Dogs in the Movies

Uggie the Jack Russell with co-star Bérénice Bejou in The Artist

 

 

 

 

Dogs. Yes, that’s right, dogs. I’ve probably already doubled the amount of traffic to this site just by writing the word “dogs” three times. Four times if you count that mention. Because people just love dogs (five). They can’t help themselves. It’s down to their dependability. A human being might let you down, but a four legged friend probably won’t eat you until you’ve been dead at least four days. A cat would probably tuck in while you were still warm. Trenchant insight aside, a dog’s loyalty and trainability make it a natural for the movies. A dog can be encouraged to do stuff that’s cute. Or, with a sign from off-camera, it will start barking in a menacing manner – though the wagging tail is a hell of a giveaway that the baying animal isn’t really a Nazi hellhound. The baying hellhound/wagging tail problem aside, a dog in a movie is almost always a good thing. Unless the dog’s name is in the title, then it’s often not a very good thing at all (I’m talking to you, Beethoven, K9, Marmaduke and Turner. Or was it Hooch?)

 

So here they are, the best films I can think of with dogs in them. Feel free to disagree.

 

 

 

The Artist (2011, dir: Michel Hazanavicius)

First, silent films are not a genre so The Artist cannot fit into the “genre” of silent films. Second, The Artist is not actually a silent film – it comes with a soundtrack, people. Third, throat cleared, it has a dog in it, a very cute Jack Russell terrier called Uggie, who has a Wikipedia page, and a rake of awards for his work, including the Palm Dog for The Artist, in which he plays Jack, the dog belonging to silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Tricks include walking on back legs and then, bang!, dropping dead. Apart from that Uggie mostly just does cute, bright, head-cocked, lots of running, the odd bit of tugging of trouser leg (“Don’t kill yourself, George Valentin”) and behaving like a Jack Russell, which comes naturally.

The Artist – at Amazon

 

Beginners (2010, dir: Mike Mills)

Uggie is not to be confused with Cosmo, who plays Christopher Plummer’s dog, Arthur, in Beginners. Plummer plays the old guy who, at 75, decides to come out as gay, now his wife is dead, much to the consternation of his son (Ewan McGregor). If Plummer’s performance is the best thing in Beginners, Arthur is actually the key to the movie, which is about commitment – Arthur being total commitment on four legs. Cosmo’s big trick in Beginners is just staring very intently, as if peering into the soul of the human sitting in front of him. And director Mike Mills uses this cannily, flashing up subtitles indicating what the dog is thinking. It’s a novel aid to storytelling, and very cute, obviously.

Beginners – at Amazon

 

Lassie (2005, dir: Charles Sturridge)

So ingrained is Lassie in the cultural fabric that the old “what’s that you’re saying Lassie; the kids are trapped in the old well?” line continues to be used as a shorthand for cheesy storytelling. The 2005 Lassie is interesting for a variety of reasons. It seemed to come from nowhere – there was no clamour for a Lassie film from any quarter. It did not feature a descendant of Pal (the original Lassie, whose bloodline had supplied Lassies to the motion picture biz from 1942 to 1999). And it was really surprisingly good, director Charles Sturridge crafting a story entirely without irony, utterly old-fashioned, the sort of adventure young children would lap up. And the cast was not what you’d expect either – Kelly Macdonald, Peter O’Toole, Samantha Morton. It’s heritage film-making, for sure, but undeniably a work of quality.

Lassie – at Amazon

 

The Man from Hell’s River (1922, dir: Irving Cummings)

This forgotten film from 1922 provided the first outing for Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd who had been rescued from a First World War battlefield (War Horse, eat your heart out) and whisked back to Hollywood, where his on-screen exploits in 27 films made the breed globally popular. It is rumoured that Rin Tin Tin actually won the most votes for Best Actor in the first Academy Awards (the award eventually went to Emil Jannings). Whether that is true or not, what is without doubt is that Rin Tin Tin made a fortune for Warner Bros, turning the studio into a success. So, at some level, Rin Tin Tin gave us James Cagney, Bugs Bunny and Bette Davis, Casablanca, Goodfellas and the Harry Potter movies.

