By BRUCE DENNILL
Maladies / Directed by Carter / 13 1
Tammy / Directed by Ben Falcone / 13L 2
Danny Collins / Directed by Dan Fogelman / 16LD 9
Maleficent / Directed by Robert Stromberg / PGV 5
My wife refers to stories that try desperately hard to be deep and meaningful but instead come off as merely immature and boring as “fourth form drama practicals”. Working backwards from that, Maladies fits in somewhere between nursery school farewell show and getting so bored of practicing your future signature that you try it with your left hand. It’s written and directed by a one-name mystery person called Carter, whose work you will absolutely not recognise from the single other title to his credit, which is called Erased James Franco and features the following synopsis on imdb.com: “James Franco re-enacts scenes from his filmography and reinterprets Julianne Moore’s role in Todd Haynes’ Safe.” Yowsers. That suggests blaming Carter for this waste of time, talent, money, plastic and paper (those last two in the manufacture of the DVD packaging the film’s been released in) is not entirely fair. Had he been the single push factor for getting this project made – by appealing to an actor’s ego, say; a not uncommon strategy for getting ahead in Hollywood – James Franco, who plays the schizophrenic soap opera actor at the centre of what passes for the story, might be let off the hook. But Franco released a film of himself – with Carter – of himself repeating his own performances for no sane reason, and then thought, “That was such as worthwhile use of my resources that I’m going to collaborate with this guy again, and trust him to write the script!” Nothing makes sense. Nothing compels. The only vaguely engaging aspect of the piece involves audiences wondering what the hell Catherine Keener is doing signing up for such unmitigated dross. Steer clear.
With this film, the joke is on the discerning viewer. Tammy is a low-brow schlock-fest that deserves the critical beating it received on its cinema release, and yet it made over $100 million at the box office and so stands and excellent chance of spawning a sequel. The most maddening thing about the whole enterprise is that it is the fruit of the labours of Melissa McCarthy, who is producer, co-writer and star. That she’s involved is not annoying, but that an obviously smart, genuinely funny woman like her is happy to settle for such superficial crudeness – and to take a cast of the calibre of Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Gary Cole, Dan Aykroyd and Kathy Bates with her. They’re there because they know McCarthy has much to offer, but this script fails to showcase her talents, and her co-stars’ efforts are mangled in the mix. There is a stab at highlighting the value of self-respect even in the worst of times, but it’s near impossible to spot any worthwhile themes as the characters swear, drink and con their way through a succession of undesirable scenarios. And for what’s promoted as a comedy, there are precious few genuine laughs. Eminently missable.
Seeing Al Pacino in a film this good drives home how long it’s been since he made the last one (arguably Heat, 20 years ago, with an honourable mention for Any Given Sunday, The Insider and, at a stretch, Donnie Brasco – none of which were released in this century). This beautifully written piece (the script is by director Dan Fogelman) is far more intimate than any of those widescreen narratives, and it allows Pacino – and the rest of a wonderful cast including Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Bobby Cannavale and Jennifer Garner – to actually act, and to play with brilliant, whip-smart dialogue delivered at breakneck speed. The central conceit is sublime – and all the better for being based on a true story. Danny Collins (Pacino) is a folk-rocker who came to prominence in the Seventies and continues to live rather too large off the results of that success. In an interview as he heads into his heyday, he is linked with John Lennon, citing him as a major inspiration, and the Beatle, hearing of or reading about Collins’ comments, pens him an encouraging letter, including his home phone number and an invitation to call anytime. Through a number of unfortunate circumstances, this missive only makes its way to Collins years later, when he is at his lowest ebb, having become painfully and plainly convinced of the insignificance of his existence, despite (or because of) his wealth and the way he is regarded by his audience. It puts his life in perspective, and what he sees is not to his liking. This foundation – and the profundity of the examination of fame and what constitutes real worth that it instigates – make this a film of rare thoughtfulness. But it’s not all dry theory and philosophy. Rather, the story combines jocularity, drama, crisis and unfashionable notions such as loyalty and compassion. Plus, and it has this in spades, there is patter – the quick back and forth banter between canny characters that rapidly develops both the storyline and the charisma of all those involved. The casting is extraordinary. Pacino and Cannavale as relatives make perfect sense – watch their tics; their body language – and Plummer is the epitome of a crusty old-school rock and roll manager. Everyone has their obvious, impossible-to-ignore faults, and almost everyone has the capacity for redemption, should they choose to take the gap, if and when it is presented. Moving and intelligently, patiently made, this is a film that hits all its marks.
The thinking behind Maleficent is sound. Take the most interesting, charismatic character in Disney’s magnificent (not “maleficent”, mind) Sleeping Beauty and give her her own feature. Even if the rest of the film doesn’t really change much, having a wicked witch character (a favourite trope) played by someone with the skills and profile of Angelina Jolie should make for fail-safe entertainment. It doesn’t. And there are a number of easily avoidable reasons for that. For some reason, Jolie, possessor of some of the world’s most impressive and best-loved zygotic arches, is given outlandish cheek prosthetics that serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever, other than distracting viewers from the messy bits elsewhere. The chief culprit there is Sharlto Copley as Stefan, one-time love interest of the title character and father of Aurora (Elle Fanning). He uses an awful pseudo-Scottish accent but then manages to somehow distract from that dodginess with an overwrought performance that simply annoys. You’re the bad guy; we get it. This is not a school pantomime. Employ some subtlety. There are some strong visuals, not least Maleficent’s trademark horn-hat, but for all that computer-generated power, this villain is never as sinister as the 2D line drawing original from 1959, and the story is never as elegantly simple. As an addition to the Disney canon, it’s an interesting aside, but nothing more. The accountants won’t agree, but there you go.