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Posts Tagged ‘rom-com’

I hate this particular moment: ‘I can’t believe you haven’t seen…’, usually from a close friend of acquaintance, many of whom seem to be under the flattering but erroneous impression that I have somehow managed to watch every single movie ever made. This time it was Former Next Desk Colleague (a temporary office reorganisation has occurred), startled to hear that I had never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was contemplating checking out a revival simply to get me out of the house and spare me the delights of microwaved cheeseburger for lunch. No, I hadn’t seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s – I’ll come clean and admit that I’ve never seen Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, Bicycle Thieves, Gone With the Wind or Tokyo Story either. So sue me. (Everyone else has watched these films, so I don’t feel much in the way of pressure: whereas it feels like I’m the only one really taking an interest in movies like Captive Wild Woman.)

So, anyway, off to the Phoenix for Vintage Sunday it was, and I will just mention in passing that the days when you could enjoy this particular strand safe in the knowledge you wouldn’t have to sit through all the usual nonsense adverts for cars and phones seem to be over. Even though the movie is now on release, we still got clobbered with one of the promotional films for Alita: Battle Angel, with Jim Cameron wittering on about ‘scale’ and ‘heart’ – I would love to see the film Cameron thinks he’s made, it sounds fantastic.

Anyway, yes, Blake Edwards’ legendary 1961 romantic comedy, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of those films that everyone, even me, has a vague idea about even if they’ve never seen it. Things get underway in an early-morning, apparently deserted Manhattan, with Audrey Hepburn getting out of a taxi and wandering around outside the famous jeweller’s while eating pastry – i.e., Breakfast at Tiffany’s actually opens with someone having breakfast at Tiffany’s! You have to admire a movie which gets to the point with such admirable alacrity.

Hepburn is playing Holly Golightly, who is an aspiring movie starlet, a good-time girl, or something with a rather more opprobrious ring to it, depending on your point of view. She basically swans about at parties and so on, persuading wealthy (and usually much older) men to give her their cash. Despite her natural charm and wit, Holly is also a bit of a ditz and useless with money, so this isn’t quite as lucrative as it could be, so she is also being paid to visit a gangster in prison (this sounds like another quirky character bit, but eventually turns out to be a crucial plot point). Likewise financially embarrassed is up-and-coming writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard), who has just moved into the same apartment building and is basically the kept man of a wealthy older woman (Patricia Neal).

Well, Holly and Paul get acquainted and soon become close, as attractive young people inevitably do in this kind of film. But, with an equal degree of inevitability, the path of romance runneth not smooth for them – both of them have things from their pasts that they have to deal with, and beyond all this there is Holly’s declaration that she is a wild free spirit, incapable of being tied down, not for love or money! Well, maybe for money…

No-one could seriously argue that Breakfast at Tiffany’s has not become an iconic film, mainly for Hepburn swishing about New York being adorable and chic, and also sitting on the fire escape singing ‘Moon River’ (I’m sure there are some people with a vague notion that this is a musical). Certainly it remains a massively popular film – the Phoenix was practically sold out – and on one level it’s easy to understand why. As romantic confections go, it is hard to beat: this is New York as a playground, where even the imprisoned drug dealers are sweet old gentlemen, and the worst thing that can possibly happen to you is it raining on your new hairstyle.

Yet the film has surprising moments of pathos to it, too, although it would really be pushing it to suggest this is genuine depth. There’s something quite affecting about Buddy Ebsen’s cameo as the gentle, wounded, uncomprehending Doc, not to mention the quiet anger and frustration displayed by Paul as the film goes on – for people of my generation, George Peppard will always be that semi-deranged Vietnam veteran off the TV, but he gives a very well-pitched performance here, carrying his scenes and acting as the audience’s viewpoint, and all without threatening to drag the focus of the film away from Audrey Hepburn.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the film’s assembly of unhappy men are all ones who’ve made the mistake of getting involved with Holly Golightly. If this film didn’t quite work for me, then it’s for this reason – I’ve met people like Holly in real life, charming, vivacious, attractive, almost totally amoral. I am reminded of Fitzgerald’s quote about careless people from The Great Gatsby (and there is something quite Gatsby-ish about Breakfast at Tiffany’s in many ways) – ‘they smashed up people and things and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness… and let other people clean up the mess.’ Possibly the most romanticised thing about Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Holly Golightly herself, as in real life she would be a self-serving nightmare. That she is not is down to Hepburn’s undeniable, extraordinary charisma and charm, which seduces you into overlooking these things, and makes an on-paper rather unlovable character rather adorable. Have cake, eat cake, still have cake: now that’s the magic of cinema.

