Friends with Kids – Review

Friends with Kids (2011) 

Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt. Starring: Jennifer WestfeldtAdam ScottJon HammKristen WiigMaya RudolphChris O’DowdMegan FoxEdward Burns

Making a good romantic comedy is not as easy as you might think. Comedies in general  have always been the overlooked genre when it comes to recognition or even awards: there is a certain (unfair) snobbery about them and an even greater misconception: because they talk about lighter subjects than, let’s say, the holocaust or war or cancer (just to mention the few obvious ones), we should not consider them as serious films…  Obviously calling them “rom-com” doesn’t quite helped their case either…

Isn’t it incredible that people still look at the 50s and 60s for the favourite comedies (Some like it Hot or the Apartment)? Or that we still quote those classic Woody Allen movies from the 70s? And when asked about the best rom-com (there you, I’m saying that too!) many will go back 23 years to that little jewel of a movie called When Harry Met Sally. It’s not surprising then to see writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt going back to exactly those types for her directorial debut.

Friends with Kids owes a lot the best Wood Allen (nowadays we must specify ‘best’, as there’s good Woody and dreadful Woody), both in its settings (New York, of course) and in the sharp and witty dialogue exchanges. But there are lots of echoes from When Harry Met Sally too, in fact it could almost be called “When Harry and Sally had a kid“. But while in Rob Reiner‘s classic the question was “Can a man and a woman be friends without sex getting in the way?”, in Friends with kids the question gets updated to “Can a man and a woman have a child, without getting stuck into the trappings of married life?”.

The actual premise and the excuse for the film is definitely rather out-fetched, gimmicky and to a degree it might feel a bit forced, but if you’re willing to go with it, what you’ll find beyond is an incredibly well-observed and smart piece of comedy about the painful truths of parenthood, about getting older, about responsibilities and friendship.

Westfeldt relies more on her characters and their dialogue to make us smile, or cry, or simply think, as opposed to resorting on cheap gags, or shots of cute babies (well OK, you get a couple of those too… But you get my point). This is an actors’ film, first and foremost and the cast is truly impeccable.

Adam Scott had already shown what he could do with the underrated (and rather harsh and depressing) HBO series Tell Me You Love Me: in this film he makes a potentially unlikable and tricky character, warm, sympathetic and charismatic.

However the film is also packed with other characters, which once again remind us of Harry and Sally’s types of friends: these are all people rooted into the real world, instantly recognizable to anyone struggling to find love before the clock runs out, anyone dating, anyone who’s been married for a long time, anyone who’s had kids or who’s about to have some. Like in the real world, there’s no black and white here: each relationship in the film feels true, people are not simply bad or good, they fall in and out of love, they come and go in and out of your life.

Everybody is perfect, even if they just appear in a few scenes. Jon Hamm shines, as he always does, and makes the most of his tiny role, even Edward Burns manages to be incredibly likeable and there’s even a surprisingly turn from Megan Fox, who shows she’s not just a pretty face… and body, and legs.. and… OK well, you get it.

It all comes to a head during an excruciating dinner sequence with no less than 8 people sitting around a table, which is not just beautifully directed and skilfully handled, but also it’s where the film really shows its cards and goes beyond the simple rom-com boundaries.

It’s interesting to see this film only a few weeks away from the clichè-riddled What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Both stories essentially tackle the same issues, but while WTEWURE goes for the easy Hollywood way (i.e. schmaltzy, A-list packed-cast, cheap jokes and so on), this one takes its time to work around its characters and aims at reaching a much more mature audience: it’s not just the situation that feels real but way the characters behaves in that particular situation.

Unfortunately there are some slips here and there: the excessive and unnecessary vulgarity of some of the dialogue does feel a bit forced and some jokes to do with kids seem to belong to a different kind of film (It’s “Three men and a Baby” territory, more than Annie Hall‘s)… And the ending might make some people cringe a little bit… However most of Friends with Kids is so honest and balanced that it feels wrong be harsh about it. In an age where good romantic comedies are so rare (they only come once every two years, if we are lucky!) we should treasure films like these, which at least try to be a little bit more intelligent and step away from the clichés of the genre.