The Man from Hell’s River – not available at Amazon

 

Old Yeller (1957, dir: Robert Stevenson)

How many films have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Old Yeller does. The story of a boy and his dog in mid-19th century rural America is one of the occasions when Disney got it right. And it’s the tragic ending that has seared it onto the memory of anyone who has watched it, along with the direction by Robert Stevenson, an expert Disney hand who would go on to direct Mary Poppins eight years later. Old Yeller himself was a blackmouth cur, a clever, good-natured, tough and robust breed initially used as a hunting and cattle dog. The sort of dog you’d want out with you if you were a young kid learning about life. And the film itself is like the breed – loveable and useful but tough when it matters.

Old Yeller – at Amazon

 

Bombón el Perro (2004, dir: Carlos Sorin)

From Patagonia, a miraculously sweet drama about an unemployed mechanic who is given a lumbering patrician example of the Dogo Argentino breed, a dog, he is assured, that will make him a fortune in stud fees. Except the dog isn’t that interested in the lady dogs. The dog is called Gregorio and at least 50 per cent of the film’s success is down to the way the big white beast sits in the passenger seat as Juan (first-time actor Juan Villegas) drives him about. The other 50 per cent is down to the way this beautifully crafted film presents a portrait of macho men (a little past their macho peak), friendship and dignity, and its use of wide, sun-baked Argentina vistas.

Bombón El Perro – at Amazon

 

The Wizard of Oz (1939, dir: Victor Fleming)

There’s not much to say about the Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said. But has anyone ever noted before that Toto (real name, disappointingly, is Terry) is the only creature, apart from Dorothy, who is consistent throughout? There are characters who only appear in Kansas (Uncle Henry), characters who only appear in Oz (Glinda), and characters who do double duty (Professor Marvel/The Wizard, Hunk/Scarecrow). Then there’s Dorothy and Toto. And Dorothy never lent her name to a 1980s rock outfit (or so the entirely untrue rumour goes).

The Wizard of Oz – at Amazon

 

Men in Black (1997, dir: Barry Sonnenfeld)

Exposition is the bane of so many films but in Men in Black, when Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Jay (Will Smith) need a gigantic injection of plot information, Ed Solomon’s clever screenplay sends them off to meet Frank the Pug, a wisetalking canine version of Edward G Robinson who tells them who has done what with the Galaxy (the real galaxy, somehow shrunk to marble size) and how to get it back, more or less. In fact the film’s plot was changed halfway through shooting, but because Frank’s lines were all dubbed (dogs can’t really talk, apparently), it was possible to insert entirely different expository dialogue with no need to reshoot. And doesn’t it really help that while Frank is feeding plot info into the film, Tommy Lee Jones is trying to shake the life out of him? Pure exposition is rarely this much fun.

Men in Black – at Amazon

 

Frankenweenie (2012, dir: Tim Burton)

Tim Burton’s best film in years is a beautifully animated piece of kiddie gothic that reaches right back to a short he made in 1984, about a little boy who brings his dog back to life, Frankenstein style, by harnessing lightning. The little boy, obsessed with movies, something of a loner, is probably modelled on Burton himself, but the film is otherwise pumped full of references to the gorehounds of yore – such as Vincent Price and Peter Lorre – as well as the Universal monster movies of the 1930s. And, like Old Yeller, Frankenweenie presents a very gentle introduction to the concept of death for the very wee. The dog is called Sparky, of course.

Frankenweenie – at Amazon

 

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009, dir: Lasse Hallström)

Syrup is the director Lasse Hallström’s forte (he made an abortionist cute in The Cider House Rules, for example) and in this totally soppy story of a man and his faithful dog, he’s ladling it on. It’s a remake of a Japanese film called Hachiko Monogatari and stars Richard Gere as guy who persuades his wife (Joan Allen) to bend the “no more dogs” rule. Divided between Gere (the first half) and the Akita-breed dog (the second), it’s the sort of film that features an encounter with a skunk (with predictable results) and, though you’d never believe it, Gere looks like he’s having a good time. Honest to goodness stuff with a teary, lip-quivering third act.

