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Piccadilly Jim (2005)
Warning, here there be spoilers.
Wodehouse is notoriously difficult to film. The usual reason given for this is that Wodehouse is a literary writer and half the fun is his wordplay. But Wodehouse wrote Byzantine plots that do not translate well to a medium where simplicity is the key to understanding.
Take impostors, for instance. Wodehouse loved what we today would call Identity Theft. He had characters staying in other people's houses under false identities all the time. The plot of "Picadilly Jim" is so involved and convoluted one character is staying in another person's home disguised as himself, and he begs a man who knows him not to reveal his true identity.
On top of all this, Wodehouse's fans know his books too well for short-cut liberties to be taken blithely. When one films Wodehouse, one takes one's life in one's hands, as in an aerialist act performed without a net.
This production started well by choosing a little-known Wodehouse novel, written before his "Golden Age" classics. The Jeeves and Blandings Castle sagas were only just poking their little heads out of their shells when PICADILLY JIM (the novel) was written.
It's a little known book, and not a very important one in the Wodehouse oeuvre. And they give it to you fast and slick. Like the "Airplane" movies, if you don't laugh at one thing, they keep throwing Wodehouse at you until they tickle your funny bone somewhere.
For Wodehouse purists, the adaptation sticks close to the books. Where the script deviates from Wodehouse writ, most of it is justifiable and a lot of new material is funny. And why not? It was scripted by Julian Fellowes, who, as an actor, played many a character that might have tumbled right out of Wodehouse.
Sam Rockwell ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", "Midsummer Night's Dream"), tackling the part of the eponymous Jim, is one of those actors who seem born to play Wodehouse at some point. I'm glad he's playing a minor Wodehouse star.
The rest of the cast is fine, with Tom Wilkinson, another Wodehouse natural, as a standout. Geoffrey Palmer has a good turn as a Wodehouse butler. Frances O'Connor is a trifle too neurotic for a Wodehouse female (the younger Wodehouse women are usually more together than the men, though they become unhinged with age). Her neurosis is firmly grounded in the book; the script flowered out the character flaw out to make her role more interesting. And it makes a darn good scene when Jim finally discovers what's driving this wacky chick.
What is most criticized about this production is its clash of '30s and modern style. And sometimes, not even modern. It's more like Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL than anything human.
Yet the source novel itself is a good example of why this is not a bad policy. PICADILLY JIM came out in 1918. What was going on in 1918? Show of hands. That's right, World War One. Only a few years earlier, the steamship "Lusitania" was sunk by German U-boats. Yet in the book, there is no mention of the war that had been foremost on people's minds for years. Clubs and restaurants in London are populated by young men who are not shell-shocked or otherwise scarred from battle. They are the vapid but well-educated scions of the nobility who had been cannon fodder in the trenches for four years. Characters hop on steamships and go from New York to London and back to New York with no thought or mention of U-boats, mines, or other hazards to shipping.
Therefore, nearly one hundred years after this novel was first written, it does not seem bound to its time. Oh, the idea of traveling to England by steamship may be passé, but readers are not bogged down by the time-specific angst that makes so many "lost generation" novelists unpalatable today. Apart from a few mentions (such as in the novel QUICK SERVICE) no World War One intrudes into Wodehouse. Later on, though Wodehouse was in a German interment camp, England does not endure World War Two and his characters experience neither shortages nor bombings.
Nevertheless, though his characters seem stuck in their Edwardian pleasaunces, they do travel through time and keep up with certain new developments. Updating the book to the thirties made a lot of sense, but throwing in modern styles, while jolting in a Brazilian sort of way, also is not unWodehouse.
Warning: some unWodehouse things do appear, so strap in and be ready for them.
For an even more astute version of Wodehouse, see "Heavy Weather" with Peter O'Toole and Samuel West.
Entertaining Hodge-Podge of Wells Stories
H. G. Wells has a sterling reputation based on a handful of brilliant works he composed between 1895 and the turn of the twentieth century. My favorite is THE INVISIBLE MAN, but others may prefer THE TIME MACHINE, THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, etc.
Some of Wells' views were noxious. He was a long-time socialist and a believer in eugenics and dominant races. Several of his later books were pedantic over his theories of racial hygiene, as well as his obsession for developing a single world government. All this makes some of his later work unreadable today.
Wells also composed numerous short stories. Though these are of variable quality, some are among the best creepy stories in the English language.
"The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells" is a three-part series culled from Wells' short stories. Wells himself is portrayed as an active participant in these weird events. Sometimes his role is vital to the stories, at other times his presence is tangential. The series has a framing device of Wells as an old man during World War Two, looking back over his long career and relating some of the strange things that occurred to a young journalist -- who herself might not be all she seems.
Wells is presented as an eager young man desperately trying to mature as a successful author, balancing it with his growing love for a woman he calls Jane (though that is not her real name). The unsavory fact that Wells left his first wife for Jane, and he had several affairs and illegitimate children outside of his marriage to her, is fortunately by-passed for this dramatization. Only Wells' sunny side shines through here.
