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

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Just Friends (2005)

2016 #97
Roger Kumble | 91 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | USA, Canada & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

I was aware of the existence of Just Friends in the way you’re aware of any movie with name actors that came out during the period in which you were cognisant of films that were being released — that is to say, I knew it was a film and it was a comedy, and I had paid it no heed beyond that. Until a couple of months back, when an article at the A.V. Club about a different topic referred to it as a “pop culture dud”, and the comments section got half overtaken with people defending it. Couple that with it being available free on Amazon Prime Instant Video and my curiosity was suitably piqued.

It’s the story of Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds), a fat kid at school who was publicly ridiculed when he declared his love for his best friend and most-popular-girl Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart). Years later, he’s got fit and become a womanising record company exec who hasn’t been home since that incident. However, events conspire to strand him back home for Christmas, with crazy popstrel Samantha James (Anna Faris) in tow, where he finds Jamie stuck in a dead-end job. Can he reclaim his past love, etc, etc, etc.

For all kinds of reasons, Just Friends spends a long time feeling like a morally bankrupt movie. It’s unclear if it’s praising or condemning Chris’ frivolous lifestyle, if he needs saving by coming home, or if he deserves revenge on the people who mistreated him. We know what the standard Hollywood perspective on these things is, so kudos to some degree for dodging it (at least for a while), but it doesn’t commit to the other direction either. What the story really amounts to is wish fulfilment on an epic scale. Its message is essentially: you can go back to your past and make it better. Maybe I’m just a cynic, but that’s not something I believe.

So it was on course for 2 stars, the inconsistency and moral questionability of its worldview tempered by the fact that it was sometimes pretty funny, even hilarious once or twice, particularly when it nails some slapstick. However, at around the halfway point it seems to lose all control of its story, veering wildly around from subplot to subplot, and from conclusion to conclusion (it feels like it’s reached its final play at least three times). Normally that would make things worse, but, concurrently, it settles down in to what it’s trying to say (as much as it’s trying to say anything). It even delivers laughs more consistently, too. To a degree, from that midpoint the movie is slowly rescued.

One lesson I took from watching Just Friends (as if I didn’t know this already) was that just because a bunch of people defend something they like in a comments thread on the internet, it doesn’t mean you’ll like that thing too, even if that comments thread is on the A.V. Club. Nonetheless, while Just Friends is not any kind of “must see” film, as a 90-minute diversion — with, at this temporal distance, a splash of mid-’00s nostalgia — it’s passably entertaining.

3 out of 5

Morning Glory (2010)

2015 #194
Roger Michell | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rachel McAdams takes a break from time-jumping rom-coms to lead a film where the romantic subplot is merely tacked on, presumably for marketing purposes. Really, it’s about a woman in love with her job.

McAdams plays the producer of TV’s worst-rated breakfast show, but her dream career faces ruin when it’s scheduled for cancellation. If only she can persuade her hero, investigative reporter turned disgruntled host Harrison Ford, to toe the line…

Overlong, predictable, and not the sharpest newsroom-based comedy, Morning Glory’s likeable cast nonetheless carry it to a level of entertaining amusement. Not the disaster it’s been painted as.

4 out of 5

About Time (2013)

2015 #192
Richard Curtis | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / R

After Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns he can time travel back through his own life, his father (Bill Nighy) cautions him not to attempt anything too drastic — so he sets about finding love.

Ostensibly another of Curtis’ oh-so-British rom-coms, it plays that way for a while, but long before it’s done develops into something deeper: Tim gets the girl (Rachel McAdams), then learns about life, family, and what you might really want to do with such power.

About Time ultimately displays an emotional depth and maturity that marks it out from its science-fiction stablemates, and the rest of Curtis’ oeuvre too.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow: more time travel in my next 100 Favourites selection.

The Decoy Bride (2011)

2015 #155
Sheree Folkson | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG

This is not a well-reviewed film — Little White Lies described it as “possibly the worst thing ever in world history.”

Obviously they’re being intentionally hyperbolic (well, I hope), but it’s not merited. Okay, it’s a standard rom-com, of the form we’ve seen dozens of times, but it’s no worse than most and better than plenty. Kelly Macdonald and David Tennant are appealing leads with some chemistry, “TV director” Folkson’s work is cinematic enough, and there are decent laughs in the screenplay by Sally Phillips.

