Tag: Keanu Reeves

Speed (1994)

Speed (1994)

Thrills never came faster (or as much on a bus) as they did in Speed one of the greatest action films of the 90s

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Jack Traven), Dennis Hopper (Howard Payne), Sandra Bullock (Annie Porter), Jeff Daniels (Harry Temple), Joe Morton (Lt Herb McMahon), Alan Ruck (Doug Stephens), Glenn Plummer (Maurice), Beth Grant (Helen), Hawthorne James (Sam), Carlos Carrasco (Ortiz)

For most of the 90s, nearly every action film made was promoted as “Die Hard in/on an X”. We had determined, maverick heroes fighting alone against the odds on trains, planes, mountains, aircraft carriers, Alcatraz… You name it, it was Die Hard-ed. But which one was the best? It might just be Die Hard on a Bus – or rather Speed. A never-ending rush of propulsive excitement, Speed is one of the most entertaining films of the 90s. It’s possibly the best high-concept actioner ever made and if you don’t come out of it with a sort of daffy grin on your face there’s something wrong with you.

“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?” And there’s the whole set-up right there. Detective Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) is the hotshot, who has already foiled mad bomber (Dennis Hopper’s scheme to hold a lift full of hostages for ransom. Now, for round 2, he’s got to try and keep a bus moving over 50mph through the streets of Los Angeles. Helping him out is passenger Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) who takes the steering wheel, and best friend Detective Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) who’s trying to find the bomber. It’s pedal to the metal all the way.

The fact that Speed is as good as it is, is a miracle. Graham Yost’s original script had the bus not going above 20mph (it was called Minimum Speed – and sounds hilariously like the Father Ted spoof where Dougal was trapped on a milk float that couldn’t go below 5mph). It was set entirely on the bus and ended with it exploding into the Hollywood sign. The hero was a wise-cracking smart-ass John McClane type, the bomber was revealed to be his friend Harry and one of the passengers was a cowardly lawyer who met a grizzly end. Die Hard director John McTiernan passed on this unpromising mess, recommending his regular cinematographer Jan de Bont instead.

De Bont – in what remains the only good movie he directed – helped restructure the film into three acts: hostages in a falling lift, hostages in a speeding bus, hostages in an out-of-control subway train. Joss Whedon rewrote the dialogue (Yost generously attributes “98.9% of the dialogue” to Whedon). The bomber became a separate character – with the insane energy of Dennis Hopper behind him. Bullock’s part became a combination love interest and comic sidekick. And Keanu Reeves’ Jack Traven, from being a McClane knock-off, turned into an earnest, dedicated, insanely brave and determined police-officer. And that lawyer was turned into Alan Ruck’s out-of-his-depth wide-eyed tourist. Boom: suddenly, we had a film that felt a little unique.

From there, what made it work was the propulsive pace. An opening act with a lift in peril, sets up the race against time, perilous stakes and dangerous risks (powered by an effective strings and drums soundtrack by Mark Mancina). There is a perfectly poised battle of wits between Hopper’s mastermind bomber and Reeves’ cop. Split second decisions and acts of chance have life-saving consequences. The dialogue is just the right side of cracking wise, with enough earnestness to temper the spice. The whole first act makes a hell of a movie in itself. Like the best of the Bond pre-credit sequences, you could go home happy at the end of it – and having never even seen a bus.

But hang about because that bus is well worth waiting for. More wildly exciting than a one-vehicle chase scene has any right to be, de Bont brilliantly cranks the tension up and never lets go. You’ll grip the edge of your seat as Traven races through town and down the freeway to try and get to the bus before it hits that ominous 50mph – even though, of course, we know there is no chance of him succeeding. Because, after all, if he did Reeves wouldn’t need to jump from a car to a bus at 50mph. de Bont – a skilled cinematographer – has the camera duck and weave among the traffic so hard you’ll feel the g-force throwing you back in your seat.

That’s before we even have the bus itself charging through traffic, with the reluctant Annie at the wheel. Throwing itself through crowded streets, around hair-pin bends and over huge gaps in unbuilt freeways, the entire film is basically an opportunity to gorge yourself on an unlikely vehicle doing gripping stunts at insane speeds. We also get the peril of Jack’s attempts to defuse the bomb on the run – when, inevitably, the fuel tank is damaged the film has the wit enough for Annie to say “what, you felt you needed another challenge?”. It’s, frankly, exciting, expertly shot and edited stuff.

And it also works because the characters are lightly – but very warmly – sketched. Reeves – at the time still best known as “Dude”-ing his way through Bill & Ted – shaved his hair to look more like Hollywood’s idea of an action hero. But what makes him stand out is the sincerity, politeness and rather endearing determination to save lives and serve his community. It’s the trademark Reeves sweetness that has made countless action films afterwards work – he’s never an alpha male or a ‘damn the consequences’ maverick. Bullock became an overnight mega-star with a performance overflowing with charm and wisecracking girl-next-door vulnerability. No one did lip-smacking villiany like Hopper. Daniels is great and the bus was crammed with reliable character actors who craft people we care about from crumbs.

That and the relentless excitement of almost every scene. I’ll agree that the third act resolution on the speeding subway train effectively just re-treads elements of the first two acts. Is it any wonder that Speed 2 was such a disaster when even the original can’t go through less than two hours without repeating itself? But you won’t care, because if the film doesn’t have you firmly in its grip by then, there must be something wrong with you.

De Bont never again even got near the outstanding quality of this ultimate thrill ride. But then, when you’ve touched action-thriller perfection, does that matter? Speed is the best high-concept, Die Hard rip-off ever made – so much so that you feel a bit churlish mentioning that as part of its DNA. Superbly paced, totally gripping and guaranteed to leave you with a big cheesy grin on your face, I’ve seen it more times than I can count and still I feel floored by it. You’ll believe a bus can fly.

The Matrix: Resurrections (2021)

The Matrix: Resurrections (2021)

We saddle up one more time for this belated sequel, which does enough to be the second-best film in the franchise

Director: Lana Wachowski

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Thomas Anderson/Neo), Carrie-Anne Moss (Tiffany/Trinity), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Morpheus/Agent Smith), Jessica Henwick (Bugs), Jonathan Groff (Smith), Neil Patrick Harris (The Analyst), Priyanka Chopra Jones (Sati), Jada Pinkett Smith (Niobe), Toby Onwumere (Sequoia), Max Riemelt (Sheperd), Brain J Smith (Berg), Erendia Ibarra (Lexy), Lambert Wilson (The Merovingian), Christina Ricci (Gwyn de Vere)

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is the most famous games designer in the world. His award-winning game The Matrix revolutionised the genre, but now he needs to make a sequel. But Anderson is juggling all sorts of depression, chugging blue pills like there’s no tomorrow in order to keep back disturbing feelings and sensations that there is more to that Matrixconcept than he remembers. Was it in fact closer to reality? Why is he so drawn to Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) the woman he sees in his coffee shop? Why is he unsettled by his business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff)? Should he follow the White Rabbit?

