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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Dearie me, here we are again at the end of another year, with everything that it entails: the adverts start a little bit earlier every year, the sentimentality becomes a little bit more glutinous, the doublethink just a little more bemusing. (Yeah, I should say: this is probably going to get extremely cynical, even by the normal standards of this blog. What can I say? So it goes.)

But, you know, let’s do something a bit different and try a Christmas movie for a change. I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t any Christmas films that I have time for: I like It’s A Wonderful Life (well, who doesn’t?). I like Die Hard. I like Brazil. So, there’s every chance that I could end up liking this new film, always assuming it includes one or other of an attempted suicide, blood-sodden gun battles, or delusional insanity as a happy ending. So here’s hoping.

Well, anyway, the new film is Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, a fictionalised account of a period in the life of Charles Dickens (you know, I’m starting to think those blood-sodden gun battles may not appear). Dan Stevens plays Dickens himself, who at the start of the film is making his first tour of the USA, where he is greatly feted. Quite what this sequence is doing here I have no idea, for it contributes nothing to the story; I imagine it is present only to try and sell the movie to America.

Things get underway in earnest some time later, towards the back end of 1843. Dickens finds himself financially embarrassed and in need of a hit, after a number of flops in a row. So he resolves to write a book for the Christmas market which will solve all his problems. But whatever will he write about? Well, there’s a doddery old waiter at the Garrick Club called Marley, he sees a grim-faced old man muttering ‘humbug’ at a funeral, he overhears his new maid telling the Dickenslings a fairy story about ghosts, and so on.

Still, it’s a tough old gig writing a novel in only about six weeks (apparently – although some of us do manage it every November), and things get a bit fraught between Dickens and his family, especially his feckless old dad (Jonathan Pryce) with whom he has Issues. (Hey! Jonathan Pryce was in Brazil, that’s a good sign.) There is also the problem that Dickens can’t come up with a happy ending – is Tiny Tim marked for death???

Hum, well. The Man Who Invented Christmas is clearly a film which has something to say about the Real Meaning of Christmas. Well, let me just stop you there, The Man Who Invented Christmas, not least because (need it even be said?) Charles Dickens did not actually invent Christmas, Christmas not being that kind of discrete, specific concept, but instead a syncretised religious and cultural event which has existed in various forms and under different names for thousands of years, with roots in traditions as widely-flung as Egyptian and Norse mythology. (Glad we got that sorted out.) The film suggests the Real Meaning of Christmas is something to do with our better selves and redemption and kindness and generosity and all that sort of thing. My experience is that this is what many people like to to tell themselves Christmas is all about, before surrendering to the warm glow of self-satisfaction this idea gives them and spending several hundred pounds on a giant TV, which they proceed to fall asleep in front of after consuming enough alcohol to power a small outboard motor. Personally, even if I had invented Christmas, I would not necessarily rush to take the credit for it.

You know what, I’m starting to think I’m not the best person to give this film an objective review. Never mind, let’s press on. The basic idea of this film is not that different from Shakespeare in Love, although in this case Dickens in Debt would obviously be a better title. There’s a lot of slightly strained humour as we see Dickens pacing about his study, trying to think of a name for his protagonist, muttering things like ‘Scrunge? Scrank?’ It is a fairly well-documented phenomenon that, while films require good writing, films primarily about the act of writing are rarely good. This film’s crack at the problem of how to make writing a novel cinematically interesting is to have the various characters from A Christmas Carol materialise and talk to Dickens.

This does at least enable what’s indisputably the best thing in the movie, which is the appearance of Christopher Plummer as Scrooge. (Plummer has been having a bit of a Christopher Lee-type Indian Summer in his career for some years now.) You really want to see Plummer play Scrooge properly, and not engage in the underpowered ‘comic’ banter with Stevens that he is assigned here. There is, I suppose, something mildly amusing about the idea of Charles Dickens being followed around and annoyed by the cast of one of his novels, but it’s not exactly fall-off-your-seat funny, and it’s hardly a convincing depiction of the creative process.

In fact, this is one of those comedy dramas which isn’t that funny and isn’t especially dramatic, either – they have a stab at some kind of psychological insight, by suggesting that Dickens can’t bear to see Scrooge redeemed until the author has himself worked through his various daddy issues, but it feels a little bit contrived. (One wonders what Simon Callow, a noted Dickens authority who appears in a supporting role, made of the script.) Certainly there is little sense of any real darkness or complexity to the Dickens of this film.

The thing about a really good Christmas movie is that it does work hard to earn the happy-feel-good conclusion by going to somewhere genuinely dark and troubled on the way. This one doesn’t – it’s just slightly insipid all the way through, dramatically inert, almost aggressively bland.

