FILM REVIEWS APRIL 2010
BLIND SIDE, The
BOUNTY HUNTER, The
CLASH OF THE TITANS
GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO, The
HACHI: A DOG'S TALE
HAPPY EVER AFTERS
HOUSE OF THE DEVIL
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
I LOVE YOU, PHILIP MORRIS
KREUTZER SONATA, The
MY LAST FIVE GIRLFRIENDS
NANNY McPHEE AND THE BIG BANG
SCOUTING BOOK FOR BOYS, The
SONS OF CUBA
SPY NEXT DOOR, The
THE BLIND SIDE
(US, 2009, d. John Lee Hancock)
If you are a fan of American football, you would know what the term, blind side, means in terms of play and tactics. The rest of us don't know and so the title, at first glance, is a mystery. The makers seem to know this and so offer an illustrated explanation as the film opens and we are introduced to the game, the play, a particular instance where a blind side violently ends a player's career and introduces this play into mainstream games. At least, that is what |I got out of this prologue. I'm still not sure what the consequences of this episode really were. However, Leigh Anne Tuohy of Memphis, who is doing this explanation, then informs us that it changed her life. This involved her and her family's adoption of a young African American man, Michael Oher – this part everyone in the audience can understand.
So, The Blind Side is a film that features football (with some practices and some match highlights) but is more a film about a family and doing good. They are Christians and their children go to a Christian school, so there is a religious dimension behind what they do.
Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron very effective in the role) is a 17 year old big, very big, youth, usually known as a gentle giant. His mother is an addict. His father tries to get him and one of his brothers into the Christian school via sports ability through the coach. It is not plain sailing as Michael is more than reticent and the staff are not impressed except for a science teacher who spots his attentiveness and finds one of his poems which reveals a great deal about his outlook on life and his sensitivity. At the same time, while he is wandering the streets to the gym where he shelters, Leigh Anne spots him and, determined woman that she is (and that is an understatement!), she has him at her house, the family consenting when asked, and, eventually, as part of the family.
This is heartwarming stuff and presented with touches of humour. Michael begins to thrive. The children, especially the younger boy, bond with Michael and soon regard him as a brother. The father acquiesces in all his wife's energy and plans (though her charity lady friends do not and she tells them 'shame' on their attitudes). There is still an amount of racism in Memphis (as appears also in the football games).
For those who have an inbuilt mechanism against heartwarming, do-gooding movies, maybe the curiosity to see Sandra Bullock's Oscar-winning performance will overcome it. She is strong, forceful and a power for good. (Those who like her compare her to Erin Brockovich, those who don't have called her the Sarah Palin of the South!.) Hard to asses what puts some people and critics off the overt presentation of goodness on screen – perhaps they interpret this as too preachy. However, the film was extraordinarily popular in the US, making more than 200 million dollars in the cinemas.
Singer Tim Mc Graw plays the genially quiet husband and Kathy Bates turns up with her usual vigour as Miss Sue, the tutor who works with Michael so that he can get satisfactory grades for a sports scholarship. Several of the actual coaches who were trying to recruit Michael appear as themselves trying to recruit him.
This is feel-good Americana.
THE BOUNTY HUNTER
(US, 2010, d. Andy Tennant)
Easy to review. For those who like seeing Jennifer Aniston romantic comedies and/or Gerard Butler romantic comedies and action films, then it is obviously for you. If not, and you find Jennifer Aniston much the same in every film and that Gerard Butler is repeating his scruffy big tough guy, his The Ugly Truth persona, and they do not appeal, it is obviously not for you. All these ingredients seem to irritate and aggravate critics into loud harrumphing and a high intolerance quotient.
Actually, it is some romantic comedy, some screwball comedy, some battle of the sexes plus some police investigation, some road movie and some car chases and shootouts, a recipe that should have something to appeal to most multiplex moviegoers and DVD renters and buyers.
She is an ambitious reporter who is on to a mysterious police alleged suicide. He is a bounty hunter whom we see getting his man (in a 4th July parade where the target is doing an Uncle Sam on stilts!). Oh, and they are divorced. She has skipped out on a court hearing, so she is a fugitive and he promises to bring her in and relishes the prospect. The tagline reads, 'Taking your ex to jail. Best job ever'. Indeed, easier said than done, so lots of antagonism, some moments of possible reconciliation, some dangerous moments and an ending that relies on the law and jail detention!
Undemanding fare, light and entertaining without strain as long as the above Aniston and Butler provisos are taken into account.
CLASH OF THE TITANS
(UK, 2010, d. Louis Letterier)
Well, there's no doubt you get you money's worth of action and special effects. And for audiences who declare that they 'love a good stoush', there are lots of them. After all, Perseus is the son of Zeus, part human, part god, who vanquishes Hades and his plots, Medusa and the monstrous Kraken.
Thirty years ago or so, there was what seemed a rather highbrow cast for this kind of thing: Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Maggie Smith as Thetis (and Ursula Andress as Aphrodite) and written by scholar and dramatist, Beverly Cross. The creatures were a culmination of wondrous cinema creations by expert, Ray Harryhausen, and his Dynamation. He would probably enjoy all the effects here. And the cast includes some highbrow British actors this time. Liam Neeson is Zeus and Ralph Fiennes enjoys himself thoroughly and articulately (and with superb black and fiery effects) as Hades. This makes for some rhetorical confrontations between the two brothers and with Perseus. Perseus is played by Australian Sam Worthington (sounding as if he had been whisper-dubbed by Jason Statham and wanted to make sure that nobody would think he would do a posh pommy accent). Worthington made a great hit in 2009 with his leads in Avatar and stealing the show from Christian Bale in Terminator: Salvation. (Probably many a review will make some comparisons with Russell Crowe and Gladiator.)
