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Posts Tagged ‘romcom’

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.

man_up

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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For a two-screen independent cinema dwarfed by the major chains around it and not exactly in a prime spot (off Leicester Square itself and well on the way to Chinatown), the Prince Charles has acquired a massive reputation as a place to watch and otherwise enjoy films. I think this is partly because the place is clearly run by people who understand why people still go to the cinema and what films they are prepared to pay and watch over and over again: on the schedule just this week are quotealong showings of Anchorman and Flash Gordon, a free-beer-and-pizza revival of Terminator 2, and a whole bunch of shrewdly-assembled double-bills – RoboCop and Dredd showing together, for example.

Despite the fact that one of the screens is really tiny and has hugely inadequate legroom for someone my size, I regret not being able to go to the Prince Charlie more often. I have very fond memories of watching The Wrath of Khan there two years ago, and had a fairly good time the other day watching the new version of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon.

muchado

Low-budget black-and-white modern-dress Shakespeare adaptations not featuring anyone you could honestly call a star name do not usually get the kind of release, or indeed media attention, that this one has drawn. Then again, the average low-budget black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation not featuring anyone you could honestly call a star name is not adapted and directed by the creative brain responsible for the third highest-grossing film of all time. That sort of thing gets you noticed.

On the other hand, I suspect the new Much Ado would have been guaranteed at least cult hit status regardless of the existence of The Avengers, for such is the effect of being touched by the hand of Joss Whedon. Let’s be straight about this: Whedon is a brilliant writer, director, and producer, and his career is littered with deservedly-celebrated films and TV series from Toy Story to Cabin in the Woods, taking in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-offs and Firefly along the way. No argument there.

However, I’m a bit less comfortable with the cult of adoration that seems to have developed around Whedon himself as an individual: several people I know are wont to publish gushing blog posts about the formative influence Whedon has had on their lives, and in the same way members of the faith tend to refer to him simply as ‘Joss’, as though he really were the intimate personal friend they clearly wish he was. I am very wary of this sort of thing.

Nevertheless, a built-in cult following does help when it comes to getting films financed and released, and I can’t help but suspect this has aided Much Ado along its path to a theatrical release. Still, one gets the sense that simply making a film as simple and intimate as this one was its own reward for Whedon: it was shot in and around his own house and the cast is largely comprised of people he’s worked with in the past.

The plot of the film is… quite famous and widely available on-line. But go on, I’ll spoil you anyway (not that this is likely to stop members of the Cult of Whedon coming round the garret with axes). Hey ho. Members of the household of prosperous gentleman Leonato (played by Agent Coulson from The Avengers) rejoice when popular nobleman Don Pedro (Dominic from Dollhouse) comes to visit with his retinue of followers. Romance blossoms between the young count Claudio (Topher from Dollhouse) and Leonato’s daughter, which inspires everyone to bring about a rekindling of romance between Pedro’s associate Benedick (Wesley from Angel) and Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Fred from Angel). Doing his best to scupper these matrimonial machinations is Pedro’s wicked brother John (Simon from Firefly). Will true love win through? Not if they have to rely on moronic local policeman Dogberry (Mal from Firefly) for help, that’s for sure…

Now, it doesn’t seem that long since the last film of Much Ado About Nothing – the Ken and Em version which came out in 1993, which I remember quite well. On the other hand, I’m currently working alongside people who weren’t born back then, so possibly another new take on the play is justified. Whedon’s version is distinctly different from Branagh’s, anyway: Branagh’s was very jolly, colourful, and straightforward, while Whedon’s is much cooler and more ‘classic’ in its look and feel. The Branagh film was mocked at the time for its endless choruses of hey-nonny-nonny, but a few of these (in an appropriately jazzy arrangement) have crept into the new version, too: clearly they are integral to the text.