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale – at Amazon

 

My Dog Tulip (2009, dir: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger)

Christopher Plummer again, absolutely perfect doing the narration for this film adaptation of the JR Ackerley’s autobiographical best-seller telling how, as an ageing, lonely gent, he is emotionally rescued by his relationship with a German shepherd. What marks out My Dog Tulip, apart from the delightful water-colourist style of animation, is its quirky matter-of-factness. It mentions all sorts of unmentionables that dog owners deal with every day – I’ve never seen a dog take a dump in an animated movie before. And as for the sections where Plummer discusses his dog’s anal glands or overtight foreskin, they’re something of a first too. And all done entirely without prurience, believe it or not, thanks to Plummer’s dry, droll, delivery.

My Dog Tulip – at Amazon

 

Red Dog (2011, dir: Kriv Stenders)

Like the best Australian films, there’s a bullshit-free quality to Red Dog which makes it highly watchable. Telling the story of a legendary kelpie cross, it’s also the story of early 1970s Aussie manhood, the fighting, the boozing, the plain-speaking, though done in a way that won’t frighten the children or their over-sensitive parents. Quietly making a case for gritty, stubbly old-fashioned masculinity – the virtuous side of it at any rate – it details how a mixed breed connected up a group of otherwise isolated itinerant workers out in frontier Australia, and how the dog formed a deep bond with one of them (played here by Josh Lucas). It’s a true story, too, and if you go to Dampier, Western Australia, you can see the statue to “the Pilbara wanderer”.

Red Dog – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

 

 

The Score

Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, The Score

 

 

Frank Oz is apparently a bit sniffy about being described as the man who used to be Miss Piggy. Here he directs Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Ed Norton in a one-last-heist movie and discovers that big hitters aren’t quite so easy to fist as a porker made of felt.

Bob, Marlon and Ed play, respectively, a jazz-loving master thief hoping to go out on a financial high, his lispingly effeminate fence and the cocky wannabe eager to learn at the master’s feet. A wasted Angela Bassett plays De Niro’s girlfriend. (Well, not entirely wasted. At least the producers got to tick the boxes marked “female” and “black”.)

We’re in the middle of a run of heist movies right now – Blow, The Heist, Ocean’s Eleven, Swordfish are all in theatres or on the way. And in every one of them there will be a point when the criminal mastermind outlines the plan to his waiting accomplices, starting with the line “Gentlemen, I think we know why we’re here” or its equivalent. You know, the bit where we’re told what’s meant to happen, so we can sit back and watch it all unfold, or not. The Score seems to think it’s that sort of film.

But. In a heist movie you root for the felons and marvel at their mission impossible. In The Score this never happens. Partly because the heist scenes are too long-winded, but mostly because Oz lets his Method Giants get away with flatulent “improv” scenes in which Bob mumbles, Marlon pretends not to be Mr Creosote and Ed hovers at the edges like the cloakroom boy at the eunuchs orgy. Which only leaves the minor characters for Oz to direct. Watch them closely. The bizarre faces, the funny voices, the tendency to wisecrack and look into the wings. And suddenly you realise with delicious irony that the director who now barely mentions the Henson years on his CV has given us Muppet Movie: The Heist.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

 

The Score – at Amazon

 

 

The Woodsman

Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman

 

 

There are two big default ideas in Hollywood movies and in The Woodsman we have not just a fine film about a paedophile but also a film tackling these two notions head on. The first of Hollywood’s mantras is “be yourself”. The second: “you can have anything if you want it enough” – often expressed as “never give up on your dream”. In The Woodsman Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a fresh-from-prison paedophile who would give anything not to be himself, a man who would love to give up his dream – of having sex with young children. Unfortunately for Walter, his insane bail conditions force him to live over the road from – hollow laugh – a school.