There’s nothing special about The Decoy Bride, but it’s pleasantly entertaining. It could be much worse.

3 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

2015 #81
Colin Trevorrow | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

WANTED. Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

Safety Not GuaranteedThe debut feature from the director of all-conquering box office behemoth Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed is a small-scale indie comedy that may or may not have a sci-fi twist. Inspired by a real newspaper ad (actually written by a bored editor), this fictional version sees three journalists from a Seattle magazine tracking down the guy who placed the ad in order to find out the true story behind it.

Despite the unique-sounding premise, much of the film plays as a pretty standard indie romantic-comedy-drama. You’ve got Aubrey Plaza as the girl who never quite fit in; Mark Duplass as a geeky loner with a heart of gold who (spoilers!) she falls for; Jake Johnson as a thirtysomething returning to his small hometown after years in the big city to reconnect with a lost love… If it’s beginning to sound like a checklist of indie plot points then, well, it’s not that bad — this isn’t Indie Movie. While none of the story threads unfold with as much uniqueness as the initial set-up promises, and do occasionally nudge towards thumb-twiddling familiarity, they’re not so rote as to be a total write off. Towards the end, it’s even managed to build up enough steam to offer an effective and somewhat affecting final act.

Trevorrow’s direction is solid. There’s nothing wrong with it, but equally I saw little to mark it out from any other low-budget indie dramedy. I don’t see what here particularly earnt him the instantaneous fast-track move to mega-budget blockbuster-making — directors who previously made that leap at least had the courtesy to go via a mid-budget feature or two following their dirt-cheap debut. Not a DeloreanMaybe I’m missing something, I don’t know, but where other directors currently making a similar transition (Gareth Edwards, Josh Trank, Duncan Jones) showed some signs of a reason for the upgrade in their debut and/or sophomore features, I can’t fathom what singled Trevorrow out. He seems to have done alright with it though, so never mind.

Safety Not Guaranteed has enough tweaks to the expected format that fans of the genre will lap it up (as evidenced by any online comment section you choose to check out), and I guess casual viewers who are predisposed to its particular set of traits will like it more than they like other examples of the same; but, the closing moments aside, I don’t think it’s anything like as unique as some people seem to think it is.

3 out of 5

Safety Not Guaranteed is on Film4 tonight at 12:10am.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

2015 #39
George Ermitage | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Grosse Pointe BlankAction comedy starring John Cusack as a hitman who has to face the life he left behind when he’s assigned a job in his hometown on the same weekend as his high school reunion.

In particular, he has to face the girl he abandoned on prom night. She’s played by Minnie Driver, when she was still kinda cute and indie rather than annoying and kinda diva-ish (see also: Good Will Hunting). Other delights: a hilarious supporting cast, including Dan Akroyd, Hank Azaria and Alan Arkin, and a fantastic ’80s-derived soundtrack.

Immensely entertaining, I was this close to giving full marks.

4 out of 5

Grosse Pointe Blank placed 18th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Always (1989)

2014 #92
Steven Spielberg | 117 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

AlwaysReleased the same year as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and followed by Hook, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in his filmography, Steven Spielberg’s remake of 1943 fantasy drama A Guy Named Joe is sandwiched between several all-time classics (and Hook), which probably explains why it’s been widely overlooked and, consequently, underrated.

Switching WW2 bombers for ’80s aerial firefighters, cocky pilot Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss) is killed in the line of duty, leaving behind girlfriend Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter, with a character name retained from the ’40s). Greeted in the afterlife by an angelic Audrey Hepburn (in her final role), Pete is sent back to Earth to be a spiritual guide to trainee pilot Ted (Brad Johnson). But when Ted runs into Dorinda, and romantic feelings begin to blossom between them, Pete has to decide if he can let go.

