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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Irving Cummings’ 1951 film Double Dynamite has the feel of something which wasn’t really getting the full attention of any of its originators. It was produced in 1948 under the title It’s Only Money, as one of the first films made by RKO after Howard Hawks bought the studio; it then sat on the shelf for years, during which time Hawks changed the name – Double Dynamite sounds like a meaningless fridge title, until you figure out it’s a reference to the bust of leading lady Jane Russell (not that she or the bust is particularly prominent in the movie).

1948 was also the year that Frank Sinatra co-starred in On the Town, one of those films which has really lasted. Bizarrely, he’s third-billed in Double Dynamite, despite being the leading man. He plays Johnny Dalton, a reserved and prudent bank clerk, who is engaged to be married to his co-worker Mibs (Russell). But they just don’t have enough money to actually marry or start a life together, something which is causing some angst in the relationship. Their friend Emile (Groucho Marx), a waiter in the local restaurant, doesn’t help matters much when he suggests that the shortage of cash is just a convenient pretext to disguise Johnny’s commitment issues: Mibs duly storms out of the restaurant in tears when she hears this suggestion. ‘Are you happy now?’ demands Sinatra. ‘Not really, I was hoping for a tip,’ replies Groucho. (He’s not wearing the famous greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, but Groucho Marx’s role in the film is basically just to be Groucho Marx – he even seems to be doing a toned-down version of the Groucho lope in a few scenes. The other two, in contrast, are rather cast against type.)

Well, on the way back to the bank, a disconsolate Johnny comes across a man being beaten up in an alleyway, and being a decent sort he steps in to rescue him. The victim (Nestor Paiva) turns out to be one Hot Horse Harris, proprietor of an illegal bookie’s, and in gratitude he gives Johnny (rather against his will) a thousand dubious bucks, which (courtesy of a multiplier bet the crook also insists on treating his rescuer to) ends up as $60,000, obviously a huge sum. Could this allow Johnny and Mibs to settle down together at last? Should he be worried about the dodgy provenance of the cash? Nonsense, says Groucho – it’s only money, so make the most of it!

Cue a slightly baffling but nevertheless charming interlude, as Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra perform a jaunty duet together entitled ‘It’s Only Money’ (Sinatra later commented, half in jest, that singing was the only thing he could do better than Groucho). There are only a couple of songs in Double Dynamite, so it hardly qualifies as a musical, but I suppose the thinking was that it’s Frank Sinatra, so he has to sing at some point (maybe The Manchurian Candidate would also have been improved by some crooning about the technicalities of brainwashing). This is a perky little tune, but the staging is rather distracting, as the duo caper down a street – thanks to the miracle of substandard back projection, they and the background seem to be travelling at different speeds.

Anyway, all looks good for Johnny, until it is revealed that the bank he and Mibs works for has a huge black hole in its accounts, and investigators are trying to work out if one of the employees has pinched it. This is not a good time for Johnny to be swanning around with large amounts of cash, especially as the bookie he got it from has dropped out of sight and can’t confirm his account of how he got it…

What ensues is a sort of amiable farce, with lots going on: Sinatra has to quietly steal back all the gifts he’s given to Russell, Groucho volunteers to look after the money and ends up impersonating a millionaire who made his money in pickled pig’s feet, Russell is pursued by the lothario son of the bank president, and so on. Groucho’s scenes in particular are good fun – one wonders how much of his dialogue was ad libbed, or at least written by him – but the plot is a bit of a shambles.

It honestly feels like another one of those movies where the makers thought that just casting three stars like Sinatra, Russell and Groucho would be enough to guarantee results. It hardly ever works that way, though – as noted, Groucho is always good value, and Sinatra’s singing is as melodious as you might expect, although Jane Russell doesn’t get quite as good material as either of them. The problem is that one almost gets the impression they’re making the script up as they go along – the best farces are precision-tooled devices of entertainment, relying on intricate plotting and timing. Double Dynamite just meanders about from scene to scene.

You can perhaps see something of an influence from the screwball comedy genre on Double Dynamite – the film is, after all, about a romance, and there are the usual misunderstandings and false identities and scrapes with the police involved. Even before It’s Only Money, the film was provisionally titled The Pasadena Story, something obviously intended to recall The Philadelphia Story and The Palm Beach Story, two of the best-known screwball comedies. Compared to films like that, though, Double Dynamite just feels shapeless and baggy; the characters are nowhere near as strong as the ones in Howard Hawks’ own Bringing Up Baby, and the script doesn’t come close to sparkling in the same way – though, this being a script from the forties, the dialogue is often unexpectedly good (even if there’s a slightly laborious in-joke about the police hunting a man with a ‘strong resemblance to Frank Sinatra’ at one point).

In the end Double Dynamite is one of those films which manages to be very insubstantial despite the presence of three big-name talents. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it, but less than a day later most of the details of the plot are already beginning to fade from my brain. It obviously has a certain curiosity value, but I’m not sure it’s accomplished enough to really be worth seeking out.

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Normally one of the iron rules of cinema – from that subset of the regulatory corpus devoted to the art of the franchise – is that successful sequels are usually a question of providing more of the same thing from the first film. The trick, such as it is, lies in adding just enough novelty to hide the fact that the film is an exercise in repetition. Long-running franchises inevitably mutate over time, but it’s quite unusual for any two films to be radically different in tone or atmosphere (this is usually the sign of a break in production, a change of key personnel, or both).

So exactly what the hell Netflix think they are doing with Matthias Schweighofer’s Army of Thieves seems to be a reasonable question. One of the arch-streamer’s big releases from early in the summer was Army of the Dead, a big-budget horror extravaganza directed by Zach Snyder in full-on taste-and-nuance-free mode. I had a fairly good time watching Army of the Dead, although I think it’s not a patch on the films that obviously inspired it. Army of Thieves, on the other hand, is a completely different proposition.

Schweighofer was in Army of the Dead and reprises the role here in addition to directing. His character is revealed to have led a former existence as Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert, by day a bank clerk leading a repetitive, dull life, in his spare time an aspiring YouTuber and expert on safecracking and its history. Of particular interest to him are a series of legendary safes made by a man named Wagner, based on his famous namesake’s Ring Cycle of operas.

One day, he is challenged to put his money where his mouth is, when he gets an invite to a secret underground safecracking club in Berlin (my partner has lived there for many years and I don’t recall her mentioning this being a thing, but then I do spend some of the time tuned out while she’s talking). His performance there leads to an invitation to join a faintly ridiculous gang of elite international thieves. So far the overall tone of the film has simply been a bit odd – low-key character comedy with Schweighofer, mixed with bizarre background details about an outbreak of a zombie virus over in Nevada – but its influences and aspirations become a bit clearer, not least because the leader of the gang is Nathalie Emmanuel, best known for playing a supporting member of the Fast & Furious All-Stars in the last few films from that franchise. Also present are Ruby O Fee as an ace hacker and general cool cat, Scott Martin as an especially absurd alpha-male, and Guz Khan as their sandwich-loving getaway driver.