7.5/10 

Check out my review of What To Expect When You’Re Expecting

Ill Manors – Review

Ill Manors (2012) 

Director: Ben Drew. Cast: Riz AhmedEd SkreinNatalie PressAnouska MondLee AllenMem Ferda.

This is a very hard film to review… And as a matter of fact it was a very hard film to watch too. More than once I found myself having to look away from the screen, just to be able to catch up with my breath and I had to remind myself “It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie”… Or is it? Sure one would want to give the film some credit for attempting to talk about some really serious issues in a stark and crude realistic way. However I find myself wondering: just because a movie touches important issues and goes to places where many don’t even dare looking, does that make it a good film?

Ill Manors (still trying to work the meaning of the actual title) is clearly a film made by a first time director: it’s full of energy and ideas. It’s inspirational too… But  unfortunately some of the inexperience shows up on the screen too. It’s almost as if director Ben Drew didn’t feel confident enough of his own material and felt he had to pepper the film (unevenly, I may add) with a series of flashy visual devices: some of them work, but then, once the story takes over, the film almost forgets to keep up with them. It makes me wonder if Ill Manors could have been a much more powerful film, if the director had actually restrained some of that rather showy visual style and un-linear editing and had just concentrated more of the story. I’m not against time-laps or montage sequences edited to rap music (some of which were actually beautifully done), but I think once you establish a style, you should stick with it. In Ill Manors everything felt rather random and arbitrary: a hotchpotch of visual ideas and devices, borrowed from many other films before (Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, just to mention the most obvious ones), but all without any real reason. And the proof is in the pudding: the strongest and most interesting bits in the film are also the plainest and the ones where the director focused just on his actors (or actually non-actors apparently) to tell the story of a broken society alive and well right in the heart of London.

Despite the claims of realism, this bleak vision of Britain feels a bit contrived in places: lines like  “Can I try some crack?” the endless prostitution scenes and the final sequence in particular when a fire takes place in a pub, all feel a bit heavy-handed and wildly exaggerated. Also most of the characters are a little bit too stereotypical and the film seems to rely more on the charisma of our main lead, Riz Ahmed (from Four Lions), for the audience to sympathise with, instead of giving him a full fleshed-out and a much more believable persona.

In the end the amount of horror and depressing bleakness is just too much and what was already a fairly long film, with too many subplots, eventually just imploded. An exhausted audience during my screening even burst into laughing during the final climax (yes, it might have been a hysterical laugh, but still a laugh… and that’s just the wrong reaction to have for such film!). The points  Ill Manorswants to make are made quite earlier on and after a while it all becomes just too repetitious, over the top and indulgent. All this makes it loose its edge and diminishes its important message.

It is a brave film and certainly must be commended for trying: there are some very intense and good moments, which I am really praising, however, even though I might talk to people about Ill Manors, I don’t think I’ll ever reccomend anyone to watch it (aside for our prime ministers and politicians).

6.5/10

Sunday Times (June, 10th)

For all its gritty realism, Ill Manors has a streak of sentimental fantasy to it. It’s one thing to suggest that the char­acters aren’t all bad, and that they are capable of moral virtue(…) But when we see an uncaring thug risking his life to save a baby from a burning building, we have left the mean streets of London for the fantasy world of Hollywood. So much for keeping it real.  

Men In Black 3 – Review

Men In Black III (AKA: MIB3) (2012) 

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Starring Will SmithTommy Lee JonesJosh BrolinJemaine ClementEmma Thompson.

10 years after the disappointing Man in Black 2, and 15 years after the first original one (which, needless to say,was the best by a very long stretch), raise your hands if you really felt the need for yet another sequel… Anyone? … Please, anyone? ANYONE?!

These days Hollywood’s willingness for getting new ideas out there, or at least ones which are not based on comics, or at least are not sequels or remakes, is becoming increasingly rare! But then again, this a whole other subject which I’ve tackled again and again (you can check my post about it here) and I bore even myself talking about it. So granted that nobody really wanted this film, I am happy to be on record saying that MIB3 is actually rather watchable (yet fairly forgettable).