You can almost imagine the thought process that led to this movie being made – no-one does costume drama quite like the British film industry, and those are a good bet at this time of year. But, as there have been nearly thirty movie or TV versions of A Christmas Carol already, including ones where Scrooge has been played by a skunk, a smurf, and Michael Caine, obviously the edict was to do something different. This is a competent film in its own way, I suppose, but I just came away wishing they’d done a proper adaptation of the book, so Plummer could have played Scrooge properly. As it is, this is soft in the middle and runny round the edges, and generally about as appetising as that sounds.

 

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I’m hearing a lot at the moment that Things Are Never As Bad As They Seem and The Future Is Bound To Be Better, but even so, I can’t help feeling a bit startled by the optimisim of opening a vast new shopping centre just right now. And yet this is what someone has done: said edifice dominates Oxford city centre like a necropolis for branded goods. The sheer scale of the space seems intended to make one feel tiny, and psychologically bullied into going into a relay outlet to propitiate the trade gods with some kind of financial libation. JG Ballard would have written a novel about it; I went there to watch a movie, of course.

Said cinema is on the roof of the place and is definitely up towards the luxury end of the scale – very much more a winebar than a coffee shop or sweet seller. The staff all seem terribly keen, too, although the decor incorporates different-coloured seats randomly mixed up together (which did my head in) and the place is still so new it has an all-pervading smell of paint. I was left feeling rather nauseated by this, after finding myself unable to hold my breath for the 100 minutes or so I spent watching James Franco’s The Disaster Artist.

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Speaking of optimism and pessimism, success and failure, I am struck by the fact that, for all that Hollywood loves making films about the movie business, there are very few films about the making of genuine classic movies. No fictional accounts of how The Godfather came to be, or Lawrence of Arabia, or 2001 (yes, obviously there may be a mileage differential here). On the other hand, they did a movie about the origins of Plan Nine from Outer Space (this seminal production is covered in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood) and a film has been appeared about how Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero overcame the drawbacks of having no discernible talent or experience and made what’s generally considered one of the worst movies of the 21st century, The Room.

The Disaster Artist opens with a sort of ho-ho-ho-ironic-sensibility sequence in which various hip and cool folk come on and talk about their admiration for The Room – one of them is JJ Abrams, who is on very thin ice when it comes to mocking other people’s films, if you ask me. Hey ho. Suffice to say this initial sequence gives the impression that there’s a central joke here which you really have to be in on to fully appreciate the film.

This does not last, however, as the story gets underway and we meet Greg (Dave Franco), a keen wannabe actor unencumbered by talent or presence, and Tommy (James Franco), a bizarre and enigmatic figure who looks like a vampire saxophonist and talks like a Russian Star Trek alien. An unlikely friendship develops between the two, as they bond through playing football very badly and giving impromptu dramatic recitations in crowded restaurants.

Much to the concern of Greg’s family, the duo end up heading off to Los Angeles in an attempt to make it in the movie business. Greg is marginally successful, Tommy is not, and in the end Greg suggests they stop knocking on the door of an industry which seems (quite sensibly) determined to ignore them and make their own movie.

Tommy duly bashes out the script for The Room, a drama about human behaviour, to star and be directed by him, also starring Greg, and co-starring a bunch of other actors who frankly have no idea what they’re letting themselves in for. But as the stresses of movie production increase, can the friendship between the two men survive?

Full disclosure: I have managed to make it well into my fifth decade on this plane of existence without ever actually seeing The Room. What can I say, maybe I’m cursed. I was a little concerned that you actually do have to have seen this legendary yapper in order to really appreciate The Disaster Artist, but I don’t think this is quite the case – obviously there’s a degree of in-jokiness about the whole project, but I still found it to be a very funny and engaging movie.

It is, first and foremost, a story about friendship under pressure – it struck me that there were very faint echoes of Withnail and I in this tale of struggling creative types, and the corrosive effects of bubbling resentment when your friend is more popular and successful than you are. But you’re never in doubt of the genuine friendship and affection between the characters played by the two Francos (perhaps unsurprisingly) and you never completely lose sympathy for Tommy Wiseau, regardless of how outlandishly strange and arbitrary his behaviour becomes.

Normally I would suggest that James Franco goes howlingly, soaringly over the top as Wiseau, were it not for the fact that Tommy Wiseau himself turns up at a couple of points in the film to show just how spot-on Franco’s impersonation of him is. He comes across as not just heroically weird, but weirdly heroic too – if you want a career as a creative person, I suppose you do need the kind of indestructible confidence in your own talent that Tommy has here. But how can you be sure you’re not engaged in making your own version of The Room? It’s a thorny question.

