Sunday, 2 June 2013

The King of Kong, Mads Mikkelsen, and the theatre in the '40s - Reviews #163

In this week's update: Danish drama, a "great fantastic man", and BBC2 serving up all manner of Golden Age hijinks, via a trio of rarities.

The King of Kong (Seth Gordon, 2007) - Hell-raising musical genius Chet Baker once mused that the purpose of life was to find something you like doing, and do it better than anyone. For loveable everyman Steve Wiebe and hissable villain Billy Mitchell, that thing is Donkey Kong, a near-mythic arcade game that saw the first appearance of a certain red-hatted plumber. Mitchell is the long-reigning world champion, Wiebe the challenger whose posting of the first million score attracts the suspicions of the video game world's self-appointed record keepers. Seth Gordon's documentary takes a promisingly odd premise and does wonderful things with it, creating a film that's hilarious, affecting and likely to make you rail at the sheer injustice of what you're seeing.

The relationship between Wiebe and his wife is right up there with The Thin Man in terms of understanding, perfectly compatible screen couples, Mitchell couldn't be a better character if he tried (actually, he seems to be trying quite hard), and there's one of the most hysterically subservient sycophants I've ever come across, in the shape of his acolyte, Brian Kuh. The scene in which he phones his hero to painstakingly describe the sight of some people watching a (significant) video is horrendously embarrassing in the best possible way.

What could in the wrong hands have been a sneering portrait of eccentrics is instead a compassionate, insightful movie that examines self-worth, the pursuit of dreams both big and small, and - by extension - the way that we live our lives... whilst making a little man jump out of the way of a barrel being thrown by a pixellated gorilla. (4)


A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012)
- Imagine if Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette was Danish and any good. Ta-da! Set during the Enlightenment, when progressive ideas about tolerance, individuality and self-determination swept across Europe, and swept away the status quo, it finds small town doctor Mads Mikkelsen inveigling his way into the Danish royal household, and exerting his influence on a manic, feeble king and his free-spirited English-born queen, the former in the state room, the latter in the bedroom. And while his Machiavellian tendencies may leave a nasty taste in the mouth, it isn't as simple as all that: for who can deny that his actions are having a greater good, or claim that those who seek to replace him have higher ideals? It's an unusually deep and intelligent period drama.

There's a proverb often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt that says: "Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and little minds discuss people." While many corseted chronicles concern themselves with the private lives of the aristocracy, and Downton takes in numerous historical happenings, it's a rare type of costume drama that considers the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or regards as integral to its identity the battle to abolish serfdom. And all the while it deals with an unspoken, ever-timely theme: the disconnect between a man's personal and public life, and whether sexual transgressions should be a barrier to work that enhances the greater society. But for all that, it isn't stodgy or worthy: it's an entertaining, fast-paced story with a few sharp jokes and an incisive narrative both loaded with fatalism - reinforced by its flashback structure - and equipped with a great many short-term surprises. The film's clever plotting is epitomised by the significance of a black kid working in the palace kitchens. When we see him first casting a suspicious glance at Mikkelsen, as the physician makes a nocturnal visit to the queen's chamber, the obvious suggestion is that he'll lead to them getting caught. Instead, Mikkelsen works the fleeting encounter to his own advantage, presenting the novelty servant to the king as a personal mascot (cue some hilarious prodding), before the subplot is rounded off in gutting fashion.