There’s a “something for everyone” feel to parts of Always: a soppy romantic storyline, a fantasy twist, hefty doses of humour, and some thrilling action sequences in the firefighting. There’s some wonderful aerial photography and special effects — not what the film’s about, but they’re excellent nonetheless. I guess that’s what you get when a director and crew who specialise in effects-filled blockbusters make a fantasy rom-com. Of course, Spielberg’s renowned sentimentality means he’s equally well suited to a sweet romantic movie. Three's a crowdEven with the undercurrents of grief and the difficulties of moving on, this is fundamentally a light, amiable romance.

An enjoyable little movie, Always was never destined to sit among the highlights of a career as exceptional as Spielberg’s. Nonetheless, it’s a pleasant aside from both his grander and heavier works.

4 out of 5

Always is on ITV tonight at 11:30pm.

Holiday (1938)

aka Free to Live / Unconventional Linda

2011 #79
George Cukor | 91 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

HolidayHoliday stars Cary Grant as an everyday chap who falls in love with a girl who, it turns out, is a wealthy heiress type… but who it also turns out may not share his views on the future. Her kooky sister, played by Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand…

You already know how Holiday ends, don’t you? You may not even have heard of the film, but having read those two sentences, you know. I knew. We all know. Unless there’s a twist, of course. Sometimes there is, especially in older films where they weren’t as slavishly concerned with hitting demographics and all that. So I won’t say if there’s a twist or not.

What I will say is, I loved Holiday. I’d never even heard of it before it turned up on BBC Two in a week of similar stuff, like His Girl Friday (which I’d seen, and reviewed), Bringing Up Baby (which I saw, and reviewed) and It Happened One Night (which is still sat on my V+ box). I’d heard of all of those, but not this, but I’m glad I watched it by association.

It doesn’t have quite the hilarity of His Girl Friday, but I thought it had more substance than Bringing Up Baby (as much as I enjoyed that too). I suppose you would say it “spoke to me”, what with Grant’s character’s desire to go off and do something he wanted to do instead of get locked in to the dull corporate world, and the family’s insistence that a sensible city job where he’d earn a fortune is more appropriate. I can’t say I’m in the same situation — I wouldn’t mind the chance of a highly-paid job, if you’ve got one going spare — but I could relate well enough.
He's not going on holiday... or is he?
Holiday is not the funniest of comedies — though I did think it was funny — instead hitting a level of dramatic/character interest that I didn’t predict. I think it’s more a personal favourite than an objective Great Film (but then, one might argue, what is?), so the best I can do is encourage you to seek it out if this kind of film from this kind of era is your kind of thing.

5 out of 5

High Society (1956)

2009 #54
Charles Walters | 107 mins | DVD | U

High SocietyCole Porter-scored musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, which is probably most famous for featuring Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and being star Grace Kelly’s final film before becoming a princess.

Despite rarely singing, Kelly is by far the film’s standout element — it’s easy to believe three different men would be vying for her affection, but she also gets the chance to show the greatest range of any cast member. Admittedly it’s shades of comedy rather than a full awards-worthy display of ability, but she carries the film beautifully. It’s no wonder her husband-to-be, Prince Rainier of Monaco, objected to her appearing in movies when she played roles such as this: a divorcee who at one point allegedly sleeps with another man on the eve of her wedding to a third is surely no role for a princess. (Turns out she didn’t sleep with him, mind.)

Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are more-or-less themselves as the male leads, though the sole song they perform together, Well, Did You Evah!, is one of the film’s best — despite being a late addition from a previous Cole Porter musical after it was realised Crosby and Sinatra didn’t have a number together. Louis Armstrong also plays himself, literally, and brightens up the screen whenever he appears. His band’s duet with Crosby, Now You Has Jazz, is another of the film’s highlights.

Despite being adapted from an acclaimed play and film, the plot feels like a relatively slight contrivance to link together a couple of songs — alternately of the Romantic and Comedic variety — and some farcical humour with a romance-based thread. That the right people end up together is no surprise — so little surprise, in fact, that the story doesn’t even bother with such trivial things as making the final entanglements come together believably.

No matter. It’s the journey to the inevitable conclusion, through a few comical scenes and a few decent tunes, that makes High Society a perfectly pleasant dose of entertainment.

4 out of 5

High Society is on TCM UK today, Saturday 4th April 2015, at 4:15pm, and on Sunday at 9:35am.