This is a dark, disturbing drama and a gift of a role for Bacon, an actor who often looks as if he’s on the verge of something unpleasant. Here he’s well backed up by Mos Def and Benjamin Bratt and in particular by Kyra Sedgwick, another actor with a nose for a difficult role. The fact that she’s Bacon’s wife in real life probably helps. If The Woodsman’s subject matter is the stuff of tabloid newspaper rabble-rousing, the tone is anything but – downbeat, all muted colours and with a soundtrack that’s relentlessly minor in key. And Bacon really elicits sympathy for his struggle against his condition. Most interestingly, because the usual, glib “be yourself” or “follow your dream” guff can’t be accessed, this film is actually forced into a corner that most films don’t find themselves in. How it gets out from there provides an additional belt of interest. Not that this dreama really needs any.

© Steve Morrissey 2004

 

The Woodsman – at Amazon

 

 

When the Last Sword Is Drawn

Yoshinori Hiruma in When the Last Sword Is Drawn

 

 

Here’s a different type of samurai movie, the winner of the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars, following the strange, grudging friendship that develops between two warriors – one fierce, the other mild. It’s a massive sprawling affair that starts in 1899 in a doctor’s office where an old man and his grandson are seeking help. Then, a picture glimpsed on the wall prompts an alarmed look on the grandfather’s face and suddenly he’s diving back through a wibbly wobbly dissolve to a former time, when the Emperor and the Shoguns were facing off for one of their periodic powerplays, and the mercenary samurai were girding themselves for the last heave. The story of the Shinsengumi is a well-known underdog tale in Japanese culture. For non-Japanese perhaps the best way to describe this distillation of the story into just over two hours of screen time is to imagine if Judith Krantz had decided to set her latest airport doorstopper of a novel in the last days of the sword. Mind-spinningly confusing it might be but these two parallel stories taking place in flashback are padded out with some mighty action sequences, and some moments of exquisite, dirt-eating melodrama. None of this helps orientate the newbie but those familiar with the story might fare better with this big beach melodrama that’s not without its guilty pleasures.
© Steve Morrissey 2004

When the Last Sword Is Drawn – at Amazon

 

 

 

Hotel Rwanda

Nick Nolte and Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda

 

 

In 1994, 800,000-plus Tutsis were butchered by their Hutu neighbours while the West debated whether this was genocide or merely isolated “genocidal acts”– i.e. not serious enough to warrant intervention. A decade on and the conflict is beginning to arrive on cinema screens, and most of the attempts to turn a dark day in human history into screen entertainment are taking the Schindler’s List approach – finding the rare good thing in a sea of bloody mayhem. As has director Terry George in this effectively realised true story about Rwanda’s own “Schindler”, Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who risked his Hutu hide to save upwards of 1,000 Tutsis.

This is an incredibly tense piece of work that understands not just how to craft drama but how to cast a movie – and cast against type. Which is why man of action Nick Nolte is playing a benign but impotent United Nations peacekeeper. Joaquin Phoenix, meanwhile, is effective as the maverick cameraman who first got pictures of the atrocities out. But both stars take a back seat to Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina. Forget completely that dreadful Cockney accent in Ocean’s 11/12 – Cheadle comes up with a complex portrayal of a man who is Hutu by birth, a wheeler-dealer by experience but a humanitarian by nature. And Sophie Okonedo, as his Tutsi wife, looks like she’ll be leaving TV roles and bit parts behind for ever. Mass murder and mass entertainment may not mix, but this is probably as near as any film is going to get.