I was about to write that in any discussion of Breakfast at Tiffany’s there’s an elephant in the room, but then this isn’t really true as it’s one of the things that everyone talks about when it comes to this film nowadays. I refer, of course, to Mickey Rooney’s performance as Holly’s neighbour Yunioshi, which is by any reasonable standard a grotesquely racist caricature. Deeply regrettable doesn’t begin to cover it: Yunioshi is peripheral to the plot, and could probably be cut out of the film without doing too much damage to its substance, but this really only makes it worse – the movie seems to be going out of its way to be offensive. Apparently it was criticised for this even on its original release, and Blake Edwards apparently came to regret his choices here – I’m not sure that Mickey Rooney’s own contribution of ‘those who didn’t like it, I forgive them’ strikes quite the right note, however.

On the other hand, when I moved to Japan for a while in the mid-2000s, one of the things which struck me was the fact that Audrey Hepburn was still a massively popular icon over there, to the point where old footage of her was being incorporated into bank adverts and so on. This seemed a bit unusual for an actress whose best-known film is arguably mildly but gratuitously racist towards Asians. There were quite a few Asian people actually attending the screening that I went to, and finding myself in the queue to get out next to a young Japanese couple I took the opportunity to ask them what they thought about the Yunioshi character. My Japanese isn’t what it used to be, and their English was not that great, but they seemed to find the character more quaint than offensive – ‘it wasn’t racist, people should just take it easy’ was the gist of their response, which strikes me as perhaps a bit too generous.

I will be honest and say that Breakfast at Tiffany’s didn’t really connect with me, but I can understand why it is still so beloved of so many people. As simple star vehicles it takes some beating, for the whole film has been contrived with the sole intention of making you fall in love with Audrey Hepburn. I still think the film is a bit too rose-tinted, and occasionally it drifts across the border from romance into sentimentality, but on the whole I can still appreciate the skill and talent involved in making it.

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It is what people used to call the silly season, when not much is happening in terms of conventional news, and so the more traditional papers are falling back on hopefully-interesting non-news stories. Catching my eye the other day was another piece speculating about the identity of the next James Bond, despite the fact that Daniel Craig has yet to retire and in fact has another film in the works. Current favourite, allegedly, is Idris Elba, which – as I have discussed before – strikes me as a somewhat questionable move (angry mob, please assemble at the usual place). I’m rather more taken by the prospect of the 3/1 second favourite, who is an actor I can actually imagine playing a recognisable and interesting version of Ian Fleming’s character – Tom Hardy.

I’ve been impressed by Hardy for quite some years now, not least by the way he has kept plugging away and overcome some dubious early career moves (his turn as the Picard clone in Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance). Talent will out, it seems – however, if you check through his filmography to see his track record when portraying suave, lady-killing spies, the first piece of evidence which leaps out at you is not in Tom Hardy’s favour. It is in a spirit of public service, and sympathy for the actors concerned, that I must speak of McG’s 2012 film This Means War.

This movie concerns the activities of a pair of CIA agents, played by Hardy and Chris Pine – it is stated quite clearly that Hardy is British, so what he is doing in the CIA is anyone’s guess, but that’s just the level of attention to detail you can expect from this film. Pine and Hardy are partners, and as the film opens they are embarking upon a mission in Hong Kong to capture a pair of international arms dealers. The level of professionalism of this pair is foreshadowed by the way they end up having a gun battle in a crowded bar, killing one of the people they were supposed to apprehend, with his brother escaping to swear revenge. The duo’s boss (Angela Bassett, basically playing the same role as in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, though I strongly doubt the two films are in continuity) confines them to their desks in Los Angeles.

It turns out that Hardy has split up with the mother of his child, and, gripped by nebulous but powerful sentiments, he joins an on-line dating site. (Yes, even though he is a top international spy.) Here he connects with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a sort of lifestyle guru who has trouble committing to personal decisions: it transpires she was added to the site by her wacky best friend (Chelsea Handler, saddled with some particularly subpar material). Hardy and Witherspoon are somewhat taken with each other when they meet, but what should happen then? Well, after leaving Hardy, Witherspoon goes into the local DVD rental store (I tell you, this one scene dates the film like you wouldn’t believe) and has another cute-meet with Pine, who has been hanging around in case Hardy needs a hand getting out of his date.

The DVD store cute-meet scene is particularly notable in that it is especially smugly written, with Pine and Witherspoon trading repartee about their deep knowledge of movies and preferences within the field. Except, and this is barely credible, given this film was actually (by definition) written by a screenwriter, neither of them has a clue what they’re talking about, confidently asserting that any Hitchcock film from between 1950 and 1972 is a good choice (one word rebuttal: Topaz).

Well, anyway, the final piece of set-up occurs when Pine and Hardy, both having disclosed they are in a new relationship, discover they are dating the same woman (Witherspoon, crucially, is unaware the two men even know each other). Despite initially having a gentlemen’s agreement to be reasonable about this, this naturally breaks down, with most of the rest of the film taken up with their (it says here) hilarious attempts to impress Witherspoon while sabotaging the other’s chances. (Meanwhile the vengeful arms dealer from near the start occasionally pops up in a B-story, setting up a somewhat obvious climax.)

