Wednesday 30 March 2016

On TV: "My Nazi Legacy"

If you happened to channelsurf unawares onto the opening minutes of My Nazi Legacy, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching another Cash in the Attic rerun. A middle-aged man is guiding two elderly sorts around the places of their youth, then looking on patiently as his charges pick through the dusty relics and knickknacks gathered there. The older men, however, are Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank, sons of high-ranking Nazi officials; their guide is Philippe Sands, the noted UN human rights lawyer. The participants will be confronted in every corner of the attic by a markedly different set of heirlooms to those you and I might have inherited - it's more baggage, really. You can get a sense of what the film's subjects have had to process, and what they're still trying to process, from the early sequence in David Evans' film that finds von Wächter poring over a photo album. Instead of pretty monochrome tableaux of der junge Horst mugging in the back garden with the family dog, we see his younger self running around Berchtesgaden or similar while his father Otto confers with none other than Heinrich Himmler. How do you even begin to reconcile yourself with a backstory - a history - as deleterious as that? 

In raising such questions, My Nazi Legacy follows on from where Vanessa Lapa's fascinating The Decent One left off in examining the domestic life of Himmler: the testimony Sands elicits from both von Wächter and Frank adds further ballast to the thesis that this was a moment of coldly distant or absent fathers, called away from home to demonstrate their love for the ultimate father figure. Yet a clear ideological split exists between Evans' subjects, one that fascinates Sands, and by extension us. Where Frank immediately acknowledges what his father was responsible for, von Wächter appears to have spent decades avoiding all eye contact, and insisting his father was only following orders; that the anti-Semitism he placed on the record was nothing very much in the grand scheme of things. Sands' presence within the film is thereby explained: we're here to hear out the kind of arguments that might otherwise be presented inside a courtroom.

What follows is on a visual level rather plain: the influence of Lanzmann's epochal Holocaust documentary Shoah can be felt in the way Evans intercuts the three men's interactions with conventional talking heads. Yet the director doesn't have to look too far for elaborate stages on which to set down his players. One long sequence unfolds at a Q&A hosted by the Financial Times, where von Wächter faces sustained interrogation from Frank and the public alike; another, even longer, takes place in council chambers in Galicia, where Sands presents von Wächter with evidence that strongly suggests his father was a war criminal. Are the film and the lawyer making a bit too much of a show of what they're doing?, we might wonder. Yet this persistent line of questioning yields an electric philosophical drama: we're watching human beings confronted by hard facts and heated opinions, and then having to dodge, absorb or otherwise react to them in what's more or less real time.

From that initial daytime potter, My Nazi Legacy builds to a point where you can feel the temperature rising, patience beginning to erode. Von Wächter's continual evasions and denials - and his smiling willingness to pose with those wearing SS uniforms while on an excursion to the Ukraine, site of renewed neo-Nazi activity - visibly impact upon Frank and Sands; they, in turn, redouble their efforts to pin Horst down. By the time Sands has dragged von Wächter into first the synagogue where his grandparents' family were rounded up, then the nondescript field where their bodies were buried, what started as just another cobwebby history lesson has taken on the look of an urgent intervention. The result is an unusually probing and profound British documentary: the critic has to think long and hard before venturing the Lanzmann comparison - which is among the highest praise we can bestow on non-fiction cinema - but here, considering both the form and the content of Evans' film, it is, finally, justified.

My Nazi Legacy screens on BBC4 tonight at 9pm, and is available to watch on demand here until the end of April.

Sunday 27 March 2016

Growing pains: "Anguish"

No relation to the old Bigas Luna thriller, the slowburn American genre piece Anguish brings at least one new idea to the table, but - from the very first minute - it's guilty of colossal bad faith: an opening title card hedges around the details of a supposedly true-life yet unnamed mental health condition, hijacked here to provide a veneer of medical credibility to all manner of lacklustre plotting and erratic character behaviour. What's novel is the focus on two separate mother-daughter bonds, the one brutally severed in the course of a prologue, the other newly relocated to the kind of generally idyllic Everytown where a teenager might pilot a skateboard down the centre of Main Street without fear of being hit by a delivery truck. This set-up - broadly, M. Night Shyamalan meets David Gordon Green - is semi-intriguing, not least for suggesting that writer-director Sonny Mallhi might just be operating in an adjacent neighborhood to David Robert Mitchell's legitimately creepy It Follows.