Director Louis Letterier is best known for action, action, action (Unleashed, Incredible Hulk). He rarely lets up here. He is not known for dramatic encounters and one suspects that some of these (for example the sequences on Olympus, where Danny Huston as Poseidon gets one line) might appear as extras on the DVD edition.
Whatever, the decisions about editing, it is a rattling good show. Perseus grows up with his adoptive fisherman father (Pete Postlethwaite) who assures him he has a destiny. Demigod Io (Gemma Arteton), his protector, reveals that his mission is to save humans (who, in Argos, had decided they did not need the gods any more) from the vengeance of Zeus and Hades (Poseidon not getting a look in). With a cast of thousands in Argos, just like the epics of yesteryear, the film then concentrates on Perseus' mission and the battles. He is accompanied by warrior draco (Danish actor Mads Mikkelson, Casino Royale villain), Solon (Liam Cunningham) as well as some battle-scarred and defeated giant scorpions, with some deathly once-human creatures, with the kind who ordered his mother's and his death, a deformed Jason Flemyng, with Medusa and, finally, riding Pegasus on the bigger, better and beastlier Kraken. Meanwhile, a false prophet bays for the sacrifice of Andromeda, daughter of the king of Argos, who is strung up (feeling some Andromeda strain) to be devoured by the Kraken.
One is tempted to say that this is a crackin' good show, but, no, we are dealing with the deities and myths of Ancient Greece – which will probably receive a new surge of interest because of this entertainingly exciting action show.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
(Sweden, 2009, d. Niels Arden Oplev)
For readers of crime fiction, Stieg Larsson's Milennium trilogy is a top series of novels, widely read, not only in Scandinavia, but also worldwide. The three novels have all been filmed. This is the first.
At two and a half hours, this is a long film that does not seem so long. It enables the adaptors of the novel to remain close and to develop strong characterisation and include many dramatic situations.
It is often observed that there is a certain darkness about Scandinavian storytelling – especially when it focuses on crime and family secrets (as is the case with the Wallander novels of Henning Mankell and the Swedish and British television series of his stories). Since the murder being investigated here is from 1966, the family extends back to the 1930s and Nazi sympathies right up to the present where the leading female character has piercings and nose rings. It takes in quite some perspectives of the 20th century.
Each of the three stories has as its centre the investigative journalist, Miachael Nyqvist (played effectively and in rather more of a lower-key style by Michael Blomkvist) and a young woman who has been in an institution who is an expert hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who is taciturn but certainly not low-key). The film takes its time in setting up each of the characters – he being found guilty of libelling a wealthy industrialist as an arms dealer but asserting that he had been set up, she being hired by individuals and companies to do background checks and briefings, including on Michael Blomkvist. Then they come together at the request of an elderly patriarch of his family (Sven Bertil-Taube). Or, rather, he is hired and she hacks into his computer and they form a partnership.
The investigative research is presented in some detail, back into newspaper archives, studying and enlarging photos from the 60s, digging out business documents and receipts. Eventually, the mystery is unravelled, but it is a complex path of secrets and lies, vicious murders and sexual violence (rather graphically portrayed), religious and anti-Semitic feeling and a chilling climax to the investigations.
One of the satisfying aspects of the film is that the many strands are brought together or explained – no loose ends. In act, the word that does describe this crime thriller is satisfying.
(US, 2010, d. Paul Greengrass)
Everybody has said it, 'Bourne in Baghdad' – which is no reason to say it again, but also no reason not to say it. Paul Greengrass directed The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum as well as United 93 and Matt Damon was Jason Bourne. In fact, Greengrass uses many of the techniques and the pacy editing of his other films to great effect here. But Matt Damon's Chief Miller is a much more straightforward character even when his Iraqui world becomes a morass of conspiracies.
While based on a book by the Washington Post's correspondent, Rajiv Chandrisakaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and the screenplay is written by Brian Heligoland (LA Confidential, Robin Hood), this is a fictionalised account of some American activity in Baghdad within weeks of the invasion of Iraq. Chief Miller is in charge of missions searching alleged depots for weapons of mass destruction. He begins to be disillusioned with the quality of the supplied intelligence.
Most of the action takes place over one day and night. A local Iraqi offers information about a meeting of army chiefs. It emerges that the CIA expert (Brendan Gleeson) wants to make contact and is in favour of keeping the army commissioned to avoid or contain the sectarian violence. A Washington official, who planted the story about the weapons with a DC journalist (Amy Ryan), is actively promoting and scheming for democracy at all cost in Iraq and arrogantly and righteously manoeuvres the Washington decision-makers, the CIA and Miller as well as using his military henchman (Jason Isaacs) to interrogate and torture suspects. The official is played effectively by Greg Kinnear who is usually so charming in movies ,which makes his manipulation and calculated plotting even more alarming.
There are skirmishes, chases, confrontations, all filmed excitingly. There is also the reality of television and newspaper reporting, press conferences and briefings, official documents, cover-ups and exposes.
And, while the film is very firm on where it stands on the policies of George W. Bush and his advisers (anti), which some have interpreted as propaganda and preaching, it is the questions and issues it raises, primarily about the weapons of mass destruction information and pretext for the invasion, as well as the continued assumption that American style democracy is best for everyone whether they like it or want it or not, which gives the film a power to challenge.
