Thursday, 6 May 2010

Mona Lisa, Nanny McPhee and how to train a dragon - Reviews #34

A full nine reviews for you to digest in this update, including a pair of family films - both showing at a cinema near you - an embryonic Crying Game, del Toro's Hellboy and Ginger Rogers choosing between three fanciable metaphors. Plus: MGM remake Fred and Ginger, Mike Shayne waves goodbye and the world explodes. Comments are welcome below.


CINEMA: Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (Susanna White, 2010) - Emma Thompson’s wise, warty heroine returns in this enchanting children’s film. It is 1940 and Britain is at war. So too are the children of Mrs Green (Maggie Gyllenhall). With their father fighting overseas and their home under threat, the last thing the put-upon youngsters need is a visit from their snooty urban cousins. Arriving weighed down with designer labels and familial angst, the Londoners proceed to infuriate their rural relations, dubbing their farm “the land of poo” and destroying an irreplaceable jar of jam. Cue a massive free-for-all, and enter Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), the magical troubleshooter who's determined to teach the kids five crucial life lessons. This sequel to the 2005 hit is an extraordinarily well-written, unpretentious, intelligent children’s movie that strikes just the right balance between fantasy and reality, with impeccably-drawn characters who develop in believable and touching ways as they’re brought to life by a hand-picked cast.

Engaging performances from the children are supported by pitch-perfect turns from Gyllenhall, Ewan McGregor, Maggie Smith, villain Rhys Ifans - a spiv in the George Cole mould - and Ralph Fiennes, the pick of the bunch playing an arrogant, emotionally-repressed War Office bigwig. Thompson, who also scripted, is a delight as the titular saviour, ideas brewing endlessly beneath that thatched grey hair. The film gets its many laughs without resorting to spoofery or lazy pop culture gags - offering slapstick, observation and effective character comedy - and packs a real emotional wallop. The scene between the uptight Fiennes and his unhappy son is the highspot, made all the more moving by being so doggedly unsentimental, while the movie's bittersweet climax yanks on the heartstrings in an entirely agreeable manner. Ultimately, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang is everything that kids’ films should be and yet so rarely are, wearing its prestigious influences lightly as it casts a gentle spell over the viewer. It also features an Esther Williams-style synchronised swimming dance number performed by pigs - and movies don’t get much better than that. (4)


CINEMA: How to Train Your Dragon 3D (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010) is a spirited animation that puts a smart spin on a familiar story. A sensitive, apparently weedy teenager struggles to escape the shadow of his overbearing father - a dragon fighter. After the youngster shoots down a dragon, he's crestfallen that no-one believes his story, and sets out to find the beast. What he finds instead is a friend - the inaccurately-named Toothless - their relationship giving him the insider knowledge needed to mollify the monsters he faces in Dragon Training. The film shares something of its sensibility with Dick King Smith's comic novel Tumbleweed, while the fine premise is augmented by action sequences and anarchic humour in the manner of a Pixar film. While this can't touch Up or WALL-E, it's a distinguished take on the ‘boy and his pet’ yarn with a vivid backdrop, appealing characters (they may be stereotypes, but they seem real) and good jokes. And there's imagination to spare in the production design, which includes some memorable monsters - the main baddie being a particularly formidable chap. Though it's all CGI, it looks lovingly crafted, with a distinctive visual style. As Hiccup, Jay Baruchel is occasionally too old and studied, but the voice cast is mostly good, handling the chatty material well and proffering a multitude of energetic whoops and yells. Those cries, of course, are lent to the action set-pieces, which possess a genuine sense of magic. The scene in which Hiccup takes Toothless out of a tailspin is absolutely euphoric - a real gem. As for 3D, it's not really 3D, it’s 2D objects in front of one another, but it works nicely here, particularly when it's subtly employed to draw us into the centre of the drama. (3)


Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)
is a fantastic piece of work: a quiet, touching love story framed against a sordid, squalid London underworld full of underage prostitutes, drug addicts and pitiless gangsters. Bob Hoskins is magnificent as a former mob driver and Nat 'King' Cole fan who gets out after seven years in stir and seeks a helping hand from his old bosses. What he gets is a job ferrying around high class call girl Cathy Tyson, with whom he falls in love. So perhaps he's not thinking straight when he agrees to track down a friend the "tall black tart" promised to look out for years before, taking him deep into the underbelly of the capital. Jordan establishes many of the concerns he'd conclusively nail in The Crying Game - unlikely friendships, game-playing and moral courage awoken within a lost soul by undaunted love - but his view is bleaker, even nihilistic, as the unconventional, sweet-hearted hero struggles to breathe in an appalling, stifling universe that's impossible for him to comprehend. Then gets royally screwed.

The acting is universally superb, though Hoskins is unquestionably the stand-out, trading on his great gift: the ability to transmit his very thoughts through that intelligently expressive fizzog. Tyson is also terrific, while Michael Caine is stunningly utilised in what's essentially a glorified cameo as a colourful, rabbit-loving crime lord. Jordan's script, co-written with future Wish You Were Here director David Leland is exceptional: poetic, funny, quotable and frequently profane, while his direction is laced with idiosyncratic, left-field touches. The film also casts its net a little wider than you might expect, dealing with the artificiality of the '80s and the rise of consumerism through Robbie Coltrane's comic foil. He peddles fake spaghetti that goes "like hot cakes" and winds up apologising for his friend's language to a glow-in-the-dark statue of the Virgin Mary that he thinks could be the next big thing. It's a nice, offbeat subplot that offers solace from the grime, though Mona Lisa's calling card remains the unforgettable love story at its centre, which has a nod to film noir and carries a devastating sucker punch. (4)


Peculiar to look at: MGM might have had "more stars than there are in the heavens", but look what their poster artist just done did.

Lovely to Look At (Mervyn LeRoy, 1952) is a remake of the Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne romance Roberta that trims and polishes Alice Duer Miller’s plot, reworks the musical numbers and winds up a whole lot more satisfying. It’s also something of a dry-run for the phenomenal Kiss Me Kate (see #73) (the source play of which is referenced in the script) uniting three of that movie’s stars a year ahead of time: tenor Howard Keel, soprano Kathryn Grayson and curvy tap dancer Ann Miller. The toothy Keel, my mum’s favourite movie star, plays an aspiring Broadway producer, trying to get a new musical off the ground. When his fellow impresario, comic Red Skelton, inherits Parisian dress shop Roberta’s, they and pal Gower Champion decide they’ll sell up and splash the cash on their stage show – until they catch a look of the tasty co-owners (Grayson and Marge Champion).

The film dispenses with much of its predecessor’s plottiness, using Roberta’s as a metaphor, rather than thinking a dress shop is massively important in itself. Howard Keel is more like Coward Heel, you see, and the selfish showman needs to learn how to do right by his friends, and the gownerie they hold so dear. Keel, who went stratospheric after Annie Get Your Gun and starred in several key musicals of the period, including Calamity Jane and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, had a wonderful voice and fair comic instincts, but appeared to lack dramatic range. That’s not necessarily true, evidenced by his commanding performance in Kiss Me Kate, but he was one-dimensional unless otherwise encouraged. Skelton is asked to truly act, as well as provide the usual buffoonery, and his scenes of heartbreak contrast nicely with his over-the-top comic shenanigans. As Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler (see Punch-Drunk Love) would after him, he finds a sentimental dramatic groove through intelligent underplaying, and confounds expectations. He still puts paper in his ears and shoots a woman’s fur, though, if you're worried. Skelton also has the funniest line of the picture, reminiscing about the girl he “could have married”. In support, Kurt Kasznar is the pick, playing the buffoonish Max, who holds hidden depths. The way he approaches a business meeting is hilarious.