For a while it looks like the stylisation of the new film is going to get in the way of Whedon’s take on the story, with only his most obvious directorial choices making it through to the audience. First and foremost, where the potential for slapstick comedy in the tale is concerned, Whedon goes for this in a big way: people falling down stairs and so on. Nathan Fillion’s performance as Dogberry is pretty broadly comic, too – but then, as I recall, so was Michael Keaton’s in the 93 version, and Fillion is at least less manic.

However, on reflection, suggestions that this is a feminist take on the play do not seem to me to be entirely unfounded. There seems to me to be an implicit critique of the differing positions in society of Beatrice and Benedick – the two are well-matched, equals in every practical way, and yet Beatrice is forced to ask others for assistance simply because there are some things a woman is not permitted to do. The crushing effect on a woman of acquiring a ‘reputation’, whether deserved or not, is also explored. All in all this isn’t much, and given that Whedon leaves Shakespeare pretty much as he finds him, it’s mostly grace notes anyway. But it’s a valid take on the play.

The film looks good and is impeccably put together, and the performances are fine as well: Shakespeare’s verse comes to life, which is a good sign. But I laughed at it a lot less than most of the other people at the showing I attended, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was a clever and admirable film rather than a really good one. If I had started watching Much Ado About Nothing on TV I’m not sure I wouldn’t have bailed out before the end. In the end, it seems to be the case that left to his own devices, Joss Whedon makes remarkable, hugely enjoyable films about hot, wise-cracking chicks battling armies to a standstill – but in association with the greatest writer who has ever lived, he just comes up with something which is interesting and fairly clever. Much Ado About Nothing is a nice little film – but for sheer entertainment value, give me something with the Hulk in it any day.

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We have reached one of those moments in the year when the multiplexes down my way, given the eternal choice between quantity and quality have opted for… well, neither, if we’re completely honest. Perhaps there are a few good films showing within easy reach that aren’t aimed at children: the thing is, I’ve seen them all already.

I did consider going further afield and had considered heading out of town (two bus-rides, a long walk and/or some hitch-hiking) to catch a promising new film about some pole-dancing vampires. But in the end I couldn’t be bothered and ended up going to see Regis Roinsard’s Populaire at the art-house instead.

Populaire-Poster

Listings information for Populaire, no matter what its source, uniformly announces that this film contains ‘a moderate sex scene’. Well, I suppose that’ll do until a really good one comes along. The other common reference point everyone is using when talking about it is Mad Men, which is just one more example of a popular and critically acclaimed TV series I’ve never actually seen and am not qualified to talk about (I haven’t seen the one about the dwarf playing musical chairs, either). You know, I’m getting the impression I should’ve gone with the vampire pole-dancers after all.

I suspect the Mad Men references are due to this film’s 1950s setting, although most of it does take place in France. Deborah Francois deploys a performance packed with weapons-grade winsomeness as Rose, an innocent country girl whose life’s ambition is to become a secretary. Despite being quite phenomenally clumsy and naive, she nevertheless finds a job with small-town insurance man Louis (Romain Duris). As it happens, Louis’ best friend (Shaun Benson) is American, and his best friend’s wife is played by Berenice Bejo from The Artist, both of which should help with that tres important commerce international.

Louis has, of course, got an ulterior motive for taking Rose on: he has discerned she has phenomenal potential as a speed typist and resolves to become her coach and train her to conquer the world, one key-stroke at a time. Needless to say the obvious chemistry going off between them cannot be allowed to get in the way of the coach-athlete relationship…

Yes, welcome back to cinema’s most utterly predictable genre, for we are in the world of the rom-com. Two extremely beautiful young people meet each other, feel an instant mutual attraction, and then spend the next hour and a half acting like idiots in order to defer their climactic moment of coming together (is this a good moment to bring up that ‘moderate sex scene’ again? ‘Moderate’ is probably selling it a little short, but I digress) until the end of the film .