Bringing The Matrix back is a tough ask. It’s been well over twenty years since the first film revolutionised action and sci-fi – and then the two sequels managed to progressively strip out any of the fun, romance and wonder from the original. Now Resurrections attempts to put it all back in again. It’s a noble attempt – and this is easily the second-best Matrix film – but there is still an air of obligation about the whole thing.

It’s hard to escape that feeling from the on-the-nose opening act, which literally includes dialogue from Smith to Anderson to the tune of: ‘Our parent company, Warner Brothers, say they want a sequel to The Matrix and they’re going to do it with or without us, so we might as well come up with an idea’. Partially set in a new Matrix where the events of The Matrix form the basis of an award-winning game everyone knows by heart, characters constantly riff excitedly on how some events in this film parallel those in the first film (always the first film). There is a spit-ball planning session at Anderson’s workplace, where his design team bounce phrases like “Guns. Lots of Guns” at each other or playfully mime out bullet time. I suppose this relates to Wachowski’s experience of having the Studio for years demand a fresh new Matrix film. But it is a little on-the-nose.

The self-reverential nature of the film continues throughout. From an opening that sees Hacker Bugs (a very good Jessica Henwick) watch a simulation of the opening of the first Matrix film – with a few changes – a mixture of homage and nostalgia runs through the film. As an alliance of humans, machines and programmes try to free Anderson/Neo from his new Matrix cage, they ease him in by playing (on huge projector screens) iconic scenes from The Matrix. Anderson’s flashes of memory, as things start to fall in place, are full of flashbacks to the earlier films. When Neo arrives in the real world, he finds himself in a dystopian future where he is a celebrity, and the events of his life are as much a part of this world’s folklore, as memories of the plot of the original trilogy is in the minds of my generation watching the film.

It’s quite a tribute that the film manages to keep all this self-reverential stuff balanced and neither becoming too annoying or collapsing in on itself. It does so because Wachowski manages to keep it playful. She’s clearly learned from the legacy of the two Matrix sequels, that puffed themselves up so much they burst. This features some discussions around truth, reality and choice but keeps them low-key and free of sequel’s aura of pomposity. It wisely (and plot logically) depowers Neo so that he is no longer completely invulnerable. It again makes him an outsider, fighting against a dominant system that seems to hold all the cards. And it puts at its heart a battle of two people to be together.

It’s also lovely to see Reeves and Moss back in these roles, which they fit back into with a charming ease and comfort – and also to see that their chemistry still exists. The plot of the film is at times garbled and even poorly communicated – it is very hard at times to understand why things are happening or what the rules are in this new Matrix (and its particularly hard to understand the plot around Smith, and how, if at all, he is restrained within this Matrix). But what you do understand is the emotional imperative that lies behind these characters actions – in a way that was often lost in the two original sequels.

The film also manages to keep more than its share of inventive action set-pieces. While its ending – a motorbike chase through a city where the whole population is turned against our heroes – feels very reminiscent of other things we’ve seen, earlier set-pieces use a lot more invention. In particular there is a very neat innovation of doors that jump thousands of miles – and see the characters move from one orientation to another as they pass through them. A chase through these allows for some dynamic movements and more than enough of the gravity defying bouncing and gunplay the franchise is famous for. New actors do very good jobs, in particular Henwick and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a new version of Morpheus and Jonathan Groff as a twist on Smith.

But Resurrections feels like a dutiful film and it’s laced with the odd clunky scene (none more so than a reappearance of Lambert Wilson, ranting direct to the audience about social media) and the odd gap in logic and plot definition. Its main problem is that it never feels essential. To bring the franchise back after all this time, into a world where its cultural cache has declined, you feel it needed to do something really special or redefining. It doesn’t really do this: it seems more interested in riffing on the past rather than building a future. It’s a reassuring film that hews closely to the plot and structure of the original film (deliberately so, with the characters even refencing similarities) that isn’t going to scare or annoy the fans – but also (and the film’s box office failure supports this) also not going to win over new converts. But it’s still the second-best film.

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Tension, drama and thrills… all go missing in these increasingly ponderous self-important sequels

Director: The Wachowskis

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity), Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), Jada Pinkett Smith (Niobe), Monica Bellucci (Persephone), Lambert Wilson (The Merovingian), Gloria Foster/Mary Alice (The Oracle), Helmut Bakaitis (The Architect), Harold Perrineau (Link), Ian Bliss (Bane), Harry Lennix (Commander Lock), Collin Chou (Seraph), Nona Gaye (Zee), Gina Torres (Cas), Randul Duk Kim (The Keymaker), Daniel Bernhardt (Agent Johnson)

If you ever want to study a crash-course in how not to make sequels to a genre redefining film, these might be the perfect examples. I’m going to break a golden rule here and review them both together, which I’ve not done for anything else so far in this blog. The flaws in these films are so interlinked, I think you have to almost treat the whole misfire as one single, dreadfully disappointing film. And I just couldn’t bear the idea about writing two articles about each of them.

It’s six months after the events of The Matrix. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is an invulnerable phenomenon in the Matrix. He and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are in love. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is being dragged over the coals by Starfleet Command (I know it isn’t called that, but it might as well be) for disobeying orders. And even worse news than that: the Machines have found the location of Zion, the secret last human city in the world. And they plan to destroy it – in 72 hours. Neo must undertake one final mission in the Matrix to find the secrets that will prevent this destruction of the human race – and he’ll have to do it with only the support of his friends, as the rest of mankind decides to batten down the hatches and wait for the uncoming storm. But is there more going on here than we think? Is there more to Neo’s existence than meets the eye? Why is he being plagued with dreams of Trinity’s death? And what is going on with Smith (Hugo Weaving) who know seems to be acting as rogue agent, working against man and machine?