Roberta featured the incomparable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as cinema’s most attractive second leads. They’re replaced here by husband-and-wife dance team, Marge and Gower Champion. MGM apparently planned to remake all of Fred and Ginger’s movies using the married hoofers, but this was the only one to come to fruition. They offer a pair of brilliant dance numbers, the joyous I Won’t Dance – which is all done in one take – and a spot in the finale that sees them scrapping over a diamond bracelet. I was really taken with their agility, slinkiness and easy on-screen chemistry. The best number of all, though, is from Ann Miller, whose Hard to Handle is an absolute knockout: the leggy hoofer shoving aside wolfish admirers in a display of shimmering bravado. It could barely be more different from Ginger Rogers’ version back in ’35, which was performed in a heavy Russian accent, into a standing mic. Lafayette, a jaunty number that sees the three male leads bouncing around Paris, is great fun. The film also allows Grayson and Keel – never the most enthusiastic dancers – to stick to their strong suits and bellow two American standards introduced by Roberta. The title tune is sung by Keel, while Grayson does a touching reading of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which is modestly staged and perhaps performed at the wrong time, but lovely to listen to.

Several of these performers would scale greater heights the following year in the dizzyingly, dazzlingly inventive Kiss Me Kate. While Lovely to Look At isn’t in that league, it remains an accomplished slice of high-grade entertainment, complete with some eye-popping numbers. (3)

Trivia note: As well as leaning on Roberta, the film borrows a couple of tricks from an MGM classic of decades past: Ninotchka (see #32), which was also set in Paris. Grayson’s straight-faced recollection of stats about the Eiffel Tower is taken straight from that masterpiece, while the shot of Keel upon his return is pure Lubitsch.


Time to Kill (Herbert I. Leeds, 1942) – Lloyd Nolan’s final outing as Michael Shayne, Fox Studios’ cocky private eye, is one of the earliest Raymond Chandler adaptations, drawing its inspiration from The High Window. Shayne – the irrepressible, quick-witted, appealing Nolan – takes on an apparently simple assignment from the wealthy Mrs Murdoch (Ethel Griffies) and finds the bodies piling up around him. Fox’s lack of faith in the series is evidenced by the slim running time, with this one playing barely more than an hour. That means you get 56 minutes of tightly-scripted thriller – with a sardonic sense of humour – before the scripters have to cram in a wordy, five-minute explanation of Chandler’s convoluted plot. It’s an absolute riot until then, though, and a return to form after a slightly disappointing sixth outing.

The series opener – Michael Shayne, Private Detective – is a classic of its type, with a hilarious script and slick, fast-moving direction, making a virtue of its low budget. The second film put him on a train (Sleepers West), the third took him to a theatre (Dressed to Kill) and the fourth and fifth appeared to have been made with spare Charlie Chan screenplays someone had left lying around. There’s something of the Warner Oland Chan about the ship-bound Blue, White and Perfect, while The Man Who Wouldn’t Die – set in a haunted house and with a genuinely ingenious mystery – is pure Toler. Just Off Broadway, which had Shayne solving a case whilst sitting on a jury, was less accomplished, but this one ends the Nolan series on a high, effortlessly recapturing the flavour of the first film. Tracing a murky investigation from the second Shayne gets pitched into the mystery – fielding the call in his dingy office and reeling off a list of made-up references – to the moment he wraps it up, it’s a real treat. It’s also nice to see Shayne get a girlfriend who can handle him. An extra 10 minutes would have been welcome, allowing the whodunit to be unwrapped in a more leisurely fashion and providing time during the climax for something other than solid exposition, though given half a chance I'm sure Nolan would have spent it all wisecracking anyway. (3.5)


