is on her.

 

Sibyl – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

The Reception

Darien Sills-Evans in The Reception

 

 

The Reception is a film that seems to be heading gloriously in one direction, only to actually be heading disastrously in another. It tells the surely thorny enough story of Jeannette, a rich French-American woman (Pamela Holden Stewart) and her African-American lover Martin (Wayne Lamont Sims), who live in bucolic splendour in upstate New York, where he gains her financial patronage for his career as a (blocked) painter, in return for his companionship and quiescence about her drinking – the few glasses of red per night generally turning into a torrent. Then her daughter Sierra (Maggie Burkwit) turns up with her husband Andrew (Darien Sills-Evans) and the delicate balance is undone. It turns out that Martin and Jeannette aren’t that sort of a couple at all – he is in fact gay. And the fact that the new male arrival is also a black man leads to the horrible dawning suspicion that this isn’t an admirably colour-blind movie about human relationships, but a crypto-gay movie that will put black on black because transracial coupling is something that only goes on in real life, not the movies.

As the eccentric, self-obsessed Jeannette winds herself into monster mode, and the newly arrived Andrew reveals himself as an appalling snob, making his displeasure felt as Jeannette and Martin cross invisible borders of taste, things do crackle along. And the fact that the film cost only a few thousand dollars to make, was shot in a few days and the actors are people you’ve probably never heard of, these are all good reasons to be well disposed towards it. And I was. I enjoyed it even, early doors at any rate, and there’s lots to admire, especially the discomfited performances. But as the interpersonal relationships become more tangled, dark secrets become liberated thanks to alcohol and yet another character steps forward for a declamatory speech in which they get things off their chest – because in real life people say just exactly what they’re thinking, right? – the suspicion starts to build that Young is using the furniture of a “a searing chamber piece about complex personal relationships” to hide what is in fact a gay drama. The film is not “about” Jeannette and Martin, nor is it about Jeannette and daughter Sierra, no matter how loudly it proclaims that it is. It seems much more interested in what’s going on between the two men, who are introduced as and continue to be secondary characters. That’s where the action is though, often delivered via the grinding-buttock-ogram. I’m not objecting to the fact that this is a gay love story – though does it all have to be so half cock? – more the fact that I’ve been sold a pup. Or perhaps I’m feeling a sense of injustice that might be characterised as liberal white guilt – and these black guys (the characters and the actors) can look after themselves, surely. All I’m saying is Jeannette was interesting. Sierra too. And there was wild stuff always about to kick off over in that camp, I thought. See you next time, maybe.

 

The Reception – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Barnyard

Otis the cow in Barnyard

 

 

Otis, the barnyard bull, has udders. Because, kids, that’s what bulls have, isn’t it?

Voiced by Kevin James, and with a first name that is generally appended to a male, it’s clear that either Otis is a transgender animal or cowardice has taken hold somewhere at the design stage in the latest animal CG comedy off the conveyor belt.

This “me too” effort from Paramount also has a plot that seems determined to fit in, not stand out, it being a recycling of The Lion King.

Growing a pair, ironically, is what it’s about too. Otis is the young motorbiking cowlet (I’d call him a bullock but he clearly isn’t) about town who has to learn how to take over from his dad, king of the barnyard, after dad dies bravely defending the homestead. Until then, Otis has been a free spirit, living a dudeish lifestyle (Kevin James a good choice here). But suddenly he has to man up – with great udders comes great responsibility and all that.

Seemingly designed for dim rednecks and terrified of upsetting anyone at all, Barnyard comes with the sort of bright, technically accomplished animation that only a couple of years ago would have looked exceptional. Buried behind the sort of prissiness that once drove Victorians to cover up table legs. there is some fun intelligence – the underused Jersey Cows with New Jersey accents, the zippy music and the pantomime sense of knockabout. And the voice cast is pretty good too. As well as James, there’s Courteney Cox as the heifer Otis has an eye on, plus Sam Elliott and Danny Glover.

But the Udders Issue isn’t the only conceptual problem with the film. There’s the fact that all the animals walk on their hind legs – if you’re going to go that far in humanising your beasts, why not go the whole, er, hog. And not a cow, hen or pig seems destined for the table – when Otis’s dad dies, he is buried six feet under, with a headstone, not chargrilled and served with mustard.