Yes, with the world’s banks on edge because of the zombie virus outbreak and money being shifted around the world, the gang have decided that this is the optimum time to carry out a series of heists on three of the four Wagner vaults (naturally, all the vaults are about to be decommissioned, meaning the robberies must be performed on consecutive days in different European countries). As the world’s leading expert, it will be Sebastian’s job to crack the safes. What could possibly go wrong?

Army of the Dead had a bit of a fridge title, mainly because the zombies were only figuratively an army, and Army of Thieves really does too, because I don’t think five robbers really constitutes an army, either. This is quibbling stuff, however, as Army of Thieves rather unexpectedly turns out to be really good fun. I must admit that when I first heard of the movie and its premise, the old brow did furrow up a bit – it’s a prequel to a zombie movie that doesn’t actually have any zombies in it? – and there is a sense in which it remains a rather odd proposition. This isn’t really a zombie movie, or any kind of horror movie – and yet they feel obliged to put in background sequences about the zombie outbreak in America, and dream sequences with the undead, and references to the zombie crisis. It’s certainly a new approach to a genre mash-up, but whether it genuinely works or not I wouldn’t like to say.

If you disregard all the stuff about zombies – which is, I have to say, a relatively minor element of the film – what you’re left with is an appealing, slick, almost entirely ridiculous caper movie, built around an engaging performance from Schweighofer and directed by him with a lightness of touch which is very appealing. The Netflix caper comedy which has been getting all the attention is Red Notice, which got a massive audience despite being largely dreadful; there are numerous points of similarity between Red Notice and Army of Thieves (there’s even a casual line of dialogue about one character having been the subject of a red notice since they were a teenager), almost to the point where you wonder if all the people working for Netflix ever actually talk to each other about what they’re doing. However, Schweighofer’s movie is much better, being less smug and lazy and taking the time to establish more rounded characters (some of these guys are well on the way to being three-dimensional) and a slightly more coherent plot. The uninitiated viewer will even learn something about the plot of the Ring Cycle, which isn’t something you can say about most action comedy caper movies.

Quite apart from all the odd bits with zombies in them, the film’s existence as a prequel does result in a few slightly regrettable effects – the storyline about the four Wagner vaults isn’t entirely resolved, because, guess what, the final safe is the one Schweighofer is hired to crack in Army of Thieves (all the Wagner music on the soundtrack in that movie finally makes sense as more than a tip of the hat to Excalibur, which is apparently Zach Snyder’s favourite movie), while some of the violence in this film is just a touch more graphic than you might expect given the overall frothy tone of it. (I must also report yet another appearance of that disagreeable trope where, given a nicely diverse group of characters, it’s always only ever a character of one gender, one orientation, and one ethnic group who turns out to be the traitorous villain – see also Eternals, for another example of the same thing.)

On the whole, though, a really entertaining and fun movie, and one which perhaps even manages to give Army of the Dead a bit of much-needed poignancy and depth, given the way it expands Schweighofer’s character. (Then again, unlikely as it seems, apparently he’s going to be in the next sequel, Planet of the Dead, as well.) This is very possibly a better film than its progenitor, but it’s obviously incredibly hard to compare the two. This is a rare example of a franchise where it’s entirely possible someone could thoroughly enjoy one film but take a violent dislike to the other.

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One of the things the last couple of years has really brought home to me is the fact that while I do, obviously, enjoy watching films, I also have a helpless passion for the theatrical experience: actually going out to a cinema, trying to sit patiently through the adverts, wondering which trailers we’re going to get, and so on. I’ve got West Side Story on DVD and have lost track of how often I’ve seen it, but every time it comes back on at a cinema I try to watch it again there, simply because the context makes a truly great film into an almost overwhelming one. I saw it on the big screen again the other night, where it was preceded by the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming version: predictable cries of ‘Spoilers!’ from someone at the back, in addition to a vague sense of bafflement at what on earth Spielberg thinks he can possibly achieve. No film is entirely perfect, but West Side Story comes much closer than most, especially up on the big screen.

It was just as well I went, as the following day Niece tested positive for Covid (life is still not back on an entirely even keel and my family are showing superhuman reserves of patience and generosity by putting up with me for much longer than anticipated) and trips to the cinema are off the agenda for at least the next ten days. So much for an early verdict on the Ghostbusters sequel or Benedict Cumberbatch’s new western.

‘There’s always home cinema,’ someone said, but, you know, that always sounds a bit of an oxymoron to me. But I am in a minority, of course: the home cinema audience is huge, and it seems like an appreciable chunk of them spent the other weekend watching Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice, which apparently had the biggest audience share for its debut of any film in Netflix history. (It also had the tiny cinema release Netflix usually reserves only for films it hopes will win Oscars: I’m going to stick my neck out and say unless they introduce a new category for Best Film With No Substance, Identity, or Original Ideas of Its Own, Red Notice will be going home empty-handed.)

Red Notice is virtually a fridge title anyway: apparently it’s another name for the most serious kind of international arrest warrant, not that this has any relevance to the plot until the last few seconds. The film gets going with some flim-flam about fabulous jewelled eggs that Mark Antony gave to Cleopatra as a wedding present (the eggs and even the marriage are entirely fictitious, by the way); the quest to reunite the eggs is the plot device the rest of the movie pivots creakily around.

One of the eggs is in Italy, so we get a swooping drone camera shot of the iconic and unmistakable skyline of Rome, which the director then decides to obscure behind a huge caption saying ROME, presumably because he knows this film is aimed at an audience whose carpets and knuckles are frequently in contact. Leaping stoically from a hefty vehicle is genial Dwayne Johnson, whose head looks a bit like an egg these days (he was paid 10% of the very substantial budget): Dwayne basically seems to be playing a variation on his Fast & Furious character, in this case a no-nonsense FBI agent chasing a daring art thief. Johnson thinks the thief has already nicked the egg. ‘Of course not!’ sneers the museum director. But our man knows better, and the thief has made the mistake of swapping the priceless treasure for a fake which dissolves when a well-known soft drink is poured over it. Even more perplexingly, given he must have nicked the egg the previous night (the exhibit is surrounded by tourists all the time), the thief (Ryan Reynolds) has stuck around for some reason.

Still, it enables Johnson and Reynolds to chase about and swap repartee for a bit, which is really the meat of this kind of movie; it looks for a bit like Reynolds has got away, but no, Johnson turns up and nabs him properly, and he gets sent off to the Russian gulag to await trial (I think some of the jurisprudence in this movie is a bit iffy, but I expect you had already figured that out for yourself).

