Sunday, 27 February 2011

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010)

In 2005 Emma Thompson wrote and starred in a film called "Nanny McPhee" which proved popular amongst the children at which it was aimed and which did respectable business worldwide. It was a period piece in which she played a hideously ugly and very strict governess, all warts and snaggle-toothed, who magically comes to the aid of widower Colin Firth and sorts out his unruly brood of kids, as well as the rest of his life. With each improvement, bits of her ugliness melted away; when she was back to a normal appearance, it meant that her job was done and it was time to move on. It was reasonably entertaining, even for the adult viewer, but a pale "Mary Poppins" clone and hardly one of the great kiddie flicks of all time.

I can only guess that the original movie's success inspired the talented Thompson to pen the above sequel, but I find it an ill-advised move on her part. Nanny ("little c, big P") is back, but the setting has jumped forward to World War II, to emphasize that the stern governess is an immortal, power-laden time traveller. Dad is away at war and Mum is struggling to raise her three kids, save the farm from failing, and taking on two spoiled brats from London -- relatives being sent to the country by their unfeeling parents to avoid bombing raids. To give you an idea of how obnoxious the two newcomers are meant to be, the little girl, whose expensive clothes have been dropped into the poo palace that is the farm's courtyard, appropriates the mother's treasured wedding dress as the only bit of clothing in the house worth wearing and promptly ruins it. Once again Nanny miraculously appears to save the day.

I imagine that Thompson (one of the producers as well) must have called in a lot of favours to get her cast and she has certainly done them no favour in turn; they have little for which to thank her. For some reason Maggie Gyllenhaal is playing the frazzled mother (although to be fair her English accent is reasonable). Maggie Smith plays a scatterbrained oldie who proves to be a link to the first film, who pours treacle into the drawers of the shop that Gyllenhaal runs in the village and whose idea of comfort at a picnic is to sit on a cow pat. Rhys Ifans is the brother-in-law who keeps at Gyllenhaal to sign away her interest in the farm and thinks that forging a telegram saying that her husband has been killed in action should do the trick, (really not funny, Ms. Thompson.) His character is so annoying and so much of a music-hall moustache-twirling villain that one wonders why kids would be amused by this. Also in the cast are Ralph Fiennes and in a blink-or-you-may-miss-him role Ewan McGregor.

The 'big bang' of the title refers to a rogue bomb which is unwittingly dropped in the middle of the farm's barley field and which the crafty children manage to defuse themselves after the slightly senile warden has fainted away -- again not really a humour-laden plot device. Nanny's pet raven assists by pecking away at the putty protecting the last wire (a substance that it is addicted to we are told) and then becomes so bloated that its enormous fart creates enough energy to reap and bale all of the barley. What jolly japes!! I must confess that I know at least one eight-year old who thinks this movie is a hoot and there are the odd bits of business that youngsters could warm to -- in particular piglets that fly (yes, pigs will fly!) and perform synchronised swimming. There is also the odd baby elephant that Nanny magicks up. However the overall concoction is in such poor taste and so horrendously twee that older children and adults should find this film impossible to embrace. Please, Ms. Thompson, spare us another sequel updated to our own times.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Midnight Mary (1933)

Film buffs should really be grateful to the commercial instincts of the various DVD labels which, in their search for new product, have packaged some pretty obscure material. The big studio-linked labels can count on reasonable sales for the latest blockbusters (or would-be tentpole flicks), but, you may wonder, where is the motivation for churning out pristine copies of little-known and rarely-seen movies. While it probably all comes back to 'earning a crust', the expansion of the DVD market (far wider than the earlier VHS market) and the relatively low cost of those shiny discs has created a whole new generation of movie collectors. Don't tell me that it is easier to rent or cheaper to watch on-line; there is a great satisfaction in owning films which one can re-visit, in much the same way that bibliophiles build a library of print. To me, at least, it is comforting to know that they are there, ready and waiting.

There have been three collections now, churned out by TCM, of "Forbidden Hollywood" films concentrating on the so-called pre-code movies of the early 1930s, before the Hays Office put their kibosh on racy, sexual, or generally controversial films. Universal has followed suit and issued a six-disc set entitled 'Pre-code Hollywood'. Many of these movies now seem badly dated and don't appear terribly out of keeping with our modern morals, but they serve as a welcome reminder of how Hollywood might have evolved without its twenty-odd years of righteous interference. They also offer us the opportunity to watch early roles for some of the top stars of the 30s, 40s, and beyond: Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more.

