Saturday, 28 March 2015

Duck Soup (1933)

While not a hit on release, Duck Soup is now rightly regarded as a comedy classic and for my money it is definitely the most consistently laugh out loud funny of all of the Marx Brothers films.

The tiny fictional state of Freedonia is at the brink of war with neighbouring Sylvania, as well as being nearly bankrupt, with the leaders resorting to borrowing huge sums of money from a wealthy widow, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont).  The catch is that she insists on replacing the current president with her friend, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), despite his seeming lack of qualifications for the job. Within no time he has insulted her friend the Sylvanian ambassador and the two countries are on the brink of war. Time for Sylvania to send in their finest spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx).

Although often thought of as a satirical piece, Duck Soup is not the sort of focussed dissection that Chaplin would attempt a few years later with The Great Dictator. Instead, the key word is anarchy. Most Marx Brothers films revolve around them taking down pompous University Professors or Opera directors and the same applies here, the difference being that the context is political rather than the content. Just like their other classic films, we are introduced to a staid, controlled, highly ordered world before the human fireworks are thrown in.

The rest of the humour comes from the relentless barrage of puns and wordplay, Harpo's insane visual gags and the kind of physical comedy the brothers had been perfecting since their vaudeville days. The most famous is the mirror sequence, impossible to describe as the magic of it is in the flawless timing.

Although the Marx Brothers roots were on the stage, there are some signs here of them embracing the medium of cinema in their own way. For example, during the final battle sequence, there is a bizarre montage of everything from stampeding elephants, to fire engines responding to Groucho's call for reinforcements. 

The influence of Duck Soup can be seen in a number of artists from Woody Allen (especially his film Bananas, with it's surreal tangents and a plot based around tinpot potentates) to Sacha Baron Cohen's recent movie The Dictator. Duck Soup may be over 80 years old but the biting cynicism still helps it feel surprisingly fresh and modern too. “...while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are”. 

Friday, 27 March 2015

Caprice (1967)

Caprice is a joyless grating mess of a film that wastes the charms and talents of the two stars. Doris Day plays Patricia Foster, an industrial spy for a global cosmetics firm run by Sir Jason Fox (Edward Mulhare of Knight Rider fame). She crosses swords with rival snoop Christopher White (Richard Harris), both of whom are chasing the latest vital inventions from each other’s companies, inventions such as a spray that keeps hair dry under water and mascara that turns into LSD if you burn it and ingest the ashes.

Beyond that, I am not entirely sure what happened. Patricia’s dad used to be an Interpol agent who was murdered, so she is trying to avenge his death, and White may not be all he seems. Day is a great comic actress but here she feels out of her depth, unsure how to act amongst the avalanche of sixties clich├ęs, while Harris varies between embarrassed and can’t be bothered, and there certainly isn’t the slightest bit of chemistry between them, surely a vital requirement for any romantic comedy.

The comedy is thin on the ground too with jokes that fall flat and an irritatingly self conscious wackiness. The constant shifts in tone feel like the film-makers, or perhaps the studio, were unsure what they were after.

Perhaps more importantly than not knowing what was happening is that after one too many exasperating double cross plot twists, I eventually stopped caring.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Carry On Don't Lose Your Head (1966)

The 13th in the venerable series of British comedy films, Carry On Don't Lose Your Head is an often funny but also often unremarkable effort, with good performances undermined by a few slow spots and a script that runs out of steam before the end.

Set in the time of the French Revolution, the plot spoofs the famous story of the Scarlet Pimpernel, with jaded layabout English noblemen, Sir Rodney Ffing (pronounced "Effing") and Lord Darcy Pue (Sid James and Jim Dale respectively), leading double lives saving French aristocrats from beheading at the guillotine, always leaving behind the mocking sign of the The Black Fingernail. But soon they find themselves crossing swords with head revolutionary Citizen Camembert (Kenneth Williams) and his sidekick, Citizen Bidet (Peter Butterworth), two Frenchmen who are so desperate to track down the Fingernail they are even prepared to travel to England.