But it’s just for fun, I hear director Steve Oedekerk cry. Yes, but whose fun? The target age here seems to veer wildly from five to nine, to 15 to 27. But no matter how young or stupid the viewer, the film’s message – if only all the different animals could band together – is likely to be seen as bogus, only outdone for sheer lameness by the regular dumps of sentimentality. Yuk.

 

Barnyard – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

 

Kids in America

The cast of Kids in America strike a pose

 

 

How many America high school comedies have you seen? How many more do you want to see? Exactly my thoughts as I slid the DVD of Kids in America into the slot. But I was wrong and happy about it, because this is a smart and funny film, about smart and funny and intensely likeable teenagers who are shown giving nearly everything their best shot because it’s the first time they’ve done any of it.

The action revolves around a gang of seven students, more ethnically mixed than your average movie high school clique, who decide that something in their “everything verboten” school has got to change. And it’s not going to be them. So they set out to unseat the principal (Julie Bowen), who is running to be the state’s schools superintendent and therefore especially keen to crush all dissent – hence her expulsion of the Celibacy Club booster who had pinned condoms to her dress, the event which kicks off the rebellion in earnest.

This takedown of the ice-queen-bitch is pulled off with some panache by the plotters, and by the film’s writers, Andrew Shaifer and director Josh Stolberg, who apparently built their screenplay around actual newspaper stories of kids who got thrown out of school for various infringements of protocol, which is why, perhaps, there is a ring of bright truth about it all. But mostly they get the tone right, that entitled smartass whinge that teenagers think marks them out as adults and which makes actual adults want to hit them, or worse. As for the cast, you probably will know the odd face – there’s George Wendt and Adam Arkin and Elizabeth Perkins, and over there is Nicole Richie as Kelly Stepford, the cheerleader who actually has something up top (no, above that).

But mostly it’s an excuse to riff on high school movies generally and ring out a few zinging one-liners – “Trying to find talent at Booker High is like trying to find weapons of mass destruction in my anus.” OK, just me then.

But that line does bring us to the least satisfactory aspect of the film, its whole satire on Bush-era America and the loss of freedom since the passing of the Patriot Act. Fingers in ears, then, for the earnest references to the First Amendment, and then take them out again when things get back on track, which is most of the time.

 

 

Kids in America – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

The Spectacular Now

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now

 

 

Feeling, looking, sounding like a very dark John Hughes film (Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller period), The Spectacular Now also has in Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley exactly the sort of actors Hughes might have cast – not the prettiest, but the most personable, the most “relatable” as we now say.

 

It’s Teller’s first starring role, after standing out in a series of supporting roles, notably adding a gloss to the comedy 21 & Over that the sub-standard joke writing certainly wasn’t delivering. And at first sight he’s playing a similar kind of character, the bright funny jock. Except this isn’t the successful jock the movies encourage us to pity – because of their muscular lack of sensitivity – but the jock in trouble, the life and soul of the party who simply won’t go home at the end of the night.

 

We meet Teller’s bright, funny, outgoing Sutter right after his blonde, go-getting and hot girlfriend (Brie Larson, blurring on and off a couple of times) has dumped him, for reasons that only gradually become apparent. And in one of cinema’s more unusual meet-cutes, we are introduced to the new girl in the his life, Aimee (Woodley), when she spots him one morning, unconscious drunk on someone’s lawn as she is delivering newspapers.

 

So here he is, a suburban high school legend whose catchphrase is “we are the party”, and here’s her, an academic, optimistic but fragile flower bowled over when his thanks for rousing him off the turf morphs into something that looks faintly, possibly, like a cool ardour.

 

Maybe it’s Sutter’s permanent tipsiness, we don’t know, but this strange meeting and the even stranger hooking up of these two over the following weeks works because we never quite know how serious he is about her. Is he just spinning the wheels until Her Hotness returns? Is Aimee going to be OK? More existentially, is Sutter?

 

After those jokey-jock supporting roles that he could easily have become too associated with (see Seann William Scott and Stifler), the eye-opener is Teller, who has the wryness and intelligence of a young Bill Murray. Woodley we already know from a bunch of TV and The Descendants, and she’s even better than him – watch out for the multi-layered look she gives Teller at the end of the film and start counting down the days till she wins an Oscar.

 

Director James Ponsoldt gives his actors plenty of freedom, and in scenes relying heavily on long, though not ostentatiously long, takes they repay the confidence with moments of interaction that look so right that you’d swear they were improvised. It’s emotional tightrope walking – at parties, at the pool, at school, out on the street, particularly in the bedroom where one of the most tender and believable love-making scenes plays out. Yes, I thought, that is how it is the first time.

