Election (1999)

2016 #74
Alexander Payne | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The third feature (but first you’re likely to have heard of) by writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska; he also co-wrote Jurassic Park III, did you know that? I didn’t know that) stars Matthew Broderick as a high school teacher who tries to stop Reese Witherspoon’s perfect student from becoming president of the school council.

With Witherspoon largest on the poster, and the title being Election, you’d naturally assume that’s where the film’s focus lies. Really, it’s about Broderick and the disintegration of his life, from a happily married man and dedicated teacher beloved by his students, to… well, where he ends up (no spoilers!) The poor guy’s really put through the ringer, though a lot of it is of his own making, so how much we sympathise is questionable.

Indeed, the whole film has a conflicted idea of identification. It has you side with a teacher who wants to tear down the dreams of a bright, dedicated, enthusiastic young student. And I don’t mean it tries to get you to side with him — you do side with him. But then it proceeds to tear his whole life apart, as if in punishment for what he wanted to do; and, by extension, it punishes you for wanting him to do it. So maybe those ideas of identification aren’t actually conflicted — which might imply it doesn’t know where it wants you to lay your support — but, rather, it knows exactly who you’re going to support, and thinks you’re a bad, bad person for doing so.

Broderick is suitably exasperated as the man whose life slowly falls apart, and Witherspoon is primly perfect as the overly-chirpy student — I’m sure she must remind everyone of someone they knew at school, and that’ll just make you dislike her all the more. (If there wasn’t someone like that in your class… are you sure it wasn’t you? Just sayin’.) It’s also the debut of Chris Klein (who went on to quality cinema like American Pie, the Rollerball remake, and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li), as the nice-but-dim jock who Broderick taps to stand against Witherspoon in the election. His younger sister, played by Jessica Campbell (who stopped acting a couple of years later, it seems), is a jilted lesbian rebel who also stands in the election on a platform of wanting to destroy the system, and is clearly the film’s most likeable character. Or maybe that’s just me.

A bit like Office Space, Election is the kind of indie comedy that is more wryly amusing than laugh-out-loud hilarious (though it has its moments), and is no doubt more appealing the more you feel like you know the characters. I think Payne has matured into more interesting (and, sometimes, funnier) work, but this was clearly a strong starting point.

4 out of 5

This review is part of 1999 Week.

Ladyhawke (1985)

2015 #78
Richard Donner | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

This is one of those films that crops up in the daytime TV schedules now and then and I’d always paid little heed to, because no one else seemed to. Then I read this write-up on Movies Silently and my interest was piqued. (There are many films of interest or recommendation that I haven’t got round to years after hearing of them; other times, I learn of something and watch it more or less instantly. What this says about me I don’t know, but we’ll just have to live with it.)

Ladyhawke is an ’80s medieval fantasy, though relatively light on the fantasy — it’s not Conan the Barbarian. It’s more like an old romance, in the “classical literature” sense rather than the “movie genre” one. (Apparently Warner Bros even marketed it as being based on a real medieval legend, until the screenwriter who actually came up with the story complained to the WGA. Reportedly they paid him off and continued to claim it was a legend. Ah, Hollywood. (Though he has a “story by” credit on the poster, so this may be apocryphal.)) The story concerns fugitive thief Philippe (Matthew Broderick) finding himself indebted to hawk-wielding swordsman Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer), who wants revenge on the bishop (John Wood) who had also imprisoned Philippe — the fact Philippe escaped those dungeons is Navarre’s key to getting in. To add intrigue, that night Philippe is almost murdered by a giant wolf and encounters a mysterious beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who disappears with the beast.

“What’s so fantastical about all that?” you may be asking, if you a) have never seen any promotion for the film, and b) didn’t decode the title. So let’s forge ahead with ‘spoiling’ it: the woman is a hawk by day, the man a wolf by night, and they are cursed lovers. See what I mean about “classical-style romance”? The revelation of their situation is played in-film as a mystery and then a twist, and yet it’s central to the film’s concept, how it was marketed, and how it’s discussed today. I always find it weird when movies treat as a big reveal something that’s been readily given away in advance. Here, there’s a good 45 minutes or so of mystery before said reveal. Obviously, therefore, it would work better as a fresh viewing experience if you didn’t know that going in; but it’s so fundamental to the setup (despite the focus on Philippe, it’s their story) that I wonder if anyone has ever seen it without knowing? On the bright side, it doesn’t really matter: this is not a film where the ‘big twist’ is the point.

Indeed, there’s so much to commend Ladyhawke that I remain baffled as to why I wasn’t more aware of it. Well, there’s one possible explanation: the score. Oh, the score. It’s so reviled that I think it single-handedly explains the entire film’s lack of recognition. The work of prog rocker Andrew Powell, it’s very “of its time”, which means it now doesn’t seem to fit the genre… though, based on people’s comments, I’m not sure it ever did: the music one associates with “the ’80s” has very little in common with what we think of for “medieval fantasy”. It does have its moments though, usually once individual cues have got underway. You’d think you’d get used to it, but no: every time a new bit starts, it still jars. Ah well.