The answers are all eventually revealed, with maximum pomposity and self-importance, over the nearly five hours these sequels drone on, seemingly determined to drain out everything that anyone found cool about the original movie and leave it with a stuffy, pretentious, dull shell that won’t win any new converts over. Before these films, The Matrix was a franchise that would have a life in films, video games, anime and fan fiction for decades to come. After them, it was dead in the water.

Why? What did people like about the first film? They liked the action sure, and they liked the cool action and visuals and the anti-authoritarian nose thumbing. But those all really worked because we related to the characters, we saw that they were vulnerable, outmatched and in peril. In the real world they were plucky, brave resistance fighters. In the Matrix they were desperate rebels who could do really cool things. This all gets blown away here. In the Matrix, Neo is now so invulnerable, that fights are pointless: they are little more than dull displays of choreography with inevitable outcomes. Reloaded hammers home time and again Neo can do anything he likes in the Matrix. Fighting hundreds of clones of Smith at once? No problem. Flying faster than the speed of sound? Sure thing. Reworking the reality to suit him? It’s just a shrug of the shoulders.

This is a disaster to drama in two ways. Firstly, it drains all the peril out of any moment in the Matrix world because we know that there is no way Neo can get hurt – or that he will allow any of his friends to get hurt. Secondly, it means to get any tension Neo has to be somehow depowered or separated from everyone else. This happens three times over the films: Neo gets dispatched to China, flung into an underground station purgatory and blinded in the real world. When the film becomes reliant on continuously finding a way to put its hero out of the way (a blight that also often hits Superman on film), you know you are in trouble.

Where Neo is still vulnerable, is the real world where the films spend more and more time. Sadly, the real world is a tedious, uninvolving place. Remember in the first film where Morpheus seemed like a super cool, sage-like leader of a rebellion? Well in fact he’s just a cog in a large, stuffy command structure that takes all the worst, most uncool elements of Star Trek’s Starfleet and doubles down on it. Zion is a stereotypical sci-fi city, with characters dressed in flowing robes, quasi-uniforms or urban rags (that’s when they are dressed at all – Reloaded’s early doors rave/orgy rightly draw oceans of sniggers). The real human world isn’t a gang of plucky, anti-authoritarian types but a typical sci-fi, rules-bound society. The flair of our characters is stripped from them.

All this is wrapped in a package that doubles down on the stuffy, Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy that popped up in the first film. There it added a bit of self-regarding intellectual heft to a film about people kicking each other and dodging bullets, here it’s the be-all-and-end-all. But the films are nowhere near as clever as they think they are: various characters parrot crudely scripted stances on everything from free will to determinism to the greater good. None of it is new or intriguing, and nearly all of it feels like the directors straining to show off their reading list.

It hits its apotheosis in Reloaded as the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the bearded brain behind the Matrix, lays out in a long speech how Neo is in fact a part of the Matrix programme designed to help the system reboot and refresh in cycles, an interesting idea totally crushed under the weight of needlessly long, incomprehensible words, phrases and Latin quotes that don’t sound smart, only like the speech was written out in plain English and then run through a thesaurus.

And it was a neat idea that our Messiah might actually have been created by the machines to help their prison renew itself. But it gets lost in the clumsy, pleased with itself delivery, in conversations about choice and free will (will Neo choose his destiny or saving Trinity’s life? Guess!) and the generally turgid plotting. This gets worse in Revolutions which finally seeps the life out of the franchise, with a video-game shoot-out at Zion (which makes no tactical sense), a trek by Neo and Trinity to commune with the machines and Agent Smith converting every human being in the Matrix into a copy of himself, in a vague philosophical comment on the death of individuality.

The worst thing about these films is that they are self-important, hard to enjoy and often more than a little silly. Fights take place at great length with very little tension. Reloaded does have a fab freeway car chase – but again it depends on Neo being absent for any tension to exist (and as soon as he turns up it’s all solved in seconds). Almost everything in the real world is stuffy, earnest and bogged down in the sort of uncool sci-fi tropes the first film stayed away from. Nearly anything in the Matrix involves watching a God like figure hitting things (including a bizarre ten-pin bowling effect when Neo knocks over a host of Smiths).

The actors struggle to keep up the genre-redefining cool that made the first film so popular. Fishburne looks bored (and rightly so, since his dialogue is awful and he’s given almost nothing to do in Revolutions) and Weaving treats the whole thing as a joke. Reeves is earnest, but frequently restrained by the dullness of his role as an almighty God. Moss has most of the best material as Trinity makes drastic decisions for love and faith. The rest of the cast struggle with either paper-thin characters, painfully over-written dialogue or a mixture of both.

The Matrix sequels managed to drain out everything that was great about the original. Where that was nimble, these were stuffy. Where these were anti-authoritarian, these laid out a dull and stereotypical sci-fi society. Where the first was gripping, desperate and adrenalin fuelled, this sees invulnerable heroes, extended runtimes and a frequent lack of peril. Worst of all Revolutions in particular feels like hundreds of other “sci-fi war films” and about a million miles from the actual revolution of the first film. It doubles down on nearly everything that was less good in the original and strips out the things that most impacted people. How not to make a sequel.

The Matrix (1999)

Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving defy gravity in ground-breaking sci-fi The Matrix

Director: The Wachowskis

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishbourne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity), Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), Joe Pantoliano (Cypher), Marcus Chong (Tank), Anthony Ray Parker (Dozer), Julian Arahanga (Apoc), Matt Doran (Mouse), Gloria Foster (The Oracle), Belinda McClory (Switch)

In 1999 we all waited for the release of a science-fiction film that would change the genre forever. Problem is we all thought it would be Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, when in fact the entire world went crazy for The Matrix. It helped that The Matrix was everything The Phantom Menace wasn’t: tight, exciting, brilliantly made and above-all endlessly, effortlessly and completely cool. And it still is: not even its dreadful, dreadful sequels could dent its genius or legacy. The Matrixis a flash of counter-culture: anarchic, teenage fantasy taking over the main-stream. It’s still brilliant.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is an office-working drone by day, hacker Neo by night, who wishes there was more to life than this. He’s going to get more than he wished for when he’s offered a choice between the “Red Pill and the Blue Pill” (truth or fantasy) by Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne), leader of a mysterious hacker group with super-human athleticism and strength. Choosing the Red Pill, Neo wakes up to find himself plugged into a massive machine – and that the world he knows is nothing more than a post-apocalyptic cage, a computer simulation known as The Matrix, used by the all-conquering machines to keep humanity docile while they use their bodies as batteries for their empire. Even more than that, Morpheus is convinced Neo is “The One”, a prophesied saviour who will bring an end to the Matrix. Can Neo accept his destiny?