Some of the convolutions the plot is put through to this end are rather contrived, resulting in a film which outstays its welcome a tiny amount, but the whole film is such a frothy, feather-light confection that it almost feels churlish to criticise it on these grounds. Audiences could be excused for feeling souffled alive by a film which departs from conventional reality very early on and never really returns to it. (There are a couple of more serious character beats along the way, but these are sensibly kept understated.)

However, it is hard to overstate quite how winningly well-put-together Populaire is, with nicely judged turns from all the leads, but especially Francois: she delivers a performance of quite colossal charm and sweetness, which more than makes up for any predictability in the plot. The film also makes a real virtue of the competitive element of its story: there’s something deeply, slyly funny about the way all the traditional movie cliches for depicting sporting clashes are repurposed to cover competitive typing – and yet the final scenes of Rose taking on the hissable American world champ (naturally, I will not spoil the result for you) do manage to be genuinely stirring stuff. It also manages to seem rather accessible to an international audience without being obvious or cynical about it.

The 50s setting means it all looks very stylish, too, although given the nature of the story I don’t think they had a great deal of latitude there. We could, I suppose, discuss the sexual politics inherent in a story where the gender roles are quite so rigid as they are here, to say nothing of what’s going on with a character as smart and strong as Rose being so determined to become a secretary. But, as I say, this is such a floaty little confection that we’d be in real butterfly-on-a-wheel territory to start criticising it in those terms. As I have had cause to ponder in another context in recent days, one can take gender politics much too seriously when it comes to escapist entertainment.

Populaire may have come up short on the pole dancing vampire front, but I did enjoy it very much; rather more, in fact, than I’d expected to. It is not deep, it is not heavy, it is never what you could honestly call surprising or unpredictable. But it is enormously likeable and entertaining, with the kind of eye-opening central performance that major careers are built on. Deborah Francois is surely one to watch: look out for her being wasted in a knuckle-dragging English-language genre movie somewhere near you, soon.

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Ingredients for British romantic comedy film with a marital theme:

  • Useless vicar performing wedding ceremony
  • Terrible best man giving faux pas-strewn speech at the reception
  • Affluent lifestyle of easy, aspirational upward-mobility for lead characters so target audience will identify with them
  • Kooky alternative lifestyle for supporting character so as not to repel alternative kooks amongst the potential audience
  • Incredible filthy rich lifestyle for another supporting character so the producers don’t feel completely out of their comfort zone
  • Imported foreign female stars to ensure a decent release in overseas territories
  • Soundtrack of ubiquitous pop and soft-rock songs to create comfortingly familiar atmosphere
  • Cameo roles from well-known comedy faces (people off the TV will do in a pinch)
  • Judicious amount of sauce

Honestly, this scriptwriting thing’s a doddle – I hadn’t decided what to do for this year’s ScriptFrenzy (it was going to be a toss-up between a dinosaur Western called Flesh and a screwball comedy martial arts action film for Jason Statham called Transporting Baby) but I think I’ll just do a rom-com, they’re such a sure thing at the box office that I suspect production companies don’t really look at the recipe, just the ingredients. I should be able to sneak a slightly dodgy script past them, no problem.

At least this is the impression I was left with after watching Dan Mazer’s I Give It A Year, which, if it isn’t a rom-com, is certainly well-disguised as one. I have to say this is a slightly tricky film to review in-depth without spoiling the plot, but here goes anyway. Suffice to say that it appears to have been released specifically to cash in on the Valentine’s Day date-night audience, which is a little surprising given the general tenor of the thing.

igiay

Anyway, Rafe Spall plays Josh, a writer, who as the film starts is getting married to Nat, an advertising executive played by Rose Byrne (sigh), after a fairly whirlwind romance. Needless to say the course of married life does not run smooth, as it turns out they don’t know each other nearly as well as they thought. Also problematic is the fact that Josh’s old girlfriend (Anna Faris) is still on the scene, clearly nursing feelings for him, while Nat’s work brings her into contact with a wealthy American hunk (Simon Baker) to whom she finds herself instantly attracted.  Will the course of true love run smooth?