The best thing you can say about This Means War is that it is visually appealing, on a solely aesthetic level. Basically there are lots of bright colours (garishly so, which sort of matches the cartoonishness of the plot), with extremely attractive people living in immaculately styled apartments. Should you engage with it on any level beyond the utterly superficial (and this includes actually listening to the dialogue), however, this is a very lousy movie.

I watched this movie scratching my head and trying to work out what genre it actually belongs to: it has cute-meets and allegedly comic scenes, but also gun battles and fights and a big car chase. Presumably it is intended to be a sort of mash-up of the action-comedy and rom-com genres, with something for everyone going out on date night. Well, what it really comes out resembling is a rom-com aimed at jocks, which is a novel idea, in the same sense that making ladders out of rubber would be a novel idea.

Let me explain: your typical rom-com is primarily aimed at a female audience, regardless of whether the protagonist is male or female – they are invariably sympathetic and charming enough for the audience to identify with. However, in this film Witherspoon is essentially treated as an attractive trophy for the two men to joust over, too dumb and self-obsessed to notice all the weird stuff going on around her. The two male leads are alpha-jocks and it’s really not clear whether they’re genuinely interested in Witherspoon for her own (undeniable) charms, or just overtaken by the urge to outperform their former friend.

Of course, this leads us onto another major problem, which is that the film is just not very funny. Not only is it not funny, but most of the unfunny comic material is rather questionable: both Hardy and Pine deploy the full apparatus of the intelligence establishment in order to get the girl, which means that Witherspoon spends most of the movie under CIA surveillance with her apartment bugged. Unauthorised government surveillance – that’s the stuff of real comedy gold, folks! There’s also a lot of very broad stuff about Hardy shooting Pine with a tranquiliser gun to stop him having sex with Witherspoon, Pine following their car with a drone (Hardy shoots it down with his handgun), and so on.

Reese Witherspoon, who I have always found a fairly agreeable performer, genuinely seems to be trying her best in a very unrewarding role. What’s more interesting is what’s going on elsewhere, for as well as the in-story contest between Pine and Hardy as characters, there is also the issue of which one of them takes the acting honours. Well, it may be that I am biased, but on several occasions I have come away from movies having been very impressed by a Tom Hardy performance, while the best I can say for Chris Pine is that once in a while I have been rather impressed by a film in which his performance was competent. It may in fact be that Tom Hardy is going easy on his co-star and not giving it 100%, but he still easily steals the movie from him.

The resolution of the actual plot of the film is another matter. While watching it, I was scratching my head (again; a lot of head-scratching went on during This Means War) trying to work out how they would conclude the story. Whichever one of the guys Witherspoon chose, I thought, it would risk disappointing that section of the audience rooting for the other one (although I suppose we should be grateful she even gets given a choice). For her to assert herself and (with justification) give both of them the boot would constitute too severe a violation of rom-com norms. The only other option (the three of them settling down to some kind of menage a troi, possibly involving Pine and Hardy admitting to having more than fraternal feelings for each other) would clearly be much too innovative and interesting for this kind of film. Needless to say, the movie bottles it.

Oh well, you can make bad films and still be a good James Bond (just look at some of the things Sean Connery was doing in the late 1950s), and we can only hope that This Means War doesn’t count against Tom Hardy too much. The fact remains, though, that this is one bad movie – not simply because it is unfunny, and unreconstructed, but also because of the way it treats a deeply suspect premise in such a knockabout manner. No-one emerges from this one with any credit.

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‘I think the title of this film is very off-putting,’ said a stranger behind me in the cinema queue, speaking to her son.

I turned round and frowned at her. ‘What, you don’t like France?’ I asked. (I can be very socially inappropriate sometimes.)

She did an actual double-take at me. ‘I didn’t mean Dunkirk. I was talking about The Big Sick.’

Ohhhh,’ I said, feigning sudden comprehension. Needless to say, we did not speak again.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when cinema screens are ram-jammed with coldly calculated kid’s film franchise extensions and noble British tommies shivering on a beach while trying to work out exactly what’s going on with the chronology. You’re really reliant on some high-quality counter-programming cutting through (if you want to have an even vaguely rewarding time at the cinema, anyway), and luckily just this has arrived in the form of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.

Or should that really be Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick? It’s hard to think of another recent film which is so obviously personal, for all that it is part of that most peculiar of genres, the romantic comedy.