The Matrix is a superb fusion of a whole host of questions that clearly fascinate the Wachowski siblings. Questions of identity come flying to the fore, as well as the battle for individualism in a conformist society. The Matrix has very earnest points to make about learning to embrace the people we really are, which it delivers with a host of references to philosophy and psychology. It could have become indulgent and self-important (a trap the sequels would fall into), but it delivers the story with a crowd-pleasing burst of energy, mixing in film noir, kung-fu and some rather endearing characters that we end up really caring about.

It’s also of course super, super cool. Everything about it passes the test: from the leather trench coats and shades to the high-octane action and the sense that the film is speaking directly to the alienated, authority-nose-thumbing teenager in all of us. This is a film for the people, the under-dog, with something for anyone who has ever felt trapped, bored or oppressed by their fate (i.e. nearly everyone) and reassures them that their dreams of having a special destiny might actually come true. It tapped into people’s joy and fantasy in a way The Phantom Menace totally failed to do.

This is a classic slice of mysticism. It’s not a film as clever as it thinks it is – it’s main calling card is still Alice in Wonderland the go-to for all films musing on dreamlike fantasy worlds – but it still throws a host of fun little questions and thinking points at the audience. Today, its also easier to see how the film is a celebration of counter-culture and sexual fluidity in a way that had to be snuck under the wire in the 90s. It asks (in a simple) way questions about who we are and what is it all about, in a way that really appeals to rebels. It’s the sort of film a Camus-loving teenager who is fed up with their parents, dreams they had the skill to make.

Skill is the key here. This is a superb achievement by the Wachowskis. It’s brilliantly directed, fast-paced and electric. The camera-work frequently makes use of a flurry of flashy tricks (reflections are a common theme), but which never over-whelm the narrative. It’s revolutionary use of freeze-frame camera work – an ingenious invention created “bullet time” where a series of cameras each taking one shot seem to allow us to rotate at normal speed around actors caught mid jump – introduced something we’d never seen before (and was much imitated and parodied later). The action sequences are stunning – a series of high-stakes, super-cool kung-fu-laced punches and kicks that are shot with a fluid camera that manages to seem both classic and deeply immersive.

It also works because our heroes are really underdogs. We are told again and again that they are vulnerable in the Matrix – that for all their gravity defying feats of strengths, when they come up against the “Agent” sentient programmes, they stand little or no chance of surviving. The goodies die with astonishing regularity in the film, and even the leads are shown to be extremely vulnerable in combat. Our empathy for them is so well crafted, that we even forgive the fact that they gun down countless numbers of their fellow humans during the film (it’s handwaved that anyone can become an agent at any time, so the slaughter of dozens of regular Joes is pretty much essential to prevent this).

A lot of that is also down to the excellence of the main performers. The film channels Keanu Reeves instinctive sweetness and gentleness in a way few other films managed to do as successfully before – he’s brilliantly convincing as both the kick-ass hero, but also the endearing fish-out-of-water who says “woah” as Morpheus jumps over a building. Carrie-Anne Moss is determined, assertive and very humane as Trinity while Laurence Fishbourne’s natural poise and authority are perfectly utilised as Morpheus. Opposite them we have a performance of such dastardly, lip-smacking, Rickmanesque consonant precision from Hugo Weaving, that Agent Smith becomes an iconic villain.

It all comes together into a film that delicately weaves a plucky under-dog story of a hero trying to find his purpose around a few perfectly staged, edge-of-the-seat action set-pieces, that hits a perfect balance between a wider-audience and a cool and pulpy indie vibe. It’s the sort of film that will please the masses, but many people will still feel is speaking very personally to them. Hugely influential, it remains a masterpiece of action and science fiction cinema which, while never as clever as it thinks it is, is hugely vibrant in its filming and endlessly, repeatedly exciting when watching.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Glenn Close and John Malkovich play games of lust and sex in Dangerous Liaisons

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Glenn Close (Marquise Isabelle du Merteuil), John Malkovich (Vicomte Sébastian de Valmont), Michelle Pfeiffer (Madame Marie du Tourvel), Uma Thurman (Cécile de Volanges), Swoosie Kurtz (Madame de Volanges), Keanu Reeves (Raphael Danceny), Mildred Natwick (Madame du Rosemonde), Peter Capaldi (Azolan), Valerie Gogan (Julie)

Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos Les liaisons Dangereuses had been a stunning success in the West End and on Broadway – so a film adaptation of this lusciously set story of sex was inevitable. Stephen Frears’ film keeps the story grounded in its setting of pre-Revolutionary France, but deliberately encourages a modern looseness, even archness, from its actors that makes it feel grounded and modern.

The Marquise du Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) are two French aristocrats who fill their time with seductions and sexual manipulation of other people, while conducting a dance of attraction around each other. Du Mertuil wants revenge against her ex-lover by getting Valmont to seduce the lover’s innocent intended bride Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman). But Valmont is more interested in setting himself the challenge of seducing the unimpeachable Madame du Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) – du Merteuil so convinced the task will be impossible that she bets him if he seduces du Tourvel, she will sleep with him as well. These games of sexual manipulation develop with disastrous consequences for all involved, as unexpectedly real emotions of love and affection intrude on the heartlessness and contempt.

Frears’ film won three Oscars for its most striking elements: production design, costumes and Hampton’s script. Hampton’s script provides a series of striking scenes and tongue-lashing dialogue for its stars. Meanwhile the film looks marvellous, it’s use of French locations superb in creating the world of decadence that these characters move in, while the costumes are so strikingly, elaborately intricate they practically become characters themselves. The film opens and closes with scenes of dressing and de-dressing: the opening sequence shows Merteuil and Valmont being dressed in their elaborate finery, a sequence uncannily reminiscent of knights being dressed for war, ending with shots of their defiantly cold faces starring down the lens. The film bookends this with the film’s key survivor, brokenly wiping away from their made-up “public face” probably forever. It’s a film that uses the intricacy of the period, to strongly suggest modern, dynamic tones and emotions. 

The film is shot with a series of tight shots, intermixed with the odd long shot, that is designed to bring us in close with the film’s serial seductions and envy-powered clashes. This brings us straight into the middle of the events, giving them an immediacy and suddenness that makes this feel like anything but a traditional costume drama. Seductions have a steamy immediacy, while the growing moments of tension in the relationship between Mertuil and Valmont is similarly bought in close to us, to allow us to see the mix of emotions these two have for each other – both a deeply, unexpressed, love and a strange sense of loathing linked together with a possessive jealousy.

