Barnyard

Otis the cow in Barnyard

 

 

Otis, the barnyard bull, has udders. Because, kids, that’s what bulls have, isn’t it?

Voiced by Kevin James, and with a first name that is generally appended to a male, it’s clear that either Otis is a transgender animal or cowardice has taken hold somewhere at the design stage in the latest animal CG comedy off the conveyor belt.

This “me too” effort from Paramount also has a plot that seems determined to fit in, not stand out, it being a recycling of The Lion King.

Growing a pair, ironically, is what it’s about too. Otis is the young motorbiking cowlet (I’d call him a bullock but he clearly isn’t) about town who has to learn how to take over from his dad, king of the barnyard, after dad dies bravely defending the homestead. Until then, Otis has been a free spirit, living a dudeish lifestyle (Kevin James a good choice here). But suddenly he has to man up – with great udders comes great responsibility and all that.

Seemingly designed for dim rednecks and terrified of upsetting anyone at all, Barnyard comes with the sort of bright, technically accomplished animation that only a couple of years ago would have looked exceptional. Buried behind the sort of prissiness that once drove Victorians to cover up table legs. there is some fun intelligence – the underused Jersey Cows with New Jersey accents, the zippy music and the pantomime sense of knockabout. And the voice cast is pretty good too. As well as James, there’s Courteney Cox as the heifer Otis has an eye on, plus Sam Elliott and Danny Glover.

But the Udders Issue isn’t the only conceptual problem with the film. There’s the fact that all the animals walk on their hind legs – if you’re going to go that far in humanising your beasts, why not go the whole, er, hog. And not a cow, hen or pig seems destined for the table – when Otis’s dad dies, he is buried six feet under, with a headstone, not chargrilled and served with mustard.

But it’s just for fun, I hear director Steve Oedekerk cry. Yes, but whose fun? The target age here seems to veer wildly from five to nine, to 15 to 27. But no matter how young or stupid the viewer, the film’s message – if only all the different animals could band together – is likely to be seen as bogus, only outdone for sheer lameness by the regular dumps of sentimentality. Yuk.

 

Barnyard – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

 

Annie

Quvenzhané Wallis and a cute dog

 

 

Annie is the “turn that frown upside down” musical seemingly custom-built for stagestruck kids. But in writer/director/songsmith Will Gluck’s updating, it breaks out of the greasepaint shuffle-step limbo it’s been consigned to and makes a bold dash for the spotlight. Gluck opens with a swerve, showing us a precocious and stagestruck young ginger Annie holding her classmates to ransom with a show-and-tell delivered with weapons-grade winsomeness. Then swivels to reveal that this isn’t the titular Annie, but another one. The Annie we’re interested in is played by Quvenzhané Wallis, the cute kid from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

 

And god is she cute. A bright little button who is the making of this singing, dancing entertainment that is to the  Little Orphan Annie comic strip what Oliver! was to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

 

The plot remains the same as it was in the 1982 filmed version starring Aileen Quinn and Albert Finney, with Wallis as the spunky orphan kid who is treated heartlessly by Cameron Diaz’s foster-parent Hannigan, and then cynically taken up as a vote-catching gimmick by Jamie Foxx’s billionaire running for mayoral office, the kid winning through by sheer pluck, optimism and can-do spirit and melting the heart of the businessman en route.

 

It could easily make you sick, this relentlessly upbeat tone, delivered with boosterish stage-school enthusiasm by a cast heavy with brats, and ickle orphan brats at that. But the cast largely pull it off, Diaz the only one who seems out of place as the overly pantomime Hannigan, while Foxx does a nice line in machiavellian cape-twirling, Bobby Cannavale similarly sulphurous as one of the magnate’s wonks, an ugly sister role.

 

Everyone knows at least one number from Annie – Tomorrow, perhaps, or Hard Knock Life, or I Think I’m Going to Like It Here, and if this production reminds us of anything, it’s how good Strouse and Charnin’s original songs are, and how chirpilly similar to Lionel Bart’s for Oliver! too. And the couple of new additions ease in neatly alongside the old ones, no problem there.

