Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Retro Trio: A Fish Called Wanda (1988); The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997); Killing Them Softly (2012)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Director: Charles Chrichton & John Cleese

A 1980s classic comedy that still has it.

I watched this movie plenty of times as a kid, but it had been at least 10 years since I last saw it. Though there are a few dated elements, in terms of the visuals, the dash of sappiness, and even a bit of the acting, A Fish Called Wanda is still a brilliant blend of British and U.S. humor.

For those who may not have seen it, the story mostly follows Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), a con woman who uses her beauty and wiles to horn in on a bank heist, with the intention of stealing the prized diamonds from the primary thieves. Using sex and emotional manipulation, she coldly plays every man involved - the mastermind George, the weapons man Otto (Kevin Kline), the stuttering henchman Ken (Michael Palin), and the repressed and unwitting lawyer Archie (John Cleese).

What allows the movie to stand the test of time rests on the script and the performances. The interactions between the more liberal and maverick Americans - Wanda and Otto - and their British cohorts are hilarious and eminently quotable. The standout scenes are typically between Otto and any of the English characters, whom he despises out of his own small-minded xenophobia and latent inferiority complex. Otto's supremely "ugly American" personifies every laughably obnoxious trait of U.S. travellers that has been the butt of jokes for decades, right up to the present.

Otto may not have been as memorable had it not been for an Academy Award-winning performance by Kevin Kline, which is a rare feat for a comedy film, but completely worthy. He often makes the movie, and his stand-offs with John Cleese's barrister Archie Leach and Michael Palin's Ken are perfection.

Great movie that is still great 25 years later, and will likely be great for decades to come.

The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997)

Director: Jon Amiel

A pretty fun, if not outstanding, little comedy.

I had never seen this one before, and I must admit that I could see why it was never hailed as a "great" comedy, despite having a great cast. The movie is a spoof on the spy thriller genre, following goofy American tourist Wallace Ritchie (Bill Murray) who goes to London and is unwittingly pulled into a plot between English and Russian forces to resurrect the Cold War status quo. Ritchie, however, is sucked into the entire affair, believing that he is the center of a popular television show on which the central "actor" is an average person who must play along with the professional actors around him, ad libbing along the way.

This premise isn't a bad one, as far as spoofs go, though the political elements do seem a few years too late for a film made in 1997. Even still, there was plenty of fodder for better political satire which went unused. That aside, there are plenty of solid setups for the comedic misunderstandings that drive the movie.

Instead of focusing more on the political humor, the film focused almost solely on its star, and one could do far worse than Bill Murray. Even when the dialogue or set-ups fall flat, Murray can carry a scene or an exchange with his hilarious deliveries, reactions, and physical comedy. It's easy to forget, given Murray's strengths with extremely dry and deadpan humor, that he can act the oblivious fool extremely well.

As a whole, though, the humor and goofiness wore thin by the third act. Despite being an obvious parody, the silliness level ramped up a little too high to remain effective. The grand finale scene consists of an overly long dance routine that borders on feeling interminable. And instead of leaving well enough alone and having Wally go on his merry way, we're left with him being recruited by the C.I.A. It was a bit too juvenile for my liking.

Had the script been a bit more clever and abandoned the more slapstick elements, this movie could very well have been a classic. As it is, it offers a few laughs, but doesn't warrant multiple viewings for me.

The social commentary is clumsy, but it
is curious enough to provoke thought.
Killing Them Softly (2012)

Director: Andrew Dominik

I was disappointed, but not necessarily because the movie is bad.

Killing Them Softly was released in 2012 and had a short and quiet run in theaters, despite solid critical acclaim. By the time of its video release, it had attained status as an "underrated film" and "sleeper pick" by critics in many quarters. With all of this "in the know" hype, I had very high hopes. The movie is quite good, but not without its flaws.

I will admit that the movie is fairly original, in terms of its grittiness and willingness to look at the more unglamorous aspects of criminality. The story takes place in a horribly bleak part of Boston, where a couple of dim, low rent street guys rob a high stakes poker game which includes members of the local mob. This sets off a chaotic attempt to assess blame and levy punishment, with noted hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) brought in to sort the entire mess out.

The novelty of the story is that it does look at the disorganization and brutality of "organized" crime. The characters come off as extremely authentic, with all of their weaknesses on full display. Whether it's simple base greed, lust, or substance addiction, a viewer gets the sense that the grim and nasty picture painted for us is far closer to the reality than the more palatable portraits given us by more mainstream gangster movies. Instead of the ultra-slick, hyper-intelligent criminals, we see the sad, flawed, and ultimately doomed thugs and lowlifes who stand no real chance at getting what they want. Easily the most poised character is Jackie, who spends far more energy battling his disgust for the stupidity and indecision around him than on actually cleaning up the various messes created by foolish thugs and Jackie's waffling employers.

Jackie spends an awful lot of time in this kind of situation -
explaining a lot of harsh realities to dim or weak wanna-be
criminals. They provide much of the movie's power.
As far as the cleaning up of those messes, they do provide some excellent on-screen suspense and power. There are more than a few scenes that can effectively stun you with their impact. Unfortunately, there are also a few plot lines and scenes that seem to drag endlessly. The main one is the entire character Mickey, played by James Gandolfini in one of his final roles before his death. Mickey is an aging hitman who Jackie brings in to help him, but it soon becomes apparent that Mickey is a broken shell of what he once was. The point of Mickey's descent, though, is belabored so much that it is taxing to watch, and it almost resulted in my completely checking out of the film. Blessedly, it does end, and the main story picks back up in the movie's final 20 minutes.

A greater enigma hanging over the entire movie is the completely unsubtle social commentary. Right from the jump, we see dashes of political posters with Obama and Romney on them, in the throes of the 2008 presidential race. The blatantly obvious message is that the United States is in a state of free-for-all chaos, with our little crime story meant as a microcosm of the entire quagmire. It's not a terrible suggestion, but it could have been handled with far more deftness. It does, however, set up an absolutely classic final line to the movie, which may be one of the most memorable in all of crime cinema.

Killing Them Softly is, despite its weaknesses, a nice addition to the genre of crime films. It does stand apart from most of its ilk, and the performances are more than strong enough to carry a viewer through it. Definitely recommended to any fan of gangster movies.