No, seriously – what is the function of romantic comedies? I get the point of full-on comedies, for they are there to lift your spirits and make you laugh. Dramas are there to engage your intellect and emotions, action movies provide a basic adrenaline thrill, horror movies play with the darker end of the emotion spectrum, and proper science fiction stimulates the intellect.  And so on, and so on. But what’s going on with rom-coms? Who sits down to decide what film to watch and says ‘You know what, I wouldn’t mind feeling a bit more romantic tonight’? Either you’re feeling romantic or you’re not, and if you’re not feeling that way, nothing is less likely to kindle the flame of love than watching two beautiful young people play games for ninety minutes before inevitably ending up together. Part of me suspects this is all about reinforcing social and cultural norms, given that our society is largely glued together by the notion of romantic love, and that going to see a rom-com provides a sense of affirmation, that there is some objective truth to this notion. (Which, you know, there may be.)

Some of this kind of gets obliquely addressed in The Big Sick. Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani (it will be interesting to see if his performance wins any acting awards), who meets therapist-in-training Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. Neither of them is looking for a serious commitment, and yet there is a spark between them, and a relationship develops almost without either of them willing it.

However, in Kumail’s case, the aversion to commitment is basically because his family are still deeply attached to the tradition of arranged marriages, with a seemingly-endless string of unattached Pakistani women happening to drop by at family meals. Kumail doesn’t want to get kicked out of the family for admitting to a relationship with a white non-Muslim girl, and this inevitably causes tension between Emily and him.

And then something happens. Does this constitute a spoiler or not? I can’t remember if it’s in the trailer or not, but it’s in all the promotional material that I’ve seen, and the film is called The Big Sick, after all. Emily is admitted to hospital after what seems to be a bout of flu causes her to faint, and ends up in a coma. Despite their relationship being in limbo, Kumail finds himself hanging around the hospital and bonding with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

This is a rom-com, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that this crisis forces Kumail to think hard about what is really important to him – is it keeping his parents happy, even if that means living a lie, or spending his life with Emily? The charm and the achievement of the film, which is the same as that of any watchable romantic comedy, is that you are engaged and entertained even as the story proceeds towards a throroughly predictable conclusion (Nanjiani and the real-life Emily have been married for nearly a decade and co-wrote the script together).

As I get older and become more aware of my neuro-atypicality, trips to watch rom-coms increasingly feel like anthropological expeditions to observe the peculiar behaviour of remote tribespeople, and yet I found The Big Sick to be rather delightful and almost completely winning. Much of the credit for this must go to Nanjiani himself, who gives a brilliant deadpan comedy performance. It probably helped my connection to him that Nanjiani is no stranger to the less-mainstream areas of culture himself, being a noted X Files fan (which resulted in him actually appearing in the good episode of season 10). That said, at various points in the film, Kumail breaks off from watching Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr Phibes to engage in intimate relations, which I can’t imagine ever doing myself, so this is obviously a relative thing. (What kind of person takes a girl home and then suggests they watch an old Vincent Price horror movie together, anyway? Ahem.)

Then again, this is a film with a strong ensemble performance, from the various members of Kumail and Emily’s extended families (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Kumail’s parents), and also the various other up-and-coming comedians Kumail hangs around with. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to its frequent shifts in tone, and never feels self-consciously heavy when dealing with ostensibly serious topics like ‘the Pakistani-American experience’ or ‘coping with a loved one in a coma’ (the movie resists making the obvious Smiths reference).

In fact, although on paper the movie looks like an inventive mash-up of the Cross-Cultural Romance (with Various Attendant Issues) and Medical Crisis Romance story-forms, it doesn’t really feel like either of them – it feels heartfelt and genuine rather than forced and formulaic. None of the major characters is wholly flawless or an irredeemably bad person – they’re just recognisable people, with rather messy lives they are doing their best to cope with.

I laughed a lot all the way through The Big Sick (there was also, admittedly, a sharp intake of breath at the point where someone tells Kumail that ‘The X Files is not a good show’) – but it also snuck in some genuinely moving moments, which took me entirely by surprise. Normally I would be inclined to speculate as to the extent to which real life has been rewritten to suit the demands of a standard three-act dramatic structure, but the film is so funny, so warm, and so sincerely truthful that I’m inclined to give it a pass on this. This is a charming and immensely likeable film, however you feel about rom-coms in general; highly recommended.

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Here’s the thing about me and the Bridget Jones movies: it’s never quite as simple as the usual ‘want to see a movie > see the movie’ progression. One day in 2001, my sister, her husband, and I wanted to go and see a movie to cheer ourselves up (we had just been to the funeral of a much-loved relative). I proposed Bridget Jones’s Diary, she said okay, he vetoed it on the grounds that it was ‘a chick flick’. So we ended up going to see Spy Kids instead, most of which my sister ended up sleeping through.

Then three years later the sequel came along, which I confess I was not much interested by, until word came along that this film – for some reason which is utterly beyond me – would be preceded by the first showing of the first trailer for Revenge of the Sith. Friends who know me only in my jaded current incarnation may have a hard time believing it, but this was a Big Deal at the time, and in my usual deftly Machiavellian way I talked my family into going to see it (the Bridget Jones sequel, obviously; I kept quiet about the last Star Wars film being in any way involved).