Of course, this sort of begs many questions concerning what exactly true love is, how you know when you’ve met The One, does the idea of ‘The One’ even make sense, and what degree of friction and not-getting-on is to be expected in any marriage, successful or not. These are important and interesting questions which most people, as grown-ups, will probably find themselves addressing at some point in their lives, and as such there’s scope here for an intelligent and witty film.

However, while I Give It A Year adheres quite rigorously to the ingredient list already mentioned – there are no fewer than three imported stars, and my cinema ticket came with a voucher giving me a discount if I bought the soundtrack – it’d really be stretching a point to describe it as strikingly intelligent, witty, or even particularly grown-up. Which isn’t to say it’s not intermittently quite funny, but that sauce of various kinds comprises a greater percentage of the overall dish than in, for example, a Richard Curtis movie (I’m sorry, I’m getting sick of this cookery metaphor too). A lot of the humour is quite coarse and crude – this is ultimately a comedy of manners, but most of the actual jokes are derived from social awkwardness and embarrassment, and in order to generate this Mazer has come up with a bunch of characters who are in no way believable as real human beings.

As a result, despite good performances from the central cast, the story as a whole never really convinces, nor is the main throughline especially funny. The film has a slightly odd structure, almost like a collection of comedy sketches, in which supporting characters will come in and do one or two (often very funny) scenes before we’re back to Spall and Byrne again. For example, Olivia Colman has a cameo as a nightmarish marriage counsellor, while there’s another bit where an attempted threesome becomes unexpectedly competitive.

But probably the biggest issue I had with this film is the way that it… well, look, this might be considered a Spoiler, so continue at your own risk. What starts off as a filthed-up copy of a Richard Curtis movie ultimately transforms into a rather odd parody of one, with all the cliches – the climactic dash, the triumphant declaration of passion – guyed and repurposed. It is, if you will, the film’s secret ingredient (though a bit less secret now you’ve read this, come to think of it). The problem is that those cliches are there for a reason, they’re part of a functioning story structure. Kicking that structure apart, as Mazer cheerfully does in the final act of the movie, risks alienating the audience, or at least confusing them. It’s not that the ending is parachuted in from nowhere, just that it runs contrary to one’s fundamental expectations of this kind of film – it’s like a detective story where the criminal is never caught, or a disaster movie where everybody dies.

So, it has some funny bits in it, but it’s not as consistently hilarious as its own advertising makes it appear. Neither is I Give It A Year quite the standard Working Title rom-com that it might seem to be – but, oddly enough, this is as much a problem with the film as it is a point of distinction.  Rose Byrne remains as reliably beautiful as ever, though.

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From the Hootoo archives. Originally published 26th February 2004:

[Originally preceded by a review of a film so appalling I shall not speak its name here.]

And so, thankfully, we move on to Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, a somewhat oblique title for a film which makes no bones about Having A Point To Make. Fortunately the chosen media take the forms of two of the most watchable actors still working, so it comes across as a lot less didactic than it might.

Jack Nicholson is not at all typecast as Harry, a sixty-something hip-hop tycoon and libidinous rogue, who has an eye for the ladies (specifically those under thirty). On a weekend trip to the family beach-house of his latest conquest (Amanda Peet) he is unfortunate enough to run into her formidable mother Erica (Diane Lah-Di-Dah Keaton) who takes a dim view of his womanising and generally raffish behaviour. It is just his luck to have a heart attack that same evening, and even worse that his cardiologist (Keanu Reeves – no, really, Keanu Reeves) prescribes that he should stay in the area till he recovers – the only available residence being with Erica. But, and you’d never see this coming, it seems that there’s a bit of chemistry between Harry and Erica. Could there possibly be romance on the horizon?