But lo! There is another twist, as another art thief (Gal Gadot, on another 10% of the budget) pinches the egg after Johnson recovers it, having taken on the job of finding all three in return for a huge payday. What’s more, Gadot frames Johnson for the theft, and Interpol send him off to be Reynolds’ cell-mate in Russia.

Yes, we are back in buddy-buddy land, and it falls to Reynolds and Johnson to team up, bust out of prison with virtually a single bound, and try to stop Gadot from getting the other two eggs, bickering and squabbling all the way. Can they find the other eggs in time? Will they come to respect and like each other? And just how big a slice of the budget is Ryan Reynolds actually in line for?

Let’s get one thing straight: Red Notice is a pretty bad movie, even by the standards of Netflix originals. All three stars have basically been nailed into their comfort zones and are required to work with a script where various elements of old Fast & Furious, Ocean’s Eleven and Indiana Jones films are cobbled together, all seemingly with the least demanding of audiences in mind. There are holes in the plot Dwayne Johnson would probably fit through, plot twists that are either very predictable or completely absurd, grindingly obvious expo- and info-dumps, and heavy reliance on slick and (also obvious) CGI. There are some tonal problems for what’s supposed to be a knockabout caper (at one point Gadot, desirous of information, applies electrodes to Johnson’s lower anatomy, and not in a recreational way). Such is the nature of the plot that the film doesn’t even have a proper climax or ending, just sort of crunching its way down into a lower gear while getting ready for the inevitable sequel or two. It is mechanical popcorn film-making of the least attractive kind, and shorn of the benefits of the theatrical experience there is little to disguise this.

However, it would be remiss of me not to admit that watching it was not a wholly horrible experience: genial Dwayne has become the world’s biggest star because he is an agreeable screen presence, after all, and in this film he does the sort of thing audiences like to see him do – the film only really pushes him into new territory at one point where he is required to do the tango with Gadot, which resembles what will happen if examples of industrial architecture are ever allowed to compete on Strictly. Ryan Reynolds, also, is very good at the kind of snarky, faintly camp and knowing schtick he is constantly doing throughout, and the film does have some pretty good gags in it. I must also acknowledge the presence of what I have called for some years the Kurylenko Factor: which is that any film in which someone like Gal Gadot habitually turns up in tight dresses, well-fitted jodhpurs, swimsuits, I think you’re getting the idea here, is always going to have a kind of rudimentary appeal on a very basic level, no matter how bad the script. I’m not proud of it, but it is a fact.

The thing is, though, that the idea is surely to take charismatic stars, adept light comedians, and beautiful women and put them in a film with a really good script where they shine, not just treat them as nearly sufficient in and of themselves and just do the barest minimum to cobble a story together around them. But this is what Red Notice feels like: it’s just dumb and pointless, for all the slick and lavish presentation. A shocking waste of time and talent, and a very bad omen for the future.

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Even before you start watching Todd Strauss-Schulson’s 2015 movie The Final Girls, it’s clear from the title what flavour of film it’s probably going to be – horror, most likely a slasher, from the knowing-ironic-meta-deconstructionist tradition which has developed over the last couple of decades (most likely traceable back to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994). And so it proves, with the movie immediately launching into a pastiche of the original Friday the 13th, with a film-within-the-film called Camp Bloodbath.

This concerns a lakeside youth camp, a collection of attractive but disposable young people as counsellors, a scarred lunatic with a machete and a grudge, and all the other bits and pieces you might expect from this kind of movie. It’s crashingly unsubtle, but then that’s sort of the point: the film is basically establishing its terms of reference, and there is a fair degree to get straight here.

One of these elements is the distinction between Nancy, one of the victims in the film-within-the-film, and Amanda, who is the actress playing her (they are both portrayed by Malin Akerman, who I have recently learned is of Swedish extraction – that explains a bit, I suppose). The main character is Max (Taissa Farmiga), Amanda’s daughter, who – nearly thirty years on from the release of Camp Bloodbath – has developed a real dislike for the film, feeling it ruined her mother’s career.

Still, it has become a cult classic, and Max finds herself persuaded into going to a revival, on the somewhat inauspicious occasion of the third anniversary of Amanda’s death in a car crash (Max feels responsible on level, also being in the car at the time). With her are her kooky best friend (Alia Shawkat), the bitchy local queen bee (Nina Dobrev), a guy she’s sort of into (Alexander Ludwig, who managed to spend 2015 appearing in both The Final Girls and another film called Final Girl, which to me only suggests some kind of clerical mix-up at his agent’s office), and the horror geek responsible for the revival (Thomas Middleditch).

The film begins, but quite early on there is an accident and the cinema catches fire. Max and her friends have no alternative but to hack their way through the screen in order to escape. However, rather than the back of the cinema, they find themselves in woodland, in the daytime. A vintage minivan trundles past, and the occupants stop for directions: they are the characters from Camp Bloodbath, on their way to the camp!

Yes, Max and the others have somehow managed to get themselves stuck inside the film they were watching; quite why this has happened and the finer details of how this new reality functions are never completely addressed – initially it seems to be the case that the events of the film are happening on a permanent loop, repeating endlessly, but this rather gets forgotten about, as is the question of whether the film itself is as inimical to them as Billy, the killer from the movie, is.

Getting stuck in a slasher movie is naturally cause for concern, even if they do know in advance how events are going to play out. What rather complicates the situation is the fact that Max can’t help responding to Nancy as though she really is a younger version of her lost mother, which makes her absolutely determined to change the plot of the film and save her life. Things get even more complicated when the newcomers’ interference causes the plot to take a radically different course – the ‘final girl’ who is supposed to slay the killer meets a sticky end much too soon. With her gone, who is qualified to take on her mantle and save the day?

The Final Girls apparently had its genesis in the fact that one of its writers, Joshua John Miller, was the son of Jason Miller, who achieved horror immortality of a sort when he appeared in The Exorcist: watching a parent repeatedly die on screen was what planted the seed. Most of the obvious influences on the film come from elsewhere, however – quite apart from Friday the 13th, there are clear debts to the Scream series (the geeky character who delivers a lecture on ‘how to survive a horror film’) and the Halloween series (the Camp Bloodbath sequel has a hospital setting, like Halloween II, and perhaps the daughter of a famous victim in turn becoming the final girl is another oblique reference). There’s even an obvious debt to the Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which the fictional world of a film gets problematically tangled up with reality.

The thing about The Final Girls is that it is much more of a playful deconstruction of slasher flick tropes (and other movie conventions) than it is a genuine horror movie – not that there aren’t a few effective scares along the way, but most of the entertainment value comes from the inventive way in which the script keeps finding new spins on its metafictional conceit – characters have to step over or around captions as they appear ‘on screen’, are fully aware of when they’ve gone into slow motion, and so on. There’s a clever plot thread where the characters realise that only one of them can be the ‘final girl’ (obviously), and start jockeying for position, listing their qualifications for the role. The movie’s ability to genuinely feel like an old-school exploitation horror film is a bit hobbled by the fact they film-makers clearly don’t want to go all-in on the elements of gratuitous sex and nudity and graphic violence that most of these films were notorious for.