And that seemed very much to be it, although there is of course no statute of limitations on doing sequels (increasingly it feels like there really should be, though, don’t you think?). Now here comes Bridget Jones’s Baby, which I got talked into going to see (it was not a particularly hard sell as I’ll watch almost anything), and…

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Well, look. Fifteen years is a long time in movies; the life expectancy of a career can be very much less than that (just ask Chris O’Donnell or Alicia Silverstone). In 2001 Renee Zellweger was an up-and-comer and Miramax Pictures were a force to be reckoned with – these days, I imagine most people would struggle to name a recent vehicle for the actress and since the Weinsteins sold the company, Miramax have been making rather fewer waves of late. In short, this film feels a bit like it’s been made simply because it’s likely to be a commercial success for a bunch of people whose careers really need one right now.

The film is directed by Sharon Maguire. The laws of sequeldom demand that nothing has substantially changed for the principals in the 14 years since the last movie, so Bridget Jones (Zellweger) is still working in TV news, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) is still a high-powered barrister, and so on (the plot also requires them to have split up, although of course they still have deep feelings for one another). What, you may be wondering, of Hugh Grant’s character? Well, as Grant has opted not to come back (A Wise Career Move? Discuss), his character is missing, presumed dead – clearly they are still hoping he may be talked into appearing in Bridget Jones’s Menopause or Bridget Jones’s Hip Replacement or whatever the next sequel is called.

Anyway, having just turned 43 (all I will say on this subject is that Renee Zellweger herself is somewhat older) and feeling somewhat forlorn, Bridget allows herself to be talked into going to the Glastonbury Festival (cue mud-splattered slapstick pratfalls) where she ends up having an only moderately contrived one-nighter with passing billionaire Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey). Then, a few days later, she bumps into Darcy again at a christening, and when I say ‘bumps into’, I mean it in the Biblical sense.

Well, as the film is entitled Bridget Jones’s Baby, I’m sure you don’t need me to draw you a diagram as to what happens next. Cue lots of farcical misunderstandings and chaos as Bridget attempts to determine who the father is, while trying to keep the two men from finding out about each other. Zellweger’s main achievement is still her English accent. Emma Thompson appears as Bridget’s obstetrician, and gets most of the best lines, but then this should not come as a major surprise seeing as she co-wrote the script.

And in the end I suppose it all passes the time agreeably enough, though it did feel to me to be a bit too long. There are some very funny set pieces, mostly of the low-comedy variety, although they strike an unexpected vein of comedy gold quite early on when Zellweger starts lip-synching to House of Pain. This is, essentially, very much a standard British mainstream rom-com in the modern idiom, which translates as aspirational lifestyles, just a bit too much graphic sexual talk for you to feel comfortable watching it with your parents, upbeat pop-songs, and a slightly bemusing certainty that people shouting the F-word a lot is still inherently funny. (I mean, it was when Hugh Grant did it in 1994, but nowadays?)

The problem I had with the film is that its central idea just isn’t that funny or easy to identify with – the first two were essentially about whether your life partner should be the exciting, fun, unreliable one, or the dull but solid one (Colin Firth’s main achievement in these films is to make ‘dull but solid’ seem so attractive). Many people have had that kind of dilemma, I would imagine, but the situation of unexpectedly becoming a geriatric single mother while being uncertain who the father is is probably less universal.

Does Grant’s absence hurt the film? I would have to say so, partly because parachuting in a new main character three films in is never very successful, but also because Hugh Grant is simply an extremely accomplished light comedy actor of exactly the kind this sort of film needs. Dempsey isn’t actually bad, but he’s just a bit dull. As a result, Colin Firth really has to take on the job of lifting the film, and to be fair he does a better than decent job of it – but, and this may just be a personal thing, he seemed to me to be surrounded by a strangely mournful aura, as though every fibre of his being had grown accustomed to being a serious leading actor and no longer wanted to just be the male lead in a British rom-com.

The central thrust of the story is therefore just not that funny and the film resorts to a sort of lowest-common-denominator sentimentalism instead; all the bits which really made me laugh were rather peripheral. As I said, a lot of this is very broad comedy, and the rest is an extremely mixed bag – there are some desperate-feeling jokes where people who are middle-aged and feeling it make fun of young people and their beards, a peculiar not-very-topical subplot about Darcy representing a band clearly meant to be Pussy Riot (then again, this film has apparently been in development for six or seven years), and even a gag about Margaret Thatcher which would have been cutting-edge in 1989 (I’m sure it hasn’t been in development for that long).