 

Updating is evident in other areas – this is a film very keen to point out how Twittery/YouTubey it is, which is going to look very old very soon, but it’s also full of single disappointed women who, you can’t help feeling, just need a good man to sort them out – Rose Byrne as the another of Foxx’s aides, with a pash for the boss, Stephanie Kurtzuba as a dried up social-services drone, Diaz’s disappointed, spinsterish Hannigan, who was once “almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish”.

 

In this respect it’s a very old-fashioned Hollywood movie, but it does at least know how to deliver old-school Hollywood tingles, as when Annie gets on stage and delivers an impromptu song, the orchestra magically falling in with her, Fred Astaire style.

 

The “black Annie” this has been called. And, for sure, Wallis is black, so is Foxx, and doubtless producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith had an agenda when they were doing the casting. But why shouldn’t they? It’s their money. The bigger questions are does it matter and does it work. No is the answer to the first, yes to the second.

 

And talking of race, the only mis-step the film makes is in its race (feeble-play-on-words alert) to the rushed big finale which is really the only thing that takes the gloss off this zippy, peppy, bright and occasionally tear-jerking film whose out-takes (over the end credits) suggest everyone making it had a hell of a good time.

 

 

 

Annie – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

Happy Feet

Mumble the penguin leaps for joy in Happy Feet

 

 

A CGI animation featuring penguins which comes along in the wake of March of the Penguins, so it’s probably pushing at an open door. And unlike a lot of animated films about animals, this one sets its stall out really quickly. Emperor penguins, it seems, all have a special song that they use in courtship. Except for one, the hero of our fable, called Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), who has “happy feet” instead – he’s got the sort of dance moves you might expect from Sammy Davis Jr. His mum thinks it’s cute, his dad thinks it’s suspect whereas the stern community Elder, Noah (voice: Hugo Weaving), takes the view that it’s Mumble’s difference that has caused fish stocks to dwindle – and so banishes him. And off the sorry little fellow hops, eventually taking up with another band of penguins, with Mexican (surely not) accents, who see Mumble for what he is, rather than what he isn’t. He’s different, get over it – the entire thrust of the film. This message is stated, rather than insisted upon, this understatement matching the eco-message, which is simply delivered rather than hammered home. The voice talent is strong – Nicole Kidman all breath as Norma Jean, the mother of Mumble who fell for his dad, Memphis (voiced by Hugh Jackman with Elvis “uh-huh”) after he sang her Heartbreak Hotel. Robin Williams sets hyperactivity on fire in two roles, plus narrator (agnostics might find this an overload), while Brittany Murphy voices Gloria, the girl penguin too spooked by Mumble’s difference to find him attractive. But she’ll get over it, won’t she?

It’s a fast-moving package of song and dance aimed as much at the mums and dads (Earth, Wind and Fire, Beach Boys, Queen, Gypsy Kings on the soundtrack) as the kids (Pink, TLC, Gia Farrell) and at first it looks like a surprising change of direction for director George Miller, though if the Mad Max films weren’t energetic pop videos in look and choreography, then what were they? And he directed Babe too, let’s not forget.

Most of all though, amid the punchily delivered song chosen for their hooky tunefulness, and the wisecracks and pop-culture references, this is first and foremost a really well animated film, with some real standout sequences, such as one where the near-anatomically correct penguins swim underwater in what looks like ballet, synchronised swimming and Busby Berkeley all combined.

Happy Feet does have its periodic attacks of the cutes, but it’s so tightly packed and freshly executed that you might not notice.

 

Happy Feet – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eragon

Edward Speelers in Eragon

 

 

Here be dragons. Dungeons and Dragons, to be more specific. Because that’s what this British Lord of the Rings knock-off most resembles. The 2000 film also heavily featured Jeremy Irons, who moved heaven and earth to save it but could not ultimately fight the sheer dead weight of the script and its deadly fantasy game holdovers. Something similar is going on here, with Irons once again mustering all his considerable charisma to try and float a sodden barque, a tale of a fine-limbed young farm lad (Edward Speelers) who has somehow sprung noble from the poor lumpen volk, his nice-boy accent setting him off against the ooh-aarghs of fellow proles and a token of his specialness. He finds a dragon’s egg – for what is “Eragon” if not “dragon” with a typo? – a discovery that sets him off on a journey. For he has been chosen to save his land etc and rid it of evil etc etc. Every Skywalkerish figure needs his Ben Kenobi. Enter Irons, working like a man might to save a drowning child. Enter also Rachel Weisz as the voice of the dragon (cajoling, caring, a tough-love mother). And enter John Malkovich in a have-cape-will-swish turn that’s also worth five of your minutes.