Carry On films are never noted for their extravagant budgets and lavish sets, but this one looks great, with fancy costumes and country houses helping to recreate the tropes of the swashbuckling genre, in the same way that the previous film in the series, Carry On Screaming, did with Gothic horror.

Script wise, we get the usual wince inducing puns, and running jokes, this time based around lapses into schoolboy level French, and Sir Rodney’s surname. The other gags come thick and fast, and some do not work (there is a talking to camera sketch that goes on too long), but others hit the mark and the cast are more than capable of breathing life into the few other dry spells. 

Sometimes the story takes second place to a more sketch based approach, and there are caricatures rather than characters, with some broad acting to match, perfectly in keeping with the pantomime feel of the film. Almost stealing the show is Charles Hawtrey as sex-crazed aristocrat Duc de Pommfrit, one of those saved at the last minute from Madam Guillotine ("Your grace, there's an urgent letter for you!" "Oh, drop it in the basket, I'll read it later"). Sadly things run out of steam in the climactic sword fight which is not played for as many laughs as it should be and goes on too long.

There are also a few swipes at England, with gags about strikes and unions, not surprising given that it was released in the same year that saw a walkout by the National Union of Seamen lead to Harold Wilson’s government declaring a state of emergency.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Scanners (1981)

Best remembered for the iconic scene of an exploding head, courtesy of make up legend Dick Smith, Scanners has a fascinating central idea but is hampered by a wooden lead actor and a plodding, sometimes messy script which fails to make the characters as interesting as the premise.

Scanners are people with extraordinary X-Men style psychic powers, able to join with, read and control the minds of others, with sometimes terrible side effects, such as in the previously described head explosion. One of them, Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside) has clearly let that power go to his head as he is hell-bent on world domination using Scanners loyal to him. The mysterious Dr Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) wants to stop him, using both the resources of his employers, the shady ConSec Corporation, and one Scanner, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) who has not fallen under the spell of Revok. But as the bodies pile up, so do the questions, as nobody seems to be who they say they are.

Cronenberg made Scanners during the first phase of his career, a phase that also included Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, and out of this astonishing, disturbing and bloody body of work, Scanners is easily the weakest. At this stage of his career as a filmmaker, Cronenberg had never been one for involving human drama, preferring to use his characters primarily as a means to explore themes and ideas. In this respect Scanners is no different, but what those other films all had was a little something extra.

With Shivers and Rabid it is a lurid energy, betraying their exploitation film roots. The Brood had a human interest story, and for all the blood and perverse scenes still feels like a heartfelt and personal work. Scanners has none of these, and after the initial shock of the exploding head, Cronenberg moves away from the unique sexually charged body horror of his other earlier work towards a more conventional sci-fi / spy genre, crossover film, with evil scientists, car chases and guns. Disappointingly, the exploding head does not occur again, and, coupled with some clunky scenes of expositional dialogue, and an odd departure of one main character, it rather leaves the impression that not all the kinks and loose ends in the script had been ironed out before filming commenced. Perhaps the most notable missing element, certainly one I found surprising for a Cronenberg film, is sex, both in terms of sexual chemistry between the leads and any kind of sexual desire in any of the characters.

The other big liability is the actor in the main role, and while Stephen Lack may have surprising large blue eyes that make for a memorable face, here his delivery is stiff and wooden, sometimes to the point of sucking the life out of a scene. Scanners does have two aces in the cast, Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside. McGoohan brings gravitas and believability to the character of Dr Ruth, while Ironside gives Revok a charismatic unpredictable menace.

Smith's excellent make up skills make a comeback in the explosive finale between Vale and Revok, and also worth a mention is Howard Shore's score, a mix of dramatic sweeping strings and cold eerie synths that blend seamlessly with the images on the screen.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Town on Trial (1957)

An entertaining whodunnit, Town on Trial is also a peek behind the curtains of middle class village life in 1950's England. While the crime aspect of the film is not entirely successful, the subject matter is surprisingly frank for the time that it was made, and the script takes some surprising turns with characterisation.