HACHI: A DOG'S TALE
(US, 2009, d. Lasse Hallstrom)
Dog lovers prepare to weep. Not so sure about those who are not attached to dogs and their leaping, licking and nuzzling playfulness. Perhaps, just sit back and enjoy.
Based on a 1987 Japanese film which was, in turn, based on a true story from the 1920s and 1930s (with the real Hachi's photo appearing at the end as in many a biopic), this is a story of how strong a dog's best friend credentials can be.
We see Hachi being sent from Japan to the US and, by a series of accidents that do no credit to postal or transport and delivery services, poor little Hachi finds himself, label-less, except for the luck emblem around his neck, wandering a railway station in smalltown USA. Fortunately for Hachi, music professor Richard Gere runs into him, tries to find his owner but, despite his wife Joan Allen's antipathy towards having a dog in the house, they bond. Having seen dog owners and their bonds with their dogs, I soon realised that Gere's bonding with Hachi was Bonding (with a capital B). Actually, Gere's delight in performing with Hachi is such a strong factor for the film that the story becomes quite credible, especially in the latter part of the film where Hachi for years goes daily to the train station to wait attentively for his master – with a lot of help, love and care (and constant treats) from the hot dog stand owner, the book shop manager and the butchers, husband and wife, both advising Hachi to keep it quiet because the other does not know that they are sneaking out to feed him.
Whether the Akita breed of dogs is more 'human' than most, I don't know, but with the training and the photographic angles and the direction, you would be sure that Hachi not only knew what was happening but really understood – a range of smiles, eager looks, cute looks, quizzical looks... (And, at times, the camera goes black and white to show Hachi's point of view and sight of what is going on,)
This is a film suitable for all. Adult dog lovers will empathise with Richard Gere and, eventually, Joan Allen. Children will be well focused on the dog. Then the thought came: who is the better example of canine love and loyalty, Greyfriars Bobby or Hachi? Probably, a draw.
HAPPY EVER AFTERS
(Ireland, 2009, d. Stephen Burke)
Lots of Irish films these days – and lots of blarney. This one, as the title suggests, has quite some unhappiness now rather than happy ever afters. It takes place over one day and shows us two weddings. One is a Green Card affair with a marriage to help a migrant from Africa stay in Ireland. The other is a second attempt after one of the parties has spent some time in an institution and in therapy.
At first we think we are seeing the two central characters who are to marry each other. Then we find that there are the two weddings, with all the hesitations, reluctance and pressures to go through with the ceremony. Both parties arrive at the same hotel and some mix-ups, some funny, some corny, and a whole lot of misunderstandings lead to what looks as if it is going to be unhappy every afters.
Happy Go Lucky's Sally Hawkins is the bride for the migrant. Tom Riley is going through the second time around with his marriage.
This is the kind of film that, if you happened to catch it on television or saw it on DVD, might be an amusing but undemanding watch.
HOUSE OF THE DEVIL
(US, 2008, d. Ty West))
The title is very straight forward, so no surprises. This is a small-budget that is more than a bit like those British horror films of the 1970s which surface on television.
We are told instantly that in the 1980s, 70% of Americans believed that there were Satanist groups active in the country while 30% believed that the government was covering up these activities. They don't give a statistic for the complete sceptics!
So, the 1980s is re-created well here and we are back in scream territory, though not for the first half hour or so.
The first third of the film establishes the characters, a young student (Jocelyn Donohue engaging the audience at once) who is moving into a better apartment but needs the money for the rent and accepts a mysterious babysitting job from a well-mannered gentleman who wants here to be in his house with his mother while he and his dominating wife go out. Tom Noonan from Manhunter and The Last Action Hero and Mary Woronov, a star for Warhol and in exploitation films, are just right as the couple.
The second third has the girl wandering around what is a very large and creepy house. This creates an even creepier atmosphere as well. We, however, have been warned, as the girl's best friend (Greta Gerwig) is suddenly killed.
Before you can say Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee, we are in Satanist territory, curse of the crimson altar and that sort of thing – but this third third goes so fast that we are left breathless and the film is suddenly over. You can't help admiring the film-makers for the courage of their convictions and so the film is a (half?) guilty pleasure for horror fans.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
(US, 2010, d. Chris Sanders and Dean De Blois)
Alert to all devotees of Hagar the Horrible and his family – and wider audiences beyond. This is a very entertaining film.
While the village of Berk, somewhere up there beyond Scandinavia, is not that of Hagar, it looks as if it could be. And fans of 'Another Dragon, Another Day' will resonate with the plotline and themes of this fine animation movie.
How to... is very good to look at, especially in 3D, the craggy island, the brooding sea, the comic characters and fiery dragons, very good to listen to, with a witty script and fine voice cast, exciting to watch with the swooping dragons (lots and lots of them), the battles and the sheer exhilaration of dragon riding (like the rides in Avatar). The film reminds us of and appeals to the thrillable inner child most adults possess!
Based on books by Cressida Cowell (who surely must have been a Hagar fan when she lived as a child on an isolated island off the Scottish coast and was left to her imagination), the tale shows an isolated Viking community with a long tradition of fighting marauding dragons. They are led by Stoick the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler with his own Scots accent and making Stoick a fierce warrior but a dismayed father). His son is Hiccup, a scrawny lad who does not want to kill dragons and, fortunately, finds one, Toothless, whom he has wounded – and, you know, children bond with pets and...