The Disaster Artist doesn’t worry overly about that and instead gets most of its mileage and best moments from its depiction of the making of The Room, which is basically presented as one man’s journey into creative megalomania. There are some very, very funny scenes, and Seth Rogen is good value as the bemused script supervisor attempting to act as the voice of sanity on the production. (Such is The Room‘s notoriety that various big names like Bryan Cranston and Zac Efron turn up in small roles throughout The Disaster Artist.) I share no spoilers, of course, if I reveal that the film concludes with Tommy as outlandishly enigmatic as ever and The Room on its way to becoming a genuine cult movie.

I’ve been fairly unkind about James Franco’s acting at various times in the past (someone I know does not have many kind things to say about his novel-writing, either), but The Disaster Artist is a bit of a triumph for him as both an actor and a director. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that a film as good and entertaining as this owes its existence to one as bad (but still apparently entertaining) as The Room. But there you go. Obviously, the world often doesn’t make as much sense as it should. There’s a time to worry about that, and a time to go and see films, and going to see The Disaster Artist would be a pretty sensible choice.

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Yet more proof, perhaps, that in Hollywood nobody knows anything. The various tribes of American cinema (in the form of George Clooney, his regular collaborator Grant Heslov, and the Coen brothers) have come together, and the resulting script has been filmed as Suburbicon, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in the leading roles. With such a gallimaufry of talent both in front of and behind the camera, you would confidently expect the movie to be both a popular smash and a contender for critical recognition too.

And yet, of course, things have not quite turned out that way. Apparently this is the least financially successful film of Matt Damon’s career, a genuine bomb at the box office, and not exactly loved by people who comment on films for a living, either. The natural question to ask is: what went wrong with Suburbicon?

The movie is set in the late 1950s in Suburbicon itself, which is a model community just entering its second decade of existence. It advertises itself as a virtually perfect place to live, a paradise of white picket fences and social harmony. However, the town is rocked by a series of unexpected events – the arrival of its first African-American family, and a brutal murder.

This occurs one night when thugs break into the home of mild-mannered local businessman Gardner Lodge (Damon) and take him, his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her sister Margaret (Moore again), and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) prisoner. The family are drugged into unconsciousness, and when they awake it is clear that Lodge’s wife is not going to recover.

In the aftermath of the killing, Lodge and Margaret inform Nicky that she will be staying with them while everyone gets over the traumatic events which have just taken place. Nicky is a little unsure of what to make of it all, and his concerns become extreme when he is taken to the police station so Lodge and Margaret can view a line-up of suspects – only for them to confidently assert that the killers are not present, when they very plainly are…

The fact that the Coens are co-credited with Clooney and Heslov on the script for Suburbicon inevitably gives the impression that the four of them spent some time recently round at George’s place, possibly having a barbecue while they tossed ideas for the story back and forth. This is another one of those things which is not as you might expect, for apparently Suburbicon is based on a script they wrote over thirty years ago and then put to one side.

One wonders why, for this movie still has a certain Coeniness about it – saying that Clooney is attempting a pastiche of their style is probably overstating it, but it has that kind of slightly off-kilter quality that many of their films possess, as well as the way in which a thriller plotline is combined with the blackest of comedy.

Still, you can’t help wondering which bits of the story are original Coen, and which were inserted by Clooney and Heslov. I say ‘original’, but this would still have been an obvious pastiche even if the brothers had stuck with it – there are all kinds of subtle references to the kind of dark suspense stories that people like Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith were telling half a century ago. The notion of something very unpleasant incubating behind the all-American facade of small town life inevitably recalls Blue Velvet, too.

One thing you can certainly say about Suburbicon is that the plotting of the main story is up to scratch, in its closing stages at least. The film threatens to become a kind of black farce as the bodies pile up, but this never feels forced or contrived. The performances are also strong – Noah Jupe is particularly good as Nicky, who’s the viewpoint character for much of the movie. I’m not entirely sure why it was necessary for Julianne Moore to play both sisters, but she is customarily good, as is Damon. There’s an impressive appearance, in what’s really little more than an extended cameo, from Oscar Isaacs – an able young actor who might do quite well for himself if he could only find a lead role in a high-profile franchise.

Much of Suburbicon is clever and inventive and very well made, and yet I can still understand why this film has failed to find an audience: it left something of a sour taste in my mouth as well, despite all its positive elements. I think this is mainly because the B-story of the film represents a serious tonal misjudgement – if I had to bet money on it, I would say this was the main addition to the script made by Clooney and Heslov.

