Thursday, 26 February 2015

Carry On Girls (1973)

Carry On films often have a saucy seaside postcard sense of humour, so it is entirely appropriate to set one entirely at the seaside. Carry On Girls may lack the freshness (and several key cast members) of some of the earlier films, but it is still silly and enjoyable, albeit dated, fun.

Set in the fictional English seaside resort of Fircombe, the story sees local councillor and entrepreneur Sid Fiddler (played, naturally, by Sid James) plotting to use a beauty contest to boost business in the local area, a scheme that also involves his PR guru friend Peter Potter (Bernard Bresslaw), the dignity (and trousers) of the town mayor, Frederick Bumble (Kenneth Connor) and the seafront hotel run by his long suffering girlfriend Connie (Joan Sims). However, he has not counted on his arch rival, fellow councillor and head of the local Women's Lib, Augusta Prodworthy (June Whitfield) and her band of gender crusaders, who are prepared to use any means necessary to stop it.

Carry On Girls is the 25th film in the series, and some of the cast are showing their age a bit, in particular, Sid James, and the sight of him leching and chasing after young ladies gives some of the scenes a rather unsavoury atmosphere, albeit one entirely in keeping with the character of Fiddler.

Less enjoyable is the character of the Admiral played by Peter Butterworth, whose sole raison d'etre is to grope women and then look innocent when they complain, and playing sexual harassment for laughs, leaves a bit of a nasty taste in the mouth nowadays. Another cringeworthy aspect is Jimmy Logan playing the camp, lisping TV producer Cecil Gaybody (or, as Sid keeps calling him, “Mr Gayboy”), something which only goes to highlight how integral actors like Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey were to the success of the series

However, before I start to sound too much like Mrs Prodworthy herself, there is still plenty to enjoy in the film. Firstly is the story, which, with the clearly defined opposing sides and the big climactic event, is pretty tightly structured, with little padding. Meanwhile, the cast, despite a few more wrinkles and grey hairs, carry of the most tired and lame puns and innuendoes with a great sense of energy and fun, especially the other series regulars such as Barbara Windsor, Patsy Rowlands and Jack Douglas.

What remains fascinating about Carry On films of the 1970s is the dark undertones, and unflattering picture they sometimes paint of England and its inhabitants. The opening shot of Carry On Girls is of a miserable looking family, sitting in the rain on the seafront pier, simmering with resentment and bitterness. The film ends with that classic horror movie trope, the angry mob, and one that is happy to revel in the misfortunes of others, but turn nasty in a second when similar things happen to them.

Carry On films often finish on a rather traditional happy ending, with the young hero marrying his sweetheart, but this is not the case here. Hounded by the baying mob, with his money stolen by his girlfriend (to offset the damage he has done to her business), Sid has no choice but to leap on a motorcycle and ride off into the sunset to an uncertain future with a buxom blonde.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Lost World (1960)

With the source material and once-in-a-lifetime cast that it has The Lost World should have been a sure fire piece of schlocky entertainment, but the end product is spoiled by a poor script and unbelievably bad special effects.

Professor George Challenger (Claude Rains) is leading an expedition back to the Amazonian basin where he claims he previously discovered living dinosaurs. Accompanying him this time is renowned hunter Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie, star of The Day the Earth Stood Still), sceptical scientist Professor Summerlee, and a reporter, Ed Malone (David Hedison). As Malone's News Agency employers are picking up some of the costs, his boss's daughter Jennifer Holmes (Jill St. John) also gets to tag along, along with her brother and her pet poodle, and the gang is completed by the stereotyped, hot blooded and mysterious Latin American helicopter pilot Manuel and his stereotyped greedy and cowardly sidekick Costa.

Along the way they battle such dangers as gibberish spouting native tribesmen (definitely not white people in loincloths and brown make up), man eating dinosaurs (definitely not lizards with horns glued on) and falling molten rocks (definitely not painted bits of polystyrene).

The most obvious problem is the aforementioned effects, not in the slightest bit convincing, and surprising to see in a big Hollywood production. However, this might have been forgivable if the plodding, laborious script, laced with childish humour and grating melodrama had been of a better quality, and the characters more than cardboard cutouts.

The stars make it just about enjoyable, with Rains in particular being a major asset, bringing the same likeable energy that gave to the character of Captain Renault in Casablanca, even with a paunch and a curly sandy coloured fright wig that makes him unrecognisable from the suave slime ball of that film.


Thursday, 19 February 2015

Bless This House (1972)

For a brief period in the 1970s, it seemed every British sitcom had a tie-in movie in the cinemas. Some, such as Dad's Army or Till Death Us Do Part took the opportunity to use the medium and explore the characters and their back-story more fully than on the small screen, while others, such as Bless This House simply felt like several TV episodes hastily cobbled together and just as hastily filmed.