There is a gallery of eccentric characters, of course, Gobber, the peg-leg blacksmith and trainer, (Craig Ferguson, Scots accent too). Speaking of accents, it is very strange that the adults have Scots brogues and the next generation's accents are unremittingly American (Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, America Ferrera as the tough but tender Astrid)!
On the one hand, there is the rollicking life of the warrior Vikings – and, even though the dragons steal their bewildered sheep, they do not look as if they have ever fasted in their lives. But, Vikings like Hagar and Stoick should be bulky. On the other, there is the underlying theme that fighting gets you only so far and perpetuates prejudice. When you make friends with your dragon, harmony is possible and creativity as well. This means that, despite the oomph of the battle sequences, this is a peace-is-best story. It moves apace, with some welcome quiet and reflective moments. It is amusing. And it should appeal to children of all ages (even if we look like adults!).
I LOVE YOU, PHILLIP MORRIS
(US, 2009, d. Glen Ficarra and John Requa)
Had the King of Siam seen this film, he might have said, 'A puzzlement'. Some of it is played for laughs. Some of it is serious. It is the story of a con man. It is a love story.
What makes it different from the usual movie is that the two central characters are gay men.
The screenplay has no hesitation in presenting its characters, its situations, its crises, its sensibilities, its language, as gay. Most audiences are not used to spending this amount of time in the company of gay men and being asked to identify with them, share their experiences and be accepting. They may feel the atmosphere makes them uncomfortable (and remind us all about explicit and implicit homophobia in society). In fact, much of the film's budget came from Europe, rather than the United States, which is more accustomed to telling stories of sexual orientation.
The main star is an advantage as well as a difficulty. It is Jim Carrey extending his range, trying for a different performance and venturing into a role and a story that might test his fans' loyalties. When he is performing very seriously, he makes an impression, helping us to understand this eccentric man. The difficulty is that often enough, he suddenly makes a face, shows an expression or reacts in the way that he did in some of his wilder comedies, reminding us that this character, Steven Russell, is Jim Carrey on screen. Phillip Morris is played more subtly by Ewan Mc Gregor, a gentle man who has been put down in life and comes to depend in every way on Steven Russell.
Steven Russell narrates his story, his childhood, his adoption, his family and religious life, his police work. After a car accident, he decides to come out – and how! Flamboyant, extravagant, clubbing, buying without limits, a boyfriend – and the realisation that he needed money, so he indulges in a number of frauds. And then to jail where he falls at first sight for Phillip Morris.
Lots of tricks and frauds in prison, then they are out and living the high (highest) life with a top job in a finance firm It can't last – and there is a final elaborate con which we do not anticipate.
The film is based on a book by Steven Mc Vikar who interviewed Russell in prison where he is serving a life sentence (made during the time of George W. Bush as Governor of Texas) under the strictest supervision. Philllip Morris advised on the film and has a cameo.
(UK, 2010, d. Matthew Vaughn)
The title says it all: content, style and tone.
What might have been quite an amusing parody of the hero graphic novels, comics and superhero movies (and there are some amusing moments) has become something of a Sin City (which is referred to in the screenplay) for a younger audience. Sin City was clever but had a nasty and sometimes brutal atmosphere. Kick Ass could be far cleverer if it didn't rely so much on sending up the cliches while indulging them at the same time. This makes it something of a hotch-potch and the writing and the performances (generally very good) compound this.
There are several strands of story as it opens. Dave and his slacker friends are the targets of muggers and bullies and Dave dreams of overcoming them as a superhero. So far, so good and zany, especially when he buys a kind of scuba suit on-line and uses it as a costume. British Aaron Johnson (John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) seems effortlessly American high school student as Dave who sells himself on line as a kind of helper/vigilante and calls himself Kick Ass. (He also has hormonal and sex fantasy problems which are given undue attention.)
Meanwhile, the rich boy of the class (Christopher Mintz-Plasse?, Superbad, Role Models) is revealed as having a nafarious gangster, drug-dealing father who is unscrupulously violent. The action soon becomes like father, like son as the son tries to trap Kick Ass whom his father blames for most of his troubles, and sets himself up as a helper hero, Red Mist. The father is played by Mark Strong, so good in so many films and showing what it is really like to act. (He has vicious language problems – amongst others.)
Meanwhile again, retired policeman, Damon Macready, coaches his precocious 11 year old daughter, Mindy, in the details of weaponry, even helping her by firing at her bullet proof vest so that she will be ready for the real thing. This too is amusing with Nicolas Cage giving a nicely judged performance as the eccentric father who dotes on his daughter. The daughter is played by Chloe Moretz who must be precocious in herself to have given such a performance. She has become the subject of some media controversy as to whether it was appropriate for a young girl to take on such a role – and say the swearing things she (often) does. They become true superheroes, Hit Girl and Big Daddy and to say they have vigilante destructive power is an understatement.
Then it all comes together for the hotch-potch, the funny bits, the satiric bits, the violent bits (no mercy and no prisoners taken), the foul-mouthed bits, some sexy bits. And, of course, the shoot-out ending, complete with bazooka, is slam-bang and multi-bang – for all and sundry in New York City to watch on TV (which decides it's too much for viewers, so then everybody rushes to the internet).
Too much of the comedy and the language is geared to leering laughter or disbelieving chortling. Of course, it is not meant to be taken seriously. Had the makers taken their comic intentions more seriously, it could have been a better and funnier movie.