Well, my usual goodnaturedness has been mashed out of me by the previous film, so let’s not beat about the bush: Something’s Gotta Give is overlong and a bit smug and not nearly as witty or insightful as it thinks it is. The characters are almost exclusively wealthy and well-educated Caucasians, all with a quite staggering degree of emotional articulacy. Given that the central topic under discussion – the subtle charms of the older lady – does not exactly possess the same pressing urgency as climate control or international debt relief, it could be argued that this is a case of much ado about nothing. It’s also an openly partisan film: Nicholson is depicted throughout as a priapic old rogue who must mend his ways, and most of the central relationship is seen from Keaton’s emotional perspective. (There’s also the odd way that the Nicholson/Peet liaison is implicitly frowned upon while a Keaton/Reeves dalliance is swooningly approved of.)

However, these criticisms aside, this is a polished and mostly intelligent film, with some very funny moments (most of them courtesy of Nicholson). Most of these come near the beginning of the film, which rambles off into much more straightforward (not to mention sentimental) romantic drama territory as it goes on, losing much of its sharpness and wit along the way. As I mentioned up the page, it also seems about fifteen minutes too long.

It stays entirely watchable throughout, though, and this is mainly due to two perfectly-judged performances from Nicholson and Keaton, whose presence together was enough to remind me of Hollywood’s 70s golden age. It’s an exceptionally classy double-act, with Nicholson’s armoury of Jack-isms complementing Keaton’s more naturalistic turn extremely well. The two stars really get their teeth into the script and probably make it seem a lot sharper and more intelligent than it really is. Having said that, it’s difficult to judge whether Diane Keaton genuinely deserves her Oscar win/nomination (Shazz, delete one of these as applicable come Monday morning, would you?) [A reference to the fact this was originally published immediately prior to the Oscar ceremony – A] – she is good, but I suspect nostalgia has played its part, and in case she often seems to be recycling bits of her Annie Hall performance, for which she’s already won an Oscar.

Most of the rest of the cast aren’t that impressive, not getting the material the leads do. But Frances McDormand has her moments as Keaton’s sister, and Keanu… well, Keanu gets bulldozed off the screen by Nicholson, as you would expect, and my initial thought that he’d made the interesting choice of playing the cardiologist as a surfer-dude only lasted as long as it took me to remember that he plays every part – FBI agent, techno-Messiah, 19th century English lawyer – as a surfer-dude. But it’s nice to see he’s still getting work.

There’s nothing actually bad about Something’s Gotta Give – it’s polished, entertaining, amusing and articulate, and it’s driven by very assured performances from two bona fide movie legends. But it does take a long time to come to a rather predictable conclusion, and has very little of genuine originality to say for itself. A rom-com with a bit too much rom and not enough com, but still a film of some substance.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 18th 2002:

[Originally following reviews of The One, 24 Hour Party People, and Queen of the Damned.]

After two disappointing films and one absolute stinker, salvation finally arrives in the shape of Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham. (In light of recent events, perhaps Break It Like Beckham would be a better title.)

Jesminder (Parminder Nagra) is young British Asian girl whose main interest is football (soccer, if you’re a former-colonial), something which does not sit well with her traditionally-minded Sikh family. She befriends the like-minded Jules (Keira Knightley), who persuades her to try out for the local women’s side, coached by Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). But Jess’ family are firmly against her doing anything so outlandish and unladylike – will she submit to their wishes, or will she be able to pursue her dream of playing professionally?

Well, of course she will. I’m giving nothing away here as the plot of Bend It Like Beckham contains absolutely no surprises: you just know her parents won’t want her to play, but you’re also sure she’ll sneak off to play behind their backs… and so on, and so on. And so on, and so on, actually, because to be fair it’s about a quarter hour too long in reaching the requisite happy ending, especially given the lack of narrative invention. But the three young leads are refreshing and engaging up front, while Juliet Stevenson is a midfield powerhouse, getting most of the big laughs as Jules’ equally conservative (with a small c) mother. Anupam Kher is also good as Jesminder’s father, and Shaznay Lewis out of All Saints has chosen a rather better film than her bandmates to make her (admitted very low-key) feature debut in.