Based on the trilogy (yes, there are more – shudder) of fantasy novels by Christopher Paolini, Eragon feels like what it is – the regurgitated fantasy reading of a lively 15-year-old (which Paolini was when he started on the series) brought to life by a mercenary production that’s determined to cut any corner, and directed by a visual effects man (Stefen Fangmeier – a not inappropriate name) who seems better versed in the looks of TV than the big-budget movie. The singer Joss Stone turns up as a fortune teller, briefly. Not because she brings anything to the role, but because she brings another demographic to the film. And having done her job, she is dispensed with. If art is all about hiding the artifice, Eragon has a long and mythic quest in front of it. Not only can you see the actors acting and hear the script changing gears, you can see the marketing levers being pulled – and that’s really bad. But ultimately it’s the gulf between the film’s ambitions and its execution, its unwillingness to cut its jerkin according to its cloth that marks Eragon out as a dud. You can make a sword-and-sorcery film for nothing, but not like this one has been made. And with that, incanting up his wizard’s sleeve, your humble reviewer was gone.

 

 

Eragon – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Mischief Night

Holly Kelly, Kelli Hollis and Michael Taylor in Mischief Night

 

 

At a time when British film-makers generally are accepting the “multiculturalism rules, ok” status quo, former documentarian Penny Woolcock lights a match in a fume-filled room with an examination of life among the working classes in Leeds. Shane Meadows meets Shameless is the result, to a degree. Does that sound dull? Because the film isn’t at all. Instead Woolcock infuses her drama with a wild pantomime spirit, an unruly bawdiness that’s reflected in the set-ups, characters and dialogue. Set across a park, on one side of which live the whites, on the other the “Pakis”, the focus falls on Tina (Kelli Hollis), a local white goodtime girl with three kids by different dads, and her family’s interactions with a nearby Asian clan, the action building towards “mischief night” – a local variant on Halloween – when good natured pranks teeter on the edge of something much more serious. All our current faves are here – single mums, “grim up north” stereotypes, the niqab, smack, shooters, Osama Bin Laden, everything shot through with a dour, bleak humour. One schoolkid to another: “My mum’s a smackhead.” The other schoolkid back: “My mum’s a dinner lady.”

Meanwhile, on the Asian side of the park where he lives with his extended family, Immie (Ramon Tikaram) only realises how culturally Asian he isn’t when his hot-from-Pakistan wife turns up, jabbering away in a language that isn’t his, and demanding sex he’s reluctant to give. Meanwhile, a self-appointed local Imam is laughed at by the local white girls, all of whom he slept with before he became born-again devout, while Asian kids shout “go home Paki” to passing strangers. It hadn’t always been like this, as Tina tells her daughter Kimberley (Holly Kelly), the two communities had once lived together, but somehow they drifted apart. Complicated, this multi-culture business.

Life and its dark ironies is what the film is about, but beneath the comedy, Woolcock suggests that cultural differences have hardened, the two-way traffic between whites and Asians isn’t as fluid as it once was. Even so, this is a less hysterical view of multiculturalism than you get in the newspapers – though the cultures living side by side can rub each other up the wrong way, they generally rub along. And the conflicts are often an externalisation of tensions within communities and families, not between them. There’s no banging the drum for immigration control here.

Perhaps there are too many plots, and perhaps Woolcock isn’t always sure how comedic she wants the film to be, an uneasiness reflected in its soundtrack – a sort of municipal city council ragga. But it’s a tough and unusual film that’s willing to turn over the stone to reveal a fecund chaos beneath.

