FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

2018 #99
Bill Kroyer | 73 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Australia / English | U / G

FernGully: The Last Rainforest

I remember ignoring FernGully when it came out (probably when it hit rental video rather than at the cinema) because it looked a bit rubbish. I mean, it was an animated movie but it wasn’t made by Disney — “could such things even exist?”, wondered little me (probably). As the years went by, I kinda assumed everyone else had ignored or forgotten it, leaving it as some curio I vaguely remembered from video shop walls. But fastforward to 2009 and suddenly everyone was talking about it, because it had been remade as a big-budget 3D sci-fi epic by James Cameron. Okay, Avatar wasn’t actually a FernGully remake, but the disparaging comparison came up a lot. Fastforward another decade to now (a time when Cameron’s fourfilm remake of FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue (yes FernGully got a sequel) is still over two years away (provided they don’t push it back again)), and on a whim I finally watched FernGully to see this supposed likeness for myself.

So, what’s FernGully actually about? Well, not blue creatures on an alien moon, although it’s equally as fantastical. It’s set in the Australian rainforest, where fairies live in isolation, believing humans to have gone extinct… that is until loggers turn up to destroy their home. Fairy Crysta (Samantha Mathis) shrinks human Zak (Jonathan Ward) down to her size to save him from a falling tree, at which point he learns about their way of life — oh, right, Avatar here we are. Anyway, many years ago an evil entity called Hexxus (Tim Curry) was trapped inside a tree, which the loggers cut down, and suddenly everyone’s at threat.

If it’s not obvious already, FernGully is pretty heavy on the environmental messaging (it’s even dedicated to “our children and our children’s children”, and there’s a note at the end of the credits about donating proceeds to the Smithsonian for environmental work). I seem to remember this was all viewed as being kinda-loony eco stuff back when the film came out. Now, of course, acceptance of those views is much wider, and what the film has to say seems a little obvious. Though we’re still destroying the planet, so I guess we’ve not learned that much in the three decades since.

Batty, indeed

Even more of-its-time are the musical numbers. They’re very 1992, and not in a good way. That said, although it’s a terrible song, If I’m Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You) is one of the best titles ever.

One of the people lumbered with an awful tune is Robin Williams, playing a mentally-deranged rapping bat. Nonetheless, he’s definitely one of the best things in the film — not as much as his Genie was in Aladdin, but he does occasionally bring a similar irreverence. It’s needed when the rest of the film is being a bit po-faced about the magic of nature. The other vocal standout is Tim Curry, who always gives good villain. He’s supported by nice design and animation, with Hexxus visualised as a dripping oil-creature, plus a couple of other forms as the film goes on, all of which look pretty effective. Like the rest of the movie, his characterisation and motivation are very underdeveloped, and Curry’s given little to do after his initial birth/song sequence, but the character looks good.

All in, FernGully is a decent little animated adventure — a tad earnest perhaps, but not too bad — but it’s held back by weak music and a thin plot.

3 out of 5

Awakenings (1990)

2017 #154
Penny Marshall | 116 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Awakenings

Based on a true story, Awakenings tells of Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who stumbles across an element of responsiveness in previously catatonic patients on his hospital ward. Finding a condition that links them buried in their medical histories, he supposes that a newly-invented drug might help their condition, subsequently testing it on Leonard (Robert De Niro), who ‘wakes up’ for the first time in 30 years. As Sayer continues his work, the new treatment reinvigorates the lives of more people than just the patients.

I hadn’t even heard of Awakenings until the untimely passing of Robin Williams, when it was brought to my attention by Mike of Films on the Box (er, I think — I can’t find where this occurred. Either it’s on someone else’s blog or I’ve entirely misremembered the circumstances). Frankly, I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered. Okay, it’s a little schmaltzy towards the end, but there are plenty of films that are worse for that which are held in higher esteem by some. Perhaps it’s not schmaltzy enough for those people, but still too much for people who hate that kind of thing? Or maybe it’s something else — but I don’t know what, because the rest of the film is packed with quality and subtlety.