While the film doesn't always attain the intense pitch that one might like, it's an atmospheric production full of shimmering photography with a reverential respect for the detailed palatial sets and luxuriant locales, juxtaposed however briefly with the wider world. There are also some directorial flourishes, including a brilliant PoV shot in a pivotal final scene, and a trio of jump cut close-ups of Mikkelsen in his room, battling his darkest thoughts, a trick I've only ever seen once: when Scheider spots a disturbance in the water in Jaws. Though Mikkelsen dominates as the brooding, brilliant reformer dicing with danger - with that deathly pallour, those deep lines etched into his face like a Gerald Scarfe drawing, and intense, sometimes merciless eyes topped off with white brows - Alicia Vikander and Mikkel Boe Folsgaard are also excellent. She's affecting in a role that's often unshowy, though punctuated by gasps of delight or despair, while he's the finest emotionally-unbalanced giggler since Richard Widmark shoved an old woman down the stairs in Kiss of Death. There's more than a touch of Tom Hulce's Mozart about his performance, but I found it rather more layered. The film has an admirable aversion to cliche, and finds the good and bad in all three of its central characters, shuffling and shifting our sympathies with consummate skill.

A Royal Affair does have a few minor shortcomings - it's a little overlong, occasionally lacks urgency and has a disappointingly one-note villain played by Trina Dyrholm - but it's an extremely impressive, enjoyable and intelligent period piece that deals with important ideas while never forgetting to entertain. The exact opposite of Marie Antoinette, then. (3.5)


Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1993) has a reputation as Crouching Tiger's cooler older brother: he doesn't spend his time moping over women, ruminating on the sentimental value of an antique sword or fannying about up a waterfall, he just fights. A lot. In reality, though, it isn't as simple as all that. Iron Monkey is a deeper, sadder and more leisurely-paced film than you might think: a politically-charged, mythologically-astute martial arts movie that nevertheless houses a fair amount of cartoonish comedy and some of the best fight scenes ever beamed onto a movie screen. Yu Rongguang, described on his Wikipedia page as a "great fantastic man", is Iron Monkey, a respected physician and moonlighting socialist (oh, OK, "Robin Hood figure") who responds to governmental corruption by kicking ass and taking jewels. When a newcomer with fast fists (Donnie Yen) arrives in town, he is suspected of being the famed outlaw, and arrested alongside his son Wong Fei-Hung (Sze-Man Tsang) and a gaggle of local residents with tangential links to all things simian (a rather fine little comic scene). Yen wins their freedom, but at a price, agreeing to arrest Iron Monkey within a week.

Dealing with father-son relationships, childless couples and a starving populace deserted by their superiors, there's something of real substance beneath the gob-smacking action sequences - but what sequences they are. The whirling Rongguang, ever-advancing Yen and pole-savvy Tsang are a spectacular central trio, with the latter - a 14-year-old girl - giving one of my favourite child performances of all time as the 10-year-old boy who would become the most famous of all China's near-mythic martial arts heroes. She's technically precocious but dramatically grounded, lending lines like "Monks aren't monks and officers aren't officers? Bullshit!" - followed by an exquisite pole attack - an exuberant form of angry gravitas. The brief duel between Rongguang and Yen is an absolute wonder, and numerous fine fight scenes follow, spotlighting Woo-Ping's growing mastery of the medium, hinted at in Last Hero in China, then further exhibited across Tai-Chi Master, Wing Chun and Crouching Tiger. I particularly like Tsang's impish dash across a market, duelling with all-comers, the scene where Rongguang's wife (Jean Wang) battles some avaricious monks - cue Tsang's sweary interruption - and the sequence in which Rongguang and Yen battle solo against their arch nemesis.

In fact, it's only the final fight that seems like a letdown, an underwhelming spectacle highlighting Woo-Ping and Yen's fondness for fire, which informed the worst action sequence in the following year's Wing Chun. In story terms, it's dramatically satisfying for the former rivals to team up, but needing an assistant to help you fight one guy - whose second-best trick involves having long sleeves - is not the stuff of legends, and what essentially amount to a bit of pole-dancing (not in that way) is rather disappointing, even if the poles are on fire. Still, despite that shortcoming, Iron Monkey remains one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made. It can't match Crouching Tiger - what can? - but it's a heady blend of action, involving drama, and excessive but above-average Hong Kong comedy that gets a shot of adrenaline every time the fists and feet start flying, and benefits from one inspired piece of casting. (3.5)