© Steve Morrissey 2004

 

Hotel Rwanda – at Amazon

 

 

3 June 2013-06-03

Sylvester Stallone in Bullet to the Head

Out in the UK this week

 

 

Bullet to the Head (Entertainment One, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Last week it was Arnie in The Last Stand. This week the DVD shelves are groaning with 400lbs of mechanically recovered Sylvester Stallone, complete with new facelift and hair (though there’s not much you can do about that creaky old gait). It’s a dick-swinging action movie directed by Walter Hill, who memorably gave us 48 Hours. Bullet to the Head is 48 Hours part two, you could say, with Sly as the criminal being partnered by reluctant cop buddy (the rather good though underused Sung Kang) to take down a bad guy (Christian Slater, sneering at 16:9 ratio). That’s all you need to know about the plot. What you do need to know is what you probably already suspected – this is in most respects a 1980s movie. Which means gratuitous explosions and gratuitous nudity, it means that warehouses feature more than seems necessary. And there’s cars, cars on fire, in fact. Which is, let’s face it, all a lot of fun. The plot could be summarised as “let’s go get ’em”. And as for that relationship, well why is a decent cop hanging out with a hitman? The film isn’t sure either and has to stop every ten minutes to remind us. Or maybe itself. There is the odd good line – “you had me at ‘fuck you’ ” made me smile. And there are tasty New Orleans locations which allow Sly to get a bit Sailor Jerry with the tattoos, and let Walter Hill break out the extreme macho posturing. He does love a bit of machismo, dear old Walter.

Bullet to the Head – at Amazon

 

I Give it a Year (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Dan Mazer was involved in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and Bruno films and is the writer/director of what is to all intents and purposes an anti-Richard Curtis romcom – Loathe, Actually? – the tale of a married couple (Rafe Spall, Rose Byrne) who really aren’t suited to each other and who spend an entire film finding this out the hard way. As a formal exercise I Give It a Year is very good indeed. As a film it stinks. There may be a way of doing an anti-romcom but this isn’t it, and watching two people fall out of love is neither instructive nor enjoyable. Especially when, to make both parties equally culpable, Mazer has decided to make them equally unlikeable. Spall plays a needy whingebag, Byrne is an anal bitch. Meanwhile, hovering on the edge of this couple’s world are Simon Baker and Anna Faris – both not unadjacent to loveliness – so no prizes for guessing what’s going to happen there. I suspect that what Mazer actually contributed to Baron Cohen’s films was jokes. Because the comedy writing in this film is very very funny indeed. And here the support cast deserve a mention – Stephen Merchant as a filthy perv, Minnie Driver as a terrible scold, a brilliant Jason Flemyng as a henpecked husband and Olivia Colman a mentally inappropriate relationship counsellor – they all make spit-out-your-dinner lines even funnier. In fact I Give It a Year must rank as the funniest terrible film I’ve ever seen. What you do with that recommendation, I don’t know.

I Give It a Year – at Amazon

 

Flight (Paramount, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/download)

The one where Denzel flies the plane upside down. And yes, it is an amazing sequence, and is preceded by an almost-as-amazing sequence, also of improbable flying prowess. And before that there’s been an even more eye-opening scene, in which we’ve seen our noble capable captain wake up drunk after a night of extreme party action, take a line of coke, a slug of beer and – adjusting bloodshot eyes and setting captain’s cap to jaunty – go to work.

Robert Zemeckis directed Back to the Future and Polar Express, so it’s almost a given that he can deliver scenes of extreme SFX mayhem and believability. Here he also does an expert job, as does screenplay writer John Gatins, in delaying the dropping of the other shoe. Because no captain of a Hollywood blockbuster can fly a plane in that condition and not be punished for it. And so it comes to pass that Captain Denzel is exposed and humbled, and that Robert Zemeckis’s film turns from a visceral action movie into something entirely different – a hand-wringing Douglas Sirk drama about moral choices. Personally, I found that disappointing. But that’s not to say there isn’t plenty of goodness in here – from the opening shots of Nadine Velazquez not putting her clothes on particularly quickly to John Goodman as a wild man of drugs (theme song the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter), to Don Cheadle as Denzel’s nemesis. And that’s without mentioning DW himself, who is brilliant drunk, sober, exultant and self-loathing. Personally I’d rather have seen a film about an amazing captain who can fly a plane better than anyone else, even when his body is a awash with proscribed substances. But Hunter S Thompson is no longer around to write that screenplay. You, on the other hand, might prefer the morality play.