Yet Anguish lacks that film's propulsive narrative drive. For much of the running time, we're watching worlds collide in slow motion; jaded gorehounds probably won't be the only ones suppressing yawns and a cry of "get on with it". Oddly, Mallhi provides occasional signs he can do those jolts that might shift a fair bit of multiplex popcorn two or three films down the line: one early gotcha is so unexpected, and so effective, that you come to cower any time anyone subsequently goes near a road. They're squandered, however, on the bog-standard post-Shyamalan backdrop of visions in the front yard, whispers on the soundtrack, and would-be ominous meetings in the underlit offices of priests and health care professionals - dead people as far as the eye can see, basically, and no acknowledgement these might, nearly twenty years on from The Sixth Sense, be dead ideas. Worse still is a frankly insulting, TV movie-level ending, gesturing towards the notion our troubled heroine (Ryan Simpkins) just needed her dad back around the house. Hooray for heteronormativity.

Anguish opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on April 11. 

Saturday 26 March 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of March 18-20, 2015:
1 (1) Kung Fu Panda 3 (PG)
2 (new) 10 Cloverfield Lane (12A) ****
3 (3) London Has Fallen (15)
4 (2) The Divergent Series: Allegiant (12A)
5 (new) The Boy (15) **
6 (new) High-Rise (15) ***
7 (4) Deadpool (15)
8 (5) Hail, Caesar! (12A) ***
9 (6) Grimsby (15)
10 (new) Kapoor and Sons (12A)


My top five:   
1. The Pearl Button 
2. The Club [above]
3. 10 Cloverfield Lane
4. The Witch
5. Hitchcock/Truffaut

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12)
2 (new) The Good Dinosaur (PG)
3 (1) The Last Witch Hunter (15)
4 (2) Brooklyn (12) ****
5 (8) The Dressmaker (15) ***
6 (new) Carol (15) ****
7 (4) Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
8 (5) Sicario (15) ***
9 (6) Everest (12)
10 (7) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12) **

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Easter Sunday, ITv1, 12.35pm)
2. The Dirty Dozen (Easter Monday, five, 2.55pm)
3. Lilting (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
4. Pretty Woman (Thursday, BBC1, 10.45pm)
5. The Last Stand (Friday, five, 10pm)

"Court" (Guardian 25/03/16)

Court ***
Dir: Chaitanya Tamhane. With: Vira Sathidar, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Pradeep Joshi. 116 mins. Cert: PG

This drolly enlightening dispatch from India’s indie sector has the inspired idea of appropriating a Mumbai courtroom as a focal point for the nation’s many ails: trace elements of colonialism, generational and sectarian conflict, a certain infrastructural liability. The trumped-up trial of a folk singer accused of inciting a fan’s suicide provides its own intricately involving procedural drama, yet writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane makes both a joke and point by keeping his camera at a critical remove from the action, the better to observe dawdlers arriving mid-argument and a marked status gap yawning open between the main players. As in countless comedies, the law is again made to appear something of an ass – arbitrary and distractible, if not this time corruptible – yet the rigorous writing and playing suggests Tamhane is wholly serious in his intent. Here’s a filmmaker training a sharp, prosecutorial eye on those harsh homefront realities Bollywood has traditionally permitted audiences to escape.

Court is now playing in selected cinemas. 

"Welcome to Me" (Guardian 25/03/16)

Welcome to Me **
Dir: Shira Piven. With: Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack. 87 mins. Cert: 15

An oddball dramedy, of the kind comedians habitually venture whenever they bridle at being deployed as mere gag-monkeys. Here it’s Kristen Wiig, playing a recluse with borderline personality disorder who self-finances a TV talkshow after winning the Nevada lottery – a contrivance that generates, at best, fitful titters. There’s moderate fun with the show itself, which – in its insistent oversharing – suggests some Kardashian-age Wayne’s World offshoot, but dead air ensues once Wiig’s Julia starts interrogating past traumas: the heroine’s evident distress mutes any applause. Wiig commits to the experiment, but several other performers are squandered, and quirks outnumber truths; as a mental illness narrative in particular, it feels perilously phoney.