 

Ponsoldt and co keep us hanging over the will they/won’t they precipice. And complementing this through-the-fingers romance is the sense that Sutter is out of control to an extent even he isn’t aware of, and that Aimee is a precious creature who needs to be protected from him but who, bright girl, might have her own not entirely selfless agenda.

 

I could do without Sutter’s backstory and the stuff including the search for his father, not because Kyle Chandler isn’t great as the jock’s good-old-boy drunken feckless dad but because we don’t need telling there’s something lurking in the woodshed. By this point Sutter has been berated by and fallen foul of very male authority figure in the film – teacher, boss, what have you – so we kind of know, we know.

 

So there’s an occasional overrun here, an emotional handbrake turn there, and now and again the plot gabbles on just a touch too conveniently, for the purposes of the film rather than its characters.

 

But as the band Phosphorescent’s Song for Zula echoes over the closing credits, its yearning, hopeful U2/Simple Minds vibe is a reminder that this too is how John Hughes used to do it, in the days when John Cusack would hold up a boombox to a sweetheart’s window.

I know that was Cameron Crowe directing Say Anything, but it’s the same achey-breaky thing.

 

 

 

The Spectacular Now – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Two Night Stand

Analeigh Tipton and Miles Teller in Two Night Stand

 

 

 

Two Night Stand takes the boy wins girl/boy loses girl formula, gives it a millennial spin and then lets its stars, Miles Teller and Analeigh Tipton charm the pants off us as they rip the pants off each other.

 

Genuinely fresh and cute, refreshingly forthright and even sexy – most sex comedies, let’s face it, aren’t – its simple two hander story sees Tipton’s sofa-surfing slacker having rebound sex with stoner Teller, then attempting to sneak away from his place in the early hours, only to find they’re snowed in together. Which is embarrassing considering the “fuck you, too” farewells they’ve just been bidding each other.

 

And that’s it: a boy, a girl, a confined space and a simmering row that’s going to wheel – this, surely can’t be a spoiler – through 180 degrees over the coming 90 minutes. Ah, the 90 minute movie, remember them?

 

It helps enormously that the boy is Miles Teller, the stealth star who has suddenly cornered the attractive average guy market in a series of films – The Spectacular Now and Whiplash most recently. As for Analeigh Tipton, more of an unknown quantity, physically in that Emma Stone/Aubrey Plaza territory, the attractive average girl (Hollywood average being a good leap above average average – Tipton is a former model so let’s not get too disconnected from reality). She’s also got a Mary Tyler Moore coathanger mouth, something of her glass-etching whine, as well as MTM’s spitfire comic timing.

 

Though very little that Teller and Tipton talk about after their first and supposedly only night of sex would have made it onto any show Moore was associated with – masturbation, faking orgasm, the ideal thrusting speed to get a girl off, kind of thing. All done with a surprising innocence, because it’s honest, the characters are unusually non-aspirational (he has an impassioned mini-speech against the concept of enjoying your job) and the two actors are just so likeable. And here they are in their very own romcom, so these two actors have also clearly arrived.

 

Most notable about the film is the amount of agency it gives to the Tipton – it’s she who looks for a one-night stand and finds a hook-up, it’s she who’s trying to sneak away the next morning (generally a boy’s trick), it’s she who taunts Teller with his sexual inadequacies and it’s she who later calls him out when he’s giving her “googly eyes”.

 

It’s modern, in other words, but lean, smart, funny and touching too. You want boy to meet girl and stay with her. You’re aware that the obstructions in the way are genre obstructions but you banish that evil thought from your mind and surrender to the emotional logic of Mark Hammer’s screenplay – did I imagine it was faintly reminiscent of Breakfast at Tiffany’s? or that Hammer might also have seen Andrew Haigh’s fabulous romcom Weekend, which had a similar boiler-room premise?  If they are blueprints then Hammer has digested and then moved on, his script never bending itself into unlikely shapes to get where it’s got to go. Two Night Stand is obviously going to be a big hit and, thankfully, it looks sequel-proof. So no Two Night Stand Two.

