When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

2018 #77
Rob Reiner | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

When Harry Met Sally...

Written by the queen of the romcom, Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally is almost a deconstruction of the genre: its titular protagonists are just friends, but (the film asks) can a man and a woman ever be ‘just friends’? It perhaps feels like a dated question today, when almost 30 more years of gender equality have pushed heavily towards the answer being “yes, of course”, but that doesn’t matter for two very good reasons: first, the film still stands as an insight into the nature of relationships in the ’80s and ’90s; and second, it’s just a really good film.

It begins in 1977, when Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are recent graduates who meet through a mutual friend. They soon go their separate ways, and then the film catches up with them in 1982, and again in 1987 — and that’s just act one. It’s an interesting opening gambit to chart the pair’s backstory. It dodges the usual romcom thing of people who’ve just met falling instantly in love, but also does more than introducing us to two friends and telling us “they’ve always been friends” — it shows that friendship. I don’t think I’ve read anyone else talk about this part of the film, I guess because it really ‘gets going’ in the ’87 segment, but I think it’s an interesting way of beginning things, and gives a different grounding to the relationship drama we then see unfold.

It’s an immaculately constructed film all round, both on a macro and a micro scale. For the latter, there’s a single-take four-way phone call between the two protagonists and their respective best friends that is a thing of beauty (and apparently took 60 takes to get right!) It also manages to make New Years and Auld Lang Syne feel relevant to the plot, rather than just an obvious big occasion on which to set the finale. That’s a neat trick to pull off. Even the seemingly-random interludes showing interviews with long-married couples have a pay-off at the end that, once again, reiterates my point about how put-together this is.

Just friends...?

On that macro scale, it again subverts the usual romcom structure simply by having the characters be hyper-aware of the possibility they could sleep together, and regularly discussing whether they should or will. They’re not just bungling through this relationship, happening to fall into all the usual clichés, like so many romcom characters before and since — instead, they’re actually thinking their way through it, aware of the pitfalls. And yet they fall into some anyway, and the film does sometimes follow predictable structure and does hit some of those clichés — but it always manages to make them ring true.

This truthfulness — about male-female friendships, mainly — is probably the film’s biggest asset. Is it still accurate about those dynamics almost three decades later? Despite what I said earlier, maybe it is. And even if it isn’t, I reckon it was bang on point for the ’80s and ’90s, and isn’t that enough? It tells you about the time it was made, even if it doesn’t tell you about today. It all adds up to mean that, when the inevitable happens at the end, it doesn’t feel like an obvious outcome, but something earned and emotional.

4 out of 5

A Few Good Men (1992)

2009 #38
Rob Reiner | 138 mins | download | 15 / R

A Few Good MenSometimes you have to wonder where it all went wrong. I can only imagine how good things looked for Rob Reiner at the start of the ’90s, when he’d had an almost-interrupted near-decade-long run of acclaimed movies in the director’s chair: This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and finally this. ‘Finally’ being the operative word however, as it all seems to have gone down hill from there, to the extent that I actually felt the need to look him up on IMDb to check if he was still working/alive. (He’s both, having recently directed The Bucket List, a bit of a hit if I recall correctly.) Reiner is a recognisable name, and if he’d stopped making films after A Few Good Men perhaps he’d find himself bandied about on lists of Great Directors (at least in certain circles/magazines), but the fact I had to check what he’s been up to (and had forgotten how many acclaimed films he’d made in the first place) shows what a 15-year run of nothingy films can do for your reputation. Even the career of Spinal Tap themselves seems to be in better condition.

All that said, A Few Good Men isn’t really Reiner’s show. It’s not that he does a bad job — far from it — but courtroom dramas primarily depend on two things, even more so than most films: the quality of the writing and the quality of the performances. When you have scene after scene in which a handful of people battle with words alone, often in one-on-one confrontations, then those two elements are virtually all you’ve got. Of course camerawork, editing, music and the rest still have their part to play, but without the underpinning of good writing and good performances the technical attributes are merely fighting to cover for significant shortcomings. Fortunately, A Few Good Men has those underpinnings.