Claims that this is a Great British Comedy are perhaps a touch exaggerated, but it’s warm, feelgood, well-observed and deeply affectionate about its characters. I smiled all the way through and there are some very funny moments. Also impressive is the way it avoids the pitfall of coming across as a niche, ghetto picture (either as a women’s football movie or an Asian culture one). It’s simply a positive, un-preachy comedy-drama. It’s not going to outgross Attack of the Clones at the US box-office, but it’s still hugely likeable, for all that it’s cliched. A touching and upbeat portrait of modern Britain, this deserves to be a winner.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 27th February 2003:

(Extensive ranting about trailers featuring scenes not actually appearing in the finished movie has been snipped.)

…well, anyway, enough senior citizen moaning on my part (‘Special effects were much better when you could see the strings. And there hasn’t been a decent fantasy film since Ray Harryhausen retired’) and onto a proper review. This week I went to see Two Weeks Notice, a romantic comedy written and directed by Marc Lawrence and produced by and starring ol’ llama-face herself, Sandra Bullock.

Sandy plays Lucy Kelson, a committed, idealistic, and highly committed lawyer in New York. (She remains oddly fluffy and lovable.) While campaigning to stop the nasty Wade Corporation from knocking down her neighbourhood community centre (you have to admire, by the way, the brazenness with which the film deploys such a hoary old cliche) she meets the corporation’s ‘closer’ George Wade (played, inevitably, by Hugh Grant) – and no, I don’t know what a closer is either, but it’s the only job title Grant’s character seems to have. His job mainly seems to involve playing tennis and being a louche scallywag, if that’s any help. Wade is filthy rich, utterly self-absorbed and completely amoral. (He remains oddly fluffy and loveable.) He also needs a lawyer and so in exchange for his saving the community centre, Lucy takes the job. Of course, in his fluffy, lovable way George drives her up the wall, and eventually she fluffily and lovably quits. But, this being the land of rom-com, there may just be an outside chance the two of them will realise they’re actually perfect for each other, eventually acknowledge their true feelings, and wind up making saccharine speeches in public places, etc, etc, all before the final credits roll.

Two Weeks Notice is a film that knows what it wants to be and goes all out to be that thing: a gentle, amusing, frothy comedy with some romantic overtones. In fact I would say that it pursues the comedy element a little too fiercely, with the result that the characterisation and relationships are not as three-dimensional as they perhaps need to be. But, some unconvincing slapstick and sight-gags aside, this is all amusing enough.

Most of the credit for this must go to the leads, as Lawrence’s directorial technique almost wholly consists of him simply pointing the camera at whoever’s talking. Sandra Bullock’s performance in this movie rather reminded me of Geoffrey Boycott. I suspect that particular critical gem may require some exegesis, so here goes: just as the famous Yorkshire cricketer achieved his success through hard graft as much as natural ability, so Sandy isn’t, I would argue, the most naturally gifted actress when it comes to this kind of daffy, ditzy, screwball comedy. But by gum she puts 100% effort into it and in the end her performance is everything it needs to be and perhaps a little bit more besides.

Hugh Grant, on the other hand, could play this kind of part in his sleep by now. Not since the kung fu heyday of Bruce Lee has one actor dominated a particular film genre in the way that Grant rules the rom-com roost. Nobody plays this kind of part as well as him, but he does so with such effortless aplomb that it’s too easy to accuse him giving the same performance in every film he makes. As usual, he subtly modulates his screen persona to suit the movie: this time round he’s a bit more clueless and infuriating than usual. The lack of more serious elements to ground the film mean that the great man spins his wheels a bit in places, and this isn’t his best work by any means. But it’s impossible to imagine this film being as likable as it is without him.