It concerns the Mayers, the first African-Americans in Suburbicon, and their treatment by the rest of the town. This is almost cartoonishly ghastly, with mobs assembling outside their house every night to jeer and shout abuse, the town council paying to have high fences built around their property, local shops basically refusing to serve them, and so on. Now, I am sure that this sort of thing really happened in America in the late 50s, and I am by no means saying that it should not be depicted and reflected upon in films set in this period. But I’m not sure juxtaposing scenes of naturalistic drama about appalling racial abuse with a blackly comic suspense thriller entertainment really serves either project especially well.

When coupled to a few loaded references to how ‘diverse’ Suburbicon is – it contains white families from places as far apart as Ohio and New York! – you’re forced to conclude that Clooney’s thesis isn’t just that nasty things happen under the surface of suburbia, it’s that nasty things happen as a result of a society being insufficiently diverse – not just racism, but murder. For me that’s a big stretch, not least because there’s nothing in the film to support the notion. (Quite why some apparently normal characters should develop into such sociopathic murderers is not a question which the film answers, but that’s a possible flaw in the script, nothing more.)

I have a lot of time for George Clooney and generally find myself in agreement with many of the currently unfashionable ideas he often attempts to smuggle into his films, as both an actor and director. But on this occasion he just seems to be trying too hard to make a rather suspect point. As the blackest of comic suspense thrillers, there was a lot about Suburbicon that I admired and enjoyed, but as an attempt to make some kind of social commentary about America, either now or in the 1950s, it badly misfires. Still just about worth watching, I would say, even if it’s not the film it wants to be or the one you might be hoping for.

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There may well have been papers written on the curious nature of the sports-cinema interface. As I have noted in the past, there’s really only one-way traffic when it comes to this sort of thing – making a film about a famous athlete or sporting event seems logical in a way that reenacting the plot of, say, Logan’s Run during a football match does not – but even beyond this it seems to be the case that some sports lend themselves to having movies made about them much more readily than other.

Take football (so-ker, as I believe it is known in former colonial lands) – probably the most popular sport in the world today, but genuinely good movies about it are about as frequent as Gary Lineker getting a red card (oh, yes, I can do topical jokes). When I think of football movies, the first one springing to mind is Escape to Victory, in which Michael Caine leads a team of footballing PoWs (including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, and Pele, with Sylvester Stallone in goal) to a 5-4 win over a side of Nazi all-stars. (I imagine in a few years people will be inclined to dismiss the very existence of Escape to Victory as some sort of mass hallucination. Hear me, children of posterity: this film really does exist.)

Where were we? Oh yes, sports films, specifically good ones. It may be due to the nature of storytelling, but the true-life sports film in particular seems to be more successful when it deals with the individual disciplines, like athletics or boxing. Or, indeed, tennis, which is why we’ve had two tennis-themed dramas this autumn – the first being Borg Vs McEnroe, the second Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

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The film is set in the early 1970s (the temptation to go overboard with the crazy seventies styles is thankfully resisted), and opens with US tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) leading a breakaway group of women players after the disparity in prize money between them and their male counterparts simply becomes too great to be tolerable. The formation of the WTA results, a politically-charged step given the atmosphere of the day and the appearance of the Women’s Liberation movement.

Amongst those reacting to this is middle-aged former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a pathological gambler and tennis hustler who sees the opportunity to potentially score a big payday and attract some serious publicity by challenging and then defeating one of the top female players. But King is reluctant to participate, rightly suspecting that what Riggs has in mind is a circus rather than a sporting event. But then events conspire to force her to change her mind…

I’m not sure how well remembered the Battle of the Sexes match would be were it not for the fact that this is the second movie to come out about it in the space of a few years (a documentary, also called Battle of the Sexes, appeared in 2013). You can see why the makers of this film might consider it rather fortuitous that it’s coming out at this particular time: we are having a bit of a cultural moment when it comes to the notion of gender relations, with Hollywood engaged in some uncomfortably public house-clearing that is bound to leave it more inclined to honour films with an ostensibly feminist theme next awards season.

Then, of course, there are the ongoing aftershocks from a non-tennis-related battle of the sexes which was concluded in November last year. In the movie, at least, Riggs is presented as an outrageous man-baby with a narcissistic streak a mile wide, prone to making the most outrageous public pronouncements, enthusiastically adopted by an establishment mostly comprised of middle-aged white men. The prominence of a subplot about King’s burgeoning romance with her hairdresser (played by Andrea Riseborough), not to mention the presence of a character, played by Alan Cumming, who basically represents the Spirit of Gayness, might also lead one to suspect that this is intended as an on-the-nose piece of agitprop about America today rather than in 1973.