For me it all felt rather contrived and perhaps a little bit desperate; I mean, I’m not saying I didn’t laugh, but I did sometimes feel like I was perhaps doing the film a favour by doing so. But your mileage may vary; most of the audience at the screening I went to were rolling in the aisles pretty consistently all the way through, and the person whose idea it was that we saw it said she couldn’t remember the last time she had such a good time at the cinema (what, better than West Side Story?, I rather grumpily wanted to say). I still can’t help thinking that this is undemanding stuff which knows its audience and will probably do quite well as a result. But God knows what the next one will be like.

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Frequent visitors may have noticed that I routinely refer to romantic comedy films as belonging to ‘the world’s most predictable genre’, and I occasionally wonder if I’m not doing them a disservice there. Sure, the outcome is never in doubt, but the same is true of virtually every other genre: in fact, you could probably argue that the very notion of genre carries with it a certain degree of predictability.

It may be I’m just letting my own personal prejudices show. Still, I try to keep an open mind, so I went to see Ben Palmer’s new film Man Up, mainly on the strength of a good trailer and the presence of the usually-reliable Simon Pegg. Despite being top-billed in a film which has, shall we say, an androcentric idiom as its title, Pegg is not playing the lead here: that duty goes to Lake Bell. Why is a film about a woman called Man Up? Join me on a strange journey where not all words mean what you might expect them to.

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Bell plays Nancy, a thirtysomething whose disastrous relationship history has left her on the verge of giving up on romance entirely. However, a chance encounter on a train and a misplaced self-help book result in her accidentally purloining a total stranger’s blind date. He is Jack (Pegg), and the two of them hit it off so well that Nancy can’t quite bring herself to own up to the misunderstanding, even though she is technically supposed to be going to her parents’ wedding anniversary party.

Needless to say, all does not go to plan, and unfortunate encounters with obsessive old school friends and embittered ex-spouses lead to more than a few ups and downs in the course of their evening together. It transpires that neither Nancy nor Jack is quite whom they are presenting themselves to be, but should they let that get in the way of the connection they so obviously share?

That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. On paper Man Up does look very much like yet another crack at the same rom-com formula which British production companies have been diligently hammering out variations on for over twenty years now: an appealing, largely metropolitan setting, imported American female lead, supporting cast of well-known faces, many of them off TV (Rory Kinnear, Sharon Horgan, Ken Stott and Harriet Walter do most of the heavy lifting here), a climactic dash to deliver an impassioned emotional declaration, and so on.

This is by no means a perfect movie, but it has more about it than just a tick-list of required components. For one thing, Lake Bell may be American, but not least of her achievements in Man Up is the way she employs an immaculate English accent. I must confess I’d never heard of Bell before this movie, but she seems to be one of those annoyingly talented people who’s good at everything. We are, of course, required to believe that a stunning ex-model should have severe self-doubt and finding-a-boyfriend issues, but this is practically a genre trope, and Bell puts across Nancy’s vulnerability well. I expect Bell has the kind of looks which are routinely described as ‘striking’ or ‘strong’: quite what this is code for I’m not entirely sure, but she is an extremely beautiful woman by any rational standard.

Bell also manages to share the screen with Simon Pegg for most of the movie without finding herself being acted off it, which is also no mean feat. I would say Pegg is part of an honourable tradition of British performers who aren’t just great comedians, but great actors too: all of Pegg’s best roles address the emotional frailty and humanity of his characters, an element he plays absolutely straight, and Man Up continues this. One of the appealing things about the film is that both lead characters are pretty messed up, spending as much time squabbling as they do being, you know, actually romantic. Like all the best films of this kind, it doesn’t operate solely in terms of chocolate-box romance, but explores darker territory as well. As a result, it genuinely earns its climactic emotional pay-off between the two leads. I would say that Pegg hasn’t has such an effective foil since Jessica Stevenson in Spaced, but that might just make Nick Frost annoyed with me (not to mention Tom Cruise).

On the other hand, if Man Up is honestly a ‘romance’, that’s another word the meaning of which seems to have shifted a bit of late. Again, I expect the producers would describe it as ‘frank’ or ‘authentically contemporary’, but what this actually means is that various characters spend a slightly surprising amount of time discussing oral sex in a reasonably detailed way. I couldn’t help thinking back to Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant’s saturation F-bombing in the opening sequence felt genuinely shocking – it now feels like the product of a different and much more innocent world.

But hey ho. Such is the world in which we live. As well as the above, Man Up also has an undeniable ingenious and sharp script with some genuinely witty dialogue, and it manages to juggle all the required genre elements with sufficient skill that they at least feel relatively fresh. Parts of the plot do strain credulity a bit – Rory Kinnear’s character in particular has an absurd, cartoonish quality –  and there is at least one over-laboured sight gag, but I laughed a lot all the way through and found myself genuinely wanting the two leads to get together. That, if nothing else, is the sign of a successful film, in this genre at least.