Frears makes marvellous use of mirrors in the film. These reflective surfaces appear in multiple shots and frequently expand the world, mirrors reflecting characters as others discuss them, or forcing into shot (usually between two other characters) the subject of conversations. They reveal (to the viewers) eavesdroppers hiding and, in one striking shot, as Valmont and Mertuil’s latest lover argue she is framed in reflection hanging above them on the wall mirror. There’s a reason why one of the film’s final sequences revolves around the smashing of a mirror in grief. 

The film’s modernism also stems from its use of very modern American actors – apeing the success of Milos Forman’s Amadeus – with everyone using their own accents. Glenn Close is superb as Mertueil, a woman projecting a cold, manipulative authority but does so to suppress and hide her own emotional vulnerability. Mertueil has convinced herself that she is a champion of her sex, but her every action seems to be motivated by finding indiscriminate revenge on all those who have found the sort of happiness she has been denied (or denied herself). Close lets little moments – wonderfully captured by the intimacy of Frears’ camerawork – where moments of micro-emotions and pain flash briefly across her face, only to be wiped away.

Malkovich is an unusual choice as Valmont – and his serpentine swagger and arch mannered style at first feels quite a disconnect with a character renowned as the most successful lover in France. But Malkovich’s eccentricity, his very oddity, in a way makes him believable as a man women would find intriguingly irresistible. Malkovich, while naturally perfect for the coldness of the character, is also highly skilled at expressing the slow, non-continuous growth of conscience and feeling in Valmont, as his feelings for Tourvel dance an uncertain line between manipulation and genuine feeling – and while his confused feelings for Mertuil alternate from possessive devotion to revulsion.

The whole cast respond well to Frears guidance, and his ability to draw relaxed performances from an odd selection of actors. Michelle Pfeiffer is particularly fine in a role that on paper could be very dull – the perfect, kind woman – but which she invest with such a seam of emotional truth and longing for deeper connections, combined with naked emotional honesty that she becomes the most compelling character in the film. Uma Thuman is very good as a naïve young girl, Kurtz and Natwick suitably arch as society bigwigs, Peter Capaldi creepily willing as a manipulative servant and even Keanu Reeves has a certain sweetness about him, even if he is at the height of his “Woah” dudeness.

The film’s principle problem is perhaps the very archness and coldness that makes it affecting. While it’s intriguing and intelligent, it is never perhaps as engaging as it should be and its characters are so jet-black, deceitful and cruel that it becomes hard at points to really invest in this chilling story of unpleasant people using other unpleasant people and manipulating innocent ones. It becomes a film easier to admire, perhaps carrying too much of the freezing chill of imperial French greed and selfishness. Come the denoument for all the skill it is played with the actors, it is hard to feel your emotions invested or your heart moved by any of the fates of the characters. Perhaps, in presenting a heartless world of selfishness and lies, it does its job too well.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Gary Oldman prowls the night as Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Gary Oldman (Count Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina Murray), Anthony Hopkins (Professor Abraham van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Jonathan Harker), Richard E. Grant (Dr Jack Seward), Cary Elwes (Lord Arthur Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Quincy P Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy Westenra), Tom Waits (Renfield)

In the 90s Francis Ford Coppola planned a series of high Gothic films of classic monster stories, kick starting the plans with his own production of Dracula (the only other film that came of this was Kenneth Branagh’s equally operatically overblown Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Going back to the story of the original novel (more or less), Coppola presented a deliberately high-intensity, theatrical, over-the-top version of Stoker’s tale that becomes as overbearing as it is visually impressive.

In 1462 Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman) renounces God and becomes Dracula, after false news of his death leads to his wife (Winona Ryder) committing suicide and being damned by the church. Over four hundred years later, the immortal vampire Dracula plans to travel to England, with his plans unwittingly aided by his solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves). His interests are peaked all the more when he sees a picture of Harker’s fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder again) – the reincarnation of his dead wife. Dracula heads to England, preying on Mina’s friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) leading to an alliance of Lucy and Mina’s friend, led by Professor van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to combat Dracula’s villainy and save Mina from her own dark temptations to join the besotted Vampire.

Coppola’s film doubles down on Gothic romance, thundering through the action with everything dialled up to 11. The (rather good) score hammers home every beat, the camera swoops and zooms through a parade of tricks, wipes and dynamic angles with cross fades frequently throwing two images on screen at the same time. It makes for a sensual – in more ways than one – overload, but also a rather oppressive viewing experience, with no respite or sense of calm but every single scene delivered with stomach churning acceleration.

It’s a film directed with a deliberate operatic style, that celebrates (and makes no attempt to hide) its set-based theatricality. The opening sequence sets the tone with its Kurosawa inspired costumes in front of an Excalibur style blood-red sky, with battle scenes (and impalings) staged as an elaborate puppet show. Oldman – with a hammy Eastern European accent that you could wade through like treacle – then rages and roars over his wives crumpled body, stabbing a cross that leaks blood all while images are cross-cut showing his wives demise and the beginnings of his own monstrous transformation. The film doesn’t ease up from there.

To be honest Coppola massively over-eggs the pudding, producing an over-blown monstrosity of a film that shouts and shouts and shouts and drains all subtlety from every frame. In particular the sexual undertones of Vampirism – and the harsh male judgement of female sexuality – that the book explores are placed unsubtly front and centre. Every vampire attack is presented as a positive ravishing, Frost and Ryder writhing orgasmically (poor Frost has to undergo the indignity of being humped and bitten by a Dracula in part human-part wolf form) while boobs are left on display after every single assault. From an early scenes that sees Lucy and Mina gawping at a pornographically illustrated Arabian Nights, we are left in no doubt that IT’S ABOUT SEX YOU KNOW.

Coppola shows no restraint at all in his directing, which leaves nothing to the imagination, and ends up leaving the actors adrift between a film that is part serious attempt to film the book and part ludicrous bodice ripper, like the cheapest 60s salacious horror film from the worst excesses of Hammer.