Flight – at Amazon

 

Blood for Irina (Autonomy, cert 18, DVD)

A poacher turned gamekeeper turn from Chris Alexander, editor in chief of the magazine and horror institution Fangoria, who has made a vampire film. And, because he’s got the background, he’s chosen to go esoteric, working in the tradition of Jesús Franco (The Awful Dr Orlof, Vampyros Lesbos) and Jean Rollin (Requiem for a Vampire). The interest in lesbians (the former) and the surreal (the latter) are noticeable in a story that might be called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Vampire. So don’t expect much rushing around or screaming – this is a slow gothic tale, horror taken at the pace of ambient music, static almost. A baby doll floats in a lake, a plastic bag hangs mournfully in a tree, sort of thing. I’d describe it as arthouse but in truth it’s more artschool, Alexander hitting the spot in terms of mood not quite as often as his evident talent would suggest he should be.

Blood for Irina – at Amazon

 

Smashed (Sony, cert 15, DVD)

A short film with made-for-TV looks and a “disease of the week” theme. The theme being alcoholism. But it’s no trudge through the usual. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a teacher and Aaron Paul her stay-at-home husband, both partying, late-20somethings whose boozy lifestyle hits the buffers when she throws up in class one day, hideously hung-over. So she stops drinking. But he doesn’t. What then plays out is an unusually non-moralistic, unsentimental drama that has the balls to say that being drunk is a lot of fun – so that’s why people do it! – but that sometimes you just really have to stop. Frankly written, often very funny, Smashed also really benefits by having Winstead in it. Surely she’s only minutes away from total stardom.

Smashed – at Amazon

 

For Ellen (Soda, cert 15, DVD)

Anyone for a drama about a mopey dad trying to have one last moment of tenderness with his daughter before his impending divorce separates them for ever? No, it is a hard sell, but if there’s one reason why you should see For Ellen it’s for the performance of Paul Dano, who plays the not-quite-successful rocker travelling off to the snowy wastes of Canada, where his weekend of waiting for the final encounter gives him plenty of time to think about himself. If you only know Dano as a vaguely familiar face from Looper or Meek’s Cutoff or There Will Be Blood, this is an eye-opener, as he is telling the story of one man teetering on the precipice of maturity almost entirely through subtle facial gesture.

For Ellen – at Amazon

 

Wreck-It Ralph (Disney, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

There seems to have been some consensus that Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t quite know who it’s aimed at, and therefore it’s not really that good. I agree that it isn’t quite aimed at a specific demographic, but its conception and its animation are so extraordinary that the rest pales into insignificance. It is the story of Ralph, the baddie in an arcade game who is sick of playing second banana to Fix-it Felix. So off Ralph sallies, into other arcade games from different eras, until he ends up in the candy-coloured world of Sugar Rush, for an adventure that plays out like Wacky Races by way of The Wizard of Oz. John C Reilly voices the big ham-fisted Ralph, Sarah Silverman plays the grrrrl he’s helping out in Sugar Rush, while Jane Lynch plays Sergeant Calhoun, the butch bitch built of leather and swarf who is picked up on Ralph’s dash through a shoot-em-up called Hero’s Duty. You can pick holes – the big idea is Toy Story (while the humans are away, the inanimates will play) and Ralph seems modelled on Shrek. But the screenplay has such depth, the story is so expertly spun and the allusions (Alien, Star Wars, King Kong, even Laurel and Hardy) are handled with such a light touch that I reckon we’re in the presence of near-greatness. Is it for grown-up 1980s gamers or their eight-year-old kids? Both. File alongside Elf for a film undervalued on release whose stature will grow.