Welcome to Me is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Hot wind: "Mojave"

In a year of high-profile film and TV work, Oscar Isaac has kept Mojave under his hat, and you can see why: writer-director William Monahan's follow-up to 2010's London Boulevard proceeds from a showy yet essentially hollow script, of a kind actors and executives have traditionally flocked around (because it speaks to Their World), but which can only ring false the minute it passes beyond the protection of the Hollywood bubble. Here are the struggles of a gurning, tryhard young actor (Garrett Hedlund, seemingly channelling Legends of the Fall-era Brad Pitt) who, in the midst of his latest existential crisis, heads out to the desert in search of clarity. What he gets instead is the blood of a federale on his hands, and the attentions of a stubbly drifter (Isaac), who - from the minute he starts burbling around the campfire about Captain Ahab - is all too clearly signposted as a manifestation of our boy's inner demons. Persistent bugger, though: he gets up from the shovel Hedlund takes to his head, and follows him all the way back to La-La Land, keen to expose his starry quarry as a heartless copkiller.

The route there is overpopulated with movie referents and marker points. The knowing Tarantinoid dialogue recalls Martin McDonagh's recent Californian transfer Seven Psychopaths, forever seeking to excuse the script's evident narrative and structural failings ("People will never buy that a rich person could be unhappy"); rather more ambitiously, Hedlund's Tom is seen watching a DVD of Greed, which suggest Monahan was heading out into the wilderness in search of something more elemental. All the more underwhelming, then, that he should come back with really no more than humdrum VOD fodder: a film that works in some places, not at all in others. On the plus side, Mark Wahlberg - who spun a rare and cherishable poetry from Monahan's curse words in The Departed - has fun as a dissolute screenwriter pal of Tom's before falling victim to the shrugging plotting, and Isaac at least appears to be enjoying himself trying on the mantle of standard-issue movie psycho.

Yet there's a nothing role for French import Louise Bourgoin as the hero's squeeze - she barely gets beyond Tom's ensuite bathroom - and Hedlund's usual charisma is obscured at every point by Monahan's grey-cloud characterisation. When you make your protagonist a pompous, self-absorbed jerk, why on earth should we care what happens to him? (Answer: because in the postmodern world, we're not supposed to care about anything too much, least of all the originality and value of the content we're meant to kill time downloading.) Monahan manages a few striking compositions in the Mojave itself - possibly anybody with a camera could - but the direction reverts to point-and-shoot script delivery once the action returns to L.A.: if the metaphysical vision of a Dust Devil appears some distance beyond it, so too is the basic meat-and-potatoes sustenance of 2014's Beyond the Reach. Long before it enters the purgatory of digital streaming platforms, it's a film stranded in no-man's-land.

Mojave is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Wednesday 23 March 2016

From the archive: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"

A big fat word-of-mouth sleeper hit in the States, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the one that sees apparently dowdy Chicago waitress Toula (Nia Vardalos) win man-of-her-dreams Ian (John Corbett) despite involvement of and interference from her closeknit Hellenic relatives. You know exactly where it's going from scene one frame one, but perhaps the film's light-hearted certainty was exactly what Western audiences needed to counter the dark uncertainties that followed in the wake of September 11, and that the endless cutesy scenes of lovers ducking behind watercoolers to evade someone or other were always liable to be received more sympathetically at a moment when sleeper terrorists were reported to be hiding in our midst. 

It does, granted, have a certain timeless quality, though not one that necessarily ensures a classic piece of cinema: these types of films will continue to be made, and continue to be enjoyed, just as long as there are people on this planet who hate the way they look. Toula's frump duration is less than twenty minutes - something of a generic cheat, in fact - before she discovers contact lenses, Touche Eclat and what to do with her hair, but if this makeover takes on a dramatic level, it's because Vardalos makes a convincing pass at plain in the first place, which might sound like a backhanded compliment were the quality not so rare in American performers. Scrunching up a cookie and filling her cheeks with ice cream didn't do it for Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality, and hiring Avril Lavigne's stylist couldn't make Anne Hathaway any more convincing as the unwashed teen of The Princess Diaries' first act.

The star's screenplay - adapted from her own one-woman stage show - manages to be neatly structured if entirely lacking in conflict, allowing director Joel Zwick to compose the better part of the plot as a series of comic montages, illustrating rather than dramatising examples of disastrous arranged dates, and then how far Toula is prepared to let her Prince Charming go within the PG framework. The HBO logo on the credits reminds one how that network's ethnically diverse output has come to put more mainstream channels to shame: My Big Fat Greek Wedding follows close on the heels of several TV movies on the lives and struggles of prominent African-Americans (Soul of the Game), not to mention the chronicles of the modern age's most noted Italian-American clan (The Sopranos). It's still more interesting as a phenomenon than as a movie per se: one doubts contemporary American audiences would be quite as predisposed to a film entitled My Big Fat Muslim Wedding.

