The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

2016 #47
George Miller | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The first US feature from the director of Mad Max is an unusual affair. Three now-single women (Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer) accidentally summon a man (Jack Nicholson) who lures them into a life of debauchery, while helping hone their latent magic powers.

Undoubtedly a comedy, Eastwick is less laugh-out-loud, more wryly amused by small-town tittle-tattle. Nicholson was made for devilish characters like this, but the rest of the film isn’t as focused. A presumed point about female empowerment gets lost in the mix, and it doesn’t know how to end, resorting to an effects-driven climax.

Still, it’s largely fun.

3 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.

Robot & Frank (2012)

2015 #66
Jake Schreier | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Robot and FrankIn “the near future”, Frank (Frank Langella) is an ageing jewel thief in denial about his dementia, contenting himself with visits to the local library, which is being taken over by a bunch of yuppies to turn into “the library experience”, and shoplifting from the beauty store that used to be his favourite restaurant. Concerned for his wellbeing, his son (James Marsden) gets him some home help in the form of a humanoid robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Initially reluctant to accept its presence, when the robot attempts to help by also shoplifting from the beauty store, Frank senses an opportunity…

Ostensibly a science-fiction movie, complete with futuristic-looking cars, a casual robotic presence, and glass-like tablets and smartphones, Robot & Frank is really a drama about, amongst other things, old age. The SF elements provide an interesting angle, of course, and this is a well-imagined very-near-future world (it was inspired in part by current attempts in Japan to develop robots specifically to care for the elderly), but the film’s joys and illuminations lie outside the sci-fi elements. Asimovian concepts of robot self-awareness/consciousness are touched upon, but they’re in service of one of the film’s central themes/stories rather than as an end to itself.

Where the film is most effective is in the friendship between Frank and his robot. Some have described it as a buddy movie, and while it doesn’t offer the rollicking action and humour that tag normally implies, it’s not a wholly inaccurate label. When Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler) suddenly appears home halfway through and turns the robot offLibrary love (part of a half-realised almost-subplot about robot rights, or something), we not only feel Frank’s (temporary) loss of his friend, but also urge the film to turn the robot back on and get back to what’s really making the movie work. The event serves a purpose (it’s the point Frank realises he’s stopped just putting up with the damn robot and actually come to appreciate its presence), but still.

The heist elements, played up in some of the film’s marketing, probably to make it sound exciting, are actually rather low-key. Burglary would be a more accurate term. What I’m trying to say is, don’t expect Ocean’s Eleven with an old man and his robot sidekick. There are altogether different delights, including a wry sense of humour that surfaces rarely enough to lend the ‘gags’ extra emphasis but frequently enough to keep the amusement ticking over (avoid the trailer, it contains one of the best laughs). The emotional bond that develops is affecting, in the subtly-built way that you may not see coming. When the end rolls around, you may even feel a tear in your eye.

Robot & Frank is the kind of film that should appeal outside of apparent genre constraints — heck, the way technology’s going, it might not be that long before it’s just a straight-up drama. Frank and robotEqually, this is of a branch of science-fiction we see all too rarely on the big screen, but which is fertile ground for those wishing to explore it: using fantastical concepts to explore and enlighten our own world. Even if you learn nothing revelatory about old age and the rigours of dementia, the friendship between the robot and Frank is reason enough to enjoy.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Robot & Frank is on BBC One tonight at 11:15pm. It’s available on BBC iPlayer until 1:40am on Thursday 28th May.

Speed Racer (2008)

2010 #21
The Wachowski Brothers | 135 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

Speed Racer feels like an unfair place to kick off these half-arsed efforts because, despite the critical and commercial apathy it found on release, I really enjoyed it. This close to giving it 5 stars, I was. Still, it’s my oldest unreviewed film (from this year), so…

Firstly, it’s visually astounding. Speed Racer’s blocks of vibrant colour and computer whizzery are a natural fit for the modern digital experience. Action sequences are mind-meltingly fast, but also incredibly thrilling. When CGI is blatantly used in an attempt to fake something real it can leave an action sequence hollow; but here, everything is pushed to the limit — and, probably, beyond — and so it works.

The plot doesn’t have many twists or turns — at least, not any that are genuinely surprising — and yet it rarely feels boring or stale. It’s buoyed by the crazy action sequences, the likeable characters, the unabashed sense of fun that’s poured into every sequence. Little flourishes mark the film out: the Hallelujah moment with the sweets on the plane; Racer X’s delivery of a simple punch amongst a bevy of complex car stunts; numerous others lost to my memory.

