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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Others

Nicole Kidman shocked in The Others

 

Oddly, quite a few people hated this atmospheric ghost story when it came out. It’s a tale with a twist, set just after the end of the Second World War and it’s directed by the Spaniard Alejandro Amenábar. He was a cult name back then, thanks to Tesis and Abre Los Ojos and perhaps he was a bit too out there for some tastes. Nicole Kidman plays the woman waiting for her missing husband to return from the war, a too-dutiful mother who keeps their kids locked away from the light (they’re allergic to it, she says) in a weird dark house kept functioning by a trio of servants. They, we have seen, turned up spookily at the precise moment her previous servants had decided they’d had enough of this woman’s strange behaviour and walked out. Nicole Kidman is a real asset here. Always a hell of a presence when being severe – which is why she was so wrong in Moulin Rouge, and so much better as a dominatrix Russian bride in Birthday Girl – Kidman isn’t at her best when panting girlishly, unless maliciously (as in her Hollywood breakout, To Die For). And regardless of whether you love or hate this film, you’ll be hard pushed to get a better screwed-to-the-hilt performance than the one delivered by the tinder-dry Kidman; this is a real lesson in controlled hysteria. And you might find the non-snottiness of the kids amazing too. As for the rest of the actors – lovely, entirely deaf, almost totally blind Eric Sykes among them – they’re just dandy. But in spite of Kidman, Sykes et al what really set this film apart are its technical crew – lighting cameraman Javier Aguirresarobe and set designer Benjamin Fernández. They realise that The Others is a key work in a new emerging cinematic style – the Spanish haunted house horror – and they lay on the atmospherics, the drab colours, the dark corners, and they turn the house itself into a dominant character in the film. Yes, “a character in the film” is a cliche. Here, though, it’s true.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Others – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Paperboy

Nicole Kidman's Charlotte Bless is very pleased to see John Cusack's Hillary Van Wetter in The Paperboy

 

 

 

You want Southern Fried? The Paperboy has it for you by the boneless bucketful. Gourmets, look away now.

Thanks to the success of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire etc), a peculiarly successful misery memoir, for his follow-up its director Lee Daniels is able to call on a cast starry enough to open several films – Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack. A cast he then submerges in a 1960s Deep South swamp of gators and racial segregation, the spirit of Blanche Dubois invoked by Kidman’s performance as a slut of a certain age who relies on the comfort of whoever happens to be available.

What little plot there is glueing this assemblage together centres on the death of someone at the hands of a local sheriff. Or is it the death of the ornery local sheriff at the hands of someone now on death row? The reason why recall is a little hazy here is because the film takes so little interest in its own story, only falling back on it when Southern cliché number 7 (gators) stops working and number 8 (the Dukes of Hazzard, for all I know) has yet to arrive.

Flippancy aside, the film’s focus is Zac Efron, playing the brother of a reporter (McConaughey) who’s returned to his native Florida town with a black British aide hoping to crack open the story of the latest injustice, and thereby hasten the arrival of civil rights.

We’ve already met Efron, a former swimming champion whose ripped body (we are introduced to it early) suggests he’s still putting in work in the pool. Efron’s is a gopher role, he’s there to join up the various territories of the movie. In that deliberately manly way Efron really needs to jettison, his character Jack Jansen takes us into the campaigning world of his radical brother (McConaughey), the sex-on-a-stick demi-monde of the over-saucy Ms Kidman, and to below stairs, where he plays role-reversal games with the family maid, nicely played by Macy Gray. Efron, though only a cipher, really isn’t keen on all that racism shit.

Incidentally, the whole film is narrated in flashback by this maid, for no good reason, unless Gray needs the money that a few more scenes might bring in, or has a liking for prosthetic ageing make-up. In fact there’s the sense early on that the black actors are being used as some badge of liberal conscience – they’re in the film but not driving the drama. Bolstering this suspicion is black newspaperman Oyelowo, whose presence delivers an early zap of energy but whose storyline simply disappears just as he’s threatening to become the most interesting character on screen.

This is odd since director Lee Daniels is a black man. So let’s reach for the obvious alternative explanation and call this sidelining of black characters a deliberate part of what is intended to be a very ripe homage to films from In the Heat of the Night to Deliverance to Monsters Ball (which Daniels produced). Kidman is certainly facing in that direction, playing a blowsy sex monster who’s been writing to the libidinous inmate (Cusack) on Death Row whom McConaughey and Oyelowo are keen to prove innocent. One of the film’s standout scenes (and it has a few) is when Kidman and Cusack first meet, in a big room complete with lawyers, cops and so on, and have the live equivalent of phone sex, to the point of orgasm, to the embarrassment all concerned except themselves. Meg Ryan just got bumped.

Homage too comes from the split screens, the choice of film stock (or digital simulation thereof) to give everything that grainy, backlit, lens-flare look of The Graduate, or other late 1960s movies. Meanwhile old soul hollers on the soundtrack

Then there’s the swamps, the gators, the inbreeding, the heat, the casual though never cruel racism of the local rich whites (real nasty racism comes from the intended new wife of Efron’s father – she’s from New York, don’t you know). And of course the kinky sex. Not just from Kidman; there’s more kinky stuff which takes us into spoiler territory, so let’s not go there, all part of Daniels’s seeming intention to hit us with another shock Southern meme every fifteen minutes – cue Ned Bellamy gutting a live gator while McConaughey asks a few routine questions.

Is everyone overacting? Hell, yes. Are they meant to be? Hell, maybe. Does anyone bobbing about in this simmering stew ever crack a joke? Hell, no. Lack of anything approaching humour is this film’s big failing. Unless it’s meant to be a comedy.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Paperboy – at Amazon