Such qualities are to be found in its writing — a screenplay by Steven Zaillian that conveys not only the usual story, character, and emotion, but also relates medical facts and processes in a way that is expedient to the narrative but still seems genuine. Whether it is or not I couldn’t say, but I didn’t feel conned by movieland brevity. Such qualities are to be found in the directing — unshowy work by Penny Marshall which matches the screenplay for its attention to detail in a way that never makes it feel as if we’re being fed a lot of information (although we are); that finds moments of beauty and life in the humanity of the characters, their plights, their successes, and their connections.

You waking up me? Well I'm the only one here...

Such qualities are to be found in the acting — De Niro’s immersive performance as a teenager trapped in a 50-year-old’s body, bookended by a medical condition so extreme that in lesser hands it could easily have become a caricature. Also Williams, giving quite possibly the most restrained performance of his career, but fully relatable as the socially inept doctor who is slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought out of his shell. And also an array of supporting performers, who each get their moment to shine in one way or another — although “shine” feels like the wrong word because, again, it’s understated. One or two moments aside (the schmaltziness I mentioned), there’s no grandstanding here.

Combine those successes with the knowledge that this is a true story (heck, you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t) only makes the film’s events — and its messages about being attentive of others and embracing the life we’re given — all the more powerful.

4 out of 5

One Hour Photo (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #68

There’s nothing more dangerous
than a familiar face.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 96 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 21st August 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 4th October 2002
First Seen: DVD, c.2003

Stars
Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji)
Connie Nielsen (Gladiator, Basic)
Michael Vartan (Never Been Kissed, Colombiana)
Gary Cole (Office Space, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby)

Director
Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go, a lot of music videos)

Screenwriter
Mark Romanek (Static, Inside Out IV)

The Story
Sy Parrish is the lead technician at SavMart’s one-hour photo developing clinic. A lonely guy, he invests all his energy in doing a great job for his customers. He’s particular fond of the Yorkins, a young family whose seemingly perfect life has become his obsession. When Sy loses his job at the same time as discovering a secret about one of the Yorkins, his quiet obsession threatens to become something darker…

Our Hero
Sy Parrish, the socially awkward but fundamentally nice department store photo technician.

Our Villain
Sy Parrish, when he snaps — though from his point of view, it’s the member of the Yorkin family that shatters his illusions of their perfect life.

Best Supporting Character
Although the film is very much focused on Robin Williams’ tour de force performance as Sy (more on that later), the cast is filled out by good turns in smaller roles. Ones that have always particularly stuck in my mind include Eriq La Salle as a detective who becomes involved as Sy goes off the rails, and Dylan Smith as the Yorkins’ sympathetic young son, who identifies Sy’s lonely sadness before anyone else. Not so hot on his Evangelion, though.

Memorable Quote
“Family photos depict smiling faces… births, weddings, holidays, children’s birthday parties. People take pictures of the happy moments in their lives. Someone looking through our photo album would conclude that we had led a joyous, leisurely existence free of tragedy. No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.” — Sy Parrish

Memorable Scene
When the Yorkins are out, Sy wanders around their home, admiring the photos on the fridge, including one of himself, using the facilities, having a beer, hanging out with their dog watching TV. Then, suddenly, they come home… but it’s okay because he’s their friend. And this is all in Sy’s imagination.

Technical Wizardry
Writer-director Mark Romanek’s background is as a very successful music video director, and, as you might expect from someone with that history, his first proper feature is visually assured. In particular Sy’s workplace, SavMart, created by production designer Tom Foden as a consumerist heaven-cum-hell: a huge, white, slick place, but ultimately sterile, cold, and colourless, especially under glaring fluorescent light in the typically skilful cinematography of David Fincher’s frequent DP, Jeff Cronenweth.

Making of
In keeping with the film’s photographic theme, many of the characters are named after real-life photographers. These include: Sy’s assistant, Yoshi Araki (Nobuyoshi Araki); Sy’s boss, Bill Owens (Bill Owens); detectives Van Der Zee (James Van Der Zee) and Outerbridge (Paul Outerbridge); Officer Dan Lyon (Danny Lyon); Maya Burson (Nancy Burson); customers Mrs. von Unwerth (Ellen von Unwerth) and Mr. Siskind (Aaron Siskind); and the hotel at the end, the Edgerton (Harold Eugene Edgerton).