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Nice to see a sizeable turnout for the latest vintage showing which I went to at the Phoenix in Jericho; almost but not quite cheery enough to offset the news that the current poll on whether or not to retain the trial policy of assigning designated seating at weekends is currently running at more than 50% in favour. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Phoenix is still my favourite cinema in the Oxford area, but it seems like every refurbishment and renovation they’ve had in the last year has had the effect of making it less characterful, less quirky, less welcoming and less like an actual independent cinema, and the switch to allocated seats is only another part of this. Then again, the whole world seems to have accelerated its drift towards a state of consisting entirely of dismayingly irritating pointless faff, so I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised.

Hey ho. At times like this a joyous movie from yesteryear is more cherishable than ever, and on this occasion it was George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, first released at Christmas 1940, long since ascended to timeless classic status. Simply naming the main players – Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart – is almost enough to give you a warm glow inside, and you almost wonder if any film starring these three together can be good enough to live up to expectations.

philstory

Needless to say, the tale unfolds amongst the upper echelons of east coast society. The society wedding of the year looms, with the nuptuals of Tracy Lord (Hepburn) as she marries aspiring politician George Kittredge (John Howard). She was previously married to whiskey-loving shipwright CK Dexter Haven (Grant), and he is still nursing something of a grudge against her. To this end, he agrees to participate in a bit of skulduggery where two reporters are infiltrated into the wedding party, on the pretext that they are old friends of the bride’s absent brother. (Yes, this is a slightly complex set-up, but films back then were prepared to credit the audience with a little intelligence.) The reporters are Mike Connor (Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey).

Connor is initially dismissive of the whole proceedings, affecting to despise people whom he sees as the idle rich, and wanting to get back to being a writer of substance. Nevertheless he find himself making an undeniable connection with the bride to be, somewhat to the chagrin of his own girlfriend, Liz. Meanwhile, Dexter realises that his own feelings towards his ex-wife are not entirely unambiguous, and nor are hers for him. She’s bound to marry someone in the end – but whom?

Not everything in the past is quite what you might expect it to have been. These days, for example, everyone knows that Katherine Hepburn is a bona fide Hollywood legend, unassailable star of peerless popular classics like Bringing Up Baby. Except… at the time, Bringing Up Baby was just one of a string of flops, leading to Hepburn acquiring a reputation as box-office poison, and finding it very hard to get roles. Her response was to pay someone to write a play for her to star in, and then retain the film rights in order to guarantee she would get the lead role when it was adapted for the screen.

This was as shrewd an investment as one might expect from a legendarily smart cookie like Hepburn, and it may explain why there are many scenes of the male characters singing her praises most fulsomely and at great length – and, quite possibly, also why the other characters spend much of their time talking about her even when she isn’t on screen. Not to suggest that this is entirely a vanity project: everyone gets a chance to shine, and Hepburn’s character is as flawed as any of the others.

The opening sequence of the film promises an effervescent farce, with the reporters attempting to pass themselves off as house guests, not realising the family are fully aware of their mission and intent on feeding them an entirely false impression, while – for reasons too bizarre to go into – Tracy Lord’s father and uncle are obliged to impersonate each other. This is as smart and genuinely funny a comedy as anything I’ve seen in the last six months.

However, soon the film becomes more measured and thoughtful, as the deeper personalities of the main characters become more apparent. This really is a romantic comedy, albeit a fairly peculiar one by modern standards: the modern rom-com is almost certainly as predictable a film genre as any in history, but here, for the uninitiated, it is very difficult to predict just who it is that Katherine Hepburn is going to end up marrying in the final reel. Comparisons with the modern rom-com are perhaps a little unwise, as this apparently is one of the defining examples of a very 1930s subgenre entitled the comedy of remarriage, a product of extremely strict regulations curtailing the use of extramarital shenanigans as a plot driver – hence the device where Grant and Hepburn are conveniently divorced after a very brief opening scene, thus leaving her technically available to flirt with all the other male characters.

There are a few other ways in which this is clearly a film of a different era: some jolly jokes about smallpox and domestic abuse strike a somewhat startling note, for instance. But while the film’s sensibility is that of another era, its themes are universal: what it means to be a good person, what someone’s responsibilities are to their loved ones, snobbery, privacy, the thin line between love and hate, and so on. The script alone would be a lovely thing, even if it weren’t brought to life by three of the greatest performers in screen history – to say nothing of some very striking supporting turns, particularly Ruth Hussey’s rather wistful performance as Stewart’s long-suffering girlfriend.

To be honest, it’s very difficult to identify the particular elements which make The Philadelphia Story such an outstanding film, because it genuinely doesn’t seem to have a weak link: every element of it exudes class, polish, wit, and charm. It always seems a bit fatuous to me when someone says they don’t make them like they used to – but then again, as this film shows, they really don’t.