However, perhaps thankfully, the film itself is a rather subtler and warmer piece of work than that, much more concerned with characters than ideology. It’s quite a long time into the film before the idea of the titular clash really becomes central to the story – prior to this it is much more about the formation of the WTA and King’s relationship issues, intercut with various escapades involving Riggs – Stone plays it all straight, so to speak, but Carell is pretty much off the leash in comic scenes such as one where Riggs turns up to a meeting of Gamblers’ Anonymous and tries to organise a card school amongst the attendees.

The ingrained prejudice and sexism of the time is presented in a relatively subtle manner, for all that it’s more or less non-stop. What’s interesting, though, is that the film-makers don’t really seem interested in vilifying Riggs as the misogynist he purported to be – maybe it’s just Carell’s performance, but he does remain weirdly likeable, in a Jeremy Clarkson-ish way (NB I’m aware your Clarkson tolerance may be different to mine), and the film does imply it’s just a pose he adopts to win more publicity. The real ire of the film is reserved for the head of the US tennis association (played by Bill Pullman), who’s a thorough-going patronising chauvinist, and to some extent Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), who’s depicted as some sort of religious bigot.

In the end the film’s story is resolved in the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and naturally I will not spoil the result for you (that’s Wikipedia’s job). The slightly crazed nature of the event is evoked well. The weird thing is, though, that after over ninety minutes of build-up, in a movie actually named after it, the Battle of the Sexes match actually feels quite anticlimactic, not being filmed especially imaginatively or dramatically. This is a sports movie which is not particularly adept at handling sport.

(Oh, go on, then, one spoiler, maybe: something the film doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of are various suggestions that Riggs, who was allegedly heavily in debt to the Mafia, rigged the match in order to square things with them. Then again, this is still quite controversial even today.)

Then again, Battle of the Sexes is a movie which treats tennis as the backdrop for wider issues – some of these are to do with issues of equality and freedom of personal expression, but it’s also about the people involved. It does take a while to get to the King-Riggs clash, but in general the writing and performances are more than good enough to make it extremely watchable and entertaining. Given the state of things currently, I would say this is a film with a very good chance of picking up trophies itself next spring.

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Never a sniff of Tiptoes, as it turned out. Hey ho. It has been a pleasant five or six years with Lovefilm, though, and it would be remiss of me to be too harsh on the service for its persistent failure to provide one particular probably-dreadful dwarf-themed Matthew McConnaughey rom-com. To the end, the mechanics of how the company decided what discs it was going to send me remained obscure – was it ever anything more than a form of eeny-meeny-miney-mo? I expect I shall never know. It’s hard to discern any particular significance to the final disc that was sent to me, fine and welcome though it is: Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

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As is fairly well-known in interested circles, the version of this film which is generally available includes only a portion of Wilder’s original ideas for it – the initial intention was to make almost an anthology, with four linked stories casting Baker Street’s most famous residents in a different light. Two of the stories were removed at the insistence of the studio (what remains of them are available as additional material), meaning that what remains is a little curious in its structure, to say the least.

The film, naturally, concerns various exploits of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and his faithful amanuensis Dr Watson (Colin Blakely). Initially we find them between cases, with Holmes contending with the depression inactivity always brings on in him, and Watson trying to dissuade him from his cocaine habit. Then they are invited to the ballet, where the prima ballerina has a rather eye-opening proposition to make to Holmes. His delicate attempts to evade the entanglement which she has in mind end up seriously annoying Watson. Almost wholly played for laughs, this is indeed a very funny segment, although rather politically incorrect by modern standards (there are many jokes about gay ballet dancers). Plus, it poses the question at the centre of the film: what kind of personal life does Sherlock Holmes have? Is he even capable of an emotional involvement with a woman?

This is developed in the rest of the film, all of which concerns a single, rather peculiar case which Holmes finds himself involved in, albeit unwillingly to begin with. A young woman (Genevieve Page) is delivered to 221B Baker Street late one night, having been fished out of the Thames. The only real clue is that she has Holmes’ address on a scrap of card in her hand.