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Actor (Robin Williams))
4 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Supporting Actress (Connie Nielsen), Writing, Music)
1 Fangoria Chainsaw Award (Actor (Robin Williams) — it’s not that kind of film, is it?)

What the Critics Said
“It’s a credit to Romanek and Williams that Sy commands much sympathy; for most of the film he’s convincingly played and treated as being odd and quirky but not necessarily threatening. That Williams has come to develop a warm-‘n-fuzzy screen persona over the years works wonders for the character; not only does it make his loneliness palpable and relatable, it makes his inevitable eruption all the more shocking to behold. What makes the turn all the more disturbing, however, is no matter how unhinged he becomes, Sy never becomes nor comes off as a completely despicable character. His actions may veer off into a negative direction, but the motivation comes from a genuinely good place, though to a selfishly obsessive extreme.” — Michael Dequina, TheMovieReport.com

Score: 81%

What the Public Say
“It’s a film that over the years I’ve come to appreciate far more than my initial viewing due to the brilliant, unforgettable effort by Robin Williams who gives one of his most haunting performances. […] It’s a testament to Williams’ talent that you can be both repulsed and sympathetic to Sy. He unnerves you with his calculated obsession and creepy smile, yet it’s hard not to feel bad for a guy who simply just wants a friend or a family to call his own as he enters the twilight of his life.” — Jeffrey Lyles, Lyles Movie Files

Verdict

Part psychological thriller, part character study, One Hour Photo has some interesting things to say about how we record our memories — or how we used to, considering that digital photography and social media have since transformed that aspect of our lives. Whether or not that element of the film is past it, Robin Williams’ performance endures. It wasn’t the first time he’d played a non-comedic role, of course, but he’s so throughly subsumed in the role of the awkward, creepy Sy Parrish that it’s possible to forget it’s Williams at all. It may well be the finest acting performance from an extraordinary talent.

In #69 a ringing phone has to be answered.

Happy Feet Two (2011)

2015 #193
George Miller | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | U / PG

Mumble and his penguin pals return for another adventure, in a series the Australian film industry are reportedly inordinately proud of.

Not as fun as the first, Happy Feet Two suffers from messy storytelling that can’t seem to settle on a narrative thread. For example: a massive subplot featuring a pair of Pythonesque philosophical krill, voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, is the film’s most fun element, but never significantly connects to anything else.

At least there are a few good musical sequences, one again re-appropriated from existing pop tunes, not least an Australian-accented elephant seal rendition of Rawhide.

3 out of 5

Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996)

2015 #196
Tad Stones | 82 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9* | USA / English | U

For most of the ’90s and ’00s, Disney churned out direct-to-video sequels to many of their most beloved animated classics. They have a reputation for being unremittingly awful, hence why Pixar’s John Lasseter put a stop to their production after he became Disney’s Chief Creative Officer in 2006. Despite that reputation, however, there are those who say one or two are actually quite good. One of those (and the only one I’ve previously seen) is The Lion King 1½ (released as The Lion King 3 in the UK), which is a sort of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the original film’s Hamlet, re-telling the story from the perspective of Timon and Pumbaa. I saw it years ago but would vouch for its relative quality — when I first re-watched The Lion King after, I briefly thought some scenes were missing, which I guess is testament to how well it fits.

Another such-praised sequel is this follow-up to Disney’s 1992 Animated Classic. It’s actually the second sequel (the first was also the first of those Disney DTV sequels) and also follows an 86-episode TV series. Fortunately, the makers dropped an early idea to use one of the series’ main villains as the film’s antagonist, and so it functions perfectly as a direct sequel to the original movie. Which is nice, because that first sequel isn’t meant to be very good and I imagine the TV series is hard to come by nowadays. Plus, neither of those can claim an ever-so-important distinction that this can: it features the return of Robin Williams as the Genie.