KREUTZER SONATA, The
(US, 2008, d. Bernard Rose.)
The Kreutzer Sonata is Beethoven. The story is Tolstoy. Tolstoy listened to a performance of the Sonata in 1888 and wrote a story which was banned for some years in Russia. This updated version does not look like or sound like what we might imagine Tolstoy's writing to be like. It is the work of writer-director, Bernard Rose, who collaborated with actor, Danny Huston, on another Tolstoy story , The Death of Ivan Illych, which became the film, Ivan xtc. The Kreutzer Sonata is to be followed by a third updating of a Tolstoy story, Boxing Day, again with Danny Huston.
Beethoven's Sonata is played throughout the film along with other classical pieces (despite the central character, Edgar, as he listens to his wife accompanying a violinist playing the Sonata, stating that he loathes classical music – you can't dance to it, you can't hum a tune) offering a 19th century musical imagination to a 21st century cinema imagination of a wealthy playboy type, who also runs a charitable foundation with his sister, and his sexual infatuation with the pianist who becomes his wife and then his growing paranoid suspicions of her and of the violinist.
This is small-budget, digital film-making, taking advantage of the possibilities of getting the camera close to the cast and insinuating itself and the audience point of view into the action, much of it quite personally intimate. Rose also edited the film.
Danny Huston is often a powerful screen presence and he is here, in the film in almost every scene. He is not an admirable person in any way, initially seductive, giving only half his attention to the work of his charity and the meetings with its representative's discussion of education for disadvantaged children in Africa, then settling down to marriage and children – but then obsessive and ultimately violent.
Elizabeth Rohm plays his wife and there is a brief, very effective and alive sequence when Edgar goes to visit his sister, played by Danny Huston's own sister, Anjelica.
Whether the musical imagination corresponds to the narrative, the images and the passion, is certainly open for discussion – and depending on music appreciation and interpretation. Whether this update corresponds well to Tolstoy's story is yet another discussion. But, as a brief picture of contemporary passion, family life and philanthropy it is quite effective for a discriminating audience.
MY LAST FIVE GIRLFRIENDS
(UK, 2009, d. Julian Kemp)
A brief romantic comedy – or, perhaps, an anti-romantic comedy, British style.
Duncan is lovelorn and writes a suicide note to his last five girlfriends and is seen to proceed to do the deed. Then the film rewinds and we go through five short stories, Duncan and his love for the girlfriends. Brendan Patricks is engaging enough to persuade us that the girls could be interested in him and that we should be sympathetic towards him as each episode ends – though he really is a doofus, or one of those words. The women who portray these girlfriends do quite a good job, attractive, with their own eccentricities but unable to make a go of it with Duncan.
Apart from the good performances and some humorous and some witty dialogue, it is the inventiveness of the director's imagination which makes lots and lots of visual jokes in different filming styles, a blend of realism and Duncan's fantasies, that makes the film better than the average romcom.
There is a joke at the end with the credits and Duncan's suicide attempt and the reminder that the romantic quest is a never-ending story.
NANNY McPHEE AND THE BIG BANG
(UK, 2010, d. Susanna White)
Why are screen presentations of nannies and governesses so intriguing, a Mary Poppins syndrome, perhaps. Governesses seem to be nannies with an education/academic extension to their care and nurturing. Deborah Kerr was a governess at least three times, The King and I, The Innocents (based on Henry James' Turn of the Screw with the sinister side of nannies) and The Chalk Garden. Julie Andrews was also Maria Von Trapp. And there have been assorted nannies (especially in collages of interviews where the least likely and most unattractive candidates were rejected by parents or, sometimes especially, by mischievous children) from Miss Clavel and Madeline to the probably NFP befuddlement of Margaret Rutherford's Miss Prism in the 1952, The Importance of Being Earnest with her wayward handbag.
And, lately, there has been Nanny Mc Phee - twice.
Nanny Mc Phee is the brainchild of Emma Thompson who wrote both screenplays, Nanny Mc Phee (2005) and Nanny Mc Phee and the Big Bang (2010). She based her screenplays on those of Christianna Brand and her Matilda stories.
Is Nanny Mc Phee the nanny type – or, at least, the British nanny type? And, of course, what is the British nanny type?
Mary Poppins is very precise in her language and articulation, no wasted words (and no wasted syllables in supercalifragilisticexpialidocious), objective at all times, clarifying her use of terms, focused on the here and now (look how she tidies a room with magical Sensing powers), and getting things done in swift spick and span manner. She manages. And, even the lyrics of her songs have this direct quality: 'A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way; a robin feathering its nest has very little time to rest while gathering its bits of twine and twig...' No frills lyrics. (Compare Julie Andrews Austrian nanny in The Sound of Music, and the cuddly emotional melodies and lyrics of My Favourite Things.)
The other British movie governess is Anna Leonowens who goes to Siam: Irene Dunne in Anna and the King of Siam (1946), Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956), Miranda Richardson in the animated King and I (1999) and Jodie Foster in Anna and the King (1999). These are determined women who know what they want, are not afraid to demand it of the recalcitrant king, and get their way. Though, it must be said, that the lyrics of many of the songs from The King and I show Anna veering towards her feeling function – take Getting to Know You and all the liking going on and 'doing it my way but nicely' and the Siamese children oohing and ahing in response.