(February 2003)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is available on DVD through Entertainment. A sequel, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday, and is reviewed here.

Saturday 19 March 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of March 11-13, 2015:
1 (new) Kung Fu Panda 3 (PG)
2 (new) The Divergent Series: Allegiant (12A)
3 (1) London Has Fallen (15)
4 (3) Deadpool (15)
5 (2) Hail, Caesar! (12A) ***
6 (4) Grimsby (15)
7 (new) The Witch (15) ****
8 (6) How To Be Single (15)
9 (5Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (U)
10 (new) Anomalisa (15) ***


My top five:   
1. The Pearl Button [above]
2. 10 Cloverfield Lane
3. The Witch
4. Hitchcock/Truffaut
5. High-Rise

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) The Last Witch Hunter (15)
2 (2) Brooklyn (12) ****
3 (3Legend (18) ***
4 (new) Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
5 (4Sicario (15) ***
6 (new) Everest (12)
7 (6) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12) **
8 (new) The Dressmaker (15) ***
9 (7) Straight Outta Compton (15) ***
10 (8) A Walk in the Woods (15)

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Singin' in the Rain (Good Friday, BBC2, 1.35pm)
2. The French Connection (Good Friday, C4, 1.20am)
3. Forbidden Planet (Saturday, BBC2, 8.35am)
4. The Day After Tomorrow (Saturday, C4, 7.40pm)
5. Air Force One (Good Friday, five, 9pm)

Friday 18 March 2016

"The Boy" (Guardian 18/03/16)

The Boy **
Dir: William Brent Bell. With: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, James Russell, Jim Norton. 97 mins. Cert: 15

With the measured suspense of The Witch and 10 Cloverfield Lane ascendant within genre cinema, the crash-bang-wallop merchants launch a counteroffensive. This intrinsically mediocre non-chiller transplants the hackneyed methods of 2014’s Annabelle to the English countryside, dispatching an uptight Lauren Cohan to the residence of the haughtily eccentric Heelshires to nanny their “son” Brahms – a child-sized porcelain doll. A vessel for everyone’s grief, Brahms is intended as creepy, yet in these cheap-looking surrounds, he rather resembles a stray Harry Hill prop; endless restless POV shots can’t transform a tchotchke into a credible threat. Elsewhere, gimmickmonger William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside) has but careworn gotchas to offer, and he exhausts those long before the indifferently staged stalk-and-slash finale. These movies need new toys to play with.

The Boy is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 17 March 2016

From the archive: "Cloverfield"

Cloverfield, the Internet sensation of the past few months, opens on a social gathering that looks suspiciously like the wrap party for any common-or-garden teen movie. Here are interchangeable hotties from central casting - haircuts and stubble for the boys; lipgloss and a vague semblance to other, better-known actresses for the girls - gathered together in a New York loft conversion to sip beer from plastic cups and frug non-committally to a soundtrack of recent indie hits. Fortunately for us, if not for them, the party is crashed, just after midnight, in the most spectacular fashion imaginable; someone, or something, decapitates the Statue of Liberty, and sends a number of fireballs hurtling into midtown Manhattan, forcing the revellers outside to negotiate the growing panic in the streets. We see it as they see it: the cloud of dust rushing up Broadway, as it did on that fateful day in September seven years ago; the debris and paper falling from overhead; the broken skyscrapers leaning on one another for support.

The twist is that all the action we see has apparently been recorded on one character's digital camcorder, an item of equipment that - like the amateur cameraman and his contemporaries - gets shaken, shot at and bloodied as the film goes on. This gimmick isn't as innovative as the frenzied Web-hype might suggest: George A. Romero's recent Diary of the Dead is arguably even more radical in its use of cellphone and webcam footage to tell its story, and Brian DePalma's Iraq reportage Redacted, "shot" by troops on a vengeful rampage, has been making waves on the festival circuit for just under a year now. It hasn't even been ten years since The Blair Witch Project did for the woods what Cloverfield does for city streets. Something about these shaky, wobbly, disorientating visuals remains tremendously effective, however. What the film evokes above all else is a sense of being present at monumental events - a bridge collapse, say, or the evacuation of a densely populated area - without having the context, the wider picture, that might enable us to fully process them.