The film begins on the wedding day of Aladdin (Scott Weinger) and Jasmine (Linda Larkin), which is interrupted by the mysterious Cassim, the King of Thieves (John Rhys-Davies), and his gang of forty thieves seeking to steal an oracle from among the wedding gifts. Although they fail, the oracle informs Aladdin that the answers he seeks about his long-departed father are to be found with the forty thieves… I expect you can guess where that’s going. Fortunately the film gets there pretty quickly, then transitions into a story about the possible redemption (or not) of Cassim alongside the quest for the Hand of Midas, capable of turning whatever it touches into gold (natch).

The King of Thieves has a few things in its favour. It’ll come as no surprise that the biggest and best is Williams reprising his iconic performance, and consequently being responsible for most of the film’s humour. There are a couple of fun nods to some of Williams’ other best-remembered roles, and plenty to other Disney films too. The rest of the film offers a fast-paced, action-packed narrative, with a few musical numbers to boot. The songs are certainly not as memorable as those found in proper Disney movies, but most are decent while they last. Jasmine gets somewhat short shrift, but this is really a story about father and son.

Those who dislike Disney’s Aladdin won’t find anything to enjoy here, but for fans of the original, Aladdin and the King of Thieves is a solid, fun follow-up.

4 out of 5

* The film was made for release on VHS, so it’s no surprise that the OAR is 1.33:1. The HD version is cropped for 16:9. It’s mostly alright, though anyone with an eye for composition will find it obvious at times. ^

What Dreams May Come (1998)

2015 #129
Vincent Ward | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / PG-13

When What Dreams May Come first came out, the reviews seemed to conclude that it was rubbish, but at least visually splendid. Back in 1998, that put me off — “it’s not meant to be very good” was the takeaway thought there. As the years have gone on, for some reason those reviews (or possibly just one I extrapolated into a consensus, who knows?) stuck with me; and as my temperament as a film fan grew, that it was visually extraordinary (even if nothing else) began to seem reason enough to watch it. It lingered in the back of my mind, never quite becoming a “must see”, especially as the opportunity rarely (if ever) presented itself. So that’s more or less how I come to it now, 17 years since its release and those reviews — a long-awaited scratch of a long-lingering itch. (Perhaps this gives some insight into why/how it takes me so long to get round to watching recommendations/things I’m quite keen to see/etc.)

Adapted from a novel by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, the story concerns Dr Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) and his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra). Their perfectly lovely life is shattered when their two kids are killed in a car crash. Despite Annie suffering a mental breakdown, they hang in there… until Chris is killed in another car crash a few years later. He ascends to a kind of Heaven, a wondrous place controlled by his imagination — this is where those visuals come in. However, Chris learns that Annie has committed suicide, and so been condemned to Hell. He vows to do what has never been done, and travel to Hell to rescue her.

Hell, incidentally, also looks incredible, as do the various locales visited by Chris and his companions (played by Cuba Gooding Jr and Max von Sydow) on their way there. Director Vincent Ward and his team have created a rich, engrossing visual space here. It’s not just the Oscar-winning visual effects either, which create Chris’ initial realisation of Heaven as a kind of living painting, but also the locations, their decorations, and some fantastic sets. The design work is brilliant, and the vast majority of it still holds up today. Even the CGI doesn’t look glaringly like 17-year-old graphics, and in many cases what I presume is a mix of live action, models and some CGI is far more effective than the all-CG look it would likely have if made today.

However, the story is… problematic. Its logic comes and goes (the afterlife’s rules have to be obeyed or are able to be broken depending on the situation, for instance), it goes on too long, with too many asides, and there are needless twists, reveals, and reversals that are neither surprising (thanks to their ultimate predictability) nor illuminating (thanks to their unnecessariness). There were too many flashbacks and asides to real life, and I’d have liked it more if it stuck to the afterlife stuff — cut the flashbacks, limit the story to the afterlife quest, and stop mirroring it in the couple’s earlier real-life troubles. That would make the movie shorter, more streamlined, less wishy-washily sentimental, more focused, and therefore better.

Nonetheless, some will identify with the sentimental “love transcends death”-type message more than others, and there’s a chance those who like (or don’t mind) their films to be at the soppier end of the spectrum will genuinely love it. For the rest of us — for anyone who likes visual splendour in their movies, anyway — it does indeed merit a look for the imagery alone.

