‘The War With Grandpa’ a funny family comedy; ‘The Midnight Sky’, George Clooney’s solid sci-fi adventure; ‘End of the Century’, a boring gay yapfest

Under control: Robert De Niro stars in the family funfest ‘The War with Grandpa’

THE WAR WITH GRANDPA *** (98 minutes) PG
Hot on the heels of The Comeback Trail comes another pleasing, undemanding feather-light Robert De Niro comedy.

Aimed squarely at the family demo and sourced from the book by Robert Kimmel Smith it’s a pretty funny time killer with a bit of soft-centred messaging and, like The Comeback Trail, an A-list cast punching weight below their weight.

In that loveable old-man mode he has made his latter-day brand – Meet the Parents really was a double espresso to his career – De Niro plays Ed, a wise and wizened grandfather who moves in with the family of his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) at her insistence.

He is given the room of her son Peter (Oakes Fegley) who deeply resents being consigned to the attic.

Thus begins a pratfall-filled battle of wits and practical jokes, most of them involving a stunt double for De Niro as Ed is subjected to physical punishments that would, in ordinary life, either kill him or send him into a wheelchair.

It’s all an opportunity, of course, for Ed to teach Peter some things about conflict resolution, how actions have consequences, the fine art of negotiation, that wars have rules and how the best to take down a bully is to haul them head-first into a dumpster. It’s a passable, sugar-coated rationale for some fairly amusing, low-brow physical comedy.

The shebang is efficiently directed by Tim Hill (Muppets from Space; Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties; Alvin and the Chipmunks; SpongeBob Squarepants; Hop), who is the nephew of the great George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Sting; The World According to Garp; Slap Shot; A Little Romance, etc).

Along for the ride is some very enthusiastic support work from veteran British actress Jane Seymour (playing a supermarket clerk), Cheech Marin (who boomers will know as half of the phenomenal 1970s counter-culture comedy duo Cheech and Chong) and the legendary Christopher Walken, who is particularly sprightly here.

What a great cast, yet it’s hard to figure. The last time Walken and De Niro shared the same frame was in 1977’s Oscar-spangled Vietnam war classic The Deer Hunter. Fast-forward some 43 years later and – what? – it takes a light family comedy to reunite them?

The same thing occurred with Comeback Trail that brought De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones together for an ultra-light Hollywood spoof.

These actors are capable of heavy lifting, yet this is where they find themselves in the autumn of their brilliant careers. Still, they do it with verve, as the bloopers at the end of The War with Grandpa attests.

By the way, and for the record, The War with Grandpa is yet another film where you survey the reviews after seeing the film and wonder if everybody else saw a different version. It’s an unassuming, straight up-and-down family comedy. There doesn’t seem to be a case for the bile being thrown the film’s way.

Footnote: If you go into this film not knowing who’s in the cast aside from De Niro, you’ll likely start to wonder who the woman playing the mother is, and how she looks vaguely like Uma Thurman.

Well, it is Uma Thurman, rendered almost unrecognizable due to surgical face modification. She did this about five years ago.

So comes the unavoidable question: why does a naturally beautiful woman such as Uma Thurman, long regarded as an accomplished and versatile actress who has starred in many great films, do this to herself?

Other examples of famous women who have surrendered their natural beauty in exchange for the just-got-punched-in-the-face-by-Godzilla look include: Renee Zellweger; Faye Dunaway; Joan Jett; Meg Ryan; Courtney Cox; Anjelica Huston; Lara Flynn Boyle; Melanie Griffith; Tara Reid; and Daryl Hannah.

Modern feminism has failed on many fronts, and chief among these is that women with no medical issues or problems with disfigurement continue to go under the hammer, altering their looks to accord with some vapourous ideal of what women should look like. And it’s all to please men.

THE MIDNIGHT SKY *** (117 minutes) M
In yet another dystopian vision of the near future where good intentions and high ideals have gone south – when will filmdom free itself of this sci-fi cliche? – a mysterious, globe-swallowing accident has poisoned the Earth’s oxygen, leaving only a few survivors underground and in remote regions.

One such soul is heavily bearded scientist Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney), stuck by choice by himself in a large snow-blasted observatory that has been hurriedly evacuated.

Desperately, despondently, he wanly puts out calls into the ether, trying to make contact with whoever is left.

On his list of prospects is the crew of a beautifully designed spacecraft, returning from Jupiter after confirming one its moons is habitable. Because of the global calamity they’ve had no contact with Earth so have even less idea about what has happened than we do.

The striving for contact and the unpredictable fallout of that contact drives the film, a handsomely produced sci-fi number ably directed by Clooney.

Impressive as the film’s design and VFX are – hold tight for some tense sequences reminiscent of Gravity – Clooney stresses the importance of human connection.

His lonely hero is not only reaching out to the stars for it, he faces an equally challenging task communicating with the uninvited guest he discovers hiding in the station. To get to another station they must trek across the white wasteland through a blinding blizzard, a journey during which Mother Nature appears to be exacting revenge.

Based on the book Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, the film has plenty of elements from many other sci-fi films such as the aforementioned Gravity, The Martian, Interstellar, I Am Legend and Contact.

While some fans of the genre might find that irritating, Clooney’s direction is slick enough to earn a pass. There’s nothing wrong with a film – or any artform for that matter – drawing inspiration and ideas from other sources so long as it blends into something that has its own stamp.

Happily, that’s the case here, with Clooney pulling off a terrific, emotional finale that, while it contains a key reveal we’ve seen before, is done with great style and even a touch of grace.

On Netflix

END OF THE CENTURY *1/2 (84 minutes; subtitled) R18+
While enjoying a low-energy holiday in Barcelona, an Argentinian gent called Ocho (Juan Barberini) spots a handsome dude in a KISS t-shirt from his balcony. He calls out to him, invites him up for a drink and after a few preliminary words they get down to it.

It’s as innocuous a meet-cute as you’d see in any rom-com, only Ocho’s new friend Javi (Ramón Pujol) has memory of meeting Ocho 20 years earlier.

They were hot for each other back then too but couldn’t act on their feelings because of social norms, with Javi being in a relationship with a nice young lady called Sonia (Mía Maestro) who, of course, has no idea.

Told mainly through flashback, writer/director Lucio Castro presides over a pretty boring story where not all that much happens. There are some subtle notes about changing attitudes and keeping secrets, even in “open” relationships, but the hill of beans the film adds up to ain’t very high.

There’s quite a bit of sex, though. The film’s R18+ rating is due to several scenes involving fairly strong, fairly uninteresting sexual activity, including one moment when Ocho is so overwhelmed with desire he must administer executive relief to himself while in public. Really? He couldn’t hold on till he got home?

Nothing wrong with sex in films, of course, provided it adds to the story. That’s a tough case to make here. Take sex out of End of the Century and it’s basically a PG film about two guys talking.

And not about anything particularly interesting.