Perhaps the most interesting thing about the hit American comedy Bridesmaids was its audience: women in their mid-thirties, a habitually undervalued crowd, finally given something to enjoy – and enjoying it to the tune of a staggering $288m worldwide. And without doubt the smartest decision in that movie was casting Chris O’Dowd as the romantic hero. A little-known, 33-year-old, Sligo-born, UK television comedy actor, he was enchanting (there is no other word) as the soft-hearted local cop in love with the caustic Kristen Wiig.
In The Sapphires he plays a down-on-his-luck impresario taking an all-girl group of aboriginal teenagers to Vietnam to entertain the troops with soul classics. Loosely based on a true story, and a popular Australian stage play, the film has absolutely none of the power of a movie like The Commitments – it’s too naive, and most of the vocal dubbing is weirdly, distancingly poor. And yet O’Dowd proves again that he can melt stone with his shtick, which is crucially very light, and perfect for an ensemble film. He’s the kind of actor who (although trained at Lamda) always gives the impression that his background was stand-up: a beta male scuffing his shoes about stage, making minor, sympathetic, appealing observations (his real-life turn working in a charity call centre in his twenties apparently netted thousands).
Although he clearly has more chops than the most successful current British stand-ups (John Bishop, Michael McIntyre), O’Dowd’s persona is really very similar: reassuring, friendly. And although O’Dowd feels like the star here he – and this is key – never threatens to overpower the film. He’s no Hugh Grant, stinking everything out with his charisma. (A famously “ensemble” movie such as Four Weddings and a Funeral isn’t really an ensemble film at all. Grant’s way of walking and talking and moving is the film.) O’Dowd never seeks to upstage the women he’s acting with, which is why he’s so wildly loved by the female audience. And this unusual, modest trick of his makes him more and more of a star – a star who continues to not seek to upstage . . . in a gratifying, self reiterating loop.
Film of the week is the intriguing documentary, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan. An American long resident in London, the ingenious Harryhausen, now 90 and retired, was very much an auteur technician who began his stop-motion animation career on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) having been stunned by the 1933 King Kong. So many of his hand-crafted creations – particularly the various mythical creatures in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) – put the wind up me as a kid and still do. How can his foot-tall models have such menace and scale? His Talos in Jason – ostensibly a bronze statue – never changes his expression once and yet miraculously projects a sense of hate stretching back forever.
A tour of Harryhausen’s workshop is heartbreaking: paintbrushes long-hardening in Sainsbury’s strawberry yoghurt pots. Small snarling heads on baking trays. His daughter recalls opening the oven to regularly find little dinosaurs cooking away in there. Harryhausen never calls them monsters, but creatures. Just as he never says “my films”, but “our films”. He is even tactful when James Cameron pops up (seeming quite mad: pomposity itself) saying that, given the chance, Harryhausen would surely now just use CGI (“he wouldn’t cling to the puppetry”). Harryhausen politely refutes this.
Steven Spielberg, interviewed here along with Peter Jackson (one of cinema’s great offenders of bad CGI – just think of the terrible, weightless giant spider sequence in his remake of King Kong) admits that CGI is fast losing power. “There comes a point where people will reject digital effects and want movies where we actually did something in real space, and real time.” Right on. The most fascinating point made in the film is that it was Harryhausen who invented the way we all think dinosaurs moved. Those gestures – adopted as truth even by palaeontologists – first came from him.
Here Comes the Boom is a fantasia of hackneyed conceits about education, following an “inspirational” biology teacher (Kevin James) moonlighting as a mixed martial arts fighter and raising money to keep Henry Winkler in his job as a school band leader. The film is not without wit – the gentle Winkler chooses Neil Diamond’s definitively unaggressive 1969 hit “Holly Holy” (“Take the lonely child/All the sun gonna rise in the sky”) as James’s fight-entrance number – but it is essentially the kind of flaccid success fantasy that makes you want to kill someone. I nominate James. A comic actor who exaggerates everything but transmits zilch.
Excision is a US comedy-horror with a good reputation. It zings along revoltingly (note its 18 certificate) with a committed performance from Teen Choice darling AnnaLynne McCord (once given the Young Hollywood Award for Superstar of Tomorrow) as the completely demented eldest daughter in a repressed family. McCord’s elfin face has been transformed here with fake heavy eyebrows into something disturbingly simian and her low, uncouth voice provides a really weird sexual charge. She’s so transformed, so thoroughly into the part, the rest of the movie, which is sometimes genuinely bizarre, turns out far too predictable in the end to contain her.
At more than three hours and feeling it, Aurora, a Romanian thriller from Cristi Puiu, director of the powerful The Death of Mr Lazarescu, is both horribly real and abstract, as it follows an engineer (played by the director) as he prepares to commit murder. Never has a Puffa jacket seemed so furtive and symbolic as it covers this chilling man who turns his swinishly blank gaze on his fellow citizens: a girl ordering cabbage salad in a canteen; a woman yelling at her dog-loving daughter and so on. It’s a film with a brutal, post-Ceausescu dampness to it, about cold people who can never be made warm, and only one shot of excitement. A murder movie languishing in a suicidal stupor. Save some strength to crawl out of the cinema.