It certainly leaves the actors adrift. Oldman gives it a go with gusto, even if he seems completely lost as to what tone this character should hit (is he a monster, a lost soul, a conflicted lover, a megalomaniac – who knows?). Anthony Hopkins channels Orson Welles with the sort of ham that was to become more-and-more his go to in later years. Winona Ryder does her best with a role that oscillates wildly between Good Girl and Minx. She’s saddled with an English accent, which restrains like a straitjacket. Tom Waits has fun as the insane Renfield (here imprisoned in a crazy asylum that resembles a medieval dungeon).

The rest of the performances are pretty much abysmal. Poor Keanu Reeves is left ruthlessly exposed, horrendously miscast as a stiff-upper lip English lawyer in a performance that surely goes down somewhere in history as one of the worst ever. His acting here would barely scrap by in a school play, his delivery of the dialogue wooden beyond belief and some talcum powder added to his hair for the film’s later sections only makes him look ridiculous. Reeves is a decent performer in the right role, but he was never worst case than this. But then the rest of the cast are pretty much just as bad: Frost is out-right awful, hopelessly unable to make Lucy anything other than a slut, while Grant, Campbell and Elwes are all wooden and dull to a man.

The film does get some points for reverting closer to the plot of the book – unlike many versions – although the addition of the love story between Dracula and Mina is marred by tonal problems and the utter lack of chemistry between Oldman and Ryder (they famously fell out on set and the film never recovers). Coppola directs the film with no discipline at all, and no sense of balance between spectacle and story. While it has many merits in its design – it won no less than three Oscars and the costumes, make-up for Oldman and much of its look and style are flawless – it’s basically a pretty over-bearing and dreadful film that shouts at the viewer so long and so hard that it becomes easier in the end to laugh at it rather than with it. A sad misfire.

Toy Story 4 (2019)

Woody is tempted by a new life in Toy Story 4

Director: Josh Cooley

Cast: Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Annie Potts (Bo Peep), Tony Hale (Forky), Keegan-Michael Key (Ducky), Jordan Peele (Bunny), Christina Hendricks (Gabby Gabby), Keanu Reeves (Duke Caboom), Ally Maki (Giggle McDimples), Joan Cusack (Jessie)

Probably the hardest thing about making the fourth film in an acclaimed, perfectly-formed trilogy (yup) is justifying its existence in the first place. That’s basically the main task that faces Toy Story 4 – does it manage to exist without ruining the other three? And was there any need to go back to a story that had already been pretty much finished perfectly.

After the third film, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and friends are now settled with their new child, Bonnie (an imaginative 6 year old). But Woody is being played with less and less, and is struggling with the adjustment from being Andy’s most important toy to becoming a little-used toy in the box. Taking it upon himself to accompany Bonnie to her first day at kindergarten, he sees her use an art-class to turn a spork into a toy – a toy that quickly comes to life as Forky (Tony Hale). As Bonnie’s parents try to ease her anxiety about starting kindergarten by taking her on a road-trip, Woody obsessively tries to train the reluctant Forky – who doesn’t want to be a toy – in how to be a favourite toy.

When Toy Story 4 rapped up, I basically said I didn’t really need to see it again. That’s quite a sad statement to make considering the original trilogy of films are so damn good. But this never really feels like it does justify its existence. Toy Story 3 finalises the whole saga so well with Woody and the other toys coming full circle, having helped Andy grow up and now being passed to Bonnie to help her deal with her childhood. It’s a beautiful, heart-warming story – and there isn’t a need to see what happens next. 

Toy Story 3 ended with Woody accepting that Andy has grown up, choosing to stay with his friends as a toy rather than going to college with Andy. But here we need to hit the reset button so that Woody is now missing Andy and his previous status – but is also in denial about this. I think there is something in this that is working towards Woody working out whether he wants to continue with a life of dedicated service or whether he wants to move on and change his life completely. Of course the scales are weighted a bit by the fact Woody is no longer a favourite toy and – worse! – is gathering dust in a cupboard. But it’s all a bit unclear and gets a bit lost.

Part of this is the amount of time given over to Forky, a rather trying and faintly irritating “comic” character, whom I could certainly have done without. He exists primarily as a motivation for Woody to remain at the funfair the road-trip gets stuck at, but the long stretch of time they spend apart means the mentor-mentee relationship the film starts with trails off and disappears for a large chunk of the film. As a mirror on Woody, the part is a failure.

In fact most of the plot gets stuck at the funfair along with the road trip, as the film introduces Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks) a voice-box doll from the 1950s with a misfunctioning voice box who has lived her life in an antiques store and dreams of being a real toy. Gabby’s obsessive belief that gaining a working voice-box (from Woody!) will get her the love of a child drives most of the rest of the film, a slightly rambling action-adventure that features Woody, Buzz and a gang of newly-met toys breaking in, then out, then back in to the antiques store. It’s a sprawling series of adventure scenes, that seems a million miles away from the film’s original opening of Bonnie dealing with going to school for the first time.

In fact, poor Bonnie gets almost completely shelved after the first act of the film, along with the rest of the original cast who barely appear. Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, Hamm and co are left “guarding the base”, hardly having any impact on the film and kept separate from Woody and Buzz for ages. Since the first three films revolved so heavily around the “family” mechanism of the group of toys, to shelve most of them into background characters seems a real shame. 

Instead the film starts to focus on Woody’s fear of being “a lost toy” – something put sharply into perspective by him re-encountering Bo Peep (Annie Potts) his sometime love-interest from films 1 and 2 (not present at all in 3). With a “nine years earlier” flashback opening the film, showing Bo Peep being gifted on to a new child, the film catches up with her having escaped from Gabby’s antiques store and now leading a free life, without a child, doing what she wants, when she wants. There is some decent chemistry between the two, but more could have been made of showing Woody slowly seeing that there are positives in not having a child as well as the negatives he has always associated it with. But like so many things in the film, with so much going on and so many new characters being introduced, the thematic issues get lost.

There is just too much plot. Essentially Forky exists to give Woody a reason to remain at the funfair. Gabby exists as an obstacle to stop them leaving. The funfair is a sort of existential trap for the heroes. But everything just bogs down the film, making the storyline increasingly top heavy. Buzz seems to have taken a step or two down in intelligence. Most of the new characters don’t engage as well as the old ones, even though Keanu Reeves has great fun as a nervous stunt toy. But the film has no economy, it gets crowded over with events.