When a young woman is found strangled by a stocking in the English village of Oakley Park, there is no shortage of suspects, from Mark Roper, the married Lothario secretary of her tennis club, to the local doctor with a secret from his past, to a troubled young man with a history of blackouts. Superintendent Mike Halloran (John Mills) is brought in to solve the case, something he pursues with relentless zeal, but with the locals resenting the outsider and refusing to help, can Halloran succeed before the killer strikes again?

The detective aspects of the story do not always work, with the clues and police procedural work rarely rising above the sophistication of an episode of Midsomer Murders, while the killer's motives seem vague. Much more convincing is the claustrophobic and sometimes mean-spirited world of village life, where many residents seem more interested in sweeping the murder under the carpet rather than finding out who did it. Conformity and fitting in is the name of the game, a theme that drives or shapes many of the main characters. The murder victims both stray from the accepted social norms for women, giving their deaths an air of puritanical retribution akin to some horror films, accentuated by the by the Bible quotes left at the murder scenes. 

The detective is also an outsider, something underlined in the scene where, after a conversation about ties worn by former pupils of Harrow Public School, Halloran pointedly replies that he went to London Polytechnic. He is certainly a man who feels more at home with inner city life "a place you can see the dirt – here you have to dig for it".

The suspects, on the other hand, are doing their best to keep their heads down and out of trouble. Roper has spun an extraordinary web of deceit in order to keep his coveted position as secretary of the tennis club, a web that soon comes unraveled once the police start poking into his affairs, and his past.

The plot mixes sex, violence, and stockings in a way reminiscent of Hitchcock, with the story generally pacy, and the revelations and twists coming thick and fast. The Hitchcock influence is also felt in the climax, which sees Halloran clinging for dear life to the side of the church steeple. 

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Halloween : Resurrection

The eighth in a once seemingly interminable franchise, Halloween: Resurrection tries to bring a contemporary feel to things with a plot about web-cams and reality TV. However, the whole thing is as tired and grating as any of the sequels and rip-offs that came in the wake of the original Halloween.

Set three years after the previous film, Halloween H20 (which, if you missed, we are brought up to speed on with some exposition dialogue and flashbacks), the film starts with Laurie Strode in a mental hospital after decapitating a man she thought was her brother, Michael Myers, the knife wielding masked killer of six of the previous seven Halloween films. However, once again, he lives to slash another day, and tracks Laurie down before finally fulfilling his life ambition and bumping her off. Still, it means the studio can put Jamie Lee Curtis on the poster, and no doubt, she was well paid for an afternoon’s work.

Therefore, after just 15 minutes, Myers is suffering something of an existential crisis, pondering what to do now he has no raison d'etre. Fortunately, for him at least, the second part of the film kicks in, with the answer to his prayers coming in the form of a group of teenagers who have agreed to spend Halloween night in the Myers childhood home. The rooms are all fitted with web-cams, and the people fitted with head cams, as part of an internet reality show created by new media moguls Freddie Harris (Busta Rhymes) and Nora Winston (Tyra Banks). It is the web aspect, rather than the reality TV element that looks most dated now, as a cinematic style, it was old hat even on the film's release, a few years after The Blair Witch Project (the other pop culture reference point being video games, with one killing framed to look like the distinctive point-of-view of Doom)

In terms of the genre, the standard rules apply, so rather than fully formed characters, we get tropes, such as the too-cool-for-school Janeane Garofolo type, her blond bimbo friend, the wacky nerd, the wannabe rock god and the black guy who cooks, while, thanks to the killings being broadcast over the internet, a group of dopey teens at a Halloween party get to provide a Greek chorus, and anyone who finds themselves in adult situations involving sex or drugs is doomed.

The style is loud, slick, flashy gory, and the longer the film goes on, the harder it becomes not to compare it with the relatively restrained, creepy, ambiguous and well-constructed freshness of the original, made nearly 25 years earlier. Here, the filmmakers seem to have little to offer other than a topical cash-in, and the increasingly confusing and boring mythology of the franchise. If it did not have the latter, it may have fallen through the cracks to be soon forgotten, although perhaps it might have had more of a chance as a standalone affair. At one point in their encounter, Laurie tells Michael “You have failed because I am not afraid of you”, and I cannot think of a better summing up of this film.