 

 

Mischief Night – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Shorts

Jimmy Bennett and Kat Dennings in Shorts

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

13 June

 

Kat Dennings born, 1986

On this day in 1986, Katherine Litwack was born in Philadelphia to a scientist father and a speech therapist/poet mother. Home-schooled, she graduated high school aged 14, four years after her first acting role in a commercial. By age 13 she’d turned up in an episode of Sex and the City, then had supporting roles in films of increasing weight until she got her own starring role in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, alongside Michael Cera. Bright and feisty, since then she’s specialised in the sort of girl who can go from geek to goddess with subtle shift of eyewear (see the Thor films), which can be put down to her pale skin (she refuses to tan) or to her reluctance to go down the obligatory blonde route.

 

 

 

Shorts (2009, dir: Robert Rodriguez)

A nerdy kid called Toe Thompson finds a magic wish machine, possibly left on earth by an alien civilisation, and sets about improving his life, starting by messing with the kids of his parents’ awful employer (played with a cackle by James Spader). Made by Robert Rodriguez in an ADHD style familiar from the Spy Kids films, this CG-heavy fantasy with a strong 1960s Disney vibe is aimed squarely at young teenagers, or younger, and also has something for any adult who occasionally just enjoys watching someone work who loves what they do. Rodriguez is having tons of fun with the technology, as our tweeny hero discovers what his wishing rock (The Adventures of the Wishing Rock is the film’s alternative name) can do – giant frankfurters, pterodactyls, crocodiles on their back legs, snot that grows to giant size. It’s not so much a story, more a series of sketches, which Rodriguez further fractures by shifting the chronology. This allows him to concentrate on (special) effects, rather than consequences, as the wishing rock is passed from hand to hand, wreaking magical havoc as it goes. There’s also a loaded critique of modern life – it’s all set in a wealthy suburb where parents don’t communicate with their children, where the local employer is a Steve Jobs-like computer tyrant determined to find the ultimate upgrade for his all-purpose black box called the Black Box. Meanwhile, lurking, is William H Macy as a scientist so obsessed with germs that he’s brought his son up in a bubble. Is this what we were trying to build? Is this how we want to live – isolated, obsessed with gadgets, risk averse, out of touch with our natural environment? The fact that Rodriguez is delivering this message via the medium of a massively technological film that must have been made almost entirely in post production is something the viewer is going to have to deal with. And it’s true that there’s very little characterisation here, beyond the level you’d find in your average cartoon, and the storyline is so thin it isn’t really there at all. But at the level of fun and mad ideas, Shorts works entirely, with Rodriguez using his adults (Macy and Spader are joined by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) well, his children better – look out for Jolie Vanier in a “watch this face” mini-me Christina Ricci performance as a girl called Helvetica Black (Hell for short). As I write, Shorts is pulling a majestic 5.0 on the imdb ratings, less than the pointless fantasy flick Eragon or the cringe-inducing Cats & Dogs. That’s just wrong.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The good cast includes Kat Dennings, James Spader and Leslie Mann
  • The ker-ay-zee CG effects
  • That Robert Rodriguez energy
  • It’s for the inner eight year old

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Shorts – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Road: A Story of Life & Death

The Road poster


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



25 April

Red Hat Day

Today is Red Hat Day. It is celebrated by members of the Red Hat Society, membership of which is open to any woman aged 50 or over.

It was started in 1997 when Sue Ellen Cooper of Orange County, California, USA, gave a friend of hers a distinctive red bowler hat as a 55th birthday present, along with a copy of the poem Warning, by Jenny Joseph. Its opening lines are “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.”

The hat, colour scheme and sentiment struck a chord and after Cooper had repeated the gesture several times, the first official Red Hat tea party was held on 25 April, and was attended by women dressed in red and purple. The society operates a bit like the Women’s Institute in the UK, as a social, cultural and benevolent society, and organises trips to the theatre, craft days, fund-raising events and the like.

It has been referenced in The Simpsons, has had a musical written about it and Cooper has written a couple of books about the society. There are now chapters in places as far afield as Ireland, Trinidad and Tobago and Ecuador.



The Road: A Story of Life & Death (2012, dir: Marc Isaacs)

The film that first brought British documentarian Marc Isaacs to critical attention was his first. Made in 2001, it was called Lift and it was simplicity itself – Isaacs stood in a lift in a tower block and pointed a camera at whoever came in. He’d ask the occasional question, just enough to prompt the interviewee, the sort of question that might seem invasive if it had been put a slightly different way, or by a different person, but for some reason Isaacs got away with it.

