The Love Punch (2013)

2018 #7
Joel Hopkins | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

The Love Punch

In this very daft comedy heist thriller (calling it a thriller is a bit of a stretch, but anyway), Pierce Brosnan plays Richard, a businessman whose company is bought out by mysterious others, only for them to strip its asset and sink the employees’ pensions — as well as that of Richard’s ex-wife, Kate (Emma Thompson). When the man behind the buy-out, Kruger (Laurent Lafitte), refuses to play fair, Richard and Kate team up with their neighbours, Pen (Celia Imrie) and Jerry (Timothy Spall), to pilfer the extraordinarily expensive diamond Kruger has bought his fiancée (Adèle Blanc-Sec’s Louise Bourgoin).

The Love Punch flirts with seriousness in its setup — what could be more current than unscrupulous moneymen buying a company and screwing over people’s pensions? — but quickly reveals its true nature as an implausible farce. Despite the lead cast, it seems to have been a French-driven production (even the UK-set scenes were filmed over there), so I suppose that style is only appropriate. While never scaling the heights of genuine hilarity, I don’t imagine anyone thought they were making anything other than a light romp.

So if you like any (or all) of Brosnan, Thompson, Imrie, and Spall, as well as the idea of a bit of gently-farcical gadding about in the south of France, then The Love Punch is amiable fluff to while away 90 minutes on a Sunday.

3 out of 5

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #64

A romantic comedy for anyone
who’s ever been in love.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English
Runtime: 111 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 26th May 1993 (France)
UK Release: 27th August 1993
First Seen: VHS, c.1997

Stars
Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Hamlet)
Emma Thompson (Howards End, Sense and Sensibility)
Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Love & Friendship)
Robert Sean Leonard (Dead Poets Society, House)
Denzel Washington (Glory, Training Day)
Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Matrix)
Richard Briers (Watership Down, Hamlet)
Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman)

Director
Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Thor)

Screenwriter
Kenneth Branagh (In the Bleak Midwinter, The Magic Flute)

Based on
Much Ado About Nothing, a play by William Shakespeare.

The Story
When Don Pedro and his chums visit his friend Leonato at his villa in Sicily, they wind up arranging a marriage between Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and one of Don Pedro’s men, Claudio. To bide time until the nuptials, the happy friends attempt to reconcile argumentative pair Beatrice and Benedick — but Don Pedro’s good-for-nothing half-brother, Don John, plots revenge by ruining Hero’s reputation…

Our Heroes
The plot hinges on the romance of Claudio and Hero, and the machinations of Don John to disrupt it, but the central characters are Beatrice and Benedick and the witty verbal sparring that characterises their love-hate relationship.

Our Villains
Don John, the bastard. Because he’s an illegitimate son. But also because he tries to ruin someone’s wedding by faking infidelity, which isn’t exactly the nicest way to behave.

Best Supporting Character
Don Pedro, a prince who has just quashed an uprising by his duplicitous half-brother (see above), seems to be an inveterate matchmaker, first arranging Claudio’s marriage to Hero, then plotting to see Beatrice and Benedick coupled — despite quietly professing his own feelings for Beatrice.

Memorable Quote
“He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man. And he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.” — Beatrice

Memorable Scene
The plan to dupe Beatrice and Benedick into loving each other in action: in the villa’s gardens, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio ensure Benedick is eavesdropping while they stage a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and Hero and her maid Ursula do the same to Beatrice.

Letting the Side Down
I’ve always thought the scenes featuring Michael Keaton and Ben Elton hamming it up are a bit… broad.