The third TCM collection focuses on six films directed by William A. Wellman, a veteran of Hollywood's silent days and a stylish workman who went on to direct a number of classics. The film under discussion is typical of these 'fobidden' movies. Loretta Young plays a woman who awaits the jury's return at her trial for murder and reflects back on the events which have brought her to that point. Young began appearing in films at a very young age and it is hard to believe that she was only twenty when this film was made; she is gorgeously gowned, a luminously beautiful woman (not a girl in any sense), and an accomplished player as well. After a spell in a reformatory for a crime of which she was innocent and the failure to find work on her release, she falls under the protection of gangster Ricardo Cortez (a Brooklyn native who changed his name to appear more dashing and exotic). It is clear that she is his mistress and that he is not just looking after her through the goodness of his heart. During a casino heist that he has planned she meets dashing, rich lawyer Franchot Tone, who is immediately smitten with her, admiting that he finds her sexually attractive, but who remains a gentleman. He helps her to find honest work -- something that evaded her earlier attempts -- and they soon admit their growing love for each other. However when it looks like she will be arrested for her link to Cortez, she selflessly dumps him to protect him and his family. Refusing to snitch on her former pals, she ends up in pokey, but takes up with Cortez again on her release (Tone having married his society fiancee in the meantime). After a chance meeting with the unhappy Tone (his wife is a flighty, selfish bitch), the sparks are still there, but the jealous Cortez decides to kill his rival -- forcing Young to shoot her lover to save her true love.

Even though the jury returns a 'guilty' verdict, the movie is given a happy ending when Tone decides to produce new evidence and to testify on her behalf. For a long time thereafter in Hays' Movieland, murderers and the sexually promiscuous had to be punished -- come what may. Both Tone and Young give wonderful performances, but much of the remaining cast, including the one-note Cortez, his gangster minions (Warren Hymer and Harold Huber), Una Merkel as Young's brassy and extremely common friend, and Andy Devine as a foghorn-voiced friend of Tone's, are frankly a little hard to watch and to stomach. Yet, taken in the right frame of mind, it is all good fun, and I particularly love the fact that even gangsters could boast butlers (the unflappable Halliwell Hobbes) or that even kept women would have a black 'lady's maid' (an uncredited Louise Beavers). At just over 70 minutes, Wellman keeps the action moving and throws in some bravura camera work to keep us happily engaged.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Hugo and Josefin (1967)

I have occasionally mentioned my friend Richard who has a private cinema (only 13 seats) in his garden and his bi-monthly projection of rarely shown films. (If there is demand for a particular movie, he will always try to schedule a second showing.) He takes great care in choosing the films, needing to strike a balance between those regular attendees who want to be cinematically educated and those, like myself, who consider themselves more than cine-literate. In the past he has tried to obtain 16 mm prints, but as these become more and more difficult to purchase or borrow, he now relies on high quality DVD projection for some features.

He has been raving about the above Swedish film for years and it is indeed one that I was not familiar with. Apparently the only print previously available here has now been returned to Sweden, but he managed to obtain a Scandinavian DVD to present this month. While on paper the movie didn't sound all that promising, being a simple story of the friendship between a lonely girl and a force-of-nature young boy, I didn't want to let the side down and cry off going to see it. Thank goodness I didn't -- it is a truly wondrous film. It is the first feature by writer-director Kjell Grede, married to actress Bibi Andersson at the time. Grede has had a patchy career turning out only eleven subsequent titles, some of which were made for television, with only "Good Evening Mr. Wallenberg" (1990) being well-known outside of his homeland. (It was nominated for, but did not win, a Golden Bear in Berlin in 1991.)

Based on a number of children's stories by Maria Gripe, Grede presents the viewer with a series of scenes, rather than a strictly narrative tale. which beautifully capture what it feels like to be a child of tender years. Marie Ohman (who never appeared in another feature) as Josefin was actually nine when the film was made and Fredrik Becklen (who has only a second screen credit two years later) as Hugo was rising ten, but both of them are playing six to seven year olds. She is the imaginative daughter of the local priest living on an isolated farm, bemoaning that she has no one with whom to play. He is the son of a railway man, who must fend for himself when his father is jailed. When they meet through her family's occasional gardener, she finds someone with whom she can explore the wonders of the landscape, both in its natural beauty and in its industrial aspects. They are both due to start schooling, but she is badly bullied by the other kids, and he plays truant more often than not. Only together can they find the true magic and joy of childish inquisitive exploration. On one of their outings she leads him to an abandoned bicycle in an old cave; his rapid tottering on the huge penny-farthing through the countryside creates an indelible image that will be impossible to forget. I smile now just picturing it!

