When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

I’d like to tell you that this romantic comedy from the pen of Nora Ephron, which is coming up on its 25th anniversary, hasn’t dated at all, but I can’t tell you that. There are few scenes featuring either Billy Crystal or Meg Ryan (you can figure out their characters’ names, I’m sure) which do not provoke some gasp of incredulity at the 1980s fashion and hairstyles. Thankfully, though, the comedy set-up at the film’s heart is rather more resilient (using the time-honoured structuring motif of will-they-won’t-they antagonism and resolution) and, by the end, even the most ridiculous feathered hairstyle or cropped shorts cannot distract from the romance. Partly that’s on account of Nora Ephron, whose touch here is so central to the film’s success. Ephron went on to helm her own comedies in the 1990s, yet although this is directed by the workmanlike Rob Reiner, her writing style is all over it, channelling the shmaltz and brazen sentimentality of similar films from the Golden Era of Hollywood (the 1940s and 1950s) via the neuroses of latter-day New York bard Woody Allen. I daresay for some this would be enough to write off her own efforts in a mire of gloop, but I feel like her work is deft enough to avoid these pitfalls. There’s certainly a rather brittle framing device, using interviews with apparently real New York couples from an older generation, who comment on what it is to be in love. However, it’s easy enough to instead focus on the central story, and at that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan do very well, the latter well enough to basically keep her in this kind of territory for most of the following decade (my favourite of the Ryan-Ephron cycle remains 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, for what little it’s worth). It may not be a masterpiece, but it sums up something about the 1980s, and it’s all rather pleasant nonetheless.

When Harry Met Sally film posterCREDITS
Director Rob Reiner; Writer Nora Ephron; Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld; Starring Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 25 December 2013 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, years ago).

Anastasia (1997)

I don’t choose every film I watch, and this was one my wife wanted to watch, so I’m going to keep this review fairly brief, as I confess I don’t have too much to say about it. I remember when I was a child really liking Don Bluth’s directorial debut The Secret of NIMH (1982) and watching it back-to-back several times one day, so I didn’t want to discount that this film 15 years on (and now over 15 years old itself) might be a good animated feature. And yet I feel a little disappointed by the result.

To a certain extent, I imagine some of my antipathy towards it comes with being somewhat older than I used to be. The animation is still beautifully clear, with little concession to changing trends in modern animation, though I recall one scene of Anastasia hurrying up a staircase that surprised me with an apparently unnecessary ‘crane shot’ (i.e. the film’s point of view mimicking a camera craning out and back). Other scenes integrate the ‘camerawork’ better, particularly some nice massed ball scenes in the Winter Palace near the start.

Where the film does follow trends is in its amalgam of action and song, as was the fashion in the popular Disney films of the 1990s. The music rather anchors it in its time period (when it was made, not when it’s set) and though the musical numbers aren’t too shabby, I still find myself a little underwhelmed.

And then there’s the history. Here I should mention the film’s plot — it follows the travails of the young Anastasia (voiced by Kirsten Dunst), Grand Duchess of the Imperial Russian family and daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, deposed by the 1917 Russian Revolution and executed. Almost ten years later, it transpires that Anastasia escaped but lost her memory and grew up in an orphanage as Anya (Meg Ryan). She meets a young man and con artist called Dimitri (John Cusack), who helps her to learn the truth about her identity and then aids her flight to Paris, where her grandmother lives and is offering a reward for Anastasia’s return.

It has now been definitively established (admittedly after the film was made) that Anastasia was shot with her family in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, but the legend that she survived has been persistent throughout the century as a sort of aspirational folktale. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to get any sense of the political events of Russia in this period from this film. The chief antagonist is Christopher Lloyd’s mad monk Rasputin, and it’s his curse that spurs the Revolution so it seems. When Anya comes to light again, he continues to pursue her.

Obviously, one shouldn’t get too hung up on the history in this kind of animated fantasy musical, but nevertheless the very gap between history and folk legend presented here is so wide as to make it rather ridiculous. That said, I imagine the film will please plenty of people who are perhaps closer to the target demographic, and indeed its box office figures at the time were very healthy. If you are able to put aside the questionable history and embrace the film’s wayward romanticism, you may really like it. I’ll just be the grump in the corner on this one.

Directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman; Writers Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White and Eric Tuchman; Starring John Cusack, Meg Ryan, Kirsten Dunst, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 30 August 2013.