The film is presented as an artefact, retrieved by the Department of Defense after a major societal breakdown; at no point are we told definitively where those responsible for engineering this collapse come from, or indeed what has happened to them. Instead, we get raw, and (in one sense) unmediated glimpses of a moment we can't fully comprehend; it's as though the producer JJ Abrams and the director Matt Reeves were striving to find a celluloid analogue for that commonplace Internet abbreviation "WTF??!!" (Though what we hear coming out of our heroes' mouths tends more towards tearful gushing and "oh my Gawd"s; just as the performers are very American teenagers, so Cloverfield is a very American nightmare, with little of the stoicism we Brits displayed in the immediate wake of the 7/7 attacks. Viewers on this side of the Atlantic might start to think the characters wuld be better off if they'd just take a moment, put the bloody camera down - had a cup of tea? - and gave serious thought to what they were doing and where they were headed. But then there'd be no film.)

Cloverfield is a B-movie at heart - you can see it in the way the female characters persist with high heels even as they're running for their lives - but it's cleverly assembled, genuinely resembling the kind of footage posted every day on YouTube or Facebook, while making some attempt to get at the psychology behind it. The recording is initially intended as a going away present for one member of the gang ("Can I watch this every night when I'm in Japan?"), but it's been taped over footage of two lovers enjoying a day out in Coney Island, images that emerge whenever the recording is interrupted, providing a poignant counterpoint to whatever it is that we're watching in the present. What these films suggest is the emergence of a generation prepared to use any technology at their disposal to document the good times, in anticipation of darker days to come. As Cloverfield's designated cameraman puts it - in the most American of ways - shortly before the world comes crashing down around his and everybody else's ankles: "It's about moments, man."

(January 2008)

Cloverfield is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment; a sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane, opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow, and is reviewed here. 

Saturday 12 March 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of March 4-6, 2015:
1 (new) London Has Fallen (15)
2 (new) Hail, Caesar! (12A) ***
3 (1) Deadpool (15)
4 (2) Grimsby (15)
5 (3Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (U)
6 (4) How To Be Single (15)
7 (7) The Revenant (15) ***
8 (re) Spotlight (15) ***
9 (new) Met Opera: Manon Lescaut (12A)
10 (new) The Other Side of the Door (15)


My top five:   
1. The Witch [above]
2. Hitchcock/Truffaut
3. The Ones Below
4. The Here After
5. Next to Her

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) The Last Witch Hunter (15)
2 (1) Brooklyn (12) ****
3 (2Legend (18) ***
4 (3Sicario (15) ***
5 (4Minions (U)
6 (5Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12) **
7 (new) Straight Outta Compton (15) ***
8 (6) A Walk in the Woods (15)
9 (re) Ted 2 (15)
10 (9) Macbeth (15) ***

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Magdalene Sisters (Sunday, BBC2, 11.50pm)
2. Strictly Ballroom (Sunday, BBC2, 3pm)
3. Zathura: A Space Adventure (Sunday, five, 12noon)
4. The Ring (Saturday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
5. Flubber (Sunday, five, 4.15pm)

Wednesday 9 March 2016

From the archive: "Kung Fu Panda 2"

2008's Kung Fu Panda, one of those what-it-says-on-the-tin propositions, turned out to be a perfectly fine animated offering, overshadowed by the release of Pixar's WALL-E a few weeks later. This was DreamWorks doing a chopsocky movie with cute animals in the place of Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung, and one eye on tapping the expanding Asian market. (Disney had done the same thing ten years earlier, with their hand-drawn Mulan.) That first film predated the 3D revolution, and Kung Fu Panda 2, directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, arrives at a moment when audiences have begun something of a counter-revolution: box-office figures show that, in the U.S. last weekend, cinemagoers - finally fed up with hiked ticket prices - expressed a marked preference for the 2D versions of Panda 2 (and Pirates 4) wherever 3D versions were also offered.