3 out of 5

Aladdin (1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #1

Imagine if you had three wishes,
three hopes, three dreams
and they all could come true.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 90 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 25th November 1992 (USA)
UK Release: 18th November 1993
First Seen: VHS, c.1993

Stars
Scott Weinger (Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Shredder)
Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting, Insomnia)
Linda Larkin (The Return of Jafar, Joshua)
Jonathan Freeman (The Return of Jafar, The Ice Storm)

Directors
Ron Clements (Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Hercules)
John Musker (The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog)

Screenwriters
Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog)
John Musker (Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Hercules)
Ted Elliott (The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End)

Story by
Deep breath… Burny Mattinson and Roger Allers, Daan Jippes, Kevin Harkey, Sue Nichols, Francis Glebas, Darrell Rooney, Larry Leker, James Fujii, Kirk Hanson, Kevin Lima, Rebecca Rees, David S. Smith, Chris Sanders, Brian Pimental & Patrick A. Ventura.

Based on
The folktale of Aladdin and the magic lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, aka The Arabian Nights.

Music
Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Tangled)

Lyrics
Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast)
Tim Rice (The Lion King, Evita)

The Story
Street urchin Aladdin falls for bored Princess Jasmine when she sneaks out of her palace one day, leading him to the clutches of evil vizier Jafar, who needs Aladdin to retrieve a magic lamp as part of his scheme to rule the land. When Aladdin accidentally discovers the lamp’s inhabitant, a wish-granting Genie, he uses his wishes to set about wooing the princess. Jafar, of course, has other ideas…

Our Hero
One jump ahead of the bread line, one swing ahead of the sword, steals only what he can’t afford (that’s everything). Riffraff, street rat, scoundrel. It’s Aladdin, of course.

Our Villain
Grand Vizier Jafar, a plotting underling — the kind of role that has strong precedent in fiction, I’m sure, though Conrad Veidt as villainous Grand Vizier Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad is rather clearly the direct inspiration.

Best Supporting Character
Oh, I don’t know, maybe… the Genie! Fantastically voiced by a heavily-improvising Robin Williams, praise is also deserved for Eric Goldberg’s character animation, which matches him every step of the way. In fact, it was an animation Goldberg created using one of Williams’ stand-up routines that convinced the comic to take the part.

Memorable Quote
Aladdin: “You’re a prisoner?”
Genie: “It’s all part and parcel, the whole genie gig. Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty bitty living space.”

Memorable Scene
Trapped in a desert cave, Aladdin accidentally rubs a lamp and unleashes the Genie — and with it, Robin Williams’ all-time-great hilarious performance.

Best Song
For me, it’s Prince Ali, the huge Genie-led number as a disguised Aladdin arrives back in town in grandiose style. The Genie’s big solo number, Friend Like Me, is an incredibly close second. Soppy A Whole New World won all the awards, because of course it did.

Truly Special Effect
Only the second time Disney used CGI with 2D character animation. In Beauty and the Beast, it built a room for the characters to dance in; here, there’s a character (the entrance to the cave) and a whole action sequence (the flying carpet escape from said cave). It earnt the team a BAFTA nomination. There’s no shame in what they lost to: Jurassic Park.

Making of
Robin Williams ad-libbed so much of his role as the Genie — generating almost 16 hours worth of material, in fact — that the film was rejected for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination.

Previously on…
Aladdin is Disney’s 31st Animated Classic, their official canon of animated movies. It’s the fourth film in the “Disney Renaissance”, the decade-long period (starting with The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan) when they had a run of films that were critically and financially successful (unlike those before and after said period).

Next time…
Two direct-to-video sequels, the second of which is quite good; in between those, a TV series ran for 86 episodes(!); a Broadway adaptation debuted in 2014 (it’s coming to the West End in May); not to mention numerous video games and appearances in other works, almost all still voiced by the less-starry names among the original cast. The go-to new voice for the Genie? Dan “Homer Simpson” Castellaneta.

