John Goodman

Monsters University (2013)

Open your books and turn to chapter one; it’s time for Monsters University, Pixar’s prequel to their 2001 hit. Rewinding the clock, we follow Mike and Sully as they take their first tentative steps into art of scaring. Mike’s rotund spherical shape and booksmarts have made him the target of ridicule as no one finds him the least bit scary, whilst Sully is coasting off the reputation of his successful father and failing to take college seriously. Neither is particularly fond of the other. When they’re both kicked off their course by Dean Abigail Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), they must work together to get re-enrolled. Along the way they will join the least successful fraternity and enter the annual Scare Games against the most popular fraternity on campus, Roar Omega Roar.

Yes, this is pretty much every college movie you’ve seen, from Animal House to Revenge of the Nerds, boiled down to a palatable child-friendly nugget. Whilst the initial idea of a children’s film set in a college may seem at odds with the cuddly nature of Pixar, it’s a credit to their talent how quickly these doubts are washed away as Mike literally takes his first step onto university soil. We only wish our days at uni were like this.

Cameos from Monsters Inc rub shoulders with some lovely little set pieces. A showcase of Sully and Mike’s scaring abilities is a particular stand out, as the young monsters learn to harness their abilities against a foe they’ve never studied for. There’s also a lot to be said for a film whose take-home message appears to be at odds with other Pixar movies, such as Finding Nemo and Toy Story. Whereas those seemed to instil a sense of limitless possibilities into the minds of their impressionable viewers, Monsters University goes for a more grown up message which appears to be restrictive and balances the hash realties of life with a can do spirit that would make Buzz and Woody proud.

Whilst not as eye-opening or wonderful as Monsters Inc, there is enough here to leave a mile wide smile on your face.

Flight (2012)

Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a long serving pilot who finds himself the star of media frenzy after his quick thinking and calm save 96 out of 102 passengers on a crashing airplane. The press want to know more about the elusive man they dub a hero. The problem is that behind the scenes Whitaker and a legal team led by Don Cheadle’s Hugh Lang are desperately trying to prove the crash occurred because of faulty parts, and not the extremely high levels of alcohol and cocaine consumed by the pilot that very morning.

Exactly how Whitaker saves so many lives is shown in the film’s first scenes. Scary, claustrophobic and visceral, Flight’s opening air disaster is uncomfortable viewing, deftly handled by director Robert Zemeckis in his first live-action film in over a decade. Despite this, Flight is not a disaster film, choosing to instead focus on the personal repercussions of the crash on Whitaker’s psyche. Though he first tries to curb his drinking, the guilt over the deaths and the forthcoming legal enquiry drag Whitaker back to his old ways. It’s a role that leads to one of Denzel Washington’s best performances in years, one which could have fallen into cliché in the hands of a lesser actor. His is a performance of nuance over histrionics which never fails to earn sympathies despite the character giving the audience plenty of reason to.

Whilst the crash investigation looms over him, Whitaker starts a relationship with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a woman he meets in hospital. Like Whitaker, Nicole too struggles with addiction, having been hospitalised for a heroin overdose. Reilly shines through despite being buoyed down by the Hollywood costume cliché of ‘down on her luck girl = cleavage, bad tattoos and eyeliner.’ Like Washington, her eyes hint at past pains not discussed, and their yin and yang reactions to their escapes from death serve to highlight just how problematic Whitaker’s situation is. As Nicole tries to negotiate the path of sobriety, Whitaker stays up all night drinking himself into a stupor.

Like its central protagonist, Flight does have its faults. Melissa Leo is given nothing much to do at all, and scenes more than often veer into the trap of melodrama. Tonally, the film is as rocky as its eponymous voyage, with the ups and downs of Whitaker’s addictions all on show. One moment he’s waking up in the aftermath of the kind of alcohol-fuelled hotel room liaison aspiring rock stars dream of, the next he’s being rejected by the son he never sees. There are also incongruent seeming comedic moments, often provided by John Goodman’s Harling Mays, Whitaker’s bowling-shirt wearing drug dealer, who seems to wander in from a completely different, more light-hearted film.

But ultimately, if you can buy into the premise that a pilot with a blood alcohol level three times as high as the drink drive limit can achieve Whitaker’s feat, then these are only minor quibbles. Flight is a slow, brooding character study of a man struggling to come to terms with his reality and forced into analytical reflection of his actions for the first time in his life. With a stellar performance from Washington and solid direction from Zemeckis, Flight is an occasionally flawed, but ultimately winning piece of Hollywood drama.