Making of
The CliffsNotes on the play also cover this film, and notes that “the [opening] scene is cut by more than half, and yet the omissions are seamless to any viewer who has not memorized the lines or is not following the script. Branagh has omitted or cut to the bone several subsequent scenes and their lines, sometimes inserting in their place a visual scene that conveys the incident more dramatically than the words. At other times, he has cut lines and thinned out long speeches to keep the story moving and to eliminate unnecessary details.” Other major cuts are listed at the link.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or
1 BAFTA nomination (Costume Design)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actor (Keanu Reeves))

What the Critics Said
“Shakespeare’s comedies were always meant for the people […] the subject matter was low: sexual politics, power games, nasty betrayals, romantic deceptions and other quintessentially human activities. […] Maybe these plays were classics of the future, but they were the Benny Hill of their time. With Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh has, once again, blown away the forbidding academic dust and found a funny retro-essence for the ’90s.” — Desson Howe, The Washington Post

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“For those who don’t find Shakespeare’s comedies funny, this is the film to see, because it’s hilarious. It isn’t just the lines that create laughter, but the manner in which they’re set up and delivered. Expressions and actions often play a large part in the comedy, some of which is decidedly physical. These are the kinds of things that don’t appear on the written page. The film also contains its share of drama, and the pathos and poignancy come as easily and naturally as humor. […] I’m not sure if ‘feel good’ has ever been used to describe a picture based on the Bard’s work, but the expression fits.” — James Berardinelli, ReelViews

Verdict

There’s a lot of comedy in Shakespeare — not just in his Comedies, but scenes in his Tragedies too (even a pretty dark one like Macbeth sees the story put on pause to indulge in a comedic monologue). The problem is, to modern ears at least, it’s just not funny (that one in Macbeth is commonly cut). So it’s an even greater achievement that writer-director-star Kenneth Branagh here produced a film that was both accessible and genuinely funny. Combining intelligent cuts to the text with assured performances produces a film that, at its best, plays like a period screwball comedy. Consequently, it was that rare thing: a Shakespeare adaptation that became a box office success. That’s something worth making much ado about.

#65 is… number one. All others are number two, or lower.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

2014 #84
John Lee Hancock | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | PG / PG-13

Saving Mr. BanksTom Hanks is Walt Disney and Emma Thompson is author P.L. Travers in “The Making of Mary Poppins: The Movie”. Disney has been desperate to turn Travers’ fictional nanny into a movie for years after he made a promise to his daughter; Travers has resisted, but now needs the money. She’s brought to LA to consult on the script, and proceeds to make life miserable for screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songsmiths Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). At the same time, we see the story of a family in Australia from the eyes of a little girl Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), as they struggle with the whims of her father (Colin Farrell), a bank manager who’s a little too fond of the bottle. Guess what the connection is!

There’s fun to be had seeing the creation of a classic movie — I’m sure it’s not 100% the honest truth of how it went, but it is based on the tapes Travers insisted were made of the meetings, so it would seem the spirit is faithful. This isn’t a dry “making of” narrative, however, but a lively romp, as the two sides clash over jaunty tunes, characterisation, casting, and made-up words. Whitford brings understated gravitas to the man essentially tasked with giving Travers what she wants while also making a suitably Disney movie. Paul Giamatti turns up as Travers’ LA chauffeur, a role that starts out as bafflingly insignificant before gradually unfurling as one of the film’s most affecting elements.

Hanks not a lotSimilarly, Hanks’ part seems to be little more than a cameo at first, but he steadily appears often enough to make it a supporting role. Reportedly he has perfectly captured many of Disney’s real traits and idiosyncrasies, and who are we to doubt the word of people who knew the man? His performance is not just a shallow, simple impersonation, but there’s not that much meat to Disney’s character arc either.

Instead, the film completely belongs to Emma Thompson. Travers is a complicated woman, a veneer of strictness masking deeper issues. Beneath the comedy of who will win in the battle over the film, there’s an affecting personal drama about the troubled upbringing that led to this human being, and how she’s still dealing with it so many decades later. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay holds back from being too explicit with regards to Travers’ internal life, but it’s all vividly brought to the screen by Thompson.