And here are those three theatrical comedies that BBC2 very kindly showed on Saturday morning:

Curtain Call (Frank Woodruff, 1940) - Fairly good B-comedy about theatrical impresarios Alan Mowbray and Donald MacBride purchasing a terrible play by starry-eyed country girl Barbara Read, in order to manipulate their rebellious star (Helen Vinson). It has too much exposition across its 60 minutes, and too many jokes about violence and suicide (if that one about MacBride's brother is what I think it is, it's horrible), but there are some very funny one-liners and reaction shots, and there's an interesting juxtaposition of the sweet and caustic - even if the subtext is likely to mortally offend anyone with the slightest feminist bent. Mowbray, an underrated actor usually found in character parts - as a butler in the Topper series, a Charlie Chan suspect, and the drunken Shakespearean actor in My Darling Clementine - is good, while MacBride, who looks like Spike from Tom & Jerry, mostly just shouts, though his "trustworthy" face is hilarious. Barbara Read's career never amounted to much - despite co-starring with the likes of Deanna Durbin, Lee Tracy and Randolph Scott - and you can understand that. She's pleasant, and her romantic subplot isn't bad, but she's unable to elevate the so-so material in the way that Mowbray can. This no-budget comedy doesn't work as a whole, and has some serious longueurs, but there is a little something about it: in its clever premise (with shades of Mel Brooks' dreadful film, The Producers), occasionally sharp scripting and Mowbray's spirited if erratic performance. Its relationship with the theatre is, interestingly, alternately affectionate and completely toxic. (2.5)

Footlight Fever (Irving Reis, 1941) - Equal sequel to Curtain Call, with Alan Mowbray and Donald MacBride scheming to get their latest play made, and deciding reclusive heiress Elisabeth Risdon is their best bet for a backer. There are a couple of mental health gags that were probably offensive even then, the romantic subplot is uninvolving, and the film goes too broad too often, but Risdon is terrific as the lovelorn old spinster with a partying past, and her scenes as a Miss Havisham brought back to the world are very funny - at least until she pours that cocktail and the laughs suddenly dry up. The supporting cast is stuffed with familiar faces, from Charles Halton as a biscuit mogul to Manton Moreland as an elevator boy, Charles Lane, Jimmy Conlin, Chester Clute and the great Keye Luke - who has a few choice words to say about fortune cookies. As theatrical comedies go, it's hardly Twentieth Century or It's Love I'm After, but it's diverting enough, and blessed with that strong cast. (2.5)

Sing and Like It (William A. Seiter, 1934) - A very funny Pre-Code comedy in which sentimental gangster Nat Pendleton tries to make a Broadway star out of plain, talentless ZaSu Pitts, after he overhears her singing a tuneless ode to mothers while he's breaking into a safe. Pitts has little to do except strangulate that ditty five times, but Pendleton, his terse, deadpan, cigar-chomping sidekick Ned Sparks, and Edward Everett Horton - playing an exasperated theatrical producer - are a fantastic team and they're working from a superior script (well, aside from a couple of dated, unpleasant gags about domestic violence). It's nice to see some of Hollywood's best character comedians take centre stage, and they're joined by a couple more, in the shape of Matt McHugh (brother of the immortal Frank) and John Qualen, while the wide-faced Pert Kelton gets a run-out as a sly, ambitious moll. And for a film with no obvious stars, it's a handsome, thoughtful production. The bright white art deco sets are nicely photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, the film noir pioneer who went on to shoot Out of the Past, and there's music from the legendary Max Steiner - a year on from crafting that classic King Kong score - though sadly it's rather nondescript. Sing and Like It isn't a masterpiece, not one of those '30s movies tinged with a rare genius, but it's excellent for what it is: an unambitious comedy, with almost no story to speak of beyond its amusing premise, that nevertheless provides a succession of big laughs thanks to a strong screenplay and a trio of simply wonderful comic actors. (3)


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