Nanny Mc Phee certainly follows these precedents She is articulate and clear, quietly spoken but none the less determined. Discipline and the learning of moral lessons are her forte – and she does have the advantage, like Mary Poppins, of being able to invoke magical help when necessary. She lists the lessons by number and wears the medals to prove her expertise. By and large, she brooks no nonsense from children or adults (or from her crow whose name is Edelweis!). She comes when children 'don't want her but need her' and departs when children 'don't need her but want her'. And, it is made clear that she is not one for any emotional show and dislikes goodbyes. However, like the children in Mary Poppins who are made to say, 'isn't she wonderful', when she has been ticking them off and urging them to work and to tidiness, so Nanny McPhee's former charges remain very loyal to her.
One endearing symbol with Nanny Mc Phee is her face, warts, buck tooth and all. When she appears (in both films), she looks like a dignified crone and scares the children. However, after each lesson has been learned by the children (not to fight, to share, to be brave...), a disfigurement disappears from her face and she finally emerges, black dress, black bonnet and all as the Emma Thompson we know and love.
The film is set during World War II with children in the country and city boys and girls sent to the farms for safety and avoiding the bombs and any big bang. The setting is rather picture-book quaint, idealising those war days – it is the same kind of situation as for the children who venture into the wardrobe to Narnia. But, rural England is more literally down-to-earth (and in the opening with huge emphasis even with Dame Maggie Smith sitting on a large cowpat because she thinks it a cushion and more comfortable!) and is explicitly 'poo-oriented' for child laughs from both children and adults. But, there are still good formative lessons to be learnt. For anyone wondering about the Big Bang itself, a bomb does fall in the family barley crop because a sneezing German pilot overhead jerks his face on to the bomb lever – but the bang (you had better see it for yourself) will probably make the Guinness Book of Records as the largest break-wind explosion in cinema history and as the most constructive use of such a function on screen!!
Nanny Mc Phee is in the business of coming to the help of harassed parents (here Maggie Gylenhaal sporting a fine British accent and saying 'jolly well...' and things like that) and teaching children not only to behave but have good motivation for their behaviour (otherwise they could end up with the stiffest upper lip and concealed emotions and awful formality with their children as displayed by Ralph Fiennes as a War Office official, a repressed type).
The British nannies get on with a job well done!
(Holland, 2007, d. Peter Greenaway)
Night Watching is Peter Greenaway’s interpretation of the career of Rembrandt, focusing on his painting of the Night Watch.
Greenaway, with his artistic and architectural background, came to prominence in the 1980s with The Draughtsman’s Contract. His films were something of an experience and not necessarily a narrative kind of storytelling. The visuals were important, hidden messages in the visuals, particular codes - this was true of The Draughtsman’s Contract, and, especially, of his interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with John Gielgud and The Pillow Book.
Having made a name for himself with such films as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover and The Baby of Macon, he ventured into more explicit explorations of human nature and sexuality. This was true of The Pillow Book as well as Eight and a Half Women. Greenaway then made the esoteric series of films, the Tulse Luper Suitcases. These were more art house installation films than features. So, it is something of a surprise to see him returning to his old way of making films as well as presenting a narrative.
The film is a visual delight. Many of the scenes are tableaux, imitating the style of Rembrandt’s paintings. Many of the sequences are done on sounds stages in a stylised way with only a few outdoors.
What is also of interest is Martin Freeman’s impersonation of Rembrandt. Martin Freeman is better known as a comedian (The Office, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) but he brings this comic talent as well as seriousness to the portrayal of the artist. One gets an impression of eccentricity from the artist, his poor background, his clashes with the burghers of Amsterdam, his shrewdness in getting funds. It also shows his love for his wife, Saskia, and their son, Titus. He is distraught by her death, taking up with the widow Geertje and then finally falling in love with Hendricka, the maid in the house.
It is difficult to know how much truth there is in Greenaway’s interpretation. He may be following the leads of his earlier films with secret codes - and the importance of the Da Vinci Code in interpreting the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.
The film has a lot to say about Dutch society at the time, power, greed, intrigue. The interpretation of the painting is that it is Rembrandt not only painting the significant characters in the story but also giving clues that it is a plot, a murder, as well as a condemnation of the moral values and stances of particular people in the painting. When it is finally exhibited, the fathers of the city take a dim view - but decide that it should hang and that ultimately Rembrandt would destroy his career. The film is graphic in its portrayals of sexuality, in its more contemporary earthy language. However, it is another experience as well as some insight into the life and career of Rembrandt, especially seen in his times.
(US, 2010, d. Allen Coulter)
One of the reasons for making Remember Me is to provide a star opportunity to display Robert Pattinson on screen after his extraordinary success in the Twilight films. He had been in the Harry Potter films and appeared as Salvador Dali in Little Ashes. But, as Edward the gentle and chaste vampire, he had the sixteen and unders around the world swooning – and buying tickets (with two more Twilight books to be filmed).
He is better in this one than in the Twilight films.
This is a sad story which begins with a startling murder in the New York subway and ends with September 11th, 2001. 9/11 is certainly seared into the American consciousness and its remembrance is very emotional.
Robert Pattinson plays Tyler, aged 21, the disaffected son of a broken family, still grieving the suicide of his elder brothers to whom he constantly writes in his journal, a therapy for his sadness as well as an opportunity to try to understand all that happens to him. He is at college and shares shambles-looking digs with his loud-mouthed friend, Aidan (Tate Harrington). He loves his mother (Lena Olin) who has happily re-married and his 11 year old sister, Caroline, a lively young girl, bullied at school, but a talented budding artist (Ruby Jerins).
