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

 

 

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Uma Thurman as Venus in Baron Munchausen

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 May

 

Baron Münchhausen born, 1720

On this day in 1720, Hieronymous Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen was born, in Bodenwerder, Hanover. An aristocrat by birth, Münchhausen was employed by Anthony Ulrich II of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, a member of the Habsburg dynasty, and followed him to Russia during the Russo-Turkish War (his employer being married to a Romanov). Münchhausen rose through the ranks, becoming a cornet, lieutenant and finally a captain, before retiring to his estate with his wife. There he would entertain guests with fabulously embroidered tales, particularly of his time fighting the Turks. Münchhausen knew his tales were fantastical, and so did his listeners, and they were told with a twinkle, to surprise and delight the listener. He would doubtless be horrified to discover that his name has become associated with compulsive lying, and with a pathological condition in which sufferers of the Münchhausen syndrome feign illness to draw attention to themselves. As for Münchhausen syndrome by proxy – the pathological desire to suggest that someone else, usually a child, needs medical attention – he’d probably sue.

 

 

 

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, dir: Terry Gilliam)

Some liberties have been taken with the spelling of the name Münchhausen, and some, too, have been taken with the facts of the life of Baron Munchausen (as he’s called here), director/co-writer Terry Gilliam preferring to embellish the fantastical stories Munchausen told rather than give us a dry run-through of the Baron’s life fighting Turks in a foreign land. If you’ve never read any of the stories, Gilliam is true to the spirit rather than the letter – there is no horse tethered in a snowstorm to a “twig” that turns out, after the thaw, to be the top of a steeple; nor do we get the story of the wolf that ate its way into Munchhausen’s galloping horse, until the wolf had got so far in that he became the locomotive force inside the now-dead beast, Munchausen horrified but marvelling that he could continue his journey. Instead Gilliam shows us the Baron (John Neville) growing younger as he tells us his fabulous stories, accompanied by a sidekick (Eric Idle) who is the fastest runner in the world, another who has superhuman hearing, another with great strength, and so on. Let’s not forget an eight/nine-year-old Sarah Polley either. Betraying that he comes from the Monty Python stable, perhaps, Gilliam goes episodic on us, so that the stories – the trip to Turkey, to the Moon by hot-air balloon, into a volcano, into the belly of a sea beast, riding a cannonball – all have a stand-alone quality. And again betraying the comic-troupe background, perhaps, the film has these fantastic punchline moments – a naked 18-year-old Uma Thurman rising on a shell as Venus, Goddess of Beauty and Love, is a once-seen-never-forgotten moment of cinema. Oliver Reed as Vulcan, the volcano king, is also a standout. Gilliam’s sense of the fantastic is to the fore. His subtext – is it even “sub” given how blatantly he’s peddling it? – is that the practical world must give some ground to the world of the imagination. It’s a theme he’d return to again and again. But rarely with the budget he’s got here. Tales of Gilliam’s excess are legendary, and the making of Munchausen and its budgetary overruns soured his relationships with studios (practical men) ever since. It cannot be denied that Gilliam’s film is slow to get going, and could do with a trim here and there – that is pretty much always the case. But John Neville is a delightful Baron and the more yarns he spins, the more you want the charming Baron to continue.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Dante Ferretti’s exquisite production design
  • Giuseppe Rotuno’s cinematography
  • Robin Williams’s uncredited cameo as the Man in the Moon
  • A huge budget, all up there on the screen

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Prime

Bryan Greenberg and Uma Thurman in Prime

 

 

Uma Thurman’s had a strange career. In between wondrous hits like Baron Munchausen, Dangerous Liaisons, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill there have been total duds like… where do we start?… The Truth About Cats and Dogs, The Avengers and Be Cool, to pick just three from many. Prime falls definitely into the latter camp. It’s a toyboy rom-com with Uma Thurman (37) falling for Bryan Greenberg (23) and confiding all the bedroom secrets (“his penis is so beautiful, I just want to knit it a hat”) to her therapist, who unbeknown to Uma is the younger man’s mother. Writer/director is Ben Younger who was responsible for the intense money-man drama Boiler Room and is way off his turf here. I can imagine a pitch meeting where the very notion of an older woman and a younger man has come up and been found so amazingly exciting by all concerned that no one has actually gone away and done any work on the characters (“What’s this older woman like?” “Whaddya mean ‘like?’ – she’s older. Older.”) Same with the plot, which runs thus: there’s a scene in which Uma’s age becomes an issue, then a scene in which Greenberg’s youth does, then they put their differences aside, then there’s a scene with the therapist, repeat till closing credits (almost). The therapist-who-is-also-the-parent is played by Meryl Streep and if you’ve ever wanted to see an actress’s forehead semaphoring “Help, I’ve signed up for a dog”, this is the place to see it. Still, it is a lovely advert for Uma, who must have been spitting kittens that she was playing a character older than she actually is (about 34 when this was made). But she compensates with a succession of “I’m still hot” outfits.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Prime – at Amazon