Wells and Jane come off as a likable young couple whose worse strain comes from the bizarre situations they and their friends lurch into.
Though some of the stories contain tragedy, the stories presented here come off as largely comic, as if Wells were a nineteenth century Douglas Adams. The stories are neatly rewritten to accommodate the author, and to make sure most have charming or happy endings. Strangely, one story that originally had a happy ending is played here for tragedy. And just be careful, if you are inordinately fond of dogs.
The series is good for anyone who wants to add a little pleasant and ultimately unimportant weirdness to their lives.
If you want to look ahead an see how the stories are altered from the originals, the stories dramatized include "The New Accelerator", "The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper", "The Crystal Egg", "Story of Davidson's Eyes", "The Truth About Pyecraft" (changed much for the better) and "The Stolen Bacillus."
Fair Game (2010)
Don't believe everything see in the movies
The story of how a Democrat CIA desk jockey wangled her husband an expensive junket at taxpayer expense for developing a report he never filed. Sounds like a rather dull movie. So does a flick about a man coming home from an expensive junket to make statements that were proved so unfounded one wonders if he did any research. The only interesting thing is how a couple of greedy little people have enjoyed worldwide adulation and turned lots of moolah by trumpeting a non-scandal, a "leak" that never happened. But Hollywood has always thrived on fiction.
All leftist Hollywood's efforts were poured into this quaint little pack of disinformation, and it's all done very nicely. But for anyone who knows the facts, "Fair Game" is like a hollow Easter bunny. Delicious on the outside, hollow on the inside.
The truth may be out there, but it isn't here.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
A good rule of thumb is to give a wide berth to movies whose titles are based on feeble puns, especially when the lead character's name has been specifically designed to form the pun.
Forget that rule with "Grosse Pointe Blank" with John Cusack playing the eponymous Martin Blank.
As the film develops, we learn that Blank is also an allegorical name. He has no foundational ethics. He really is an inner blank.
Blank owns and operates a mom-and-pop contract-killing concern, with the help of his ever-loyal secretary Marcella (John Cusack's real-life sister, Joan). Blank likes his loan-wolf lifestyle. It allows him to give his clients personal service at reasonable prices.
But he's not perfect. He botched a recent job and accidentally took out a dog. This has severe ramifications for his near future. To repay for his blunder, he must take a make-up job in Detroit near his original home of Grosse Pointe Michigan, an upscale Detroit suburb.
Coincidentally, his ten-year high school reunion is also coming up that weekend. On the advice of his secretary and his shrink, Blank decides to make the weekend a double-header, fulfilling his contract and attending his reunion -- hoping to meet his old flame, Debi, now a local disk jockey.
Blank faces professional as well as personal problems. A rival contract killer named Grocer (since we know "GPB" is not above cheap puns, is this a Marxist pun at the bourgeois?) is trying to form a union of hit-men. By Grocer's description, it sounds more like a power-grab. Blank, who cherishes his independence, declines to sign on.
Grocer was the original vendor of the Detroit job. When the job is given to Blank, Grocer thinks Blank stole his gig. Grocer betrays Blank to the National Security Agency as an international assassin, which puts a couple of government spooks on his tail. They intend to "wax" Blank, but first they must catch him in the commission of his crime.
Blank, Grocer, and the G-men converge on Grosse Pointe, along with a joker in the deck, another international assassin sent to find Blank and kill him as payback for the dog.
The cast is awash with Cusacks (John is the star, Joan is the secretary, Ann pops up for a cameo, and a Bill Cusack is floating around somewhere). The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Dan Ackroyd plays at full throttle as Grocer. Minnie Driver is the old flame burned out on Blank. Alan Arkin is typically brilliant in his cameo as the shrink who only treats Blank because Blank says "I know where you live."
While some lament the level of sex and violence in the movies, they often fall in two camps. They are troubled more by the sex, or they are troubled more by the violence.
Sex is not an issue in "Grosse Pointe Blank." I noticed no nudity. While hanky-panky is suggested, intimate moments are not flung in our faces.
The violence is high-octane. While some bemoan that movie violence may be imitated, they don't seem to worry about sex. From a personal standpoint, I am DRASTICALLY more likely to be enticed into imitating sexy than violent scenes. I have tried "to kiss like they do in the movies" (amongst other things -- I once tried to duplicate the strawberry moment in "Tess" with disastrous results). But I have never shot anyone.
Violence is a serious issue for me as I grew up on butchered Warner Brothers cartoons. Back in that day, shootin' irons were severely edited. Yosemite Sam only had to step on screen and there was an irritating jump-cut to the next scene.
Of course, the major difference is that when violence is depicted on screen, one knows it's fake. This applies most obviously when Clint Eastwood mows down an entire German army in "Where Eagles Dare." Few people will saunter out of a theater thinking it's real. The same with Luke Skywalker blowing up an entire Death Star full of storm troopers. But when a guy comes on screen to fondle a real woman's really bare breasts and they loll around naked in bed, it's far more likely to inspire imitation.