To be honest, this would probably jar with the emotional core of the film, which is the relationship between Max and her ‘mother’: there’s a sense in which the film is essentially about the grieving process and the need to let go. Needless to say, this is an odd premise for a metafictional horror comedy, almost to the point where one would be inclined to assume the thing simply isn’t going to work. Bizarrely, it does, possibly because the film takes the time to set this up with just as much care and attention as the horror pastiche, and also thanks to some unexpectedly good performances: Taissa Farmiga is spot-on throughout, and you have to envy Malin Akerman her genes as well as her acting skills – she plays both the youthful Nancy and the older Amanda, the latter part being (to put it delicately) somewhat closer to her actual age, and is convincing in both roles. But this is a film which is consistently well-played and written, the only criticisms that I can send at it being that the low budget is sometimes a little obvious (the effect put on the Camp Bloodbath footage intended to make it look like it’s 35-year-old 16mm film doesn’t really convince) and the direction is very occasionally just a little bit showy-offy. Apart from that, The Final Girls is an unexpectedly smart, funny, and effective film that seems to have rather vanished into undeserved obscurity, which is rather a shame.

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Proof that you can take anything too far comes as we look at yet another pseudo-Arthurian movie (must be about the fifth since the summer). Frankly, I have nobody but myself to blame: a little research into the personnel of The Spaceman and King Arthur would have revealed that leading man Dennis Dugan went on to receive no fewer than four nominations for Worst Director at the Golden Raspberries, winning once (for his work across the entire year of 2011, impressively enough), while actual director Russ Mayberry was the man who went on to be sacked from the proverbially dreadful TNG episode Code of Honour, mainly due to his casting decisions (the main actors later tried to have the episode removed from re-runs).

I should mention that this film is currently available on Mouseplus under its original title, Unidentified Flying Oddball, which is a perhaps appropriately rubbish title, but gives little sense of what it’s actually about. The title was changed to something more like the British one even for an American re-release.

Anyway, unless you have very small and undemanding children, or enjoy the sight of distinguished British actors trying to hide their embarrassment, there is little here to detain you, I suspect. The film opens with a reasonably decent and slightly meta gag, as what has appeared to be a model pretending to be a space rocket turns out to just be an actual model space rocket, at a NASA demonstration.

Even the poster is so embarrassed it’s pretending to be Italian.

The UK production base for this film is instantly apparent to those of us in the know, as playing Air Force generals and senior US politicians are familiar faces like Robert Beatty (guest artiste in too many British TV series to mention) and Bruce Boa (assured of a certain kind of immortality by his performance as Mr Hamilton in Fawlty Towers, but he was also a rebel general in the best of the stellar conflict films, too). A top NASA boffin (Cyril Shaps, another ubiquitous character actor) demonstrates their concept for a new spaceship capable of travelling at close to the speed of light, but the politicians refuse to risk the lives of brave young American men (or women).

Nevertheless, a brainwave strikes the boffin and he gets on the phone to one of his technicians, Tom Trimble (Dugan) – Trimble is presumably some sort of robotics expert, but he honestly comes across as an all-purpose idiot savant. Anyway, Trimble builds an android to fly the spaceship, and for reasons best known to plot contrivance makes it a duplicate of himself (cue dodgy split-screen effects and a chance for Dugan to show his – what’s the opposite of range? Anyway, that – as an actor).

Well, the mission is nearly scrubbed when the android has an attack of nerves, and Trimble is sent into the capsule to deliver a pep talk. At this point the launch vehicle is struck by lightning and, er, launches, sending both of them into space. Trimble decides he doesn’t fancy experiencing thirty years’ worth of time dilation and turns the ship around, only to notice that something very odd is happening to the clock…

Yes, there is a reason why the credits suggest this is based (very loosely, one suspects) on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Trimble lands in 6th century England, where he soon meets good-hearted local girl Alisande (Sheila White) and shortly afterwards is captured by scheming knight Sir Mordred (Jim Dale). Off they are taken to Camelot, where King Arthur (Kenneth More) is holding court, in the presence of (most notably) Sir Gawain (John le Mesurier) and Merlin (Ron Moody) – in this version of events, Merlin is just a rather wily conjuror, having no actual magic powers.

There follows a chunk of film in which Trimble must avoid Mordred’s various attempts to do him in, in the course of which he uncovers some of his enemy’s nefarious plots; with Mordred now banished but planning to conquer Camelot and usurp the throne, it once again falls to Trimble to save the day. Needless to say, he achieves all this through a combination of advanced technology, scientific knowledge, and slapstick mugging.

There’s the odd funny moment or sequence in Spaceman and King Arthur – the fight between Trimble and Mordred, with the latter using a magnetised sword, is probably the best of them – but the main problems of the film are that it’s just not funny enough to succeed as a comedy and too contrived and silly to work as a more straightforward adventure. Some really shonky special effects don’t help the film’s cause much.

The main reason to watch it, as noted, is the cast, which is quite remarkable for something which is essentially a frivolous piece of fluff: Jim Dale is best known for appearing in ten of the better Carry On films in six years, but has also had a distinguished career in the music business and on Broadway; Kenneth More was one of the biggest movie stars in Britain for a while in the 1950s; Ron Moody won all sort of awards and nominations for playing Fagin in Oliver!; and Sheila White was in Oliver! too,  but for my money was most memorable for her brilliant performance as the crazed Messalina in I Claudius. Pat Roach, reliable British heavy, is here as well. And all of them do battle with the material as best they can.

The results are rather endearing, if not as entertaining as you might wish. Moody, you feel, is a little underserved; Jim Dale manages to find some sort of sweet spot between playing the villain ‘straight’ and servicing the slapstick required of him. White really does have a thankless task, though, playing a character who’s not only apparently quite dim, but also required to do things almost without motivation. All of them outperform Dugan, though.

You can just about imagine how this film might work as an incredibly whimsical piece of entertainment, given a lead performance of sufficient charm and comic skill and with some of the more contemporary gags taken out (Trimble takes a girly mag back in time with him, which inevitably causes a stir amongst the peasants). I’m thinking, really, of something like Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester, which is a very silly film, but still rather watchable. Dennis Dugan, however, is to Danny Kaye as a paper plane is to an F-15: he’s nowhere near good enough, although to be fair the script is giving him no help whatsoever. This film probably looked very dated and primitive back in 1979 and the passage of time has done it few favours.