The film starts off looking pretty tired as if trying to resuscitate from that previously dead sequel. It is permeated by a sense of Déjà vu and only relies on that already-proven chemistry between the two original leads and especially Will Smith whose charm and likeability doesn’t seem to have faded in the last 13 years (in fact he looks exactly the same: God, what’s his secret?!). Even his co-star Tommy Lee Jones once said in an interview “All I need to do to be funny is stand as close as possible to Will”. So true.

The film finally gets into the right gear and stops limping once we travel back in the 60s. The reason for the time travel is very reminiscent of the plot from the underrated Back to the Future – part 2: Will Smith has to travel back in time to prevent the baddie from the future to meet his own self from the past and thus change erm… the future. It all sounds very complicated but, unlike the mind-screwing BTTF2, this is all pretty straight forward (and it fact with plot holes all over the places) and at the end of the day it’s just a device so that we they can probably avoid paying Tommy Lee Jones a full-fee, but also it allows Josh Brolin to have the time of his life, acting as the young K (Tommy Lee Jones‘s character).And for once the sense of fun that the makers must have felt behind the scenes manages to transpire onto our screens too. The similarity between the two is indeed uncanny and amazingly the joke sustains itself for pretty much the entire length of the film. I’m sure in years to come, Josh Brolin aping Tommy Lee Jones will be the only thing people will remember from this otherwise forgettable MIB3.

Don’t take me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy here: some of the action set-pieces, Emma Thompson‘s (sadly too) brief appearance, the deliciously nasty, and rather gross turn by Jemaine Clement as Boris the Animal, the villain of the piece, and the usual special effects extravaganza, which is now almost taken for granted in this types of movies. There is nothing really as cringe-inducing as in the previous sequel, but sadly most of that spark of fresh humour from the original seems have been replaced by an unexpected sentimentality, which is sweet enough and I suppose it’s probably befitting a Steven Spielberg production, but it’s not really what we want from a Man in Black film.

They got away with it this time, but they should really put this trilogy to bed and start something new.

6.0/10

Prometheus – Review

Prometheus (2012) – 

Director: Ridley Scott. Starring: Noomi RapaceMichael FassbenderCharlize TheronIdris ElbaGuy PearceLogan Marshall-GreenSean HarrisRafe SpallEmun Elliott.

After 33 years, Prometheus has finally landed!

For any fan out there (including me) the hype surrounding this film has been almost unbearable to cope with, as the viral marketing campaign was one of the most intriguing and well thought-out of the last decade, matching even the one for the Avengers in its intensity and capacity to tease, without giving away too much.

For months and months we’ve been spoon-fed little tiny bits of information about the mysteriously titled Prometheus. All we knew is that it was possibly a prequel (or at least it had some connections) to 1979’s masterpieces Alien and it would probably answer some of those open questions which have been left hanging ever since.

We had all reasons to be excited, especially when you think that Ridley Scott is the director who essentially single-handedly redefined this sci-fi genre (not just with Alien, but with Blade Runner as well): this is his first return sci-fi in 30 years and the first Alien film since the disappointing Alien Resurrection back in 1997 (no, I’m not even counting those AVP movies, and nor should you!).

Needless to say when the expectations are so high, the questions are so many and the fans are so eager, disappointment is inevitable. No film will ever be able to satisfy a 33 years old hunger. And it’s a shame, because Prometheus is actually not a bad film, it’s just not as ground-breaking as we all hoped and it’s a victim of its own hype. It is also best enjoyed if you know very little about it, so if you haven’t seen it, do stop reading now!

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

Its promising start, in a typically Ridley Scott ‘s fashion,is rather moody and slow it takes at least an hour for the first “shock”, but it’s also some of the best part. Scott plays with his audience creating a certain feeling of deja-vu while still trying to add new elements to the mix: it’s comfortable and intriguing at the same time. Simple and complex. Meaningful and trashy. And inevitably, we are constantly trying to figure out how does it all fit in the Alien mythology until the very last scene, which is rather gratuitous and yet incredibly satisfying for any fans of Alien (and also hinting at some possible sequels).

Unfortunately what starts out as a thoughtful take on Darwinians versus theologists will soon turn into a more conventional monster movie and that feeling of deja-vu will become its undoing.