 

 

 

 Two Night Stand – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sixty Six

Gregg Sulkin and Helena Bonham Carter in Sixty Six

 

 

Bernie, a London Jewish boy who sees his barmitzvah as the very peak of his young life, suddenly realises it’s taking place on the same day as the 1966 football (soccer) World Cup final. Will anyone come, especially once the home team start morphing from total no-hopers to potential giant-killers? Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Serafinowicz, Eddie Marsan and Catherine Tate are among the familiar British faces helping young Gregg Sulkin towards his big day in a likeable but small-scale comedy which pins its hopes on the footballing names Bobby Moore, Nobby Stiles et al to give it back-of-the-net appeal.

This of course makes for very parochial comedy indeed, but director Paul Weiland, apparently basing it on events in his own life, gives it emotional heft and packs it with the sort of homeliness that might be missing from a more production line affair – comedy uncles who answer questions with a shrug and an apologetic look, comedy aunts whose culinary concoctions are so appalling that no one can tell what ingredients went into them. If you can detect the hand of Richard Curtis in there (the funny speeches at family events, perhaps?), who apparently wrote the film’s first draft, that’s because he and Weiland are old buddies.

And while young Bernie, not particularly popular, can be seen as a metaphor for the entire England team, who were underdogs going into the 1966 World Cup, indeed were only invited to play because they were the host nation, is it too fanciful to see his family as stand-ins for Jews everywhere as the family sees their fortunes taking a major setback in one unlucky accident after another? Yes, that probably is a bit of a stretch, because the one thing that Sixty Six isn’t is overly ambitious. Indeed if you’re familiar with any of the work of Jack Rosenthal, his 1976 TV play Bar Mitzvah Boy most obviously, then this tucks right in to that niche Rosenthal has hewn, though he’s a more particular and detailed writer than Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, who have fleshed out Weiland’s own story.

This throws a lot of weight onto the shoulders of the actors, and for the most part they rise to the challenge, Helena Bonham Carter making a fine North London Jewish mother whose boy and his special day brings out the warrior queen in her, Eddie Marsan as Bernie’s dad, a nervous piece of wet timidity too interested in his own business dealings, Catherine Tate as the aunt whose canapés are fit only for laboratory testing.

It’s the sort of film that Britain seems to be able to make with its eyes closed – warm, periodically funny, gentle and well acted – the sort that isn’t likely to encourage a mass desertion of warm sofas and remote controls in favour of queuing outside a pricey cinema on a cool evening. Where are this country’s Luc Bessons?

 

 

 

Sixty Six – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Annie

Quvenzhané Wallis and a cute dog

 

 

Annie is the “turn that frown upside down” musical seemingly custom-built for stagestruck kids. But in writer/director/songsmith Will Gluck’s updating, it breaks out of the greasepaint shuffle-step limbo it’s been consigned to and makes a bold dash for the spotlight. Gluck opens with a swerve, showing us a precocious and stagestruck young ginger Annie holding her classmates to ransom with a show-and-tell delivered with weapons-grade winsomeness. Then swivels to reveal that this isn’t the titular Annie, but another one. The Annie we’re interested in is played by Quvenzhané Wallis, the cute kid from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

 

And god is she cute. A bright little button who is the making of this singing, dancing entertainment that is to the  Little Orphan Annie comic strip what Oliver! was to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

 

The plot remains the same as it was in the 1982 filmed version starring Aileen Quinn and Albert Finney, with Wallis as the spunky orphan kid who is treated heartlessly by Cameron Diaz’s foster-parent Hannigan, and then cynically taken up as a vote-catching gimmick by Jamie Foxx’s billionaire running for mayoral office, the kid winning through by sheer pluck, optimism and can-do spirit and melting the heart of the businessman en route.

 

It could easily make you sick, this relentlessly upbeat tone, delivered with boosterish stage-school enthusiasm by a cast heavy with brats, and ickle orphan brats at that. But the cast largely pull it off, Diaz the only one who seems out of place as the overly pantomime Hannigan, while Foxx does a nice line in machiavellian cape-twirling, Bobby Cannavale similarly sulphurous as one of the magnate’s wonks, an ugly sister role.

 

Everyone knows at least one number from Annie – Tomorrow, perhaps, or Hard Knock Life, or I Think I’m Going to Like It Here, and if this production reminds us of anything, it’s how good Strouse and Charnin’s original songs are, and how chirpilly similar to Lionel Bart’s for Oliver! too. And the couple of new additions ease in neatly alongside the old ones, no problem there.