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Looking back on it now, there’s something very odd about the fact that I and my family decided to watch Hugh Wilson’s Police Academy on its British TV premiere back in 1986 (the film came out a couple of years earlier), and – with the benefit of hindsight – perhaps also something odd about the fact we enjoyed it so much. It was the TV equivalent of an impulse buy: I distinctly recall that I was on the way to bed when the commercial advertising it came on. I laughed, my sister laughed, our father laughed: then, to my amazement he asked ‘Shall we tape that?’ It was, quite properly, showing well after our bedtime, as neither of us was even a teenager at the time. I said yes, not quite able to believe what was happening (I had a similar experience over twenty years later when he suddenly went out and bought a Wii). We found a spare video tape, and…

Well, you know, the Police Academy films have taken a lot of stick for being crass and repetitive and (most damningly) not funny, but the first film is… well, it’s better than all the others, at least. At the time it had a definite frisson around it, the product of the knowledge that I was watching something a bit too old for me (this was an R rated film in the States, almost certainly a 15 in the UK). This many years on, however, revisiting it with my pretend-critic’s hat on was… interesting.

The set-up is straightforward enough, and was apparently inspired by reality: the mayor of an unnamed US city (this coyness may have something to do with the fact the film was actually made in Canada) decides to remove all barriers on who is allowed to become a police officer, leading to a vast influx of screwballs, flakes, and nutcases applying to the titular institution.

Prominent amongst their number is Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), a pathological trouble-maker who the audience is clearly intended to find roguishly charming, along with Thompson, a rich girl looking to challenge herself (an early role for Kim Cattrall, before she became a Romulan traitor and moved to New York), a giant florist (Bubba Smith), a mild-mannered overweight guy (Donovan Scott), and many others. Mahoney is here as part of a deal to keep him out of prison and can’t quit; instructor Lieutenant Harris (G. W. Bailey) is under orders to make the training process as gruelling as possible to ensure as many ‘unsuitable’ cadets walk out as he can manage. Chaos threatens to engulf the training programme as Mahoney attempts to get himself thrown out by carrying out various outrageous pranks; the personalities of many of his fellow trainees result in much oddness as well.

It is, as you can probably tell, not so much a plot as a receptacle – the temptation to say ‘dustbin’ is very strong – for throwing various gags into; much of the film has an episodic quality, a little bit like the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker films in the way it keeps the jokes coming – the principle presumably being that if one joke fails to land, the next one inevitably will. It’s not quite as relentless as Airplane! or one of the Naked Gun films, but on this occasion it just about works.

British viewers of a certain age will find it very reminiscent of one of the early Carry On films, particularly Carry On Sergeant; the premise is virtually identical, though this movie is less essentially kind-hearted. Any resemblance is most likely a trick of the light, anyway: it seems the making of Police Academy was characterised by a dogged struggle between the director and the writers and producers; Wilson trying to make the film less crass and sleazy, all the others (to quote one of them) trying to ‘keep the flatulence in’. (This is why some scenes, such as the one where Lt Harris gets his head rammed up a horse’s backside, are unexpectedly coy.) Wilson himself recalls trying to make the obligatory T&A scenes, amongst others, ‘as artistic as possible.’ There is not much sign of him having succeeded, but the film at least feels a bit more restrained than similar films of the same era like Porky’s or Bachelor Party (interesting to speculate on the direction of the parallel worlds where Tom Hanks or Bruce Willis played Mahoney; both of them were considered for the role).

This is still a very hit-or-miss film which probably derives too many of its jokes from casual racism or homophobia, and it’s very obvious that many of the characters are one-dimensional, one-joke cartoon characters. Not that it doesn’t still have its moments – David Graf’s swivel-eyed gun-nut Tackleberry is consistently amusing, and the sequence in which the academy’s commandant (a magnificently vague George Gaynes) is obliged to deliver a speech while receiving the oral attentions of a call-girl someone has concealed in his lectern manages to be funnier than it is filthy (chalk one up to Wilson’s desire to leave as much as possible implied). We can probably thank the director for the fact that some of the characters are just a little bit better drawn than you might expect, providing the occasional moment which is genuinely poignant or affirmatory.

On the other hand, some of the ensemble are just saddled with very thin material; you can see why Kim Cattrall didn’t come back, and why they got shot of counterfeit lothario George Martin (Andrew Rubin), too. However, the film’s structure may not be innovative, but it is sturdy, and the switch to a more action-plot-focused climax provides a surprisingly satisfying conclusion to the story.

Much of Police Academy is still very funny, provided you’re okay with the extremely broad humour and rather dated attitudes on display; some of it is not, of course, but the film is pacy and likeable enough to keep most viewers on board (I would have thought). The fact that it inaugurated a franchise which made over $500 million despite being largely awful (at the time of writing, half the films enjoy the uncoveted 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) is not its fault.

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After being almost-unseen for decades and seemingly like a prime candidate for ‘lost movie’ status, Ray Cameron’s Bloodbath at the House of Death, released in 1984, has recently turned up on the UK incarnation of the world’s biggest streaming service. If ever a comparatively recent film has languished, it is this one. Perhaps the distinct lack of enthusiasm for it, even amongst some of the people involved in its production, may give us a clue as to why. ‘It’s a fairly terrible film,’ recalled the producer in a 2008 interview. ‘It’s not the film I want on my headstone, or in my obituary when I die.’

Well, there’s a refreshing sort of honesty there, anyway, and the movie does have the kind of bizarre cross-genre conception and eclectic cast list that usually indicates it may be on the road to cult status. As you may know, being ‘fairly terrible’ is not the kind of thing to put me off a film, and the thing is only a brisk 90 minutes or so long. So: how bad could it be?

Well, the producer was possibly being a bit over-generous. The film opens with the first of many swipes at horror cliches: we start with a shot of a big old house in the countryside, as seen via a POV shot from someone creeping towards it through the undergrowth. The watcher pulls back the branches to get a better look – only to lose his grip, and them to spring back into his face, painfully. It’s a better gag than it sounds (the first time they use it, anyway) and a promising start.

Anyway, a mob of robed figures with axes, spears, shotguns, nooses, and so on, break into the house and kill everyone inside, leaving a scene of absolute carnage, in which none of the other attempted jokes have been very funny. British comedy legend Barry Cryer (who co-wrote the film with Cameron) briefly appears as a cop investigating the slaughter, but doesn’t manage to uncover any clues (or any more decent lines).

Then we are nine years later, and rather than death by stabbing or shooting we are threatened with death by exposition as the main cast all make their way to ‘Headstone Manor’, scene of the massacre, carefully telling each other who they are and why they’re going there. Most prominent are top-billed DJ-turned-comic Kenny Everett, in his only movie lead, and comic-actress-turned-latterday-sex-therapist Pamela Stephenson; the rest of the ensemble is not unimpressive as it includes the likes of Gareth Hunt, Sheila Steafel, Don Warrington, and John Fortune; appearing as the juvenile leads are Everett’s regular stooge Cleo Rocos (who brings big hair but no discernible acting ability) and John Stephen Hill (a fairly nondescript young fellow whose Wikipedia page claims he stopped acting the year before he made this film; maybe there is sometimes truth in Wiki after all).