In a way some of the beauty of the original Alien was its bare simplicity and its minimal approach. Tension was coming from those long silences and those sudden burst of violence and horror. Scott seems almost afraid of that simplicity here, and opts for a much larger canvas: everything on Prometheus is on a grander scale, from its themes and questions about the origin of mankind, to its great vistas (He even gets down to quote David Lean’ Lawrence Of Arabia in a non-very subtle way) and the epic music (which I found absolutely dreadful. Has Ridley Scott really sold out to conventional Hollywood smaltzy intrusive soundtrack during every single scene ?!). It’s all enhanced by being on 3D. This for once works very well when filming those great landscapes but it’s not as effective when trying to create tension in those crammed familiar corridors and instead of adding an extra dimension  to where danger could be coming from, it just becomes rather forgettable. It can’t even be a funny cheap gimmick (I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I would have loved a face-hugger coming towards camera, and the audience).

Everything else here is then crammed with details which instead of making the film more interesting, inevitably distance it from its original predecessor. For example where is all that technology coming from? In Alien they seemed to have very simple computers, and techno-gear in general. And yet that film was supposed to be later in the future, wasn’t it? Oh well, I’m picking needles here.

I know the constant comparison with Alien is unfair, but ultimately it is also unavoidable as it is also the film’s main hook on people.

Don’t take me wrong, there are some great things about Prometheus which I really liked, but unfortunately it just doesn’t deliver on all its promises and it ends up being rather derivative sci-fi.

I loved its ambitiousness, Noomi Rapace, David the Robot (Possibly the film’s best creation), the spotless special effects, the  cinematography and look of it and some of the idea it’s playing with, but I did missed that sense of fear and dread that Alien still gives me every time I watch it. There were very few surprises throughout  and most crucially very little tension (especially considering the film it’s trying to emulate, which is the KING of tension) and after a while it saddened me to see it switching on auto-pilot and becoming rather conventional and feeling very rushed in the last part.

There were too many undeveloped, two-dimensional, bland characters populating the film (even Charlize Theron, who I usually love, could have easily been written out and it would not have made any difference) and in the end it all contributed to make me emotionally detached from it all.

It’s almost as if Ridley Scott could not decide which film he wanted to tell: a sci-fi about the beginning to the universe, his own version of 2001, a monster movie, an Alien prequel… I guess in the end there is something for everyone (except pregnant women, who should stay WELL AWAY from this as the most gruesome and most memorable scene has an intensity which they will not be able to take). In fact there is a lot to digest in just one viewing (I wonder if there might even be an extended cut which will probably surface on Blu-ray in a year or so), but ultimately this is a handsomely film for any sci-fi lover (and an intriguing appetizer for any Alien fan) and it’s a film with ideas more than just loud bangs and explosions.

7.5/10

RECENT ADDITION from the 8th of June 2012

All the recent negative reactions to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus say more about the counter-productive effect of a marketing campaign which was just too big and eventually just imploded on itself, than it says about the actual film.

The expectations were just too high, and the hunger for it too big.

The film was supposed to answer questions which have been hanging for 33 years since the first Alien was first released. And of course Ridley Scott was the man who single-handedly redefined the sci-fi genre (not just with Alien, but with Blade Runner as well) and this was his first return to space in 3 decades.

Disappointment was inevitable and the film became a victim of its own hype.

On the first viewing very few people judged it for its own merits, while everyone else (including me) compared it to a film which had been made in a time when there was nothing like that.

Prometheus may not be the prequel fans wanted (not quite sure what that would have been anyway), it may not be as ground-breaking as some had hoped, but it’s not a bad film…

I do wonder… if Prometheus had been directed by some unknown newcomer or had it not been trumpeted by endless trailers and teasers, would we have been able to judge it differently? Interestingly, critical reaction to the first Alien was initially pretty negative too. Famously Time Out called it an “empty bag of tricks whose production values and expensive trickery cannot disguise imaginative poverty”

Should the marketing campaign have been handled differently? Probably not. The box office speaks pretty clearly and at the end of the day in Hollywood money talks louder than a few disappointed reviewers and bloggers. In fact, not one, but sequels are already in the pipeline.

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