Hellboy (Guillermo del Toro, 2004) is an offbeat comic book film that boasts strong characterisation and an impressive aesthetic, but suffers from some incomprehensible plotting. The title character, very well-played by Ron Perlman, is the son of Satan, brought to earth in 1944 by Nazis (who've invaded Scotland), only to be adopted and reared for good by kind-hearted FBI scientist John Hurt. Returning in the present day, the fascists - who include an ageless woman, bald wizard Rasputin (I have no idea), and a man made of sand - unleash a heap of monsters and a can of high-grade whup-ass on the US. Their ultimate aim, as becomes sort-of-clear, is to lure Hellboy to Rasputin's tomb on the outskirts of Moscow, where they'll force him to open a portal to his Dad's place. Or something. The hero is a fine creation, impressively realised by Perlman and make-up maestro Rick Baker, while there's commendable support from Hurt, Doug Jones and love interest Selma Blair. The scene in which Selma's Liz replies to Hellboy's pledge of everlasting faith by murmuring "I like that" is really something. And though the action sequences are inconsistent, with tedious, by-the-numbers scraps included alongside some tense, thrilling set-pieces, del Toro taps into the mythology of the conceited but self-aware cigar-chomping hero and his singular world, the nature-versus-nature debate cast into the centre of that murky universe, shown through the eyes of its brooding outsiders. Sadly those praiseworthy elements are hamstrung by an often baffling narrative that goes seriously awry in the final reels. It's hard to care about what you're watching if you've only a faint notion of what's going on. In addition, the idea that Perlman is able to put the smackdown on supernatural baddies via his big stony fist doesn't really make sense. Hellboy remains an interesting movie, but the iffy, tacky plotting and unimaginative climax keep it firmly in the lower reaches of the superhero canon. It still wipes the floor with Spider-Man. (2.5)


A first viewing in years of Kubrick's celebrated Cold War comedy:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1963) is such a bold, arresting and confrontational comedic take on an unfathomably awful subject that you can forgive its imperfections. Sterling Hayden is the crazed brigadier general who blames the Russkies for his impotence, saying it’s because they fluoridated his water. So he sends over some bombers to nuke them. If they succeed, the commies’ Doomsday Machine will see the whole world go up in smoke. George C. Scott is Hayden’s warmongering boss, while Peter Sellers excels in three roles: playing the President, madcap ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove and, best of all, stiff-upper-lipped British captain Lionel Mandrake. The scene in which Mandrake tries to explain what on earth has been going on to endlessly suspicious colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) is a comic masterpiece. There are slow stretches, and Kubrick’s notorious anal impulse means we get a lot of tedious detail about how exactly one would drop a bomb, but there’s genius at work here, and it’s a movie everyone should see. (3.5)


Tom, Dick and Harry (Garson Kanin, 1941)
is an incisive examination of the American Dream, masquerading as a fun romantic comedy. Ginger Rogers could really screw up a comic romp if she was given free rein (see Howard Hawks' Monkey Business, or probably don't bother), but working in tandem with director Garson Kanin - a famed screenwriter - she gives a nuanced, likeable, often very funny performance. Rogers plays a scatty, indecisive young woman who becomes engaged to three very different men: go-get-'em salesman George Murphy, brooding ambition-vacuum Burgess Meredith (one of my favourite actors) and charming, slightly aloof moustachioed millionaire Alan Marshal. Murphy epitomises the American Dream and Marshal the Hollywood ideal, but it's the cynical, down-to-earth Meredith who has the purest ideas about love, and sets Ginger's bell a-ringing. The story keeps you guessing, while Kanin includes three bizarre, subversive dream sequences showing the pitfalls of married life with these three vividly-etched archetypes. Phil Silvers also has a funny bit as an intrusive ice-cream salesman who's "a little obnoxious". From the jumbly credits to the neat surprise ending, this is a wildly entertaining comedy with a latent satirical bite. (3.5)


A four-year-old showgirl. That might not be fine.

SHORT: Our Gang Follies of 1936 (Gus Meins, 1935) was the first musical entry in the enduringly popular series, a key touchstone of American popular culture. Spanky, Scotty, Buckwheat, Alfalfa, Darla and the gang put on a variety revue, which is disrupted by a mischievous little monkey, leading to an uproarious final routine. The racist gags that mar the series are in evidence (at least in the print I've got: see the films as they were made, flaws and all), though Buckwheat was treated as an equal by the youngsters, unlike most black characters of the period. Some may be offended by the sight of four-year-old Darla pouting and wiggling like a showgirl. If you like Our Gang, you'll have a ball. Otherwise, steer well clear. (3)

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