Apparently they are all scientists, sent to the spooky old house to investigate reports of supernatural phenomena and high levels of radiation. The cognisant viewer will by this point essentially be expecting something along the lines of Carry On Up Hell House, given the broad low comedy on display and the premise thus established, but the film doesn’t even have the coherence and focus to hit this rather low target. (The censor, when showed the film, apparently thought it wasn’t especially problematic and indeed had its moments – generous fellow – but thought there’d been a mix-up and he’d been shown the reels in the wrong order. He had not. The plot makes that little sense.)

What you end up with is an increasingly baffled and/or desperate-looking cast, flailing about for a way to get laughs – Stephenson opts for a silly voice, while Everett starts off doing a silly walk and then also goes for a silly voice. Nothing, by the way, makes it apparent that Everett is a TV star doing his first movie more clearly than the over-the-top mugging he indulges in throughout. Some of the dialogue would struggle to get into even a late Carry On film, as when Rocos and Hill are exploring the kitchen: ‘Could you pass me a spoon?’ – ‘I suppose a fork is out of the question?’ – ‘Maybe, but let’s get dinner out of the way first’. Much of the rest of the film is made up of scattershot parodies of other films from around the same period – there’s a Carrie spoof, a very problematic Entity skit with some gratuitous T&A from Stephenson, a scene apparently referencing American Werewolf (which was partly a spoof itself), and even a gag based on E.T. (Inexplicably popular – if you ask me – comedian Michael McIntyre apparently appears in the E.T. segment, due to his being the director’s son.)

The vast majority of this movie is dreary, awful rubbish, one of the signs of the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1980s; it’s actually quite surprising how it manages to take normally capable performers and seemingly drain all the talent and charm out of them. The occasional flash of directorial cleverness, or a decent special effect, doesn’t come anywhere close to rescuing it.

However, there is a reason to watch this movie, and that reason is the presence of no-foolin’ horror legend Vincent Price, making his final appearance in a British film. I have often written in the past of the remarkable ability of stars like Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee to lift dodgy material through sheer talent and presence, but what Price achieves here is truly exceptional: to say this is a game piece of self-parody is a huge understatement. Price’s scenes are genuinely very funny: he plays the leader of the local Satanic cult, saddled with a bunch of insubordinate and incompetent followers (he’s off by himself and never interacts with the rest of the main cast). He gets a magnificent speech about his centuries-long career of evil, delivered in the classically arch Price manner, concluding with ‘…and you tell me to piss off? No, you piss off!’

That said, Price is only in the movie for about ten minutes, and it’s a near thing either way as to whether this is enough to justify watching the rest of it, which is really and truly properly dire. I have considerable tolerance for and fascination with bad movies, and even I found most of it tough going, so go in prepared and don’t be ashamed of bailing out. I can’t imagine anyone genuinely liking this movie, and even those who can get through the whole thing will probably only do so once.

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I like Tom Hardy; he’s a talented guy. I also like Andy Serkis, for the same reason. I like Woody Harrelson, Naomie Harris, and Reece Shearsmith too, and I suppose I don’t have a beef with Stephen Graham or Michelle Williams either, now that I think about it. An enviably talented bunch, that lot, with some really impressive work behind them.

Quite what they’re all doing making Venom: Let There Be Carnage together, I have no idea, but I suspect the siren song of an $850 million box office return for the original film may have something to do with it. That is a slightly baffling figure for a not-especially-good film where (essentially) a pool of brain-eating slime is the theoretical protagonist and lots of things don’t actually make a great deal of sense. But here we are, with a sequel touted as featuring ‘one of Marvel’s greatest and most complex characters’.

(Yes, we are back in the realm of Marvel Comics-inspired movies yet again, though – for anyone not versed in such matters – this is not an actual Marvel Studios production, but one made ‘in association with Marvel’ – basically, Marvel sold off the rights to the Venom character years ago to Sony, who know a promising bandwagon when they see it and are pressing ahead with their at-a-slight-remove franchise of Spider-Man characters, tangentially connected to the Marvel Studios juggernaut.)

Greatest? Well, that’s a matter of opinion – but ‘most complex’? Venom’s a pool of brain-eating slime that started off as a gimmick costume for Spider-Man, so let’s not get delusions of grandeur here – we’re hardly talking about Othello or Hamlet. Thankfully, the film has little truck with this sort of pretentiousness, cheerfully chucking it out (but presumably failing to notice that things like characterisation and plot coherence were apparently packed in the same box).

Tom Hardy, who also co-wrote the story and co-produced the film, once again plays Eddie Brock, a whiny loser of a journalist who is still sharing his body with Venom, an alien symbiote with various bizarre powers, an egotistical personality, no moral compass whatsoever and an insatiable appetite for brains. (The dynamic between the two of them is oddly reminiscent of that of Rod Hull and Emu, although with more CGI.) For reasons mainly to do with the requirements of the plot, Brock is summoned to meet with imprisoned serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson).

This whole plot element is epically fudged, to be honest, but the upshot is that Kasady is sent to death row, for which he blames Brock. (Forget all those years of appeals and pleas for clemency you often see in movies and documentaries – on this occasion, from sentencing to execution seems to take about a day and half.) However, Kasady also manages to eat part of the Venom symbiote (don’t ask), which fissions off into an angry red blob with severe daddy issues called Carnage. Pausing only to bust his crazed girlfriend (Harris) out of an institute for mentally unstable people with mutant powers, Carnage sets off to destroy Venom, Brock, and everyone close to them…

(Yes, it is very odd that, in a film set in a world where there isn’t a superhero on every street corner and Venom and Carnage appear to be the only unusual inhabitants, someone randomly turns up with mutant powers, but no-one makes much of a fuss about it even though it feels like a stretch for this particular movie. But the whole issue of the relationship between the different Marvel franchises is a live and dynamic one right now, and this film is likely to be discussed a lot with particular reference to a moment which will presumably end up being blamed on Lokiette nuking the Sacred Timeline.)

I thought the greatest value of the first Venom movie was as a stern reminder of just how bad a lot of superhero movies were, X-Men franchise excepted, in the late 90s and the early years of this century. This one is, objectively speaking, at least as bad and quite possibly worse – it’s a toss-up as to whether the plot makes more or less sense this time around, but there’s also an undistinguished performance from Harrelson, who is perhaps a bit swamped by all the CGI, and Harris frantically chewing the scenery as an almost totally one-dimensional character.