It was only a short but it made a mark. Since then he’s done people on buses (Travellers), people at a port (Calais: The Last Border). And now another film that seems to be about transition – The Road. Probably his most poignant film yet, it focuses on the Kilburn High Road in London, an area associated with immigrants (mostly Irish), where Isaacs follows the stories of several individuals, the sort of people who usually don’t feature in documentaries.

So we meet an elderly Jewish lady, a refugee of Hitler now living on her own since her husband’s death. And a Muslim man scratching a living working in a hotel. A former air stewardess organising a reunion of her old flying colleagues. An old Irish drinker. A small community of Buddhist monks. A new arrival in London, fresh off the boat from Ireland.

I don’t know how many people Isaacs initially followed, whether he had a bigger cohort which he winnowed down to the tasty ones, but the stories up on the screen are all intense, often terribly sad tales – mostly of being alone, often lonely. “I lost my way in the fog,” Billy the old Irish guy tells Isaac, explaining why his life is in such a mess, why he can’t cook, look after himself, or fit in anywhere.

Isaacs’ knack, as with Lift, is to gently probe, asking questions which are amazingly direct yet without malice. Are you lonely (the drinker)? What did you think when your husband ran off with your best friend (the stewardess)? Are you happier now that your husband is dead (the old Jewish lady)?

Isaacs has two further aces in his hand – he’s there to witness some astonishing, dramatic turns. Watching Billy the drinker so sick with alcohol that he has to drink vodka to stop the convulsions. Or the moment Peggy, the frail Jewish woman, falls over in the street, the sort of fall that can spell death for someone at that age. And there is the shock when two of his interviewees actually die, halfway through the making of the film.

It’s not all grim. The hotel guy is shown talking to his wife on Skype and is overjoyed at the prospect of finally meeting her for the first time. And in the shape of Keelta, the young Irish girl who opens the film, we see the immigrant who starts to come good – she’s working in a bar, making some money, and her voice is beginning to get her gigs singing Irish songs. She’s on the road.

Why Watch?

  • A beautiful, poignant documentary
  • Because Isaacs is one of the greats
  • Heartbreaking stories, brilliantly told
  • The non-usual suspects



The Road: A Story of Life and Death – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate





© Steve Morrissey 2014



The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

Tommy Rettig in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 March

 

 

Dr Seuss born, 1904

On this day in 1904, Theodor Geisel, author and illustrator, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He started to sign himself Seuss (his mother’s maiden name) while at Dartmouth College, where he was editor of the humour magazine Jack-O-Lantern. He’d been found guilty of the sin of drinking gin and in order to keep working on the mag after being barred from this extra-curricular activity started using a pseudonym. Having completed his Ivy League education he went to Oxford, in the UK, where he intended to study English. But he gave it up to concentrate on cartoons, which he pursued further after moving back first to Springfield and then to New York. He became successful working as a cartoonist drawing adverts – for Standard Oil, General Electric, NBC, among others – and published his first book, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street – after much rejection, in 1937. During the Second World War he produced propaganda for the government, as a captain in the First Motion Picture Unit. His documentary on Japan, Design for Death, won an Oscar, as did his Gerald McBoing-Boing, for best animated short. His most successful period as a children’s author followed – Horton Hears a Who!, The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Though always pronounced “Syoos” by other people, the man himself pronounce his name “Zoice” to rhyme with “voice”.

 

 

 

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953, dir: Roy Rowland)