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A sure sign that Autumn is close upon us comes in the form of the cinema shedding its rugged, manly, summer masculinity of tone and becoming altogether rather more feminine in outlook. Well, possibly I exaggerate a bit, but I can’t imagine all those sprawling and bombastic superhero blockbusters being put together with ladies in mind. Romantic comedies of the ilk of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Ruby Sparks are a different beast entirely. Well, this is being marketed as a romantic comedy, but I suspect this is simply the least inaccurate category into which to pop this slightly strange film.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer whose career has been hobbled by his writing a brilliant and hugely successful novel at a very young age. Now he is in thrall to the tyranny of the blank page, seriously struggling with that difficult second novel (the film does bang into that old problem of how to depict somebody writing in a cinematic way – failing to find an answer, we just see Dano’s hands and eyes as he bashes away at his keyboard – presumably for aesthetic reasons, Calvin is the only professional writer in the world still using a manual typewriter). He is finding life quite trying despite the well-meaning assistance of his family and agent. However, as a result of advice given by his analyst (Elliott Gould), Calvin finds himself beset by strange and vivid dreams, all concerning a free-spirited Bohemian young woman (oh, zzzzz), whom he christens Ruby Sparks. She is played by Zoe Kazan.

Calvin’s dreams of Ruby provoke a sudden and welcome burst of creativity, but this is accompanied by odd events around the house: strange and rather intimate feminine items start popping up all over the place, to the bemusement of Calvin and his friends. Then, after a particularly intense writing session, our hero awakes one morning to find the previously completely fictitious Ruby in the house with him, apparently completely corporeal and utterly convinced she is his girlfriend…

Well, it’s a novel opening for a film, I’ll grant you that. I suppose it sounds like the stuff of a wacky, whimsical little comedy film, very mainstream, and quite probably starring someone like Vince Vaughn. But it isn’t. Instead, to begin with it comes across very much like an off-day Woody Allen script brought to the screen by Miranda July. I am aware I am throwing in an obscure cultural reference or two in there, but that’s the territory I’m afraid – the biggest surprise about this film is that it’s got a fairly major mainstream release, because it has ‘indie arthouse cult rave’ written all over it.

This is the kind of film where the central characters float around with no visible means of support, basically surveying their own navels. There are lots of scenes where they agonise at length over their tangled psyches and personal lives with their much more conventional friends and family while having barbecues or playing sports, all in a very naturalistic yet terribly articulate manner. Once you strip out the central fantasy conceit, this is really what you’ve got here.

The previous film from these directors, Little Miss Sunshine, was apparently very well-received, which may explain the presence in this film of a remarkably strong supporting cast – as well as Gould, there is Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and a particularly good Steve Coogan. Chris Messina also does a good job of wringing a few laughs out of the script. But it’s hampered by incredibly mannered and self-conscious performances by Dano and Kazan: the film soon turns into an examination of a romance between two of the most irritating people you will ever see.

That said, I suppose Zoe Kazan is reasonably good in a fairly demanding part – on the other hand (and given the nature of the story this is sort of ironic) she wrote the script herself, in addition to exec producing the thing, so she must take her share of the blame for a film which I found a rather trying experience.

This film doesn’t really have the ideas to justify its running time and as a result it does feel like it’s dragging on horribly in quite a few places. The poster for it outside the coffeeshop listed the running time as 164 minutes rather than 104, and as a result quite early on I was dismally checking my watch and trying to work out how they were possibly going to sustain the story for that long. Thankfully, they don’t even try: another hour of this film and I might well have run amok in the cinema.

And, quite apart from the general tone and style of the thing, this film is palpably very indie-ish in the way it doesn’t seem to want to settle down and be one particular thing. Okay, so there’s a central romance going on – but there’s also clearly some sort of statement about the creative process and that oft-mentioned moment when your characters achieve a life of their own being made.

(My characters, when I write fiction, show no willingness to do this, which may be yet another reason why my fiction is generally so lousy. Then again, as I’m planning another go at NaNoWriMo this year and the only book idea to achieve any traction in my head is an HP Lovecraft pastiche of such comprehensive unpleasantness I’m slightly repelled to consider it myself, perhaps this is no bad thing. Where were we…?)

Oh, yes: and then beyond this Ruby Sparks tries to get into stuff about the nature of relationships and the control dynamics within them. There’s some quite dark material here. What the film never really manages to be, unfortunately, is either consistently funny or romantically involving. It always seems a bit overwhelmed by its own irky-quirky BoHo indie conceit and style, and constantly a little too pleased with itself. The result is a movie that’s being marketed as a romantic comedy, but didn’t really make me laugh and actively put me off the notion of having a relationship. It’s a competent realisation of a rather unsatisfying script – a distinctive film, but also a deeply peculiar and somewhat annoying one.

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