And yet, and yet… oh dear. I have to confess that I really enjoyed a lot of this film, although I did feel a bit embarrassed about it even at the time. This is mainly because the movie isn’t afraid to really engage with the potential silliness of the relationship between Brock and the symbiote and play it hard for laughs. The bromance between the two of them and their various squabbles over who is in charge, are actually quite sweet and funny, and Tom Hardy gives a genuinely accomplished comic performance, both in terms of physical slapstick as Brock, and vocally as Venom. (Never mind Patrick Stewart or Ronnie Kray or Bane, the Venom voice is probably the most impressive in Hardy’s repertoire.)

Perhaps one of the problems of the film, for Woody Harrelson in particular, is that Carnage comes across as a slightly tedious single-issue version of Venom, with essentially the same powers and a boring personality – if Harrelson had found a way to differentiate between the two characters more effectively, the rest of the film might have been as engaging as Tom Hardy’s comedy schtick.

In the end it is really just an exercise in simple charisma and incidental pleasures; the film is paced like an absolute bullet, presumably to ensure no-one has time to think about exactly what’s going on in front of their eyes – most of the time you’re bombarded with decent gags frequently enough to keep the weaknesses of the film from seeming too obvious. (That said, the climactic CGI battle is, as usual, 10-15% too long.)

I wouldn’t bet against Let There Be Carnage’s mixture of CGI-boosted grisliness and slapstick turning out to be just as big a hit as it was the last time around, but it’s difficult to see where they can go next with the character without repeating themselves – beyond the obvious alternative, which is to do a team-up with one of the other characters they have the rights to. That would certainly be interesting. Putting Venom into a bigger world might do both him and it some good; as it stands, this film is likely headed for cult guilty pleasure status.

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(Split being, of course, the largest city in Dalmatia, which is (duh) the ancestral home of the Dalmatian dog breed. I’m well aware that, normally, nothing is more guaranteed to kill a decent joke than carefully explaining it, but in this case it’s an extra-subtle one that’s probably going to get overlooked if I don’t.)

The pandemic continues to shake its tail, and as part of the fallout from it all I find myself – temporarily – living with family and thus enjoying less control over the domestic media functions than is usually my wont. So far I have managed to dodge the endless YouTube dog and Minecraft videos which makes up the bulk of my younger relatives’ intake, but when it comes to Family Movie Night – oh yes, this is a thing! – I don’t really get any say in what’s on.

Which is why I ended up watching Craig Gillespie’s Cruella, a film which I experienced no actual desire to see during its theatrical release earlier this year. I know you may be thinking, ‘God, this guy is indolent, if he didn’t want to watch the movie he could have balanced his wobbling carcass on those stumpy legs of his and wobbled off away from a screen for just a few minutes’ – and I take your point. I believe my exact words to my hosts were something to the effect of ‘I’m going to see what this is like but I may slip out of the room if it’s not my kind of thing.’ I mean, I’ve enjoyed Craig Gillespie’s films in the past, and I’m not averse to Emma Stone, but it’s a live action Disney brand extension prequel to a story which I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen or read any of the other versions of.

I suppose we could reflect productively upon the reasons for this current run of villain-centric prequels – I’m thinking of the Maleficent films and Joker in particular – it’s a reasonable way of dodging the problems involved in doing sequels to well-loved tales, or indeed doing yet another remake. Not that they don’t come with their own set of problems, though.

This one kicks off in the early 1950s, with the birth of – well, not actually Cruella de Vil, but a young woman who ends up with the monicker Estella Miller. (Here we reach one of those points where a strictly accurate synopsis necessarily involves spoilers, so forgive me if not all of what follows is actually literally true in the context of the plot.) Despite having an unlikely duotonal trichological complexion, Estella has a relatively normal childhood with her mother (Emily Beecham), although she is a bit of a rebel and obsessed with outrageous fashion choices.

Eventually Estella is kicked out of school and the two of them head off to London, pausing on the way to visit the stately home of famous fashion designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella’s mum is basically there to hit her up for some cash – exactly what’s going on is kept deliberately obscure – but it results in Estella being chased by some ferocious Dalmatians (some subtle foreshadowing, this) and her mother falling to her death off a precipitous cliff.

Yeah, it goes dark quite quickly, doesn’t it? But not for long; this kind of occasional veer into really bleak territory followed by an equally rapid course correction back to the realm of family friendliness is something the film does quite often. Anyway, Estella runs off to London, hooks up with a pair of juvenile tearaways, and they all grown up to be Emma Stone, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser (Fry and Hauser are playing Jasper and Horace, the henchmen from 101 Dalmatians).

Eventually Estella gets the chance to give up her life of crime and join the fashionista establishment, initially at a department store and then as part of a famous London label. But she gets a bit of a shock when she realises that her boss and mentor is the same woman who was responsible for her mother’s death (Emma Thompson is still Emma Thompson). Estella decides that vengeance is really her only option, but to carry it out she must adopt another personality, that of the outrageous and ruthless Cruella – but is this really a new persona, or simply a new name for part of her which has been lurking away all this time…?

Well, as you probably guessed, I made it all the way to the end of Cruella even though it’s well over two hours long and thus overstays what a reasonable welcome would be. This is not because it’s an unqualified triumph of a movie, but it does have points of quality and it’s certainly interesting.

So what can we say about it that is positive? Well, it certainly looks ravishing, mostly being set in a fantasticalised version of London in the 1970s, and the direction is inventive. It shouldn’t do Emma Stone’s career any harm, either: quite apart from being a very capable actress (here she seems to be doing a Helena Bonham Carter impersonation for most of the film), she also has the knack of looking good no matter what colour (or colours) of hair she is issued with. Emma Thompson is also good value, but then that’s like saying the sun comes up in the morning, while Mark Strong (a touch underused, I’d say) does his usual trick of lifting every scene he appears in.

The general tenor of thing is rather like a superhero origin movie if it were written by Roald Dahl – the main character gradually adopts all the key elements of the persona that will make them famous, with various set pieces and reversals along the way, but all with an element of grotesqueness and (as mentioned) occasional excursions into real darkness. It reminded me quite a lot of Joker, more than anything else.

Of course, my problem with Joker was that I couldn’t quite see the point of a film about a villain without a hero; you can’t really make the Joker sympathetic without destroying what the character’s about. And the same is surely true here: Cruella de Vil isn’t quite in the same league when it comes to homicidal animus, but she’s still the bad guy. Is our knowledge of her origins supposed to make her actions more understandable? Are we even supposed to start sympathising with her? If not, then what is the point of the film?

And beyond this, I don’t think the script quite manages to sell the transition from Estella to Cruella completely convincingly – Emma Stone does what she can, but it doesn’t feel like a natural change, being more a series of abrupt shifts in personality and behaviour. Perhaps the problem is that the film still wants to be a relatively light-hearted caper – not a great fit for a story which appears to depict a relatively good-hearted young woman succumbing to her dark side. You don’t get the sense of loss or tragedy that should come with that particular narrative arc.