As with the work of Roald Dahl, there’s a terrible tendency by the committees who produce movies to take out the more troubling stuff – the stuff that lends distinction. With Dahl it’s the dark humour; with Seuss it’s the fizzing surreal imagination. This 1953 film gets Geisel better than most – no, let’s not talk about Mike Meyers and the Cat in the Hat movie. It’s a surreal story about a kid who falls asleep while practising the piano and the dreams he has of being held prisoner by Doctor Terwilliker, the man who wrote the piano instruction manual that first sent him into the realm of Morpheus. After the bizarre storyline, the most notable aspect of the film is the brilliant production design by Rudolph Sternad, of the Terwilliker Institute, the Freudian nightmare piano-teaching prison where this poor fatherless boy is taunted by the sight of his mother setting up house with Dr T, the nightmare avatar of his own real-life tormentor. Just to pile on a bit more depth, Seuss and fellow scenarist Allan Scott invoke the the disorientation of Kafka, the guilt of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the expressionist camera angles of Fritz Lang and the chaos of the Mark brothers, to name but a few – anything that will add to the heady mix of unhinged tumult. The film marks some kind of high point for the fetishisation of psychoanalysis – Hollywood had been mad for it since the 1930s – and is also a rebuff to those who say that 1950s Hollywood was always conformist and conservative. Talking of which, there’s also the distinctly leftish, class-critiquing message tucked away in there too, which might explain why the film is not seen very often.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A starring role for Tommy Rettig – usually underdog to Lassie
  • Hans Conried as the dastardly Dr Terwilliker
  • Rudolph Sternad’s fabulous production design
  • The closest movies have ever got to capturing Dr Seuss

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Princess Bride

Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

22 February

 

 

Ladislaus the Posthumous born, 1440

On this day in 1440, Ladislaus the Posthumous was born. His father, Albert II, had died four months before and so it was that Ladislaus became Duke of Austria and head of the house of Habsburg as soon as he arrived in the world. Ladislaus grew up under the protection, as a prisoner more or less, of Frederick V, who was the de facto ruler of Austria. Meanwhile John Hunyadi ruled Hungary in Ladislaus’s stead, and George of Podebrady fulfilled the same function in Bohemia. At the age of ten, Ladislaus swapped one guardian for another after Ulrich II, the Princely Count of Celje, freed the boy from Frederick V. Ulrich then took over ruling Austria in Ladislaus’s name. At the age of 13, Ladislaus was crowned King of Bohemia, and Ulrich became governor of Hungary. It was after commotion caused first by the murder of Ulrich by the Hungarian Ladislaus Hunyadi, then by Ladislaus the Posthumous’s reprisals against Hunyadi (he had him beheaded) that Ladislaus, aged only 17, died of a mystery illness. Poisoning was suspected at the time, though 20th century scientists ascertained it had been leukaemia.

 

 

 

The Princess Bride 1987, dir: Rob Reiner)

Director Rob Reiner was on something of a roll when he made The Princess Bride. The previous year he’d directed Stand By Me, one of the great films about teenagerdom. Two years later he’d make When Harry Met Sally, one of the great romantic comedies. Sandwiched between we have a film which didn’t quite fit an easy category at the time but now looks, in retrospect, like the template for Hollywood’s “kiddie films for grown-ups”. Like the other two mentioned films, The Princess Bride is brilliantly written, by the brilliant screenwriter William Goldman in this case, whose pet project it was. It tells the entirely fairytale story of a beautiful princess kidnapped by a ne’er-do-well and rescued by the stable boy she fell for years before, though he is now disguised as a pirate. Swordplay, giants, torture chambers, a wicked prince, a questing suitor, The Princess Bride is the full medieval sword and sorcery shtick, though Goldman relays it all at ironic distance – this is a story being read as a bedtime treat by grandfather Peter Falk to grandson Fred Savage, who is mostly concerned that the story might have kissing in it. The casting within the fairy tale continues to be spot on – Mandy Patinkin as a cheesy Zorro, Cary Elwes as the stable boy, handsome, clean of cheek and as blond of hair as the princess, Robin Wright. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane provide an extra layer of comedy as a pair of old necromancers who can bring the dead back to life, when they get the spell right. Looked at now The Princess Bride looks like a dry run for Shrek – a good story for kids with whispered side jokes for the adults. It glories in what Hollywood can do and it’s alive to its shortcomings too. Auteurists will lump it in with Reiner’s work, but it’s really Goldman’s film and his screenplay is bursting with writerly smartassery and plot curlicues (hence the pirate business). Depending on your point of view this either works against the forward drive of the film, or it enriches it, making this a film worth watching repeatedly. Certainly the performances are – Mandy Patinkin alone is worth tuning in for.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The template for future Hollywood product such as Shrek and Toy Story
  • One of Reiner’s golden run of movies including Spinal Tap and Misery
  • British comedian cameos by Peter Cook and Mel Smith
  • The finest hour of Cary Elwes

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Princess Bride – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

My Fair Lady

Wilfrid Hyde White and Audrey Hepburn, plus hat.