 

Updating is evident in other areas – this is a film very keen to point out how Twittery/YouTubey it is, which is going to look very old very soon, but it’s also full of single disappointed women who, you can’t help feeling, just need a good man to sort them out – Rose Byrne as the another of Foxx’s aides, with a pash for the boss, Stephanie Kurtzuba as a dried up social-services drone, Diaz’s disappointed, spinsterish Hannigan, who was once “almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish”.

 

In this respect it’s a very old-fashioned Hollywood movie, but it does at least know how to deliver old-school Hollywood tingles, as when Annie gets on stage and delivers an impromptu song, the orchestra magically falling in with her, Fred Astaire style.

 

The “black Annie” this has been called. And, for sure, Wallis is black, so is Foxx, and doubtless producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith had an agenda when they were doing the casting. But why shouldn’t they? It’s their money. The bigger questions are does it matter and does it work. No is the answer to the first, yes to the second.

 

And talking of race, the only mis-step the film makes is in its race (feeble-play-on-words alert) to the rushed big finale which is really the only thing that takes the gloss off this zippy, peppy, bright and occasionally tear-jerking film whose out-takes (over the end credits) suggest everyone making it had a hell of a good time.

 

 

 

Annie – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

The Interview

James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview

 

 

Like an Inspector Clouseau party that’s forgotten to invite Peter Sellers, The Interview has a gigantic gaping hole where the comedy should be. Unsure if it’s a satire on modern entertainment or a Get Smart-style caper comedy set in the People’s Republic of North Korea, it squats uneasily between the two, leaving its game bromantic stars, James Franco and Seth Rogen, mouthing like beached fish in one unfunny set-up after another.

 

The film arrives after the most brilliantly organised bit of internet brouhaha since The Blair Witch Project. First, Sony’s servers were hacked by the North Koreans, angry at the prospect of a film about an assassination attempt on the Dear Leader. The film was shelved by Sony, after it found distributors taking seriously the threats of cyber armageddon against them. Then President Obama got involved, criticising Sony for being chicken and invoking the Constitutional right for cinema chains to refuse to show a film if they so desired. No, hang on, I think I might have that wrong. Then there was a counter cyber-attack against the North Koreans which, if it was ordered by Obama, must be a rare example of the US going to war to protect a Japanese company’s interests. Then Sony called in favours to cobble together a limited release. Then the film made a day/date online/theatrical debut, a rare example of the cinema chains feeding the hand that bites them.

 

You could not orchestrate a better advertising campaign. If only it had been lavished on a better film. Because The Interview really really stinks. It’s written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and repeats the mistakes they made in two earlier films. The Green Hornet was another tin-eared piece of writing which, like an over-caffeinated breakfast radio DJ, mistook a “comedy” tone of voice for humour. And with This Is the End an initially funny film was run into the ground by Rogen and Goldberg’s dry-humping of the material. And to think these two wrote Superbad.

 

The plot is scant – airhead TV interviewer Dave Skylark (Franco) and his ambitious producer (Rogen) head to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un, having been co-opted by the CIA (in the shape of Lizzy Caplan) into assassinating him while there. The “entertainment guys as stealth operatives” structure resembles Argo, and the film would have been a whole lot funnier played a whole lot straighter. Missing its open shots at the wide open goal that is entertainment TV – watching Eminem on the Dave Skylark show admit that, yes, he really is gay, might have raised a titter ten years ago – it then proceeds to take such weak pops at totalitarianism that in comparison Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator is Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

 

To Kim Jong-un, a man responsible for the death of how many hundreds of thousands of people, and whose vainglory is another open goal, entirely missed. He speaks in “fuck yeah we can” argot, admits to a liking for Katy Perry and margaritas, even though they’re a bit sissy, in scenes where he bonds with Dave Skylark and they drive a tank about shooting at stuff.

 

It’s screwball comedy as written by the CIA, taking its propaganda cues from the “Hitler has only got one ball” ditty. However, none of this would matter if the interview itself, between Dumb and Kim Jong-Dumber, delivered the goods. It is, however, spectacularly inept. First it does that Hollywood thing where the “hero” has a sudden moment of clarity and does the right thing, Dave here suddenly veering off the script and pitching hardball questions at Kim, who counters with the observation that the US has more people incarcerated per capita than North Korea does. This is a blast so unexpected – because it actually connects with a fact out in the real world – that you want to applaud. Until you remember that this is a film about a totalitarian dictator that has managed to land not one single punch.

 

The Interview – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014