Wreck-It Ralph – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Sleepover

Alexa Vega in Sleepover

 

 

Alexa Vega – the girl component of Spy Kids – gets her own teenage vehicle, and it’s the sort of film it’s very easy to be snarky about, especially if you’re not the target audience. It’s the usual teen/tween fare, in fact, about girls who are obsessed with friends, boyfriends and status and focusing on Alexa and her mates who must embark on a scavenger hunt against the film’s obligatory Rich Bitches to win a treasure hunt. The hunt itself has no importance except to keep the film going but then there are a lot of films that use the flimsiest of pretexts to keep things bubbling along. In other news, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a point of reference, if you look at Sleepover with your eyes screwed up. Though John Hughes has nothing to fear from Elisa Bell’s screenplay. If I’m making this all sound cruddy, then apologies, because it isn’t. Director Joe Nussbaum has a driving determination to keep the story piling along and he’s also a dab hand with the sight gag, and Bell has written enough smart lines to keep the support cast (including Steve Carell and Jeff Garlin) with material to work with. It’s light, bright, fairly forgettable and a lot more fun that you might expect.
© Steve Morrissey 2004

 

Sleepover – at Amazon

 

 

Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events

Jim Carrey in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

 

 

 

Somewhere near the end of this highly anticipated children’s adventure movie there’s a cameo by Dustin Hoffman. He just blurs on, says a couple of indistinct phrases and is not seen again. The pointlessness of his appearance is indicative of what’s wrong with this film, a series of disconnected and poorly motivated events which no amount of star power – Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall – can give shape to. There’s even narration courtesy of Jude Law, though it could be Father Christmas for all the difference it makes. The plot follows three young orphans, bookish Klaus, resourceful Emily and gurgling infant Sunny, as they are farmed out to a series of dotty relatives, pursued all the way by the despicably evil Count Olaf (Jim Carrey doing his Ace Ventura thing), who’s interested only in their fortune. Unusually for a children’s film, the young actors are actually rather engaging, they’re good performers who do their best to be believable, normal Edwardian kids. Production design is impressive too – as if Tim Burton at his most feverishly gothic had ram-raided an Arthur Ransome library – and the famous names all work hard at performances that are deliberately grotesque and in any other film would be enjoyable. What’s missing is any dramatic thread, leading to the growing dread that any minute another new relative will arrive and the film will go on for ever. This is the first three Snicket books telescoped into one film. Ten more to go. Unfortunately.
© Steve Morrissey 2004

 

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events – at Amazon

 

 

 

Ella Enchanted

Anne Hathaway and Hugh Dancy in Ella Enchanted

 

 

Cinderella updated, with Anne Hathaway as the luckless teen Ella and Hugh Dancy as Prince Char. You see what they’re doing with the names? As with the names so with the film – it doesn’t quite work. For starters we have Hathaway herself – so sweet and milky she could double up as a bedtime drink. Then there’s the plot, which has Ella being given a special gift by her fairy godmother (Vivica A Fox). This “gift” is that she must obey any order she is given. This is someone’s idea of a clever feminist twist on the old story – girls and their constrained life choices – but it hamstrings the plot, slowing the action down to a crawl. Someone else’s big idea was to chuck in the best elements of Shrek and A Knight’s Tale – irreverent dialogue, wisecracking animals, songs from the 1970s (ELO and Leo Sayer fans, roll up). It’s not all grim though. The look of the thing, for one, is fun, fresh, bright and original, with everyone living in a futuristic primary coloured version of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. And there are some nice turns from the cast – Minnie Driver is on good form as a dizzy fairy who can’t get the spells right; Joanna Lumley is in Patsy-from-AbFab overdrive as the wicked stepmother with two indolent daughters. The feel is kids TV, there’s obligatory multicultural tokenism and the overall idea is that if the kids don’t buy the empowerment angle, they might be distracted by the bright lights and jangly music.

