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.

Inherent Vice (2014)

2015 #113
Paul Thomas Anderson | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Paul Thomas Anderson — the fêted writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, et al — here turns his hand to adapting reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 opus. It met with notably less success than most of his previous works. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists were one of few organisations to recognise it come awards season, with a gong for “Movie You Wanted to Love, But Just Couldn’t”. Apt.

The story — not that the story is the point, as aficionados of Anderson and/or Pynchon will happily tell you — sees stoner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receive a visit from an ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), who’s been having an affair with a real estate developer whose wife now intends to have him committed so she can inherit his estate. It only spirals from there, and I’m not even going to begin to get into all the different directions it shoots off into.

Really, the plot is a deliberate mess — it’s not the point, remember — but even allowing for that, it’s messy. How things are connected to one another is regularly unclear, subplots seem to take over for no apparent reason, and if there was a point to it all, it completely passed me by. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I get the impression it also sailed past those who would claim there was some point, as they scrabble around to justify one. Moments of amusement or filmic craftsmanship do shine out, but only occasionally. Chief among these is Robert Elswit’s cinematography. It’s understatedly wonderful, reminding you how great proper film stock can look, especially in HD. Digital photography has its benefits, but golly there’s something to be said for film.

Anderson chooses to realise the movie mostly in long, unbroken takes, which not only lets the photography shine, but also allows his cast free rein to construct their own performances. I’m not sure how much that pays off, but it’s certainly not a hindrance. Turns from the likes of Josh Brolin and Martin Short border on the memorable, though your mileage will vary on if anyone truly achieves it, with the possible exception of Katherine Waterston, who surely deserves more — and more prominent — roles. Other recognisable faces (Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon) are wasted in one- or two-scene appearances, which I suppose we could kindly call cameos.

For a certain kind of viewer, Inherent Vice will be nirvana. Or possibly for two kinds of viewers. One: stoners, who can identify with the main character, and find the majority of life just as bewildering as this film’s plot. You don’t have to go far on the internet before you find, “dude, it’s a totally great movie to watch stoned, dude”-type comments. Two: some Anderson and Pynchon fans (though by no means all), as well as similar cinéastes, who I’m sure can find something in there because it’s by an acclaimed auteur so it must be worth re-watching multiple times, and if you re-watch anything enough you can find some deeper meaning to it.

I am in neither of those groups, however. The aforementioned fleeting aspects of quality weren’t enough to swing it for me either. Sadly, I’ll be chalking this up alongside Killing Them Softly and Seven Psychopaths as “neo-noirs from previously-excellent directors that seriously disappointed me this year”.

3 out of 5

Monsters vs Aliens (2009)

2014 #21
Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon | 84 mins* | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Monsters vs AliensThere seems to be a certain brand of animated film that I think looks dreadful so avoid, then I hear good things about, so I try it and find that, actually, they are really good. There was How to Train Your Dragon, then Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and now — yes, you guessed it — there’s Monsters vs Aliens.

On her wedding day, Susan is struck by meteorite whose contents causes her to grow to 50 feet tall. Seized by the government and renamed Ginormica, she’s taken to a special facility that houses an array of other creatures: B.O.B., an indestructible blob; Dr. Cockroach, a part-insect mad scientist; the Missing Link, a prehistoric fish-ape hybrid; and Insectosaurus, a skyscraper-sized grub. But when evil alien Gallaxhar arrives seeking the energy that gave Ginormica her powers, it’s realised the only way to combat his giant robots is by unleashing the monsters. Yes, it’s The Avengers with ’50s B-movie monsters.

If that doesn’t sound like a fun concept, you’re probably already on a hiding to nothing. It has a love and understanding of B-movies that should keep many a genre fan happy, suggesting it was created for them almost as much as its true audience, namely the same kids as… well, every other US animation. I suppose in that regard it’s a bit like The Incredibles, still one of the best superhero movies in any form.
Monster Squad
That’s a big comparison to make, but one I think Monsters vs Aliens can withstand more often than not. The climax is a little samey — why do all action-y kids CGI movies seem to have the same final act? — but before then it has a nice line in satirical humour, bold and broad characters, and even some quality action sequences. This is not a film where someone had an idea and coasted on it, but where they poured in a lot of love and elements you might not expect — see: satire, in an American kids’ movie! Not to mention the emotion you’ll get from a giant moth. I mean seriously…

Computer-animated kids movies are two-a-penny these days, meaning if it doesn’t have “Pixar” above its logo or a number at the end of its title, there’s a good chance it’ll be brushed off as “oh, another one”. (Of course, to get the aforementioned number on a title you need a successful unnumbered one first — like the other two films I mentioned in my introduction, for example.) There’s probably a lot of dross that’s being rightfully ignored, but some gems seem to have passed by with less fanfare than their enjoyment-value merits. Megamind is one that comes to mind; Monsters vs Aliens is another.

4 out of 5

* Full running time is 94 minutes. A saving of 10 is what you get for watching it in a PAL version (i.e. sped-up 4%) created for broadcast TV (i.e. hardly any credits). ^