Running parallel to this is the relationship between Josefin's uptight mother and the carefree seasonal gardener. It is clear that they too were childhood friends, but she has become bogged down in the responsibilities of marriage and respectability. He on the other hand is still a big child at heart, who enjoys splashing through puddles, and who uses his summer earnings to go off on adventures during the rest of the year. When it comes time for him to pack up his meagre bits of furniture to move on, the heartbroken kids follow him cross-country. When he realises that some chairs have fallen off his van, he stops, turns back and finds the youngsters sitting on the chairs in the middle of the road. So naturally he offloads a tatty sofa to join his young friends, providing an impromptu farewell picnic of hard-boiled eggs (which must be eaten in one mouthful). Grede has a light and affectionate touch in creating his very real insights into a child's world and I must now join Richard in his crusade to make people more aware of the enchanting film.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Valentine's Day (2010)

With tomorrow's 'holiday' nearly upon us, what more suitable movie to mirror our annual celebration of love and consumerism? Valentine's Day, the day, is no longer simply a hymn to romance; it seems to have morphed into a heart-shaped, pink, gooey lovefest, which pretty well describes "Valentine's Day" the movie. Were I asked to name films which manage to make us feel blessed to have found love or to praise its joy, a number spring to mind, but I'm afraid that this tacky concoction would be right at the bottom of the barrel.

The director Garry Marshall has produced some memorable film and television work in his long career, but he seems to have lost his touch with this portmanteau movie. I believe the film did well on its opening weekend with audiences being attracted by its galaxy of 'stars'. In alphabetical order the cast includes Jessica Alba, Kathy Bates, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper, Patrick Dempsey, Hector Elizondo (normally Marshall's good-luck charm), Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah, Taylor Lautner, Shirley MacLaine, Emma Roberts, her aunt Julia Roberts, and a bunch of other names that I recognize but which don't mean much to me. Well "scottie-wottie-doo-dah-day" as I used to say when totally underwhelmed. None of the cast are given much in the way of screen time, so their interlocking stories rapidly degenerate into a seen-it-before morass, leaving the viewer with a bloated, unimaginative, and uninspired mess.

The main focus is on busy florist Kutcher who chooses the morning of the 14th to propose to his popsy Alba, who then dumps him (and takes off with his dog). His best friend Garner is madly in 'lurve' with the deceitful married Dempsey. It needn't take two hours for us to figure out that Kutcher and Garner are really meant for each other. The other tales involve Emma R hoping to lose her virginity with her long time squeeze during school lunch hour, Hathaway moonlighting as a telephone sex worker, MacLaine and Elizondo as a long-married and mutually dependent pair of oldies, Valentine's Day-hating Biel throwing her annual bash for for other sceptics, and Julia R meeting seat-mate Cooper on a long-distance flight en route to a mysterious assignation. This last storyline created the only 'ooh-ah' of the plot, and no, it wasn't about a cougar finding some action. The rest of the ho-hum bits of business are too uninteresting to even mention. So, very little in the way of innovation here and certainly nearly nothing in the way of humour. The only bit of business which even mildly amused me was seeing high school athlete Lautner too shy to remove his shirt for a television reporter, after his muscle-flexing, buff rise to fame in the "Twilight" movies.

While it may not be one of the great romantic movies of all time, the British film "Love Actually" (2003) dealt with its eclectic mix of love affairs more entertainingly. Its success should have killed off this vehicle for a bunch of overpriced actors at the planning stage or at least inspired the film's writers to higher heights. No such luck!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

You Don't Know Jack (2010)

As most people in Britain must now know, the Sky satellite network has launched a new free channel for its subscribers called Sky Atlantic in a blaze of advertising. It is a blatant attempt to both retain current subscribers and to attract new ones from the chattering classes who normally wouldn't dream of owning anything so common as a satellite dish or to watch Sky's channels in alternate ways. It is largely a British home for HBO, featuring most of its popular series which have previously appeared on rival channels and for premiering its new programming. The star attraction and first feature at the channel's lauch was the Scorsese-produced "Boardwalk Empire" which had just won a Golden Globe for itself and its star, the very likeable Steve Buscemi. Of course this offering has been receiving rave reviews from the television critics. However I would guess that these have been based on preview tapes and not on the actual broadcasting, which is being shown in indigestible lumps, cut up with a plethora of ads.

The only sensible way of viewing this and anything else the channel chooses to offer is to record the programme onto the receiver's hard disc and to fast forward through the ads (or to watch the programme on 'Anytime' if it is one of the week's selected offerings). Sky's saving grace is that they do not interrupt the films shown on its multiple movie channels by any advertising, saving it for the space between films, which is something that no other British channel showing movies, (other than BBC and BBC2) can match. None of the other channels, either claiming to be film-only, like Film Four and TCM do this (although both were adless in the distant past) nor do those channels with mixed programming. My suggestion to Sky, if they really want to increase their appeal to all, would be to ditch the ad breaks on Sky Atlantic as they have successfully done for on their film channels and Sky Arts.