The rest of the cast pretty much do what’s required of them (the only faces I recognised were David Haig and Alicia Witt, but you may have more luck), and Sandy has managed to convince Norah Jones and Donald Trump to make cameo appearances as themselves. One of them sings, and to avoid accusations of being a spoiler I will leave you to discover which one for yourself.

Two Weeks Notice isn’t a bad film, but it’s one I find difficult to get excited about. It’s entirely successful in meeting the target it sets for itself, but as that target is to be a rather formulaic comedy populated by near-stereotypes with not very many surprises in the storyline, this is not that great an achievement. Fun, but not exactly memorable.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 19th September 2002:

Of all the great British film companies of yesteryear, Ealing Studios is second only to Hammer in terms of reputation and brand recognition. In the 1940s and 50s they released a string of razor-sharp and socially astute comedies about the British character and way of life, many of which are on the list of gold-plated all-time classics: The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and (my personal favourite) The Ladykillers.

Well, guess what – Ealing are back in business and their first release in this, their centenary year is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, adapted and directed by Oliver Parker. It’s the story of fairly strait-laced Edwardian gent John Worthing (Colin Firth), who lives in the countryside most of the time, and who has invented a fictitious brother Ernest whom he pretends to be when in town visiting his ladyfriend Gwendoline (Frances O’Connor) (she has a thing about men called Ernest). Meanwhile his caddish friend Algy (Rupert Everett), smitten with John’s ward Cecily (bussed-in American starlet Reese Witherspoon), pops down to the country to see her, masquerading as the non-existent Ernest too (she also has a thing about men called Ernest). When the two ladies both get engaged to ‘Ernest’, not realising he’s two different men, things get complicated – especially with Gwendoline’s terrifying mother (Dame Judi Dench) on the warpath…

It’s clear from the start that The Importance Of Being Earnest is aiming to be the kind of high-quality literary adaptation that we have a reputation for doing quite well in this country. And the production values are appropriately high, and the cast has – mmmmm! – that cachet of class about it: Anna Massey and Tom Wilkinson are in there too.

But for all these good intentions, the producers have obviously decided to go for the multiplex dollar. One can excuse the imported American star, as many a British film that can’t afford Hugh Grant opts to hire one, but the big surprise here is the nature of the comedy. Think Oscar Wilde and you think of throwaway witty aphorisms, social comment, a touch of satire and maybe Stephen Fry in a wig (if you’re me you also think of Blake’s 7 and Stuart Townsend’s appearance as Dorian Grey in next summer’s blockbuster The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but in this film the comedy is much, much broader. There is a quite shocking level of over-acting from virtually the entire cast (Dame Judi is obviously the exception) and the script even includes pratfalls and a running gag about tattooed arses in its relentless pursuit of big laughs. I got the strong impression the cast enjoyed making the film more than I enjoyed watching it, which is never a good sign.

And it doesn’t feel like an Ealing comedy, either. It doesn’t have the edge, or insight, or lack of sentimentality: it’s just a very broad, very gentle, knockabout romantic comedy. Wilde’s most famous lines all show up but they seem weirdly out of place. More ambition would have been better. This isn’t a bad film, it’s actually quite amusing – but, for all its CGI London skyline and big name cast, it feels more like a TV adaptation than a film in own right. Gosford Park for people with short attention spans: if you want to see it, you’ll lose nothing by waiting for the TV premiere.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 15th 2004: 

Hello again everyone, and you see before you the writings of a relieved man. It’s always a risky proposition to go to the cinema expecting that the evening’s film will be a marvel, a triumph, a joy to behold, because then even if it turns out to be only ‘not that bad after all’, it’ll still on some level be a disappointment. That goes double when you feel a personal loyalty, however slight or unwarranted, towards someone involved with the project. And when said project is a British comedy film, a genre with a frankly dodgy track record of late, well, you’re not exactly doing yourself any favours…