The principal difficulty is Tyler's father whom we first see sitting aloof with and from the rest of the family after a visit to the dead brother's grave. Charles Hawkins is the consummately business-oriented and obsessed wheeler dealer on Wall St who has no ability to demonstrate any deeper feelings who clashes with his son and seems to ignore his daughter. This is one of Pierce Brosnan's most telling performances.
In the prologue to the film, we have seen a young girl and her policeman father (Chris Cooper). She (Emilie de Ravin) has grown up and attends the same college, and some of the same courses as Tyler. In the meantime, Tyler and Aidan have got into trouble intervening to help in a street brawl and are arrested by the same policemen who hits Tyler brutally.
Here are the ingredients for a romantic story, a potentially tragic story, a story with tangled relationships of love, of family ties and tensions, of confrontations. And a sad 9/11 ending.
(UK, 2008, d. Lawrence Gough)
If you have seen George A Romero's The Crazies (1973) and/or the 2010 effective remake with Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, the plot of Salvage will seem quite familiar: a mysterious virus, military intervention, citizens at peril.
The difference here is that the setting is around Liverpool, with suburban housing estates and beaches, a British version of being frantic rather than frantic American franticism, and the action after the opening car ride in the bright light of Christmas Eve, is confined to the interiors or houses, a bit on the streets outside and the woods behind the houses. This makes for claustrophobic terror rather than horror, although there are several gruesome deaths and mutilations.
This is above average terror. The film is brief, sets up the personal side of the story as a separated father drops his 14 year old daughter, she very unwilling, to stay with her mother. They clash, but there is little time for anything to be done towards reconciliation because the terror piles on almost at once. We have seen a puzzling scene where a neighbour goes berserk pursuing a paper boy – fatally - but during the film we hear what has happened with a container that has landed on a beach and the army have been trying to contain the contamination (without scruple in killing risky civilians).
The burden of the dramatic terror falls on Neve McIntosh? as the mother. A strong personality, she is persuasive as the frightened woman, the mother desperately searching for her daughter, willing to go into risky situations. Audiences can identify with her – reinforced during a welcome lull in the terror when she explains to the man with whom she is trapped what she has done and why she has alienated her daughter.
The man, as the screenplay shrewdly and alarmingly suggests, immediately thinks that this is must be a terrorist attack and breaks into anti-Muslim rants, even when the woman explains that the man who went berserk next door is not Muslim but a Hindu doctor. Later, a wounded guard maintains the secrecy of what has happened and feeds information to the man that it is an Al Quaeda attack.
While it is not original in plot, it is effective in performances and in maintaining a sense of terror that is local and suburban enough to be credible – and alarming.
THE SCOUTING BOOK FOR BOYS
(UK, 2009, d. Tom Harper)
A tantalising title – and audiences will need to be attentive to notice the copy of the book in the cave sequence in the middle of the film. The setting is the Norfolk coast, a trailer park, the cliffs and the beaches – filmed very attractively and, at first, very sunnily. And we are immediately introduced to two young teenagers, David and Emily, sharing their friendship and their joy in each other's company, part frolicky, part mischievous. The two young stars are naturals and we believe that they are their characters. Holiday Grainger is Emily and Thomas Turgoose (from Shane Meadows' This is England and Somers Town) is David. They live in trailers, David with his neglectful pub entertainer father and Emily with her slatternly mother (Susan Lynch). Emily has also taken a shine to the young security man (Rafe Spall).
Emily clashes with her mother and runs away with David's help and connivance. As things begin to become more serious, the police (with Steven Mackintosh imagining he is a big fish officer in this small pond) organising searches.
Now we wonder where this is all leading. Emily is very much in control of the situation, full of bravado but also naïve, but she also depends on David. He is a boy with something of a hang-dog character (and naïve puppy love) whose generally unsmiling face is somewhere between dour and melancholic.
While the film effectively creates the atmosphere of life within this rather enclosed community, it leads us into darker areas, especially for David and the consequences of his love for and devotion to Emily.
Well-crafted and with interestingly developed characters, it is an ultimately disturbing experience.
(UK, 2010, d. Mo Ali)
Shank, on the London streets and with the gangs, means a knife cut. The London streets shown here are five years ahead, in 2015. And a dismal and dingy place London is. Food is scarce and gangs look for food supplies and loot them and use them for power and control.
The avowed intention of the film-makers is to show the ugliness of street violence and to take a stand against it. One of the difficulties of this kind of film is how much violence to portray to make the anti-violence stance. And there is some violence here – although it shows it as vicious and repugnant.
It is not as if this kind of story has not been told before, but each generation is entitled to offer their interpretation. So, while there is nothing new apart from the future setting and the food issue, the film is made with quite some professional craft. It looks good, is well acted. It is 2010 contribution to the arguments about weapons, gangs and violence in the UK, especially in London.
(US, 2010. d. Martin Scorsese)
For four decades, Martin Scorsese has been directing strong, often grim, intense films from Mean Streets and Taxi Driver in the 1970s to his Oscar-winning The Departed in 2006. Here is another film in that vein – and very intense.