Awards
2 Oscars (Original Song (A Whole New World), Original Score)
3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Original Song (Friend Like Me))
2 BAFTA nominations (Score, Special Effects)
1 Annie Award (Animated Feature)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Robin Williams), Younger Actor (Scott Weinger))
1 Saturn nomination (Music)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“What will children make of a film whose main attraction — the Genie himself — has such obvious parent appeal? They needn’t know precisely what Mr. Williams is evoking to understand how funny he is. […] What will come through clearly to audiences of any age is the breathless euphoria of Mr. Williams’s free associations, in which no subject is off-limits, not even Disney itself.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“the perfect Disney film, one that cleverly combines the sensibilities of classic and modern audiences, one that matches toe to toe with many of the studio’s greatest films. You may prefer the emotional heart-ache of The Lion King or the romantic magic from Beauty and the Beast, but I would always prefer the witty and charming Aladdin.” — feedingbrett @ Letterboxd

Verdict

Hailing from slap-bang in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, Aladdin may not be quite as strong as the films either side of it (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), but it’s the next best thing. Buoyed by Robin Williams’ top-drawer performance (have I mentioned that yet?), multiple toe-tapping musical numbers, and a dastardly villain who’s among Disney’s best — and is just one of several great supporting characters here, actually — Aladdin is an A-grade animated Arabian adventure.

In #2 no one can hear you scream.

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

2014 #88
Barry Levinson | 116 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Good Morning, VietnamInspired by the true story of a US Army DJ in Vietnam during the war, the resulting film is a showcase for star Robin Williams — reportedly, his antics aren’t even close to what really happened.

Doesn’t matter though, does it, because this is Williams at his best. His radio monologues show off his fast-paced improvisational riffing — as hilarious as always — while the more dramatic parts engage with the conflict and remind us of the serious flipside to Williams’ considerable skills.

Comedy-dramas are notorious for not being particularly comedic or particularly dramatic. This is funny and engrossing enough to subvert that.

5 out of 5

Good Morning, Vietnam is on Film4 tonight at 11:25pm.

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

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

2014 #125
Gus Van Sant | 126 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Good Will HuntingI’d say Good Will Hunting is famous for two things: one, being written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were young actors after some good roles; and two, Robin Williams’ Oscar-winning supporting actor performance. Such is the power of these two facts that I didn’t even know what it was about until I actually watched it.

Damon is the titular Will Hunting, a 20-year-old from South Boston who works as a janitor at the prestigious MIT, hangs out with his friends (who include Ben Affleck) and sometimes gets into fights for no good reason. He’s also an undiscovered genius, adept at all kinds of maths and philosophy, to a “beating students in arguments in bars” level. Undiscovered, that is, until an MIT professor (Stellan Skarsgård — didn’t even know he was in it) puts a maths problem on a blackboard for his super-intelligent students to solve over the next year, and Will solves it over night.

Williams enters the equation as a therapist, who Will is legally required to meet with. Their initially antagonistic relationship evolves, as the very troubled young man comes to deal with his issues. For all its appearances as a movie about an uncommon maths prodigy, then, Good Will Hunting is really about a messed-up young man trying to deal with his issues — not least intimacy problems that threaten to ruin his relationship with MIT student Skylar (Minnie Driver).

Williams and DamonThe film is perhaps most enjoyable as an acting showcase. Damon and Williams have numerous incredible scenes together; encounters that feel like genuine slowly-evolving therapy, rather than the simplistic and implausible series of repeated revelations and breakthroughs that such treatment is often reduced to on screen. They run the emotional gamut, too, being not just instances of soul-searching but also moments of wider insight, or intense humour — that’s what you get when you have Robin Williams at your disposal, of course. His Oscar is well earnt.

There’s also the relationship between Williams and Skarsgård, college roommates who have fallen out of touch but are now almost the angel and devil atop Will’s shoulders — and, of course, each believes they’re the angel. That’s to simplify it, though, as their relationship is not so straightforwardly antagonistic. These are friends, but friends with a very different view of what’s best for their young charge.