It’s ultimately quite a superficial film, then, but then the story hardly lends itself to naturalism. The setting in the fashion world of London in the 1970s, with a rebellious young designer making a name for herself, had me thinking this was a movie in some ways riffing on the career of Vivienne Westwood – and while there’s a bit of a punk aesthetic at work, with (probably anachronistically) the Clash and Blondie eventually turning up on the soundtrack, there’s a real mish-mash of things happening here – music from the 60s is mixed in with glam rock, and so on. The real world is carefully kept at arm’s distance, here and in the characterisations.

I would still like to think that, somewhere, somehow, the Mouse House still wants to make films that have some kind of moral premise and storytelling merit to them, rather than just being immense cash-guzzling brand extensions. There are things about Cruella that do have merit to them, particularly the two lead performances and the visual sense of the thing, and it does pass the time quite engagingly. But as far as the rest of it goes – what’s it about? It’s about the early life of Cruella de Vil. But what’s it really about, on a deeper level? I’m really not sure.

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The day before my sister turned 21 I travelled down to visit her and, as we had a bit of free time, decided to rent a video before going out for the evening (this sort of indicates how old my sister is, but I’m sure she’ll be fine with that). After the usual wrangling and discussions over what to see (what used to happen in video rental stores now happens while looking at the front end of Netflix or Mouse+, that’s progress for you) we ended up watching The Meaning of Life, which – of course – also included the supporting feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. I remember enjoying this enormously and commenting to my sibling on how very Terry Gilliamish it was.

She is less versed in the ways of film (and, indeed, Python) than me, and admitted that she didn’t actually know what that meant. I, on the other hand, will happily turn up to see anything made by Gilliam, always assuming it gets a proper cinema release wherever I’m living at the time. (This is quite a big qualification as I don’t recall Tideland or Zero Theorem showing up at all, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote only scraped a small release in an independent cinema.) And generally I have a pretty good time, and occasionally a great one.

The only Gilliam film I didn’t get the first time I saw it was The Fisher King, his 1991 film. This is arguably a bit of an outlier in the Gilliam canon anyway, as it was a film he made as a deliberate change of pace after some stressful experiences in the 1980s – he is even on record as having said he didn’t want to make another ‘Terry Gilliam film’ while shooting it. He was much more of a directorial gun for hire on this movie, as opposed to the auteurial role he usually plays.

The movie takes place in New York City in the present day (which is to say, in the late 80s and early 90s) and the protagonist is one Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio ‘shock jock’ and provocateur. In true late 80s style Jack is callous, materialistic and self-obsessed, and believes his career is about to really start going places. He is correct – but not the places he is hoping for. An unstable listener takes one of Jack’s rants rather too seriously and is spurred to commit a spree killing in which several people die.

Several years on Jack is at a low ebb: his broadcasting career is over and he is working as a clerk in the video store of his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) – it is perhaps not entirely surprising that posters advertising Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prominently displayed around the place. Anne clearly adores him, but he is too drunk to notice this most of the time.

While contemplating suicide one night, he is set upon by thugs who believe he is homeless, but rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), an actual homeless person who believes himself to be a knight of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail. (The Holy Grail is in the library of a wealthy architect on the Upper East Side, naturally.)

Jack’s initial gratitude and bemusement become something more significant when he learns that Parry used to be a successful and happily-married historian until he was widowed in the spree killing Jack was partially responsible for. He feels a sudden responsibility towards Parry, and perhaps the need to redeem himself. Maybe getting Parry together with the woman he is infatuated with (Amanda Plummer) could be a start…?

So, yes, this is the third sort-of Arthurian movie we’ve talked about in the last couple of months. Why should this be? Well, I’m still a bit peeved about The Green Knight having its release postponed, and these other films are filling the gap until (we may hope) it eventually appears. Also, my friends and I are playing King Arthur Pendragon at the moment, so anything with a whiff of Camelot about it is grist to my mill.

The Fisher King sounds like the name of a grand fantasy movie – at least, it does if you know your Arthuriana. The thing is – and I think this may be why I didn’t really take to it on my first viewing – it’s not actually a fantasy film in the traditional sense at all. The only thing epic about it is the length (which is arguably a little bit excessive). The Fisher King legend as related here does not bear much resemblance to the one traditionally associated with the Arthur cycle, and even then it is mainly just a metaphor for the central relationship in the film (it’s not even immediately apparent who is playing the role of the Fisher King in the story).

Instead, this is almost more like a slightly hard-edged Woody Allen comedy-drama about the lives and loves of various New Yorkers (albeit of a lower social stratum than usual), with occasional contributions to the art direction by Hieronymus Bosch. Gilliam seems to have been born several centuries too late and appears to gravitate towards mediaevally-inclined projects – he was the knight with the rubber chicken in Python, co-directed Holy Grail, did Jabberwocky on his own and creates some magnificent knights in this film and his version of Don Quixote – the fire-breathing Red Knight which pursues Parry (a metaphor for the real world, with all the pain and sorrow that involves) is one of Gilliam’s finest bits of conjuring.

If you approach The Fisher King fully cognisant of the fact that it’s only tangentially about the legend in question and more a piece of magic realism than full-on fantasy, I think the film is rather winning, and very worthwhile. It is humane, thoughtful, and quite happy not just to broach the topic of homelessness in the US, but to present homeless characters as sympathetic and intelligent people. The relationships between the four main characters are convincing and, without exception, extremely well played – Robin Williams gets top billing, but Jeff Bridges is at least as good in what’s arguably the central role, while Mercedes Ruehl deserved all the awards she won for a properly layered and utterly convincing performance as his girlfriend.

It’s a little odd to watch a Terry Gilliam film which is basically people just walking around and talking to each other, but the maestro finds plenty of opportunities to bring some visual distinctiveness to the film – quite apart from the Red Knight, there’s the lovely scene in which the crowd in Grand Central Station all start waltzing as Parry stumbles after the woman he’s fallen for. Given the slightly frenetic grimness which occasionally popped up in Gilliam’s films from the 1980s, it’s rather lovely that this one is so genuinely charming and romantic; it suggests he has a range as a director which he has never really got to fully explore (it’s perhaps slightly facile to make comparisons between Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but I think there are certainly parallels).

As I said, the film is probably about twenty minutes too long, considering the slightness of the story, but apart from the slightly languid pacing this is a really well-made, thoughtful film for adults. Before watching it recently, it was never really one of my favourite Gilliam films, simply because it doesn’t have that obvious Gilliamishness which is so obvious in The Crimson Permanent Assurance and his earlier feature films. However, it turns out that Terry Gilliam is still a great director even when he isn’t trying that hard to be Terry Gilliam.

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