In this case the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, adapting from his own play, who would go on to create and write a great deal of The West Wing (which, incidentally, was inspired by leftover ideas from a later Sorkin/Reiner collaboration, The American President). The seeds of that show’s influential style are in evidence here, although the sheer pace and famous ‘Walk and Talk’ scenes aren’t yet part of the formula. As in The West Wing, Sorkin’s writing is both intelligent and witty, a hallmark of high-quality writing that’s able to rise above the shackles of “it’s not real drama unless it’s all grimly serious”. His characters and their personal story arcs may be straight from the stock pile — Tom Cruise is the hot-shot young lawyer who’s actually trying to live up to his daddy (and comes through in the end); Demi Moore is the goody-two-shoes woman trying to make it in a man’s world (who learns to work with her colleagues); and so on — but the plotting of the central case remains undiminished, and Sorkin thankfully avoids such obvious subplots as a romance between Cruise and Moore’s initially-mismatched-but-ultimately-mutually-respectful good guys. Nonetheless, the occasional lapses into extreme, often patriotic, sentiment that would later mar the odd episode of The West Wing are also on show here, most notably at the climax, though they fail to do any serious damage.

It’s in the all-important court scenes that Sorkin’s writing really shines. Dialogue flies back and forth like bullets, full of protocol and technical jargon — like in The West Wing — that we either understand or, when we don’t, get enough of the gist to follow the key plot points — like in The West Wing. The biggie is the final confrontation between Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep, an interview that’s the courtroom equivalent of a high noon showdown. It’s true that Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson, just as they almost always do, but it makes for a grand act-off. It’s fair to say that Nicholson comes out the victor, gifted with material that guides him from cocksure commanding officer to angry thug in just a few minutes, but it’s the bravado of Cruise’s questioning — undercut with uncertainty and genuine surprise when he pulls it off — that pushes Jessep there.

There are plenty of other good performances — typically competent work from Kevin Pollak doing the best friend thing and Kevin Bacon doing the friend-turned-rival thing, while Kiefer Sutherland’s ‘head bully’ role is memorable and Demi Moore holds her own better than the rest of her career might suggest — but this is undoubtedly a showcase for Nicholson and Cruise, and through them Sorkin’s writing. Not to mention that there are some nice directorial flourishes from Reiner. I wonder what happened to him?

4 out of 5

A Few Good Men is showing on Five tonight at 10pm.

Stand By Me (1986)

2009 #29
Rob Reiner | 89 mins | download | 15 / R

Stand By MeStand By Me is a film an awful lot of people love an awful lot, which it always seemed to me was down to first seeing it at the right age (more or less the age of the main characters, I think) and possibly to being part of a certain generation — would it have the same effect for kids today, when the relative innocence and freedom of the ’50s is arguably lost? As I say, “seemed”, because now I’m not sure either of these factors really matter.

Irrespective of age, generation, or being able to remember the kinds of experiences suggested by the film, Stand By Me is still an effective and affecting little film. The level of enjoyment for some may depend on how much they can stomach child actors, though as kids go they’re mostly very good. River Phoenix in particular is brilliant, highly natural while bringing a lot of depth to perhaps the most important role. Wil Wheaton also makes a good account of himself, just one year before attracting derision as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Phoenix, of course, went on to have a tragically short-lived career.) Kiefer Sutherland is as effective a villain as he ever would be, though that aspect of the plot is almost an aside.

An aside, because the film isn’t about the fights between the young heroes and a group of older bullies. Rather, it’s a paean for childhood, with the adult perspective and the ‘lost age’ setting of the ’50s succinctly highlighting the nostalgic spirit. To be precise, it’s not so much reflecting on “childhood” as on “growing up” — the choices that are open when young that either disappear with time or, for whatever reason, become closed off. The whole film is arguably about choice: choice of friends, choice of social class, Ace’s constant listing of choices (the subtext breaking into the text, as many a film teacher would point out), even the obvious choice whether to follow the tracks or take shortcuts (surely symbolic). Thematically, it’s the choice to be put down or stand up for yourself; the choice to stick around and wind up a nobody or work hard and get out, also underlined in the present-day bookends.

Perhaps being the right age is helpful to a love for Stand By Me, but at any stage in life it’s easy to relate to its depiction of the experiences and choices of childhood, be they now lost, taken, or never even had.

4 out of 5

Stand By Me is on Channel 5 today, Sunday 12th October 2014, at 2pm.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

This is Spinal Tap2007 #15
Rob Reiner | 80 mins | DVD | 15 / R

I think my viewing of Spinal Tap may have suffered from years of hype. In some ways it was exactly what I’d expected; in others, not. There are plenty of funny moments, and the odd hilarious one (Stonehenge), but there were times when I felt a little underwhelmed by it.

Maybe you had to be there; maybe it is indeed a victim of hype.

4 out of 5

This is Spinal Tap is on ITV4 tonight, Thursday 18th June 2015, at 1am.