Recently, two films based on novels by Boston-based Dennis Lehane have been acclaimed: Clint Eastwood's Mystic River and, perhaps unanticipated, Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone. They were crime and police stories, very effectively told. His Shutter Island is rather different. It is set in the 1950s, memories of World War II still powerful, and for the central character here, flashbacks to his experiences at the liberation of Dachau, the victims, the commandant and the guards. It is also a time of transition in the understanding of treatment for mental patients and the criminally insane. The chief psychiatrist on Shutter Island, the isolated rock mass in Boston harbour which serves as the principal US institution for the criminally insane, explains that there had been barbaric treatments for beating out the behaviour and attitudes by punishment; then techniques for brain surgery like lobotomy followed as well as the developments of tranquilising medication; at this stage of the 1940s and 1950s (Freud died in 1939) psychiatrists were proposing talk, understanding and therapy.
The action of the film takes place over a few days as two US marshalls, Leonardo di Caprio and Mark Rufalo, arrive on the ferry to investigate the disappearance of an inmate. As with some of the Gothic movies of the 1940s and 1950s (Dark Corner, The Snake Pit), the buildings can be intimidating (described as being a fort built during the Civil War), the corridors frightening and the behaviour of doctors and orderlies mystifying.
The film offers a lot of detail as the two marshalls conduct interviews, search the grounds and the buildings, much of it in a raging storm accompanied by a melange of music from a range of composers, from pounding chords, cacophanous tones and classics like Mahler. The dialogue is stimulating, offering many ideas about mental illness and its treatment.
Leonardo di Caprio, in his fourth film with Scorsese, looks older and bulkier and gives a thoughtful performance. Others in the cast include Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as the doctors and some distinctive performances by Michelle Williams as di Caprio's wife, Emily Mortimer as an inmate, Patricia Clarkson as a doctor, Jackie Earle Haley as a high security patient.
The screenplay demands constant attention right up to the last image on screen and the dilemma in the final question posed by di Caprio.
SONS OF CUBA
(UK, 2009, d. Andrew Lang)
This interesting and effective documentary tells a story as well as offering insight into Cuba and some glimpses of the country.
The subject is boxing, something of which Cubans have been very proud in recent decades, thinking Olympic gold. As in other socialist regimes, like Mao's China (see Bruce Beresford's Mao's Last Dancer), young children are selected to leave their families and enrol in a specialist school with a competitive ethos and a disciplinary way of life. In Cuba, it is under 12 year olds in each of the provinces. Sons of Cuba follows the boys in the Havana school and culminates in the championships.
One of the things that strikes the viewer is how hard the regime is on the boys, up at 4.00 am, then rigorous exercises, followed by school and back to the exercises by 4.00pm. The boys are not only lean, some of them look a touch emaciated and talk about being hungry. Their limit it 34 kilos – after that, running to get the weight off. The other striking factor is the amount of weeping during the film – the hard regime does not preclude the tears of hungry young boys, boys who have lost their bouts and are dismayed – and coaches who also weep with disappointment as well as with joy. An emotional group of people.
Several boys are singled out for more concentrated attention, one who becomes the champion, whose father was a boxer and did not expect so much of his son – and he too weeps as does the boy's mother.
Throughout the film we see the die hard attitude inculcated into the children about Fidel, the Revolution and the ongoing cult of Castro. But, the film was made during the period of Castro's 80th birthday, his illness and his retirement from the presidency, something which struck hard on the ordinary people's sense of loyalty and being used to Castro being there.
There are visual glimpses of the country, poor but not impoverished, partly run-down (though there is a great deal of rebuilding and historic reconstruction going on), partly dilapidated. But, from this portrayal of the people, lots of Caribbean spirit.
THE SPY NEXT DOOR
(US, 2020, d. Brian Levant)
Knock, knock, who's there?
Irish stew who?
Irish stew you in the name of the law.
Actually, this knock, knock riddle is told twice during the film – and indicates some of the style of humour in this variation on Spy Kids in Jackie Chan land.
There is one thing about Jackie Chan. He is always cheerful. There are actually many things, of course, about Jackie Chan who has been featuring in action films since the 1970s. He is a most agile acrobat which serves him well in the ingeniously choreographed fight scenes and the stunts he does himself. Part martial arts, part balletic moves, part slapstick, his films have been popular and often endearing: the Rush Hour films, Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights...
Chan has said that he had to be far more careful than usual in this one because he was working with children and he had to be sure of their safety. He also wanted to have a PG film that would be acceptable to the widest audience. This means that a lot of the fights are in rooms in houses, in a warehouse and in a Chinese restaurant and a lot of furniture and kitchen implements find themselves enlisted to fight the villains (the Russians again!) who are more comic cyphers than international terrorists despite the virus threatening formula they are searching for. They all have those pseudo-Eastern European accents that they display with great gusto.
And the plot? Chinese agent, Bob Ho (Chan), seconded to the CIA and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which does not seem to be the most dangerous part of the US, lives a quiet suburban life, replete with wearing spectacles to make him seem very serious. He has fallen in love with the mother next door (Amber Valetta) who has three Hollywood-obnoxious and outspoken children. The oldest is beginning teenage moodiness. The boy is more than a touch arrogant. The littlest is, well, five and more cutesy than nasty. Of course, they are going to warm to Bob Ho though they despise him as a loser and try to humiliate him and drive him away from their mother.
When he is unmasked as a genial spy, it gives Jackie Chan to go full steam in action sequences – and, for the kids (on screen and in the audience), they get the opportunity to share many action credits with Jackie. Needless to stay, mother is shocked and wants to give Jackie his marching orders. But... George Lopez is the CIA boss and Billy Ray Cyrus, without Miley, is his assistant.
This is Saturday matinee material that most young kids will enjoy and is a basic entertainment for tolerant adults accompanying the kids.