Having learned my lesson, I did not watch the live showing of the above superior cable movie, but viewed it from my recording. The net result is, I am convinced, a definitely more positive reaction. Also fresh from a Golden Globe win, Al Pacino does an amazing job of inhabiting the character of the notorious 'Death Doctor' Jack Kevorkian. A few years back there was a television poll to name the top film actors of our times and to my amazement Pacino was number one. I was, I must admit flabbergasted, since although Pacino has been magnificent in a number of early roles, he has also been a 'shouty' annoyance in many of his later ones. He definitely has regained the high ground here in playing the single-minded advocate of euthanasia, driven to help the terminally-ill who no longer have the will to live, inspired by humanity and not concerned with his wealth or liberty.

The film's title may be that we don't know Jack, but in fact we already know a great deal about him from the publicity he attracted back in the 90s. His determination to do whatever he could to relieve suffering, despite having his medical license revoked by State officials, is contrasted with the intransigence of the 'nutters' of the religious right who fought him every step of the way. Not much is shown in the way of a middle position, leaving the viewer free to cheer Kevorkian's determination to take his case right up to the Supreme Court. He never made it, having been eventually jailed for actually assisting one suicide rather than merely facilitating the act, but by then over a hundred people benefited from his mercy (shown without sugar-coating) -- or his role as a serial killer as the other side would have it.

Director Barry Levinson's casting is spot on, including Brenda Vaccaro as Pacino's sister, John Goodman as a dedicated helper, and Susan Sarandon as an activist who ultimately needs his services herself. Also impressive is the undervalued Danny Huston as his lawyer (in a comic wig), arguing for Kevorkian's rights for as long as it was politically expedient for him to do so. One side effect of watching these actors, including the very raddled Pacino, is to make the viewer aware of how they have all aged and to think about our own mortality in general. It helps one to evaluate whether Kevorkian was indeed a hero or the villain that many would prefer us to believe.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The Canterville Ghost (1986)

Based on an Oscar Wilde novella, there have been at least eleven film versions of the tale, mainly as television movies, each of which tended to revise the original story to the period when the film was made and none of which were scrupuously true to Wilde. I have the three best-known versions in my collection: the original studio production from 1944 and the TVMs from 1986 (under the microscope today) and from 1996. The last of these arrived by default as part of a giveaway collection, but actually has much to recommend it, insofar as it is the most faithful rendering and boasts a sympathetic lead performance from Patrick Stewart.

It is also the lead turns in the first two films which warrant their ownership, despite any failings they may have. The 1944 movie stars the incomparable Charles Laughton as Sir Simon de Canterville and I would happily watch him in just about anything (even with Abbott and Costello). Unfortunately the basic story was turned into some sort of Hollywood wartime propaganda with a squad of American GIs (including Robert Young, Mike Mazurki, and Rags Ragland) being billeted at the haunted English castle, actually owned by the six-year old Margaret O'Brien. Together she and Young (who turns out to be a de Canterville descendent) must perform an act of bravery to release Laughton's spirited ghost from the charge of cowardice which has doomed him for some three hundred years. I've not viewed this film for a while, but know in my heart of hearts that Laughton's performance would more than compensate for any potential tweeness.

As for the 1986 film, its saving grace and the reason for its place on my shelves is the presence of Sir John Gielgud as the mischevious, sonorously-voiced, and ultimately very sad ghost. His impish behaviour and his skill with a bit of throwaway dialogue outweigh the sappiness of the rest. An American family composed of husband and de Canterville descendent Ted Wass (who will forever be Danny in "Soap" to me), his new wife Andrea Marcovicci, and daughter Alyssa Milano (who progressed from television movies to an assortment of soft eroticism later on) come to live at the castle. If they can put up with the ghost's pranks for a fixed period of time, something that no one else in the family has been able to do, they can take possession -- and promptly flog the place to some upstart hotel developers who want to turn it into a 'quaint inn' for tourists. The 13-year old Milano is actually quite likeable here as she bonds with Gielgud's tormented ghost (having been doomed for killing his wife) and encourages him to continue his antics, in the hope of scaring away her hated new stepmother. More use is made of special effects (and in the later TVM) than in the first version; Gielgud's bodyless head on a silver platter spectacularly disrupting a dinner party provides particularly good fun, as do other bits of silly business technically less possible back in the 40s.

Undoubtedly, it is Gielgud who really makes this film cherishable. The English supporting cast is OK but the 1996 support outshines them, apart from possibly Lila Kaye as the hard-done housekeeper. As mentioned above, Milano does well as the unscareable youngster and I certainly preferred her age-appropriate turn to Neve Campbell's in 1996 (23 at the time, playing a teenager). However, with all three of movies, there would be little of lasting interest were it not for the three sparkling and memorable Canterville ghosties.