Nonetheless, a terrible score (or “debatably terrible” — it has its fans) is no reason to write-off an entire movie — just look at GoldenEye. Ladyhawke’s many enjoyable elements include some absolutely stunning locations and scenery, often beautifully lensed by Vittorio Storaro. There are good action sequences, in that more freewheeling, less hyper-choreographed way older movies have. They’re also not an end to themselves: this is a story, not a series of set pieces strung together. Concurrently, the screenplay (credited to three writers) is nicely balanced. It’s not a comedy, but it doesn’t feel the need to be po-faced either; the romantic adventure storyline is played straight, but Philippe occasionally addresses amusing asides to God, for example. It even wisely dodges special effects… most of the time. The few occasions on which it does make motions in that direction, it demonstrates why it was wise not to attempt them more thoroughly. These days they’d slather on the CGI, but shying away from such things is not just due to a lack of technology: it’s far more magical to not be too explicit.

The film also offers an array of likeable characters and performances. For starters: Rutger Hauer as the good guy! Wonders will never cease. In fact, he was originally cast as the villainous captain of the guard, but when the original Navarre, Kurt Russell, dropped out, Hauer got a promotion. It’s a shame, in a way — no offence to Ken Hutchison, who does a solid job, but I wager Hauer would’ve given the villain more presence. Equally, he lends the heroic knight something of an edge that other actors might not have brought. As for the rest, Broderick is a likeable lead; you can believe everyone falls in love with Pfeiffer; Leo McKern turns up as a suitably wise old hermit; and oh look, it’s Alfred Molina, with crazy hair and some prosthetic scars playing a wolf hunter. John Wood’s nameless bishop is an odd primary villain, though. Not afforded much screen time after a couple of scenes early on, we mainly learn of his evil deeds from other characters. Come the climax, he mostly stands there in silence while he’s defeated.

I do wonder if, had I seen Ladyhawke as a kid, among all the other family-friendly ’80s SF/F I watched back then, would it be a beloved childhood favourite? I think it might. That’s the kind of age when one might be liable to fall in love with it; or, at least, people of (very roughly speaking) my generation would — I suppose Kids These Days fall in love with copious CGI, be that animated or ‘live action’. Anyway, I think it deserves to be less overlooked, and if you’ve never caught it (or not for a while) it certainly merits a chance.

4 out of 5

The Cable Guy (1996)

2008 #79
Ben Stiller | 88 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

The Cable GuyThe best thing I have to say about The Cable Guy is that the opening titles were very well done.

The second-best thing I have to say is that a subplot featuring director Ben Stiller as a faded-child-star twin-killer is very neatly integrated into the film, seeming utterly pointless until it has a near-vital role in the climax. That’s a pleasing piece of writing/editing right there. Unfortunately, the point this seems to be aiming at — that TV rules our life too much, that we’re too addicted to it, etc etc — is not only old hat, but also rendered meaningless in this instance by the lack of impact: TV goes off for the night, and one guy picks up a book. Oh, wow. And to top it off, thanks to an unnecessary final beat, it seems Jim Carrey’s titular character hasn’t actually learnt the lesson we thought he had.

Incidentally, The Cable Guy is a comedy, though at times it seems to wish you’d forget that so it could be a psychological stalker thriller. Perhaps that’s what it had wanted to be — for one thing, there are surprisingly accurate predictions for the future of telecommunications, although their coming true may simply have killed another joke (“play Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam!”) — until someone realised the idea was too silly to be taken completely seriously. How funny you find the end product will depend on whether you like the style of comedy Carrey employed in the early & mid-’90s, and whether you can stomach pointless asides that don’t do anything for the plot (final act freaky nightmare, step forward). There’s little else to engage interest — Matthew Broderick’s pseudo-protagonist is, perhaps, too nice and too eager to please, and the go-nowhere romantic subplot — his main action aside from being Carrey’s straight man — has all the depth and shape of something from a cookie cutter.

More fun than the jokes, actually, is playing Spot The Pre-Fame Comedy Star. Eyes open for young-looking turns from (in ease-of-identification order) Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo, and Kyle Gass. And Eric Roberts randomly shows his face too, not that that’s relevant to anything.

The Cable Guy is rated 12, or PG-13 in the US, which may also be the last ages you’d enjoy it at.

2 out of 5

In case anyone’s wondering what’s happened to #77 & #78… Despite spending 23 months carefully posting reviews in order (well, the first two months are actually a bit of a muddle), it’s now December and I’m a few behind, so I’ve decided to throw numerical sequence to the wind and just post reviews as & when I get round to completing them. The main reason for this is to help drive things forward so that I can actually end 2008’s posting by December 31st, rather than having it drag on into 2009 and overlap with Year 3. I’m sure no one will really mind. Or care.