The set up is the same as on the show, with Sid James playing Sid Abbott, a salesman for a stationery company, living in suburban semi-detached splendour with his wife Jean (Diana Coupland) and teenage children, art student Mike (Robin Askwith) and protesting do-gooder Sally. Sid and Jean are always plotting (largely harmless) schemes behind each other’s backs, and neither can understand the kids and, this being the 70s, their permissive society.

The various story lines feature Sid setting up a whisky distillery in his shed with his best friend Trevor (Peter Butterworth), Jean setting up an antique stall with her best friend Betty (Patsy Rowlands), Sally turning into an eco-warrior and Mike falling for the daughter of the snooty new next door neighbours (Terry Scott and June Whitfield)

Contemporary issues and themes such as Women's Lib and environmental activism are thrown in to the mix in order to keep things moving, but are quickly discarded, and most of the laughs come from pratfalls and slapstick rather than situations and one-liners

The only real bit of sustained plotting comes with star crossed lovers Mike and Kate falling in love and wanting to get married, although this is not really mined for tension or laughs. (Given the breathless pace at which the story moves along towards the end, it does make me wonder whether scenes were cut or scripted but simply not filmed)

The film is produced and directed by Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, who performed, respectively the same tasks on the Carry On films, which also regularly featured James, Butterworth, Scott, Whitfield and Rowlands, and so the filmmaking is efficient if unremarkable. The stars do their best, trying to inject some life into the rather anodyne material, but the whole thing lacks the ribald energy of the best of the Carry On series.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Nowhere Boy (2009)

Charting the traumatic teenage years of John Lennon, Nowhere Boy suffers from the problem many biopics have, taking a rich complex life and reducing it down to “X is like this, because of Y”. The story centres around Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson) and his relationship with, and battles between his absentee fun loving mother Julia, and the stern Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) who raised him.

You would think it is impossible to make a boring film about John Lennon, at any stage his life, but particularly at the stage where he is learning to play guitar and first meeting up with Paul McCartney and George Harrison. However, the big problem with the film lies in the main character, as Johnson does little to make him into a distinctive character beyond that, and the script often paints him as little more than a sullen teenager, with one dreary and dramatically obvious scene unfolding after another. A possible Oedipal attraction between John and Julia (who is looks and acts more like his elder sister than mother) is hinted at in a wonderfully uncomfortable scene, but never properly explored beyond that

If you want to know something of Lennon the man, listen to his music, which we finally get to do as his solo song “Mother” plays over the end credits, a piece that tells us as much about his relationship with her in four tense dramatic minutes than this film manages in more than ninety torpid ones.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

A quintessential Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, The Gay Divorcee takes place in the sort of world only golden era Hollywood could create and a fast moving witty script, charming cast and great music make for wonderful old fashioned entertainment.

Guy Holden (Astaire) is a famous American song and dance man, hanging around London (I have always wondered by this and other Astaire and Rogers films are set in London - perhaps the European setting might have seemed exotic to Depression era American audiences) with a bungling lawyer friend, Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton). Enter another American, Mimi Glossop, who is in England, staying with her bossy and regularly married Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) and
seeking a divorce from her geologist husband. Holden is besotted with Glossop – but once Hortense enlists Fitzgerald to help, things get complicated.

The assorted plot twists that crop up along the way do not stand up to much scrutiny, but this is not meant as a criticism, as the very absurdity of them helps to create the fantasy world that the film inhabits.

The characters are pretty much the same as in any of the other classic Astaire and Rogers films. Fred plays the showbiz celebrity, famous enough to get out of paying a Paris restaurant bill by treating the diners and staff to a spot of tap dancing, and rich enough that he can devote his ample spare time to hanging around with his friend and chasing the woman of his dreams. Rogers is brassy and great fun, without ever being overbearing or grating, not an easy trick to pull off. The chemistry between the two is fascinating and not the usual on screen romance. Astaire is hardly a macho, alpha-male type, and Rogers looks as likely to sweep him off his feet as the other way around.

The rest of the cast are equally enjoyable, with Horton and Brady bringing charm to characters who could otherwise be irritating, especially important as it is these two who often drive the plot forward.