It transpires that she is Gabrielle Valladon, a Belgium woman whose engineer husband has gone missing somewhere in Britain. Initially reluctant, Holmes finds the case has enough unusual features to pique his interest, the trail taking them to the Diogenes Club and his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), and then on to the shores of Loch Ness, while also including a mysterious party of Trappist monks, bleached canaries, the Book of Jonah, and, if not a midget submarine, then certainly a submarine for midgets…

The story is undeniably rather bizarre, but not very much more so than many Conan Doyle tales, and I suppose the key qustion must be whether this is intended as a spoof Sherlock or simply a pastiche. Much of the film is played somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is less broad than, for example, Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue (my research has just turned up the news that Judd Apatow is doing a funny Sherlock Holmes with Will Ferrell: oh, God), and it has a rather wistful, melancholy quality which is not what you’d expect from a straightforwardly comic film. The movie is somewhat impertinent towards some elements of the canon, but affectionately so, and in the end I would say this was much more a pastiche than anything else.

Certainly, Mark Gatiss and the Unmentionable One, creators of the great Sherlock Holmes pastiche of our day, have spoken openly of the influence of Private Life on their own version of the Great Detective, especially with respect to its presentation of Mycroft Holmes as some kind of spymaster. You could even suggest that Gatiss’ own performance as Mycroft is basically his interpretation of that given by Christopher Lee in this film.

It is traditional to suggest that Robert Stephens gives us a rather theatrical Sherlock in this film, and this is true: none the worse for that, of course, I would say. He’s a rather good one-shot Sherlock, and the same is true of Colin Blakely as Watson; Blakely plays the part for laughs when it’s called for, but also keeps the character grounded and credible in the film’s more dramatic moments.

As well as a piece of Sherlockiana, of course, the film also seems to me to have a curious place in the cultural history of the Loch Ness Monster. Most famously, one of the Monster props made for the film sank to the bottom of the loch and was only rediscovered in 2016, briefly causing a degree of excitement amongst monster hunters. However, the film also presents the monster phenomenon as being well-known in the 1880s, with various characters making reference to it as an established mystery. This, of course, was not the case, with the Loch Ness monster legend only acquiring currency in the early 1930s (very shortly after the release of King Kong, indicatively enough) – the film gives the impression of a lengthy history of monster sightings prior to the 20th century, for which there is no real evidence, and so you could argue it has contributed to the perpetuation of this charming myth. It’s hardly grounds to criticise the film, either way.

This is a lavish, charming, funny film, and not without grace notes of darkness and melacnholy, as noted. Most of these one-shot Sherlock Holmes seem to vanish without much of a trace, with only the film and TV series seeming to linger in the memory – Rathbone, Cushing, Brett, Downey Jr, Cumberbatch. That this one has not, quite, may be a result of what a singularly unusual take on the Great Detective it presents, but it also surely has something to do with the overall quality of a superior movie.

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If you want to get on in your career, it doesn’t hurt to have a memorable name, and on this point at least Armando Iannucci has got nothing to worry about. I suppose that being a key collaborator in the careers of Steve Coogan, Christopher Morris, and Lee and Herring can’t help, either, nor can being variously the creator, producer and director of TV and radio shows and films like The Mary Whitehouse Experience, The Saturday Night Armistice, The Thick of It, In the Loop, and Veep. Apart from the Alan Partridge movie a couple of years ago, most of Iannucci’s work over the last decade or so has been mainly in the area of political satire, of both the British and American systems. You would have thought that the unravelling disasters taking place in both countries at the moment would give him plenty of raw material to work with. Perhaps it’s a little curious, then, that Iannucci’s new film is a historical piece about Russia. It’s still a comedy, although the title might suggest otherwise: his new film is entitled The Death of Stalin.

The year is 1953 and Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) has been the unquestioned ruler of the Soviet Union for decades, a figure whose very name provokes panic and alarm amongst everyone else in the country. Stalin rules through fear, as is made clear when he requests a recording of a concert at the start of the film – Andreyev (Paddy Considine), the organiser, is horrified to discover the recording was not made, and is forced to re-stage the event under farcical conditions – people are dragged in off the street to bulk up the audience, the soloist has to be bribed, a new conductor brought in in his pyjamas, and so on. It’s hilarious, but the vein of terror running through it all is genuine, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

However, Stalin then suffers a massive stroke, throwing the status quo in the USSR into question, and provoking frenetic jockeying for position amongst his various courtiers. First off the blocks is security chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who has the advantage of being in charge of the secret police and the death lists, but close behind him are several others, including deputy leader and supposed heir apparent Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), minister for Labour Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), and Communist party chief Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi – I don’t know about you, but as long as I’ve been aware of Steve Buscemi as an actor, I’ve been thinking ‘There’s a guy whose career will not be complete until he’s played Nikita Khrushchev.’). The presence on the scene of Stalin’s troublesome children (Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough) does not help matters much, either. As Stalin passes away and the funeral arrangements are made, who will manage to establish their grip on the levers of power in the USSR?