In the Australian segments, Colin Farrell’s accent has to be heard to be believed — his regular voice is completely lost inside the character. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the storyline, though it is fundamentally predictable and the intrusions are sometimes unwelcome, interrupting the flow of the main ’60s narrative. Would that story function without them? Is there a better way to structure the telling? I don’t think the answer to either of those questions is “yes”, but I don’t think it’s a “no” either.

Picky PamelaSome will find the story lacking in dirt, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Disney. But it’s not whitewashed either, and do you really think the Disney Corporation would have allowed a movie to go ahead that depicts their founding father in a negative light? For that, I don’t think it’s as twee as it could have been — there’s definite conflict over what’s being done with Poppins, and, even with the film having turned out to be a solid-gold classic, we often find ourselves sympathising with Travers.

With plenty of humour and fun, a solid emotional heart, a first-rate performance from Thompson, and an array of excellent supporting turns too, Saving Mr. Banks is both a worthy tribute to a classic movie and an enjoyable one in its own right.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Brideshead Revisited (2008)

2008 #49
Julian Jarrold | 133 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

Brideshead RevisitedI’ve not seen the miniseries and I’ve not read the book, but I do know that both are considerably longer than Jarrold’s two-and-a-quarter hours film. So why does it feel so slow? Perhaps it’s the pair of opening flashforwards (easier to refer to them as that than to the majority of the film as one great big flashback), an overused technique these days that here serves no purpose whatsoever: there’s no additional insight on events that follow (or, rather, precede) by placing these snippets at the start, and there’s no new perspective on the snippets when we reach them chronologically (except that, second time round, we actually know who the characters are). It’s the most niggling fault in a film that, like my just-reviewed WALL-E, is of two halves.

The first is very good. It’s entertainingly written and performed, firmly in the tradition of the ‘heritage’ films and TV series that Britain churned out through the ’80s and ’90s — it’s the natural successor to the work of Merchant-Ivory, who of course produced the tonally-similar (at least at first) A Room With a View, which makes this all seem very appropriate. As Sebastian, Ben Whishaw is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best of the three leads. When he’s off screen you miss him, and the point at which Sebastian leaves the story is arguably when things go off the boil. As Charles, Matthew Goode by and large holds his own — handy really, as he is definitely the centre of the film. Emma Thompson is as you’d expect her to be, which is to say she’s pretty good but ultimately it’s all rather familiar from her other performances.

The second half is where the film falls apart. The focus shifts from Charles and Sebastian’s friendship/possible homosexuality, to Charles and Julia’s love affair. The latter seems to come from nowhere and never takes off, consequently making it hard to accept the lengths they’re prepared to stretch to in order to make it work when they’re finally reunited years later. The plot slowly slides into darker and bleaker territory, needlessly dragging small characters back into proceedings to kill them off and finally pushing towards an Atonement-esque World War II epilogue. Some or all of this is obviously derived from the source, but considering the praise garnered by the novel and miniseries I presume it’s made to work there. Here it doesn’t.

An hour-and-a-half in I couldn’t understand what story there was left to tell, and I continued to be bemused by the sudden import of Charles and Julia’s relationship as the next hour dragged by. It’s a shame, because Brideshead starts out so promisingly and enjoyably, but once it begins to slide it never recovers.

3 out of 5

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

2007 #81
Marc Forster | 108 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Stranger Than FictionAnother of Empire’s best films of last year (this one was 21st).

Forster is developing an eclectic filmography, with Oscar-nominated dramas Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland alongside psychological thriller Stay and the 22nd Bond film. Stranger Than Fiction is different again, melding several styles into a cohesive whole — mystery, rom-com, existentialism, a bit of fantasy, and those IKEA graphics from Fight Club. Some plot beats may be clichéd, but that’s almost the point; besides, there’s plenty of originality to make up for it. A few plot turns in the final act also make sure you’re never certain how it will end.

4 out of 5

Stranger Than Fiction placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2007, which can be read in full here.