This is a slight pity in KFP2's case, since its visuals appear to have been influenced by the work the DreamWorks animators did on last year's 3D success How to Train Your Dragon. Throughout, there's a noticeable attempt to replicate that film's dynamism of motion, demonstrating how the stereoscopic camera can be used to add extra dimension, if you will, to the characters' fights and flights: Nelson will often shift perspective in the middle of a battle sequence to emphasise the hefty amount of carnage her ursine hero Po is racking up, or - as in one comic sequence late on, where his threats of retribution fall quite spectacularly on deaf ears - just how distanced he is from the real action. In one especially neat flourish, the camera adopts an overhead perspective to better observe the progress of Po and the rest of the Furious Five, clad in a Chinese dragon costume, as they rattle through the backstreets of one small village, recalling Pac-Man in the fabled arcade game. (Presumably, the sequence could be transferred shot-for-shot into any X-Box spin-off.)

What the film works towards, but a committee-produced sequel like this can't quite get at, is the Dragon movie's distinguishing emotion. The attempt at greater depth of feeling is signalled both by a creative-consultant credit for Guillermo del Toro, a master at making generic material affecting, and a narrative that sees Po engaged in the hunt for his true parentage - for the tubby warrior has finally reached an age where he's wondering why his notional father more closely resembles Big Bird than himself. (Po's dreams and childhood reminiscences are rendered in the hand-drawn anime style, perhaps inspired by Tarantino's Kill Bill.) The best material here is better than anything in the original, but there's still a lot of meaningless sound and fury that suggests the filmmakers were stuck for inspiration: discarded subplots include a pack of wolves pillaging villages for metal supplies, making this yet another burger chain-friendly feature that acts green, and sparking a set-piece in a smelting plant that can't help but recall a similar sequence in Toy Story 3.

And while it's admirable these films have resisted the tiring winks to grown-up movies other recent animations have made, elsewhere the KFP franchise has displayed a marked resistance to any humour other than the knockabout kind; with one eye on the overseas market, the other on very young viewers, it prefers cute over funny, and easily translated and consumed above both. As I remarked at the time of the first film, Jack Black is as muted as he's ever been voicing the title character: it's Po's body - his tummy, and his fists - that do all the talking for him. Otherwise, a supporting cast of funny people (Seth Rogen, David Cross, Jean-Claude Van Damme) get maybe one line in twenty to go on. As peacocking villain Lord Shen - who actually is a peacock, voiced by Gary Oldman - sneers at Po, "I find your stupidity mildly amusing", which is likely to be much the response of most accompanying adults. It's not bad, as such - and has the advantage of an easier platform to build from than Pixar's forthcoming Cars 2 - but it remains liable to be shown up by rival animators. The awesomeness of which Po speaks is here strictly serviceable, fleeting, functional.

(July 2011)

Kung Fu Panda 2 is available on DVD through Fox; a third instalment opens in cinemas nationwide this weekend.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

From the archive: "Kung Fu Panda"

The animators at DreamWorks have yet to make a great film - you have only to compare the Shreks to Pixar's Toy Stories to realise that - but they've been reliable providers of serviceable school-holiday entertainments featuring characters you might well want to own as merchandise. After the penguins of Madagascar and the colourful turtles and hamsters of Over the Hedge, the latest figure likely to send youngsters scurrying out of cinemas and into the toyshop is Kung Fu Panda's Po (voiced by Jack Black), a cuddly, clumsy bear who dreams of becoming a fighter so great he could "blind his enemies with pure awesomeness". Po, unfortunately, spends his waking hours working as a humble noodle seller, but when he gatecrashes a ceremony at a nearby temple, the panda is mistakenly appointed as the Dragon Warrior - ahead of such disciplined students as the 'Furious Five', a quintet (comprising a viper, a monkey, a mantis, a stork and a tiger) naturally miffed by this outsider in their midst. These differences have to be set aside when the fearsome Tai-Leung, a snow leopard with the voice of TV's Lovejoy, escapes from prison, set on vengeance against the quintet that put him there in the first place.

A fairly cute confection - its supporting cast of villagers made up of bears, pigs and bunnies - Kung Fu Panda looks to have been conceived in response to the criticism that too many modern animations have been sullied by in-jokes aimed at accompanying adults in the audience. Though it clearly aspires towards delivering an animated version of the martial-arts currently to be seen in the live-action The Forbidden Kingdom (indeed, Jackie Chan provides a voice cameo here), the film refrains from referencing specific chopsocky movies, wisely deciding its target audience would be too young to have seen Enter the Dragon or The Big Boss. Parents have nothing to worry about: though Po's mentor Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) insists "the only souvenirs we pick up around here are bloody knuckles and broken bones", the violence takes the form of knockabout comedy in which nobody gets hurt. (The best joke is that Po should be, well, insulated well enough to absorb all the blows he takes.) As a result, this is a likable if somewhat bland film (Black is on gentler form than he's perhaps ever been), one that inevitably suffers when put up against the dynamism of Pixar's own superhero movie The Incredibles, but which also suffers from the same synthetic chinoiserie (cherry blossoms, mountain landscapes) of Disney's 2D Mulan, the last animated attempt to crack the Asian market. The action sequences, at least, offer solid value-for-money, but these things have to be much, much better if they want to enter into the pantheon of modern classics; as it is, a quirk of scheduling fate leaves Kung Fu Panda liable to be knocked aside by the forthcoming WALL-E - yup, Pixar again.

