At The Movies

Thursday 27 August 2015, with Simon Morris

At The Movies for 27 August 2015

She s funny that way

Simon Morris reviews Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled boxer; Vacation - a sequel/remake of the old 80s comedy; and She's Funny That Way, Peter Bogdanovich's tribute to the classic comedies of the forties.

The big picture with Simon Morris

Over the past few weeks we’ve been assaulted from both sides – the Northern summer’s usual barrage of blockbusters on the right, and the riches of the mid-year Film Festival on the left. When that happens your ordinary, mainstream movies tend to duck for cover.

But they’re back… which means we can be selective. I don’t think we need to bother with Hitman Agent 47 – a decidedly average-looking shoot-em-up based on a video game.

Instead this week we’re offered all sorts of exciting alternatives – like the long-awaited follow-up to that classic Eighties comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation. All right, perhaps “Long-awaited” may be overstating our anticipation, while “classic” is definitely only true if you were young and dumb in 1983. As it turned out, the word “comedy” may not be quite the word I was looking for either.

For the discerning movie buff, the real thing is the genuinely classic “screwball comedies” of the glory days of Hollywood in the 1940s. And nobody knows Hollywood history better than critic turned film-maker Peter Bogdanovich. She’s Funny That Way is a tribute to the brilliant comedies of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks.

But recognising a great comedy is one thing. Being able to duplicate it is quite another. About five minutes into She’s Funny That Way, I started to wish I’d gone to Hitman Agent 47 instead.

But this is being wise after the event. The one film that picked itself this week was that generally safe bet – the boxing movie. Sports films generally don’t work outside their home territory. Baseball means nothing in Europe, soccer is a mystery to Americans, and so on. But boxing is different. It’s primal, exciting, often tragic and perfect for the movies. Raging Bull, Rocky, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Million Dollar Baby – the number of award-winning films about the fight game is seemingly endless. This week sees a new one – Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

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Southpaw - film review

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams

Simon Morris reviews boxing drama Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, and Forrest Whitaker, and finds the old boxing movie still has legs.

Southpaw is a standard boxing movie, but it’s one with better credentials than I was expecting.

Compared to its towering predecessors, it’s an expertly-made B-movie perhaps, rather than a timeless classic. The elements we expect to see: corrupt managers, Billy Hope’s (Gyllenhaal) reckless behaviour and the lives of the kids at Forrest Whitaker’s gym - are slightly glossed over. But the performances fill in the gaps in the script. Unlike many recent, bigger films, there’s a lot of heart underpinning the action. But it resists the temptation to lay on the sentiment with a shovel.

It’s to the credit of director Antoine Fuqua that, having picked the right actors, he stays out of their way and lets them get on with it.  

Expect to see Southpaw figure in next year’s Academy Awards. Let’s face it, Oscar has always loved a great boxing movie!

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Vacation - film review

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M Goldstein, starring Ed Helms, Christina Applegate and Chris Hemsworth.

Simon Morris reviews a belated sequel to the 1980s gross-out comedy, National Lampoon's Vacation, featuring Ed Helms, Christina Applegate and star of the first film, Chevy Chase, and wonders if it is merely a cynical redo.

Many years ago, I found myself in New York City, going to the world premiere of the first film by the prestigious humour magazine National Lampoon.  

National Lampoon was then a sort of rock and roll New Yorker, home to writers like P J O’Rourke and John Hughes, to performers like Christopher Guest, Bill Murray and musician Paul Schaffer. And the film was called Animal House.

My disappointment at the low-brow idiocy of Animal House was crushing – but it was just the start. National Lampoon made a string of gross-out comedies throughout the Eighties, and the grossest, and most shameless, were the Vacation films, starring Chevy Chase.

To be fair to the new Vacation, it’s no worse than the original ones, despite what a number of Eighties-generation critics may say. They were all as awful as this, though I wonder if the new generation of teenagers may be initially puzzled at the phenomenon.

Vacation is that thankfully rare thing – an R-rated family movie. 

I don't know what this says about the state of families today, but the good news for cinema proprietors is that there seems to be a market for it. The teenagers sitting around me dutifully giggled at every inappropriate line in the movie, even if most of them weren’t exactly “jokes” in the strictly literal sense of the word.

The biggest laugh in the film comes when the family has a long, luxurious dip in a sewer outlet, which says so much about Vacation on so many levels.

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She's Funny That Way - film review

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, starring Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots and Jennifer Aniston.

Simon Morris reviews Peter Bogdanovich's attempt to revive the old Forties "screwball comedy" in She's Funny That Way, starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, and finds it to be a back-handed compliment to some even older comedies.

Back in the Forties – the Golden Age of the so-called “screwball comedy” - smart, literate film-makers offered witty, grown-up entertainments like The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire and His Girl Friday that still stand up pretty well today.

Over the years, screwball fans like Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers have attempted, with varying success, to revive the genre. But there’s no screwball fan like former film critic Peter Bogdanovich – he’s written books on the subject. And he’s decided to show the young folks what they’re missing with his new film She’s Funny That Way.

Let me put you out of your misery. There’s no wit, the script refuses to sparkle and the situations hang together as badly as wet toilet paper. The fact is, Peter Bogdanovich may be able to write incisive books about movies. He just can’t write movies. He certainly has no idea how to write punchlines.

In defense of the cast, they do what they can with the little they’re given, but you can’t make bricks without straw. She’s Funny That Way is full of half-remembered bits from half-remembered films. The characters are stock figures from another age, all without exception played by the wrong actors.

The worst thing is that clearly Bogdanovich thought he was making this film specifically for me. I’m sorry, She’s Funny That Way is an insult to far better films, and worse, it’s not remotely funny that – or any other – way.

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