The source of all this angst is Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, a rom-zom-com (romantic comedy with zombies in it) co-written by Wright and Simon Pegg. I bumped into Pegg (he said nonchalantly) last summer just as filming was about to get under way and asked him how the film was coming on. Now I’m going to sound biased and soppy here but he really was quite extraordinarily friendly and genuine towards a total stranger. Ever since then I’ve been looking forward to the movie and desperately hoping I could write nice things about it…

And I can! Given all of the above, you would be right to question my objectivity, but this is a great, witty, pacy film – a hilarious comedy that also manages to be an astonishingly grim horror film. It’s the story of Shaun (Pegg) a coming-up-to-thirty guy whose life has never quite clicked into gear, mainly due to his own laziness. Wanting him to make something of his life is his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), while holding him back is his slovenly flatmate Ed (Nick Frost). As the film opens, Liz finally tires of her relationship with Shaun solely taking place in their local pub, and goaded on by her flatmates (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis) insists that things change.

Shaun being Shaun, he mucks it up and she chucks him. Will he be able to win her back? Will he be able to resolve his relationships with his mother and stepfather (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy)? Will his life finally get into gear? And will the sudden collapse of society as a zombie apocalypse gets underway have any impact on all these things?

Pegg and Wright are probably best known for Channel 4’s hyper-hip and knowing sitcom Spaced, and a lot of reviewers are basically describing this as Spaced: The Movie. Well, there’s something to be said for that, as nearly all the Spaced gang are present and correct here: in addition to Pegg, Frost, and Wright, Jessica Stevenson has a small but crucial role, and Julia Deakin has a timy cameo. But for all that, the style is very different – Shaun has none of Spaced‘s genre spoofs or knowing film references (with the exception of a brief but gleefully vicious sideswipe at 28 Days Later). Wright’s direction is fluid and intelligent without being overexcitable, and he handles the build-up well.

By this I mean that Shaun seems to start off as a fairly generic British relationship comedy – with the startling anomaly that nearly all the jokes are actually funny – about the troubled personal lives of twentysomething people. But gradually, other elements start to appear – odd news reports play in the background and are ignored by all the characters, and extras begin behaving very oddly indeed, until finally the film tips over into true horror territory and the dead begin to prey upon the living in earnest.

The balancing act between humour and horror is elegantly achieved, with only a few scenes uncertain in tone. It’s such a gradual shift that when the film suddenly reaches a very dark place and principal characters start meeting very sticky ends indeed – depicted, by the way, entirely straight – it’s a genuine shock and it all seems much more harrowing as a result. These moments have more genuine emotion than most proper horror films can muster. This is partly due to a cast almost entirely made up of performers best known for playing comedy – in retrospect, a brilliant ploy. Seeing an anonymous American leading man graphically eviscerated and devoured on screen is no more than one would expect – but when it happens to a performer one subconsciously associates with cuddly comedy dramas or quirky sitcoms, it feels like such a deviation from the norm that it is genuinely appalling and horrific.

And in a funny way Shaun of the Dead is much closer in tone to George Romero’s original Dead trilogy than a certain big-budget remake reviewed in these pages only a fortnight ago. This is partly because Shaun‘s zombies are shambling, easily-underestimated semi-competents, rather than snarling athletes, but mainly because the film uses them as a metaphor for the drone-like existence many people in this country lead all the time (it’s quite hard to tell the dead apart from the living at first, and later on Shaun and his friends settle upon the local pub as their sanctuary as the crisis deepens, only to discover all the zombies are instinctively going there too). There’s also a Romero-ish quality to the desperate bickering within the group as the dead close in around them, and an outright (if subtle) steal in the suggestion that contamination from a space probe is actually responsible for the zombie phenomenon.

Smartly written, played, and directed, and making an impressive success of both the genres it attempts, Shaun of the Dead is a treat that will renew the faith in cinema of anyone unlucky enough to see Sex Lives of the Potato Men. The undead subject matter may put you off – but I beg you not to be dissuaded. This film may have cult classic written all over it, but it deserves a much wider audience, and much wider success, than that. Highly recommended.

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