The Artist (2011)

What should have been a little gem discovered by accident and treasured has been inflated, trumpeted and shoved through our screens by the Weinsteins. It’s difficult not to feel over familiar with The Artist prior to watching it, so powerful has the hype behind it been. Fortunate then that this feeling lasts approximately thirty seconds into the film, as the beauty and intelligence presented here is unfolded on screen with a care and a skill that come along rarely. As soon as George Valentin starts dancing in front of the audience with his dog, The Artist has you.

Set during the last days of silent cinema and the first footsteps of all singing, all dancing, all talking films, the fall of one style against the rise of the other is mirrored by two performers. George Valentin is an established star of the silent movies, of the adventure serial and the swashbuckler, he refuses to believe that his audience will desert him for the the new form on the horizon. Peppy Miller is the bright eyed future, cute (via advice from Valentin), talented and blessed with luck, Peppy becomes one of the first queens of the “talkies”.

Michel Hazanavicius appears to have surpassed all expectations with this, his third feature. Managing to make a genuine silent picture (almost), a period drama, a film within a film film (sic) and a knowing pastiche all at the same time is no mean feat. Managing to make them mesh perfectly and pace them exquisitely and sublimely is another level of film making entirely. Nuanced performances pitched perfectly hit all the right notes with the bad (good) jokes, dance sequences and moments of detached reality. A dream sequence where Valentin and the audience can hear everyday sounds but George himself can’t utter a word is both brilliant within the film and a knowing nod to the things we take for granted in modern films. Just one example in a film that constantly surprises by continually surpassing itself in ambition and is blessed with a galloping narrative.

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo play George and Peppy respectively. Dujardin is all flash smiles, perfect hair and conquering confidence. Charming and tender with a wink for the audience he perceives as everyone to some degree. Bejo is unique and memorable, other worldly yet attainable. Her stratospheric rise montage is a pleasure to view. Together they share a bond from the start, their forbidden love obvious and painful as it becomes less and less likely to bear fruit. Ably supported by John Goodman who has a big, loud face built for overt expressions and James Cromwell, always better when not making a sound anyway (a compliment by the way), there are no complaints about the acting here. The Oscar is near guaranteed for Dujardin.

If straws have to be clutched at (and they always do) then the middle section sags ever so slightly with Valentin’s decline and fall from stardom depicted in a series of funny but heavyhanded metaphors, from going downstairs, to sinking in quicksand to literally being unable to stop traffic. Valentin the loser is no fun to be around, drunk and prideful and well, just like us. Movie stars have to be gods, straddling the screen behemoth-like. Pulling the rug totally out from under George is a neat trick but is dwelt on for (just) too long. However, when you have an ending of such panache, such flair, that within five minutes, jaws have been dropped and hearts skipped several beats it’s an easy flaw to forgive. The final moments of The Artist are staggeringly good, packing emotional punch, hearty comedy and a lovely reminder of the magic of the silver screen and if you get ’em at the end etc, etc…..

If The Artist has a flaw, and it might not, it lies in depth.  As frothy and mostly light hearted as this tale must, MUST be,  that could prove limiting in that most elusive department, longevity. Craving success 5, 10 and even 20 years down the line might be asking too much when keeping people happy in the dark is a hard enough thing to begin with. However, other Oscar bothering films have left footprints that the future will discover for themselves (Think There Will Be Blood or The Social Network) whereas The Artist feels ever so slightly like a flash in the pan.

So, a fine, well crafted, joyful film, maybe only tainted by a lurking feeling that, after the hype dies down and the multiple Oscars are stowed in the appropriate bathrooms, that we were hoodwinked by Harvey yet again. That, on repeat viewings, in the harsh light of day, The Artist might become translucent, a paper thin, one joke homage to a film era long passed. Time will tell.

In the Electric Mist (2009)

Tommy Lee Jones is Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke’s tough, grizzled, New Orleans detective. Fortunately, Tommy Lee Jones’ name is almost always preceded by the words tough and grizzled so it seems a match made in heaven. Dave Robicheaux first cropped up on screen in Heaven’s Prisoners played by wordgame fan Alec Baldwin. From Baldwin to Lee Jones in 13 short years means life must have been very tough on Dave Robicheaux. Jones plays Robicheaux like he plays any other, world weary, strong and silent, basically decent American; Competently and apparently effortlessly. Every other actor seems to be showing off when placed on screen with his sad sack, southern fried, ex alcoholic. Particular mention must go to John Sayles, who plays a director so badly it jarrs the picture out of focus. Not quite Roth in Basterds bad in the director-actor canon but not wise either.

Robicheaux is asked to solve a case of mutilated prostitutes on the City’s time but also carries the murder of a black prisoner he witnessed when he was younger around with him, lurking unsolved and unpunished in his mind. The old case rears it’s racially aggravated head when a movie star (Peter Saarsgard) finds the body on location of a civil war drama being shot out in the Bayous.