Even some of the performances stand out, not something you’d expect from such a (for want of a better word) lightweight tale. Of particular note are Susan Sarandon as Mom and Christina Ricci’s Trixie, whose huge eyes help render her perhaps one of the most perfect live-action versions of an anime character ever seen. Yes, the characters mostly exist to service their place in the plot, but the odd scene or glance or line delivery adds some subtlety here and there.

The mediocre-to-bad reviews Speed Racer received on its initial release seek to chastise you if you happen to like it — look, Ebert’s already informed us why we’re wrong should we even attempt claims of artistic integrity in the Wachowskis’ work. Maybe he’s right — he can list a whole load of commercial tie-ins at the end, after all. Then again, this is the man who gave Phantom Menace half-a-star shy of full marks, a film that was only a little about story and quite a bit about tie-in merchandise if ever there was one (he awarded Revenge of the Sith the same, incidentally, and has included the granddaddy of all film-tie-in-tat, Star Wars itself, in his Great Movies series). And, to specifically rubbish his opinions here, Phantom Menace is praised for being “made to be looked at more than listened to… filled with wonderful visuals” and condemns Speed Racer because “whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization… you could look at it with the sound off and it wouldn’t matter.” Not that Film’s unique factor (over novels or radio or what have you) is its visual sense, and a silent film that can be told through image alone, devoid of any intertitles, was once a lofty aim. I’m sure Ebert could readily explain why Phantom Menace’s visual splendour is a good thing and why Speed Racer’s is so terrible, but, on the other hand… pot, meet kettle.

(For a point of clarity, I normally like and agree with Ebert — I’m sure some previous reviews where I’ve cited him will attest to this — which is why I pick on his pair of opinions here rather than those of some lesser critic who can’t be expected to maintain a critical ideology from one film to the next, never mind two that sit almost a decade apart.)

Back to Speed Racer. In every respect it’s like a living cartoon, and it’s the Wachowskis’ commitment to this aesthetic in every single respect that makes it work where others have floundered. It’s not perfect, I suppose. It may run a little long at two-and-a-quarter hours; but then, it so rarely lets up that I didn’t mind a jot. And the kid is often annoying; but then, as annoying little kids in films go, I’ve seen worse. At times I even liked him.

But, all things considered, when the chips are down, with all said and done, and any other clichés you feel like listing for no particular reason, I found this to be a candy-coloured masterpiece.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Speed Racer is on Channel 5 today, Sunday 26th October 2014, at 6:20pm.

Enchanted (2007)

2008 #80
Kevin Lima | 103 mins | DVD | PG / PG

EnchantedYou’ve probably heard about Enchanted: it’s the one that starts out as a traditionally animated Disney film, before The Normal Girl Who Will Marry A Prince is thrown into a Magic Portal by The Evil Stepmother and finds herself in present-day New York. It’s one of those concepts so good it just makes you think, “why haven’t they thought of that before?”

Thankfully, they pull it off. It’s very funny, riffing on many recognisable elements from Disney’s considerable library of classics, and manages to produce a number of catchy songs of its own. Amy Adams is brilliant in the lead role, managing to be infectiously sweet rather than sickeningly sugary, while Susan Sarandon has a whale of a time in her boundlessly camp (though disappointingly small) role. The rest of the cast are good too, especially a wonderfully vacant James Marsden as The Prince.

The plot is ultimately predictable, but no more than you’d expect considering the target audience — certainly, kids will likely go through all the requisite emotions, and it would probably be more disappointing if they did try anything truly shocking. Still, it’s crammed with more than enough fun invention and new ideas to make up for any unsurprising plot beats.

Quite simply, Enchanted is a fantastic concept, beautifully executed. A veritable success.

4 out of 5

Romance & Cigarettes (2005)

2007 #13
John Turturro | 102 mins DVD | 15 / R

Romance and CigarettesI was attracted to this because it was billed as a modern musical, with an impressive cast. Tsk.

Some people are put off by the musical tag — well, don’t be. The characters occasionally sing along to some popular songs (and sometimes to ones you’ve never heard in your life), and sometimes do fun dance routines. This sits at odds with the gritty-ish melodrama of the plot, but that’s the fun.

It’s worth a punt, but expect to dislike it.

3 out of 5