Sisters (2015)

The legacy of Saturday Night Live has always weighed strongly over American comedy since its debut in 1975, not least in the last 10-15 years. One of the strongest of the players in that time has been Tina Fey, lead writer at SNL before heading on to create and star in 30 Rock (itself loosely based on the show), and her friend Amy Poehler has often been involved in her work. In transferring the hit-and-miss variety comedy approach to film, this year has already thrown out Trainwreck (which shares a lot of SNL alumni), but Sisters is in an even more direct line, given its lead actors as well as its screenwriter Paula Pell, a long-term writer for SNL also. So it should be no surprise that it’s quite often very very funny. It’s also perhaps not so surprising that there’s a variable quality to the humour, and some lands a lot better than others (or maybe we can say it works better on different audiences). There’s also an undertow of sentimentality that becomes most evident towards the conclusion, but for the most part Sisters remains a solidly entertaining comedy based around the antagonism between the two leads — Fey as Katie, a mother with no ability to hold down a job; and Poehler as her younger sister Maura, far more responsible and in control of her life — as they return to Florida to help their parents move home. This premise could easily have bombed with smug male leads (and indeed I understand Vince Vaughn has already more or less made this film), as its one-last-party-gone-awry plot leads to an extended period of home-trashing, which would far more quickly have outstayed its welcome without the chemistry between Fey and Poehler. Bobby Moynihan’s superlative physical comedy is somewhat wasted in a supporting role, by requiring him (as in so much of his earlier SNL work) to be a sort of stand-in for Chris Farley, but it’s great to see comedians of this calibre get to deliver some really funny material. I’m just left wishing it was all a bit tighter and less gloopy towards the end, but maybe I’m being unfair. It’s worth a watch.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jason Moore | Writer Paula Pell | Cinematographer Barry Peterson | Starring Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, Ike Barinholtz | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 December 2015

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Inside Out (2015)

It’s been getting great reviews since it was released last month in the States, but for me the signs preceding Inside Out weren’t entirely auspicious, as I’d been feeling pummelled by the sheer weight of all the hype, and the apparent blanket saturation of the marketing. Admittedly, it’s not been quite as aggressive as Minions, but it’s also somehow less obviously appealing (those yellow creatures are awfully cute). The short film that precedes it in cinemas (“Lava”) is also pretty anodyne and faintly annoying (a cod-Hawaiian song about heteronormative volcanoes), so that didn’t exactly help either. Plus there were clearly a few grumpy contingents at the screening I attended, judging from the brief bout of remonstration being levelled at the parents of a crying child (the man’s insistence that the crying child was too young for the film somewhat belied by the film’s U rating, and also hey non-parents get a goddamn grip if you’re going to a U-rated film, even if it’s in the evening).

But — and I sense you’re expecting this “but” — I needn’t have worried. The director Pete Docter comes to this project from his previous Pixar success Up (2009), and if you’ve seen that film, you’ll perhaps have a sense of the emotional tone deployed here. Sure there’s comedy (it’s a Hollywood animated film; there’s always comedy), but the register feels a lot more reflective and even melancholy at times. This is matched by the sound design, which isn’t afraid to jettison the musical score and embrace relative silence when it suits the story, which revolves around the emotional trauma of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose parents relocate the family from the Midwest to San Francisco. The particular device the filmmakers use to reflect this is to personify her emotions as individual characters (Amy Poehler voices Joy, Phyllis Smith voices Sadness, and there’s Disgust, Fear and Anger besides), sitting in a control tower in a colourful visual representation of her mind. The animation is crammed with little details that extend the central metaphor (it’s a very metaphorical film), and there are some delightful sequences that play out as Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the control tower from the outer reaches of Riley’s brain (the one that takes place in ‘abstract thought’ comes to mind, as well as the dream sequences).

It’s commendable that Docter and the screenwriters keep the story focused on Riley when it would have been easy to mine further laughs from the similarly-represented minds of those around her (a device sparingly but effectively utilised). It also all seems to work pretty coherently as a metaphorical representation of the mind and its emotional processes, with memories stacked up like bowling balls and colour-coded by the guiding emotion at play, then sent off for filing in a vast repository, which includes a dump for those discarded memories. Core memories stay in the control tower and are the foundations of various personality traits, imagined as outyling islands around the control tower (cerebral cortex, one imagines). The care thus shown to the creation of this interior world, and the film’s avoidance of excessive mawkishness, surely mark it out as one of the finer Pixar filmsm one that’s sure to become one of their audience’s core memories.


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Pete Docter | Writers Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley | Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black | Length 94 minutes (+ 7 minutes for the short film Lava, dir./wr. James Ford Murphy) || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 28 July 2015

They Came Together (2014)

With 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, David Wain and Michael Showalter made a name for themselves in genre parody, and where that dealt with the 80s teen summer camp genre (a largely forgotten straight-to-VHS phenomenon), here they go after the enduring success of the romcom itself. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are the ever familiar faces at the centre of this one, and both are delightful at sending up all the genre trappings and narcissistic self-involved characters, while also imbuing them with real warmth and likeability. The plot is essentially a retread of The Shop Around the Corner via You’ve Got Mail (an underrated classic from the pen of Nora Ephron), except instead of bookstores we have candy stores, with Paul Rudd being the Hanksian corporate, and Poehler the Ryanesque indie. There are any number of cameos from familiar faces, and lots of big laughs — well at least, so I thought, so I’m surprised to see a number of lukewarm-at-best reviews around the place. It’s hardly substantial, and much of the detail has already passed through my head in the week since I saw it, but it effortlessly pleased me, so if you like any of the creative talent involved, you shouldn’t go too far wrong.


FILM REVIEW
Director David Wain | Writers David Wain and Michael Showalter | Cinematographer Tom Houghton | Starring Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd | Length 83 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 22 July 2015