© Steve Morrissey 2004

 

Ella Enchanted – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Films of Paolo Sorrentino

Sabrina Ferilli and Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty

 

Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) is a portrait of Rome through the eyes of a world weary writer. It’s being hailed as Sorrentino’s La Dolce Vita and stars Sorrentino’s Marcello Mastroianni, Toni Servillo. It’s close to a masterpiece in other words, making this a good time to take a look at the career of Italy’s best film-maker right now. Firmly in the tradition of the 1960s generation of Fellini and Visconti, yet clearly his own man too, Sorrentino’s films are intelligent, engaged, stylish, beautifully made and intriguing – they’ve got the lot, in short.

 

 

 

One Man Up (2001)

Sorrentino’s debut feature also saw him team up with Toni Servillo for the first time, with Servillo playing an ageing crooner whose nightly ritual of sing-snort-shag is brought to a premature end when he’s caught having sex with an underage girl. Meanwhile in a parallel world of storytelling and despair, we follow a footballer whose assured future of playing and then coaching is brought to a premature end by injury. Transmuting these earthbound stories is Sorrentino’s approach – dream sequences, ballerinas, fish. Though not entirely satisfying, it’s an unusual Fellini-tinged debut which marked out Sorrentino as a man to watch.

One Man Up – at Amazon (no English subtitles)

 

The Consequences of Love (2004)

We’re following Toni Servillo again, who plays a mysterious and very quiet man who lives alone in a Swiss hotel, where he seems to be slo-mo-ing towards death with an entirely uneventful life punctuated by a regular delivery of cash and a regular injection of heroin. Meanwhile, an employee at the hotel (played by Olivia Magnani, granddaughter of Anna) has half an eye for him, an eye that might offer him a chance of life again. Or will it? From the opening shot, Sorrentino’s cool – in look, mood, lighting, style – and very Italian version of film noir is entirely gripping. That we’ve no idea what’s going on until the film is nearly over only makes Sorrentino’s triumph all the more complete.

The Consequences of Love – at Amazon

 

The Family Friend (2005)

We’re deep in a Fellini-esque world of grotesque in Sorrentino’s hugely ironical and highly digressive film about the “family friend”, a money lender who uses his financial heft to secure access to young female flesh. And what female flesh Sorrentino has assembled – take one look at Laura Chiatti and whistle “mamma mia”. And counterpointed against this female beauty is the figure of Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo), the ageing old lecher with dyed hair, a Gollum-esque walk, a wheedling voice. As with The Consequences of Love, Sorrentino creates a world populated by people who seem to be stunned by life, an absurd overheated world of farce run through a refrigerator.

 The Family Friend – at Amazon

 

Il Divo (2008)

Sorrentino’s political drama about Giulio Andreotti must be the best drama about a politician that’s been made for decades, possibly ever. Toni Servillo plays the reptilian Andreotti, the first prime minister after democracy was restored in 1946 and a politician who kept high office until the 1990s, and influence until he died in May 2013. It is the story of a modern Italian politician as a direct scheming descendant of the Borgias, a goodfellas story that manages to spill the beans on the how and who of Italian corruption in high places but does it with an operatic style so heady with gorgeous technique that the technique threatens to overwhelm its subject. Except that its subject is so superabundantly crooked that he can take it.

Il Divo – at Amazon

 

This Must Be the Place (2011)

Sorrentino’s first English language film saw him getting Sean Penn to dress up like Robert Smith of the Cure to play an ageing goth rocker whose round of self-absorption and tax exile in Ireland (where he is attended to by Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono) is broken by his decision to become a Nazi hunter. If that sounds odd enough as a set-up, this very peculiar road movie (stopping off for a song by David Byrne, whose True Stories is clearly a model), delivered in flat monotone by Penn throughout, eventually builds towards a feverish climax in which the good guys appear to be being painted as cruel and vengeful and the old Nazi they’ve tracked down is used as a receptacle for the milk of human kindness. Revenge is a dish best served not at all seems to be Sorrentino’s idea, in a return to some of themes and procedures of The Consequences of Love.

This Must Be the Place – at Amazon

 

There is also a box set worth having  here. It contains One Man Up (with English subtitles, unlike the standalone dvd), The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013