In that role, Damon is equally excellent. It’s rarely a showy part, instead full of understated feelings, buried beneath the surface but keenly felt. Here is a kid with great potential and hope, but who won’t act on any of it for fear of failure — not that he’d admit that, even to himself. Not initially, anyway. It’s a narrative that strikes me as having a great deal of truth about intelligent kids from impoverished backgrounds, brought into sharp relief by this one being not just intelligent but a genuine world-class genius. It’s also affectingly felt through his relationship with Driver, for once appealingly likeable rather than faintly irritating (is that just me?) Driver and DamonTheir promising relationship suffers through inexperience and, to be frank, unwarranted daftness, lending it a melancholic air (or is that just me again?)

Of the leads, it’s Ben Affleck who has the least to show off with — strange, considering he co-wrote it as a chance for some work. That’s not to say he has nothing to contribute, but he’s very much a supporting role — I’ve arrived at him fifth because that’s essentially where he sits in the pecking order of significance. More memorable is his younger brother, Casey, playing another of Will’s friends. Apparently Affleck the Younger frequently improvised lines on set, and there are some great brotherly looks that seem to say, “what the hell are you doing to my screenplay?!”

Affleck the Elder is afforded at least one moment of Proper Acting, though. At one point he tells Will about the best part of his day: when he arrives at Will’s house to pick him up, the ten seconds where he walks up to the door, and there’s the possibility that his friend — who he knows is a genius but hasn’t acted on his potential — has just gone, without word; left for a better life. As the viewer, we know instantly how this is going to pay off later, so when the moment does come (spoiler, sorry), we know what to expect: Affleck will walk up to the door, he’ll knock, there’ll be no answer, he’ll grin like a loon. Except that’s not what happens: Affleck does walk up to the door, he does knock, there is no answer… so he knocks again. Frustrated, he knocks more. He peers through the glass. Now he begins to realise — Will’s gone. Then there’s a long, unbroken shot of his face, as he considers and contemplates. It’s not confused, exactly, but he’s seemingly unsure what to make of it. Affleck and beerThen, slowly, almost imperceptibly, a slight wry grin curls his mouth. Yes, Will has actually done it; and yes, it is what he wanted. It’s all good. Only then does he turn around, and simply announce to his waiting friends that Will isn’t there. It’s a pretty subtle moment, massively over-explained here, but it’s so much more realistic a reaction than the almost-clichéd one we’re expecting to see. In a film full of incredible, powerful performances, speeches and moments, it’s one that stood out to me.

I guess we should also thank director Gus Van Sant for that. This is the man who remade Psycho shot-for-shot “just because”, and made the interminably dull Elephant too. Here, his Artistic predilections are reigned in to just the odd moment — some shots of the friends driving around Boston staring out the car window, that kind of thing. Most of the time, he unfussily shoots the actors doing their thing. For my money, that makes this far and away his most successful movie (that I’ve seen, anyhow).

Apparently some people label Good Will Hunting predictable or implausible, with associated implications of it being twee and sugary. I don’t really think it’s any of those things. Maybe a little, but no more than so many other movies — the vast majority of stories are “predictable” because we all know how narrative works nowadays, for example. There are many worse examples than this.

Damon and mathsBesides, it’s the characters and the performances that shine. It’s no surprise that a pair of actors wrote an “actors’ movie”, but it is an achievement that they wrote one that displays genuine people and genuine emotions, rather than just showy performances. Credit to an exceptional cast — and, this once, an exceptional director — for bringing that so beautifully to life.

5 out of 5

Good Will Hunting is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm. It’s followed by Good Morning, Vietnam, which I’ll review tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

2014 #103
Peter Weir | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Dead Poets SocietyAt an oppressive private school (is there another kind?), a gaggle of disenchanted students are invigorated by teacher Robin Williams; until his methods, and the independent thought they inspire, attract the ire of parents and faculty.

Here’s a film all children should see, to understand the value of free thought and rejecting the system. Cynics probably find its purity of message, coupled with a tragic ending, to be over-sentimental and twee, but this earnestness is what makes it work.

A few poor choices aside (slow-mo renders a key moment comical; Maurice Jarre’s synth score jars), this is powerful, affecting filmmaking.

5 out of 5

Dead Poets Society is on BBC Two tonight at 11:35pm.

Robin Williams also stars in Good Will Hunting, which I’ll review tomorrow. Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.