Which is a shame as there is a simple thematic story here of Woody accepting that one stage of his life has finished and he needs to move on to the next. There was, I am sure, a way of telling this story that didn’t feature all these new characters, the confusing setting and the overlong adventure sequences. There was a way of doing this in parallel with Bonnie needing to grow up a little and start going to school. Of making it harder for Woody to think about leaving, because he has the whole family of toys with him (rather than on the sidelines). But the film doesn’t do it. It’s all too often flat footed, slow and missing the emotional target. It’s Toy Story so there are good moments. But they should have stopped at three.

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019)

Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry and some very, very mean dogs in John Wick Chapter 3

Director: Chad Stahelski

Cast: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Ian McShane (Winston), Mark Dacascos (Zero), Laurence Fishbourne (The Bowery King), Asia Kate Dillon (The Adjucator), Halle Berry (Sofia), Lance Reddick (Charon), Anjelica Huston (The Director), Saïd Taghmaoui (The Elder), Jerome Flynn (Berrada)

Early on in the film, John Wick (Keanu Reeves in a role he might have been born to play) builds a gun from scratch components of other weapons to fire some outsized ammunition, throws an axe across a room to take out an assassin, and then effectively reloads a horse, using its rear leg kicks to dispatch two more luckless assassins. It’s a dizzying 20 minutes or so of pure balls-to-the-wall action fun full of invention and black humour. The film never gets near repeating it, despite much trying.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum doesn’t have much in the way of plot. Instead it’s effectively a two-hour series of fight sequences. What plot there is pops up around the edges of all this imaginative blood-letting. That plot doesn’t really make much sense, and can basically be summarised as John has been declared excommunicado by “The High Table”, the shady organisation that runs the criminal underworld, meaning he is a target for every assassin in the world, and he is trying to reverse that decision. That’s kind of it, and any other subplots are basically slightly confusing or narratively empty detours from that central idea.

If you cut out all the fight sequences from the film, it wouldn’t run a lot longer than 15 minutes. There isn’t really any interest in the talking stuff or the characters, which seems to be fine for the likes of Laurence Fishbourne, who is wheeled out for three scenes of badass scenery chewing, but does mean that motivations and reasons for why anyone is doing anything at all remain completely unclear. There is a key subplot involving Ian McShane’s management of the Continental, the criminal “neutral zone” hotel in the centre of New York, that involves so many changes of allegiance and intentions that it winds up making no real sense.

But then people ain’t going to this for a character study. They are there for the fights. And, as I say, these are really inventive and entertaining. The first 20 minutes – with John haring through New York, trying to stay one step ahead of a blizzard of killers – is brilliant. It’s designed to be watched with large groups of people in the same mood, encouraging you to laugh, wince and shout out with the people around you. You can’t fault the work that has gone into the filming of this or the commitment of the actors or the genius of the choreographers. All of this is pretty faultless. And, no matter what extended fight you watch, you know you will see something different in every single one.

The problem is, the vast number of fights begins to pummel the audience into submission as well. Seeing Keanu Reeves involved in a series of three-in-a-row mixed martial arts sequences, each lasting well over 5-10 minutes, you start to let the whole thing drift over you. Put bluntly, after the initial explosion of action, the film hits a level it tries to sustain for almost an hour. And it’s too much. You just can’t keep that same level of engagement. I actually nearly dropped off at one point, which is not a good sign. How much action can one film take? 

There needs to be a balance. And without any real investment in what we are seeing, John Wick 3 is another of those films designed for YouTube. I can imagine watching most of these fights as little five-minute videos on the Internet in the future. Actually broken down like this I will probably enjoy it a lot more. But as a single film, there is nothing there to link it together.

The first film had a simple, but very pure, storyline that we could all relate to. A man loses his beloved wife, who on her deathbed gifts him a dog to care for. Said dog is then killed in a senseless break-in by some arrogant criminals. John Wick’s revenge is against those who thoughtlessly took from him the last piece of the only woman he loved. Everyone can relate to that – and it grounded everything we saw and immediately put us on John’s side. This film however is a confused motivation-less mess. If the series originally presented us with a John unwillingly dragged back into this world, since then (and here) he seems like a character with no inner life. 

The film attempts vaguely to add one, suggesting that John must make a choice between being a killer or the better man. Problem is choosing to be the better man isn’t really a platform for fights. So we lose what the film really needs, which is John struggling between his good and bad demons. Instead his motivations are a confused mess and the film spends more time showing us the brutal groin attacks of Halle Berry’s dogs (those things fight with no honour let me tell you) than giving us a lead character with a coherent personality.

It makes John Wick 3 not a lot more than a YouTube compilation, and giving Ian McShane some Latin to drop to explain the film’s title, or trying to change a character in Act 4 into a personal rival for John, doesn’t suddenly give it depth or interest. It’s fun in small chunks, but this is way too long and seems to have lost at least half of what made the first film such a guilty pleasure.

John Wick 2 (2017)

Keanu tools up for my running, jumping and shooting in genial, but perfunctory, sequel John Wick 2

Director: Chad Stahelski

Cast: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Riccardo Scamarcio (Santino D’Antonio), Ian McShane (Winston), Ruby Rose (Ares), Common (Cassian), Claudia Gerini (Gianna D’Antonio), Lance Reddick (Charon), Laurence Fishburne (The Bowery King), Franco Nero (Julius), Peter Stormare (Abram Tarasov)

It’s that age-old story: every time you think you’re out, they drag you back in. Well that’s what we get with John Wick (Keanu Reeves). Picking up where the last film stopped, Wick is approached by mafioso head Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants Wick to assassinate his sister, who has been promoted to head of the business over him. Eventually (after much pressure) Wick agrees – and quickly finds himself betrayed and on the run.

The first John Wick has a real charm about it, the sort of film you can really enjoy because tonally it gets itself absolutely spot on. It’s a lot of action fun, it manages not to take itself too seriously and it sets its hero up as someone very sympathetic who only goes on a rampage of violence under extreme provocation. The sequel attempts to double down on all of this and give us more of the same – but not always to the same impact.

Part of the issue is that there just isn’t the same engaging story at the heart of it. I totally understand John Wick in the first film, and completely got what it was that he was doing in the film – that essentially avenging his dog was about getting revenge on those who had taken the only thing he had left from his relationship with his wife. Here the lines are a lot more blurred – John basically saddles up under extreme provocation and blackmail and then basically spends the film killing people left, right and centre – first for someone else, then to get revenge for being betrayed back into this life (or something like that), and then finally because he’s just really pissed.