New Orleans is that most iconic and enigmatic of American film cities (down at the back NYC), filled with architecture, weather and attitudes totally unlike the rest of mainland USA. The devastation wreaked on her by Katrina is impossible to ignore, rude even. Empty streets and abandoned cars litter shots and we are comprehensively given the impression of a city and people ony just attempting a recovery. Not as shoved in your face as Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant retread, where Cage’s scenery chewing added to the destruction on display. Here, the damage is visible, yet muted, mostly in the background or behind the eyes of the actors.

 Mist is directed by (semi) acclaimed european film maker Bertrand Tavernier, the draw of post Katrina shooting seemingly too tempting to ignore. It doesn’t feel like a Tavernier film (apart from being a thriller), much less a european one. There is a suspicion of studio interference, it never got an American theatrical release and was released across europe in two cuts. The pace zips along, revalations come thick and fast and character’s emotions turn on a dime (sic). The languid drawl of New Orleans and it’s star could maybe have been served better with a more stately pace, ramping up the tension slowly and building to the boil.

As the indignities put upon Robicheaux and the victims of the cases mount up so too does Robicheaux’s interpretation of the law. After refusing to plant a weapon to protect himself he, almost instantly, descends into Jack Bauer, whatever it takes, territory. Evidence is planted, people (John Goodman) are tortured for information and no one (least of all Robicheaux) bats an eyelid. Not even the green behind the ears Mexican FBI agent assigned to work the case objects to Robicheaux helping her out by placing a weapon in a dead guy’s hand. Given that Robicheaux is technically investigating a crime covered up by the Police in less racially aware times this stinks of high hypocrisy and goes close to causing a sympathy abandonment of the protagonist. As always though, Jones pulls us through (except in Cobb, now that guy was an arsehole) with a shake of his head and a fervent belief in what’s right is right in the end, we’re still rooting for him as he hugs his long suffering wife.

The problem with making crime thrillers that attempt to dovetail two seemingly unconnected crimes into one conspiracy or case is that all roads lead to Chinatown. The elegance, vitality and spite of that timeless film casts a long, long shadow. In the Electric Mist is not a poor thriller then, it’s a competent one just not a superior one as the superlative goes. In the end though, it’s just not Chinatown.

Red State (2011)

Let’s be honest, Kevin Smith made a brave move with this film. Discarding his usual catalogue of dick jokes to focus on more ‘grown up’ affairs was always going to raise eyebrows. When the end credits roll and his cast is broken into the categories of sex, politics and religion, it becomes clear that this was a film with a message. Unfortunately, we’re not sure what director/writer Kevin Smith is trying to say.

Three teenagers are invited to a four way over the internet with a middle-aged woman. After deciding that watching each other’s O-faces is most certainly not weird, they go to her trailer, drink drugged beer and awake caged up in a church congregation led by Fred Phelps wannabes, Abin Cooper. The church is part of a compound in the middle of the countryside where ‘sinners’ are coaxed from their computers with promises of sex before being executed. It all sounds very teen horror and, in fairness, was how Smith sold it a few years back. However, it’s not really horror.

In fact, we’re not sure what it wants to be, with the second act basically being a low key Waco siege re-enactment, with John Goodman SWAT team leader forced by his superiors to attack the compound with extreme prejudice. Smith lays it on thick with clicky boom clicky boom, argh, I’m deaded, and following in the footsteps of Hostel (a clear influence in terms of direction), you’re genuinely never certain who is going to survive. 

However, it’s also very, very talky. Like really talky. Everyone gets a monologue. Smith has a fantastic ear for dialogue, but it’s not suited for this kind of film. He builds the audience up to expect an exploitation-spiced movie with religious zealots and then proceeds to talk at them for an hour and a half.

During the finale’s siege, there is that much conversation going on, we wondered why Smith bothered to waste money on special effects when he may as well have followed the rules of Dogme and just placed John Goodman in a box with a script and a camcorder.

The aforementioned 180 in plot is also somewhat irritating as the boys kidnapping is not the only storyline that gets discarded. A subplot involving an alcoholic sheriff leading a double life is forgotten as soon as it starts. Even the last minutes of the film dispense of a proper resolution by skipping a head a couple of weeks and having a main character tell you what you missed. Show us Smith, what was said sounded pretty good and would have been preferable to the Burn After Reading like ending.

The majority of the good points come in the form of John Goodman who is quite frankly brilliant; easily switching from world weary put-upon to commander in chief in the blink of an eye.

Red State is not Smith’s worst film. Whilst he has Cop Out in his filmography, that spot will always be secure. However, it’s definitely not his best. There is something trying to break through and whilst we didn’t enjoy myself as much as we hoped, we look forward to seeing where he goes.