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 January

 

 

Cecil Beaton born, 1904

On this day in 1904, Cecil Hardy Beaton was born, in Hampstead, London. This son of a timber merchant was only interested in art from a very early age. Young Beaton was taught to use a camera by his nanny, and went on to spend his life making photographs of one form or another. He studied art, history and architecture at Cambridge University though left without a degree and after a short time trying to work in his father’s business set himself up as a photographer, using his society connections to get him the sittings for photographs that he could sell on to magazines hungry for glimpses of the lives of the rich and well connected – Vogue, at first. He went to New York, where he slowly made his name, returning to the UK with a contract with Conde Nast.

Beaton’s name will always be associated with the higher echelons of British society – royalty, aristocracy, people of “breeding”. And no wonder they flocked to him, because Beaton’s photographs presented these people as they saw themselves. However, during the Second World War Beaton showed himself equally adept at taking striking portraits of everyday folk – girls serving soldiers in tearooms, a young Blitz victim clutching her teddy bear in hospital. Though some anti-Semitic remarks he had scrawled in the border of an illustration had got him fired from Conde Nast (“dirty kikes” – it might have been meant as a joke but didn’t go down well in New York), his work during the war restored his reputation, and he moved into theatre design. His stage designs for the Broadway run of My Fair Lady got him the gig doing similar for the film version and a new career in film design opened up, though he had been designing “gowns” for films as early as 1941’s Major Barbara. He was the production designer on only two films, My Fair Lady and Gigi, and won Oscars for both. A fey man who in his youth entered into the world of boisterous cross-dressing which the upper classes seem to embrace so whole-heartedly in their salad days, Beaton seems to have been bisexual as an older man, having notably had an affair with Greta Garbo. Though it is said that the love of his life was the art collector Peter Watson.

 

 

 

My Fair Lady (1964, dir: George Cukor)

The practice of a high-born individual stooping socially to regenerate the exhausted bloodline is cleaned up for fiction in this adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. And if you’re in the cleaning up business, then call in George Cukor, the “women’s director” whom generations of Hollywood actresses had leant on (even after he had been fired from Gone with the Wind Cukor was receiving nightly calls from the film’s female stars, hoping for help with their lines). Call in the effortlessly urbane Rex Harrison (a shit in real life, but there you go) as phonetics Professor Henry Higgins. Call in Audrey Hepburn as the Cockney flower girl he turns into a member of high society (she’d helped turn Holly Golightly from a prostitute to a dizzy gadabout in Breakfast at Tiffany’s after all). And call in Cecil Beaton, whose sets and costumes threaten at every turn to upstage everyone else involved in the film. Even the intermission card, all fragile floral beauty, is by Beaton. The themes of the film are darker than they at first appear: what use is a woman who can talk posh but who has no money? What use is a woman at all – or “why can’t a woman be more like a man” as Higgins puts it in his spoken-in-jest song. There’s even more to it than that, of course – Shaw wasn’t in the business of writing a play about people from different class strata without making a point about social mobility. But which one? That an English(wo)man is condemned to a social position depending on the accent they are born with? Or that it’s easy to change your circumstances: all you have to do is change the way you speak? Did I mention the costumes? Yes. The music? It’s by Lerner and Loewe and is notable for three reasons – because of Harrison’s spoken delivery, entirely appropriate for a phonetics professor; because Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon (Julie Andrews, a real singer, having been turned down for the role, even though she had made My Fair Lady a hit on Broadway); and because the songs seem to fit so well the purpose they are designed for. I Could Have Danced All Night, that’s the delightful waltzing, swept-off-my-feet number. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, the tender love ballad. Get Me to the Church on Time, the Cockney knees up. Just You Wait, the spitfire riposte. It’s a great film, a lavish one, a long one too, nearly three hours. It flies by.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Cecil Beaton’s sets, clothes, hats
  • Eight Oscars, none for the actors
  • The excellent support cast including Wilfrid Hyde White and Gladys Cooper
  • The restoration is a work of art in itself

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

My Fair Lady – at Amazon