Monday, August 14, 2017

Redboxing: THEIR FINEST and UNDERCOVER GRANDPA

by Rob DiCristino
A war epic without the war and a comedy without the jokes.

Their Finest (2016, dir. Lone Scherfig)
Many of our best war films trade the violence of combat for the political intrigue and existential romance that shape that violence and give it weight. Their Finest is one of those films, a funny and charming look at the British Ministry of Information during World War II. Desperate to inspire a populace under siege by the Blitz, the government commissions its film office to produce an uplifting story of heroics, something with “authenticity and optimism.” All the young industry men are off fighting, of course, so the suits tap an overqualified secretary with an ear for dialogue (Gemma Arterton’s Catrin Cole) to write the “slop” (the parts of the film aimed at women) while screenwriters Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) do the heavier structural lifting. Their script fictionalizes the real-life exploits of a pair of twins (Lily and Francesca Knight) who stole their father’s fishing boat in order to aid the evacuation at Dunkirk. Or did they? As Cole navigates air strikes, executive meddling, and a crumbling marriage to artist Ellis (Jack Huston), she crafts an exhilarating story about women willing to rise above the slop.

But Their Finest isn’t just about women in the workplace; it’s about all of us. It’s about the roles we take on in times of crisis and the frustration we feel when we’re not useful. Bill Nighy’s screen legend Ambrose Hillard feels suffocated by the limited resources of wartime filmmaking and insulted by the implication that he might be past his prime. Ellis’ injuries makes him ineligible for service, and the lack of paying prospects in the art world puts a serious strain on his ego. The film’s central theme is that struggle for meaning. Buckley remarks at one point that we’re drawn to the drama of movies because they provide structure and catharsis, that we’re willing to handle even the worst catastrophes in that context because we know they’re building toward a resolution. Life — especially during a period of such strife — provides no such closure. Cole’s arc as a screenwriter is built around her ability to add shades of depth and intimacy so that roles like Hillard’s drunken Uncle Frank feel essential to the overall piece. She excels at her job because she understands why it’s so important, and it enriches her life because it creates structure and meaning for her own experiences.

Aside from all that, Their Finest is a great movie about moviemaking. There’s a beautiful early scene in which, seconds after hearing that they’re writing a story about twins, Dunkirk, and a boat, Buckley and Parfitt verbally sketch out the basic story beats of a war romance in seconds (“All we have to do is fill in the gaps!”). One sister should be spunky, the other sweet. There should be a boyfriend, of course, a heroic love interest who’ll be at Dunkirk. He should die — no, be injured — and he should save a dog along the way. There are forced rewrites and issues on set that help turn Cole from a capable screenwriter into an accomplished producer. The most fun of these is the handsome American pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), a non-actor forced into the production by distributors eager to appeal to an ever-growing U.S. film audience. There were no Americans at Dunkirk, Cole argues, but such are the compromises of studio filmmaking. She convinces Hillard to help the wooden Lundbeck with his line deliveries (it’s not Hail, Ceasar!’s “Would that it were so simple,” but it’s close) and edits around him when necessary. Their film is not based on a true story, Buckley says, but rather thousands of true stories. A little authenticity mixed with some optimism. Movie magic.

Undercover Grandpa (2017, dir. Erik Canuel)
You really roll the dice renting something like Undercover Grandpa. First of all, it’s called Undercover Grandpa, which is awesome. It’s got James Caan, Louis Gossett Jr., Paul Sorvino, and Jessica Walter, who are all pretty awesome, too. It’s produced by CCI Entertainment, a Canadian company that apparently makes a program called Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs. Hell yes. A bucket full of dinosaurs would be awesome. But the more you dig, the more questions arise: the tagline, for example, is “Get the Girl. Save the World.” Which girl? The teenager on the cover? Jessica Walter? Who’s getting her? Is the shaggy-haired Jonas Brother getting her, or are we about to rediscover how insane James Caan is? How does a grandpa go undercover, exactly? I suppose it’s easy enough. Do you know where your grandpa is right now? Anyway, those expecting a fun and schlocky action adventure loaded with old people jokes will be pretty disappointed. Undercover Grandpa is cheap, awkward, and played mostly straight, which is just bad news for all involved.

Dylan Everett plays Asshole Kid, who’s trying to weasel out of dinner with Military Grandpa — who, again, is James fucking Caan and tells awesome stories about boning ladies and inventing KFC chicken — so that he can go on a date with Not Girlfriend (Greta Onieogou). She’s Not Girlfriend because Asshole Kid keeps insisting that the popular beauty isn’t his girlfriend for no reason at all. She’s totally down for being his girlfriend and it makes no sense that he would be the one insisting she’s not. He’s the one who asked her out. Anyway. Mom doesn’t believe the girl exists (because she loves brutally punking her own son, apparently), but she says he can go out if he drives Grandpa back to the old folks home first. Meanwhile, Not Girlfriend is captured by renowned terrorist General Komenkho (Paul Braunstein). Grandpa investigates the scene and decides to recruit his squad of Old Bastards (Sorvino, Gossett Jr., et al) to save the day. Asshole Kid, still an asshole, refuses to believe that Grandpa can pull it off until FBI Lady (Walter) explains that all his stories are true and that he totally used to bring his long noodle to her spaghetti house. Finally convinced, the kid decides to help out.

Here’s the thing: James Caan is actually really good in this movie. The other senior cast members mostly phone it in (you can see what looks like Walter reading her lines at one point), but Caan’s heart is in it. There’s also a funny scene where a Doc Brown scientist named Harry (Kenneth Welsh) uses the Tesla machine from The Prestige to hack into the 911 database. This makes no sense, but one of the film’s central messages is that these young kids with their tweetgramming need to have more appreciation for their elders, so we go with it. Plus, it’s paid off later when Harry loads his walker with Force lightning and murders several terrorists. The problem is that there just aren't enough of these moments to make Undercover Grandpa any fun. Paul Braunstein is in his own movie, hamming it up all over Caan while he’s trying to act. The same “Ow, my back!” joke is used two scenes in a row. Gossett Jr. is in front of a green screen most of the time. It’s just sad. Had the film been a bit less cookie-cutter, it might have embraced the Grandpa Death Squad premise and lost the kids entirely. The Expendables' Dads? Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Except Old? These are movie premises. Undercover Grandpa is not.

3 comments:

  1. I love these articles because you write about movies that no one else is writing about. Always appreciated, Rob!

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  2. Quick note: this article isn't listed as Their Finest in the "Movies A-Z" tab. :)

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