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that The Death of Stalin is unlikely to get a release in Russia itself, with Russian commentators announcing it is a ‘nasty send-up’ and a ‘planned provocation’ – Stalin himself was recently voted the greatest person in history in a Russian poll (Vladimir Putin came second, by the way). Even some British viewers have been critical of the film’s very flexible approach to historical fact – Beria was not head of the NKVD in 1953 (not least because the NKVD itself ceased to exist in 1946), nor was Molotov (Michael Palin) the foreign minister at the time.

That said, I doubt anyone watching The Death of Stalin will long be under the impression that this is intended to be a rigorously accurate historical reconstruction. Everyone involved is using their ‘normal’ voice, which for Buscemi means a Brooklyn accent, for Tambor one from California, and for Palin the sounds of Sheffield – the only real exception is Jason Isaacs, who comes on halfway through as a medal-festooned Marshal Zhukov, with a broad Yorkshire accent. It’s not as if the actual dialogue is any more plausible – ‘Phew, it’s been a busy old week,’ observes Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), having just participated in the execution and then incineration of a colleague. Obviously, much of this is done for comic effect – ‘All of you can kiss my Russian ass!’ cries Malenkov at one point – but it’s surely also sending a signal that we are not supposed to take it too seriously as a piece of history.

That said, of course, one wonders what the point of the film is, and what point Iannucci and his co-writers are trying to make. Is it really just a film about dysfunctional politics, as he has suggested? As previously noted, the world isn’t exactly short of real-life examples of that at the moment. If the film is making specific points about the Trump regime or the Brexit fiasco they are very heavily veiled, and one has to say that comparing Donald Trump to Stalin would be a little harsh (although given Stalin’s reputed degree of political skill, it might not be entirely fair on the Soviet leader, either).

Perhaps it’s just the case that this scenario offers plenty of opportunity for satire and a selection of characters whom many people sort-of know – I’m no expert on Soviet history, but I still know a bit about people like Molotov, Zhukov and Beria (even if only because a fictional version of Molotov is a major character in WorldWar and Beria is mentioned a lot in From Russia with Love). On the other hand, it’s not as if the film-makers aren’t aware of some of the horrors perpetrated under the Soviet regime, because they are crucial to the atmosphere (and occasionally, plot) of the film. Mostly these are handled ‘straight’ – we see a purge under way, with the terror and blood involved shown unflinchingly – but on the other hand, the potential for jet-black comedy is often fully exploited: for example, one of the problems involved in finding medical attention for the ailing Stalin is the fact that all the qualified doctors have been sent to Siberia.

I don’t know. This is a very funny film, the blackest of black farces, filled with great lines and cherishable comic performances from a terrific ensemble cast. But it’s still slightly uncomfortable and rather unsettling to watch, simply because it takes a situation which arguably wasn’t funny at all, and reworks it as a source of humour. This is one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year. It has absolutely no right to be. Perhaps that’s the point. Doing The Death of Stalin as a straight drama would probably have resulted in something so bleak and depressing it would be almost unwatchable; reworking the story as a knockabout, profane comedy at least makes it accessible, while not quite losing track of the fact that this is a film making some very serious points in the most roundabout way imaginable.

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I’ve thought for a long time that there’s nothing more comical than a botched attempt at a horror movie, and few things more guaranteed to chill the soul than an inept comedy film. By this logic, then, comedy-horror films are particularly odd beasts, because you have to get both things right, and in the appropriate places, too. Film-makers who attempt to hedge their bets by putting a few funny bits in what’s supposed to be a horror movie are taking a big risk, and when they come a cropper it is frequently spectacular.

On the other hand, when it works, the results are often something quite distinctive, which sort of brings us to the case of Robert Fuest’s 1972 film Dr Phibes Rises Again, a sequel (rather self-evidently) to the previous year’s The Abominable Dr Phibes. Wikipedia lists this movie as a horror film, plain and simple; the IMDB takes a more cautious position and pegs it as ‘comedy, horror’. None of this really does the peculiar tone of the movie justice.

We open with a brief recap of the first film, and the murderous revenge-spree undertaken by the insane genius Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, obviously) – theologian, organist, inventor, and general man of many parts – against the doctors he blamed for the death of his wife (Caroline Munro, not doing a great deal). The film concluded with Phibes eluding the police and putting himself into suspended animation alongside his wife, in preparation for the hour of his return.