Although still a bit technically crude in places, we can see director Mark Sandrich experimenting with cinematic techniques that were in their infancy. The camera is largely static in the talking sequences but becomes mobile during dance numbers, panning from side to side as it follows the stars. Even more interesting is the montage created for the song The Continental, with some odd angles and (still modern looking) fast, rhythmic editing.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Cool as Ice (1991)

A deserved but minor entry in the crapola hall-of-fame, Cool as Ice continues a number of well-worn Hollywood traditions, such as taking a flavour-of-the-month celebrity and dumping them into a hastily constructed vehicle for their talents, and cashing in on a subculture by appropriating the surface elements and presenting a neutered version of it for mass consumption. Luckily, it also continues some bad film traditions, such as atrocious acting, baffling plot twists, and needless musical numbers, which give the film a passable amount of entertainment value.

The plot is essentially a loose reworking of The Wild One, with rapper Vanilla Ice in the Marlon Brando role. He plays Johnny Van Owen, a freewheeling, motorbiking rapper, who drifts into Anytown USA with his gang of fellow rappers/bikers. Johnny catches the eye of local honour student Kathy Winslow, and after a broken down bike leaves them temporarily stranded, he decides to get to know Kathy better. However, her dad is having none of it, fearing Johnny may be linked to a dark secret from his past. Kathy's boyfriend Nick is having none of it either, and decides to take a violent revenge on Johnny.

When a film opening moments have the main character trying to impress a girl by jumping a motorcycle over a hedge to land in front of the horse she is riding, you know you are in the presence of a special kind of idiot. Other highlights include: the husband wife team of Mae and Roscoe, the bumbling owners motorcycle repair store, with a workshop as full of shiny new bikes as their heads are empty of ideas on how to fix broken ones; Naomi Campbell sings! (Well, she at least opens and closes her mouth in sync with some singing); Kathy’s dad, who loves to go on the local TV news even though it might possibly compromise his cover in the witness protection programme; and the poster tagline, which really gives you something to think about: “When a girl has a heart of stone, there's only one way to melt it. Just add Ice”

Director David Kellogg has spent most of his career making music videos, TV commercials and Playboy documentaries, and his love for the first on that list is evident as the goofy thrills and spills soon taper off, along with the laughs, leaving what is essentially a series of song and dance numbers. These are shot in the slick, fast edit way all videos were in the 90s, and it is this slickness that ultimately stops the film from being too entertaining, as a truly eccentric or deranged visonary individual behind the camera could have made for a truly unhinged film.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is of interest more for the part it plays in cinema history and the once-in-a-lifetime cast rather than the actual content of the film. Presumably anxious to show off the new medium of talking pictures, MGM did not waste valuable time writing a script. Instead, the studio bosses simply rounded up their brightest and best talent, shoved them on a stage, pointed a camera (just one by the look of things) and let them get on with songs, dances and comedy routines.

The entire thing is filmed with all the cinematic flair of a parent recording their child’s school play, and the rigid camera and uninspired angles often sap much of the energy and talent of the performers for the viewer. Of course, a non-stop parade of variety acts would be perfectly fine for those watching in a theatrical setting, as the immediacy and the atmosphere from the audience would more than compensate for the repetitive format. However, this film was made to an empty house, making the corny banter of hosts Conrad Nagel and Jack Benny fall flat, something not helped by having them address the non-existent theatre audience, rather than the camera.

Unlike other films that use the revue format, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 has no story, either to link the skits or run in the background, surprising, and a little frustrating, given that silent pioneers – including some on this bill - had been hard at work developing cinema in order to tell stories. They had also invented a few tricks and techniques that were unique to the medium, but these are few and far between here. There are a couple of cinematic touches, such as the opening number where the picture goes (presumably intentionally) negative, or, more successfully, where Bessie Love initially appears in miniature (inside Jack Benny's pocket of all places) before growing to full size to complete her number. In fact, the effect is so successful that it is repeated later in the film with Marion Davies and her soldier-themed routine.

Despite this there are enough points of interest both on and off screen for fans of the films and the history of early Tinseltown to watch The Hollywood Revue of 1929 at least once. For a start, it marks the first on screen appearance of the song Singin' in the Rain, more than 20 years before co-writer Arthur Freed, in his later capacity as an MGM producer, would use it as the basis of the classic film of the same name.

We also get to see early talkie appearances from silent stars such as Laurel and Hardy, in an enjoyable routine playing bungling magicians, and Buster Keaton, doing pratfalls in a scene that lacks the purely cinematic invention of his classic work. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford, introduced as "the personification of youth, beauty, joy and happiness", shows off her lesser known song and dance talents.

While it may make for an uneven, often grating watch, not helped by the nearly two hours running time, there is no denying the place of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 in the story of cinema as a medium. Films like this were part of a process that separated those, like Crawford or Laurel & Hardy, who could adapt to sound from those who couldn't, such as, sadly, Keaton.