(June 2008)

Kung Fu Panda is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Sunday 6 March 2016

On TV: "The Decent One"

For decades, one of the touchstone documents of life under Nazi occupation has been the diary of Anne Frank. The Decent One offers the starkest of counterpoints: here are the diaries of Heinrich Himmler, presented among the author's other collected correspondence. Vanessa Lapa's documentary serves as an investigation into how one might go about becoming a card-carrying Nazi, as so many of Himmler's generation did, and how one man in particular rose to a position where he was locking so many like Frank away in confined spaces. It is, in many ways, an exercise in back projection, inviting the contemporary viewer to read something of historical or psychological significance into even those banalities the teenage Himmler committed to the page.

It's clear that the First World War, which broke out during this diarist's formative years, had a major effect on the young Heinrich's psyche, and that his older incarnation was unwilling to shake off or otherwise outgrow certain attitudes formed during his youth: that thesis, proposed in Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and elsewhere, that Nazism was a form of arrested development goes unchallenged here. The Russian migrants flooding into Germany after the War "multiply like vermin"; his fellow citizens are dismissed as "so dumb and cowardly". The disapproving conservatism ("The horrible thing about Germany nowadays is that women don't want to be mothers") is all-encompassing: Himmler even uses the sight of a three-year-old child charging around naked before bedtime as an opportunity to rant about the threat the unruly young pose to his homeland's future.

This is not, by any means, a fun mindset to inhabit, but Lapa shapes her source material to make droll juxtapositions: one minute our Heinrich's tutting at homosexuals, the next he's going gaga over the beauty of Nordic man. While being driven to a Nazi rally, Himmler boasts of teaching his driver "our national philosophy": it may be history's first recorded example of the fellow in the back of the cab being more objectionable than the chap at the wheel. (Your heart really does go out to the driver: there is, here as elsewhere, little to counter the notion that most fascists are terrible, pompous bores.) In the love letters Himmler swapped with wife-to-be Marguerite Boden, it's the latter who emerges as the voice of common sense ("Why are you going to a Hitler rally when you know exactly what he'll say?"), although even she eventually felt compelled to sign up to the party line, whining about the Jewish builders working on their marital home.

The readings are supplemented by choice archive footage that points up the spirit of the times: the humiliation of WW1, the decadence of the Weimar years, the slow creep of National Socialist imagery, and the attendant reordering of society, represented both by the thoroughly heteronormative Himmler-Boden alliance and, wider afield, by the massing ranks of young men in uniform. Meanwhile, Lapa's busy rostrum camera scans Himmler's torturous, tangled penmanship, which - with its scratchy peaks and troughs - can't help but remind one of a polygraph. (Graphologists will have themselves a field day.) Of all the war stories the cinema has sought out over recent decades, few have been this revealing on both a political and a personal level; everything we see and hear appears to offer up a clue or two to those of us still mulling over how the Holocaust could happen.

Something plainly changed (or snapped?) in Himmler as Hitler took control and Germany geared up for battle once more: the fumbling tenderness of the Boden letters gives way to a series of snarling memoes and other proclamations - seriously, don't get him started on the gays - which at this remove sound very much like the output of a man getting drunk on the power being slung his way. That's before he starts issuing notes on sterilisation and the construction of the concentration camps, and Lapa spots something painfully revealing in the fact her subject came to forget several birthdays and anniversaries as this extension of the Nazi project took hold: his focus shifted, decisively and deleteriously. The Decent One arrives as both an invaluable attempt to position Himmler as more misguided human being than comic-book villain, and a reminder of the tenets of our own existence. We all make mistakes. Everyone has their reasons. But some are deadlier, and more dangerous, than others.

The Decent One screens on BBC4 tonight at 10.25pm.