And, of course, said hour has now come. The sequel opens with Phibes rising from his sarcophagus, and – just to get things off on the right foot – he proceeds to do a little light dusting around his crypt, before rattling off a few organ arpeggios. As you would. From somewhere or other he summons his glamorous assistant Vulnavia (Valli Kemp, this time around), his plan being to use an ancient map in his possession to find the River of Life which runs through the basement of a secluded Egyptian temple. The River of Life will apparently resurrect Mrs Phibes and give the pair of them eternal life (whether it will allow Dr Phibes to grow a new face is not made clear). However – zounds! – in the years since the first film, Dr Phibes’ house has been demolished and the map stolen.

Luckily the doc knows exactly who would be in the market for a relic like that: Darius Biederbeck (hmm, like that’s a real name), played by Robert Quarry. Biederbeck is also searching for the River of Life – it eventually transpires that he has managed to enormously extend his own life by (presumably) alchemical means, but his means of doing this are almost exhausted. He will soon be departing from London for Egypt, where he will lead an archaeological dig to the hidden temple.

Well, Dr Phibes steals the map back, killing Biederbeck’s servant in the process (lest you think the film has adopted too quotidian a tone, he does so using a basketful of clockwork snakes and a trick telephone), and everyone departs for the valley of the Nile (which is played by southern Spain), with Phibes and Vulnavia leaving a trail of bizarre killings behind them. The police eventually cotton on to the fact that Dr Phibes is back in action, and top detectives/idiots Waverly (John Cater) and Trout (Peter Jeffrey) are dispatched in pursuit.

You could argue with some merit that many of these early-seventies Vincent Price movies are basically just strings of set pieces held together by rather basic plots – watching The Abominable Dr Phibes or Theatre of Blood, it quickly becomes apparent that these movies are about Price having a hit list of victims, which he is going to work his way down in his inimitably outlandish style. Dr Phibes Rises Again does depart from this formula, but only to the extent that Price has another agenda, and just ends up killing people who get in his way. (New characters are written in solely to facilitate the set pieces – John Thaw turns up, gets savaged to death by Phibes’ pet eagle, and is barely mentioned again after the one sequence he appears in.) It is, I suppose, a little more plot-driven, but that would give the impression that the plot, or indeed the film, actually makes sense as a conventional, naturalistic narrative. It does not – and lest that sound like a criticism, I think it was never really intended to, nor is this particularly a problem.

Unlike the first film, the sequel does appear to include a genuine element of mysticism or the supernatural, in that Biederbeck does seem to have achieved a degree of immortality, but even without this, nothing about this film is remotely credible. It’s almost like a rather gory cartoon in which the laws of physics themselves have been suspended for the duration: not only is Phibes able to booby-trap the dashboard of someone’s car so they are sandblasted to a skeleton while driving along, he manages to do so in about five minutes flat. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t all so knowing and tongue-in-cheek: the Price horror movies of this period come closer than most to managing to be funny and scary at exactly the same moment.

That said, while Price and the returning cast members all seem to be in on the joke, some of the others aren’t, which can be problematic. Peter Cushing turns up for one scene (he is credited as a ‘guest star’), which he plays entirely straight; the part isn’t really worthy of him. Interesting to imagine what would have happened if he’d played Biederbeck instead – Robert Quarry had recently appeared in the bad-but-influential Count Yorga movies and was apparently being groomed as a new horror star by AIP, but isn’t remotely in Vincent Price’s league. (Legend has it the two had an acrimonious relationship – when Price came upon Quarry singing in his dressing room, Quarry said ‘You didn’t know I could sing, did you?’, to which Price replied ‘Well, I knew you couldn’t act.’) About the best thing you can say about Quarry’s performance in this film is that he is not actively bad.

Biederbeck is written as such an odd character, and performed so flatly, that it’s hard to tell if he’s genuinely meant to be the hero of the movie or not. As it is, you end up – well, not quite rooting for Phibes, but certainly wanting to see more of him and the ridiculous costumes and death-traps and other gadgets that invariably surround him. There’s a sort of cheery amorality about every aspect of this story, certainly no sense of moral outrage – every death is there to be enjoyed. The ending, with Phibes seemingly triumphant, Biederbeck defeated, and Price giving us a technically anachronistic rendition of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ as he vanishes into shadow, doesn’t feel downbeat or a case of evil ascendant. But then this movie is not much concerned with good or evil, just with its own peculiar style. Perhaps it’s better to consider this film as a collection of individual moments, intended to amuse and distract, rather than as any kind of plausible story. As such, Dr Phibes Rises Again is rather entertaining, always assuming you are on its wavelength.

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