So that emotional grounding behind all the killing – and the thing that makes John Wick pretty likeable in the first film – gets lost. Instead he’s just a ruthlessly efficient killing machine – and while that is fun to watch, it’s not as immediately engaging as the first film. In fact, the second film (aiming to go bigger and better) is basically just three orgies of gunplay and violence, linked together by a few tongue-in-cheek dialogue scenes.

It’s another of those films made for YouTube clips. The action scenes can pretty much be watched and enjoyed without the burden of trawling through the nonsense plot, so you might as well hunt those down online and watch them alone. They’re really well done, extremely well shot and pretty exciting (if covered in claret). The rest of the film you can take or leave to be honest.

That’s despite all the best efforts of those involved. Keanu Reeves still brings a slacker charm to the role, even if it’s one that doesn’t stretch even his limited acting range. Ian McShane has a decent, fun turn as an influential member of a shadowy criminal organisation. We even get a rather dry Matrix reunion between Reeves and Fishburne. It’s very well directed and there are occasional good jokes.

However, it lacks a decent villain (Scamarcio as a Mafia baddie is singularly uninspiring), it goes on too long and, most of all, it’s just not quite as good as the first film. There the “world building” around the edges of the film was a fun aside from the action. Here it’s the focus – with strange councils and mystical rules all over the place – and that just doesn’t quite work as well.

John Wick 2 is fun, don’t get me wrong. But somehow it feels less charming and more bloated, something that is starting to feel itself a little too important and, in throwing more and more at the screen, means you lose the heart of some of the original.

Parenthood (1989)

Steve Martin struggles with the demands of fatherhood, in the rather sweet Parenthood

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Steve Martin (Gil Buckman), Tom Hulce (Larry Buckman), Harley Kozak (Susan Huffner), Jason Robards (Frank Buckman), Rick Moranis (Nathan Huffner), Martha Plimpton (Julie Buckman), Keanu Reeves (Tod Higgins), Eileen Ryan (Marilyn Buckman), Helen Shaw (Grandma), Mary Steenburgen (Karen Buckman), Dianne Wiest (Helen Buckman), Joaquin Phoenix (Garry Buckman-Lampkin)

If there is one thing everyone knows, it’s that families can be complex. That’s why good films about family life resonate so well – everyone (and I mean everyone) can find something in it that echoes with their own experiences. Parenthood is very good at this sort of thing, an entertaining but also tender and rather sweet comedy-drama about an expansive family and their many triumphs and problems.

Frank Buckman (Jason Robards) is the patriarch, a distant father with four children all now raising families of their own. Gil (Steve Martin), married to Karen (Mary Steenburgen), desperately wants to be the perfect dad he feels his own never was, but is struggling with the increasingly apparent emotional problems in his oldest son, 12-year-old Kevin. Helen (Dianne Wiest) is divorced, her ex-husband wants nothing to do with their children. Her son Garry (Joaquin Phoenix) is a socially withdrawn teenager, while her elder daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton) isn’t interested in education only in her relationship with gentle but useless Tod (Keanu Reeves). Susan (Harley Kozak) is married to Nathan (Rick Moranis) who is obsessed with turning their young daughter into a child prodigy. Frank’s favourite son is the feckless Larry (Tom Hulce), a wastrel sponger who turns up after years with an unexpected young son, Cool, in tow, in whom he shows little interest.

You can see just in that quick summary you’ve got a huge array of issues for the film to tackle, all of which it manages to do with sweetness, humour and also a certain amount of emotional truth. The film manages the ups and downs, the flat-out comedy and the heartbreak with real confidence, meaning you are moved smoothly from broad laughs to genuine “ahs” of sweetness. 

With the exception of the shallow and selfish Larry (every family has that black sheep), each of the characters has moments to demonstrate their depth and truth, showing sides of themselves you wouldn’t expect. In a large-cast film that delivers in a tight, well-structured two hours, that’s quite an accomplishment to be honest.

Ron Howard directs all this with fabulous control, a reminder that he’s actually quite a skilled director of comedy, with a good sense of timing and pacing. He’s also a superb director of actors, and there isn’t a weak link in the whole cast, from the youngest child actor to the most experienced Broadway veteran. 

Steve Martin is fabulous as the centre of the family saga, the dad desperate to be the best dad he can be, but who overly worries and obsesses about every detail to try and be as perfect as possible. Martin is ace at this sort of stuff, this gentle comedy grounded in reality, and totally understands how to make a character feel real and grounded. Combine that with his natural comic chops and willingness to embrace the absurd at moments – showcased here in a sequence where he desperately has to cover for a missing entertainer at his son’s birthday party – and he supplies many of the film’s stand out moments. 

Dianne Wiest (Oscar nominated) also manages a difficult balancing act in perhaps the film’s most interesting set of plotlines. Helen’s family covers the full range of teenage trauma, from a loving son who seems to turn overnight into a monosyllabic stranger to a daughter who rejects all her mother’s hopes for the future in order to spend time with a boy she doesn’t approve of. Wiest is not only extremely funny in some of her responses to these problems, but also heartrendingly real in her pain, confusion and frustration at not being able to help her children (or herself) as much as she wants, as well as the clear feeling that her life is somehow a failure compared to her two elder siblings. 

What’s also beautiful about the film is that none of these events or storylines work themselves out quite as you might expect. Young Garry (played excellently by an impossibly young Joaquin Phoenix, here billed as Leaf) has clear reasons for his feelings and is dealing with complete lack of interest his father shows in his life. Julie (Martha Plimpton, very good) isn’t the layabout teen you might expect, and has genuine feelings for Tod – who, under Keanu Reeves’ sweet, slacker style, is a man of far greater emotional depth than might be expected.

The other plotlines of the film are secondary to these, but are still wonderfully played and put together. The Moranis/Kozak plotline of “I’m an ignored wife who wants another baby” v “I’m trying to turn our daughter into a genius” is a bit more played for laughs, but the two actors know their stuff and deliver. Tom Hulce channels Mozart as the irredeemable Larry, but works very well with Jason Robards, who expertly portrays a man aware he was not the perfect dad. Again these scenes develop in ways you might not expect – particularly as regards Robard’s character.

The final sequence of the film, showing how the events and lessons of the film have changed the family but brought them together in different ways, and how they have changed and learned, should feel manipulative and pat, but because the whole film is done with generosity and warmth it actually brings a small tear to the eye with its sweetness and warmth. Parenthood isn’t perhaps remembered quite as well as it should be – but it’s a film that never fails to deliver and always leaves you feeling better about yourself. And you can’t ask more than that.