Watching - February 2021

The Firm (1993)
John Grisham's source novel is one of my favourites, but I only vaguely remembered this - so having just read the book, it seemed logical to watch this. I got over my usual irritation with Tom Cruise fairly quickly, and for the first half of the film it's pretty faithful to the source material. However, it goes downhill in the second half when they start changing the plot for no obvious reason, and ends up with Mitch McDeere (Cruise's character) gathering evidence for the FBI to be able convict the firm for (wait for it) over-billing. Yawn. William Goldman, in Adventures In The Screen Trade (read it, kids, it's brilliant) says that stars can't bear to appear weak, and I think that's what's happened here. In the book, McDeere breaks his legal oath and then runs away - but leaves enough evidence to smash the firm and the mob wide open. In the film, however, he ends up walking right up to the mob bosses and blackmailing them into leaving him alone. Maybe the producers, the writers or even the star felt this was a better look. Really, while it's superficially "brave" (gasp, walking right to the lion's den!), actually it's more selfish - and it's a less satisfying story, in my opinion.
The King's Speech (2010)
A nice, gentle film for my day off. It's beautifully made, of course, and although I thought the accents (particularly Guy Pearce's) sounded a bit over-done, it's worth listening to Edward's real abdication broadcast and to that made by George VI at the declaration of war - The King's Speech of the film's title - to hear that they really did talk like that. If there's one problem with the film, it might be that it is so successful at telling the story that its version of events, which are necessarily compressed and simplified, will probably become what people remember (although no-one seems to be complaining about this in the same way that they are about The Crown).
Dinnerladies (Series 1) (1998)
Here's another series I didn't watch at the time - my loss, of course. It's a brilliant sitcom, with some fantastic one-liners and Victoria Wood's characteristic descriptions and metaphors - but what keeps you watching over multiple episodes is the interplay between the actors. While all clearly comedy characters, they are believable and easy to like. The only real exception to this is the Julie Walters character, which feels like it's come out of a different (and worse) programme - it's too broad and doesn't ring true at all. Occasionally it threatens to unbalance the whole thing, which is a shame. 
Doc Hollywood (1991)
This is one of my favourite romcoms. It's a bit dated: nowadays the scene with Julie Warner emerging naked from the lake would surely be dropped (she's gorgeous, but I do feel worried that she would have been pressured into this); and the way the Michael J Fox so blatantly hits on her would have been been softened, I think. But that's in the first, more comedic half of the film. The second half is an involving, gentle, tender romance that I find genuinely moving. The scene where Warner and Fox dance to "Crazy" and everyone else melts away is wonderful. The depiction of small-town America is unashamedly rose-tinted and cliched, but no less charming for it, and the surrounding cast of characters are so well filled in. Just great.
Serendipity (2001)
Stylistically this seems deeply in debt to When Harry Met Sally, but it has enough of its own character to be distinct, and in any case the style is good enough to stand another story. John Cusack is great to watch, as always, and Kate Beckinsale is pretty good too. The chemistry between the two of them is just about enough to believe that they'd ditch their fiancés to chase a romantic dream, and the story of intertwined fates is sweet, if a bit fantastical - but that's OK too, because it gives the film a sort of magical feel. And finally, we have to note that with this and High Fidelity, John Cusack has been in two films that have the most perfectly chosen pieces of end music: Nick Drake's gorgeous "Northern Sky" and Stevie Wonder's ecstatic "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)" respectively. 
Zootropolis (2016)
Movie & pizza time with the family! It took a while getting everyone to agree on a film, but this hit the mark nicely. It's very good: lots of detail, great parallels with real life of course, and a satisfying story.
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017)
Just bought on DVD and watched again to, you know, check the rip was OK and not because I actually like it or anything. Well, maybe a bit. Jack Black is surprisingly restrained for him (he says he's channelling his inner teenage girl, but I think he's actually channelling a token gay character from an 80s sitcom), and you wouldn't guess that Karen Gillan is actually Scottish. What makes the film for me as much as anything are the tongue-in-cheek moments, like when Dwayne Johnson does a "smoulder" but doesn't realise it. Great fun.
Le Mans (1971)
Since the "plot" covers barely ten minutes of screen time, I'm assuming that the reason this was made was because Steve McQueen fancied driving at Le Mans on somebody else's dollar. The action sequences are great - mostly filmed at the previous year's actual 24 Hours of Le Mans - and there's plenty of it to watch if you're an enthusiast. I grew up reading about the legendary Ford GT40 and the mighty Porsche 917, so it was great for me. I can't imagine what the average McQueen fan made of it at the time, though.

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