The violence in Grosse Pointe Blank leans toward the cartoonish, and it is quite excessive. These hit-men are not Oswalds who take out their targets with three shots. They empty their automatic weapons into 'em. Ammunition must be quite an overhead expense in this business. One would think advertising more accuracy with fewer shots would give a contractor a competitive edge.
And it's not just gun-violence. Blank and his peers learn to take out their quarries with whatever comes to hand. Blank tells his shrink, "I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork." This adroit use of atypical tools of the trade is demonstrated on screen, once with very funny results. And I've never read where anyone was killed with a . . . but that's too much of a spoiler. When the gun violence starts, it is wonderfully noisy and unremitting. This may be satirical, but the best humor comes from truth.
"Grosse Pointe Blank" builds to an exciting, noisy climax as all the ragged ends of Blank's life finally come together.
If you're not too stodgy and puritanical to find humor in excessive violence, this is the flick for you. It is cleverly written material well performed and directed.
"Gross Pointe Blank" also perfectly captures the high school reunion zeitgeist. The excitement of seeing familiar faces one suffered through years of school with, but who dropped out of sight immediately after graduation. The bafflement at the way some classmates turned out (for better or worse). And the tie-loosening grinding down of the party, where you've had a good time and one too many, and you'll be just as happy not to see any of these people again for another decade.
The Trouble with Spies (1987)
The Trouble with Movies
Burt Kennedy (1922-2001) directed two of the funniest American movies, "Support Your Local Sheriff" (1969) and "Support Your Local Gunfighter" (1971), spot-on western spoofs which also profited by star James Garner's laid-back charm.
Nearly twenty years later, in 1987, after a mostly western career, Kennedy helmed the spy spoof "The Trouble with Spies." I would like to say Kennedy's spy spoof had "mixed results" but I can't. It's bad nearly all the way through. And since Kennedy is listed as writer, he can't blame the movie's failure on the material. The whole movie plays like an excuse for several people to have a holiday in Ibiza on someone else's nickle.
Donald Sutherland, an unlikely movie star who has never shied from unusual roles, has a confusing character. He's set up as a sort of British Clouseau who is sent on a spy mission in order to get captured and give disinformation to the enemy (this is still Cold War time).
The enemy tries to kill or capture him several times, but he always manages to escape. In fact, he seems to know just what to do in every situation. He does not even, like Clouseau, seem to survive out of sheer stupid dumb luck.
Take for instance the time he and his girl (Lucy Gutteridge) find themselves in a car balancing precariously on the edge of a quarry. Sutherland's character saves the day. One would expect, given the way he was set up, the girl would save the day. Or perhaps they should have fallen into the quarry. If they survived the fall, it might have been funny. If they had not survived the fall, it would have been a mercy for both of them.
Sutherland himself seems not to know how to play the character. Rather than inhabiting the character, as he usually does, he seems to be walking through the movie with it.
After Sutherland, "The Trouble with Spies" has no shortage of good actors. Young Lucy Gutteridge, not long after playing her part in the Royal Shakespeare Company's landmark television broadcast of "Nicholas Nickleby" is Sutherland's love interest. Legendary ditherer Michael Hordern and legendary cranky old bat Ruth Gordon have fairly meaty roles. Ned Beatty, who seemed to be an ubiquitous supporting player in the 1970's and 80's, also appears. Cameo parts are held by Robert Morley, playing the "M" part to Sutherlands secret agent, and Gregory Sierra ("Sandford and Son") as a local policeman.
Beatty's part makes little or no sense. He seems to be there simply to provide another red herring for our spy. But even red herrings should have a reason to exist.
Hordern and Gordon are always fun to watch, and one wonders if the movie might have been better written around their characters than Sutherland's.
Perhaps it was the print I saw, but the movie looks like it was done on the cheap. The whole thing has an under-rehearsed look to it. Good actors like Sutherland and Gutteridge are hard to dampen altogether and both give game performances that try to give us something to look at. But it's almost like they haven't been told whether they're in a comedy or a straight spy drama. The production has a tax-write-off feel to it. Parts of it contain actors who never interact with anyone else in the movie, and one cannot help wondering if they were shot later in a desperate attempt to give the movie sense.
Not Buchan but Fun
Having seen Robert Powell in "The Thirty-Nine Steps" I bought this DVD set supposing it was a miniseries based on Buchan's other Hannay books.
At first, I was disappointed that it was not. I was likewise disappointed to learn the series was shot on videotape on sometimes cheap-looking sets (though the exteriors always look good).
I became used to that sort of show watching "Masterpiece Theater" in the 1970s, but I thought British television had outgrown that style by 1988.
One sleepless night, starting "Hanny" about midnight, I was pleasantly surprised to discover "Hannay" is by turns fun and exciting.
The series is definitely not Buchan. It's more like a series one would base on the works of E. Phillips Oppenheim or J. Jefferson Farjeon (and it's high time someone did). Still, anyone who delights in that sort of literature will enjoy the series. If all this happened to Hannay, he would hardly be "the best bored man in the United Kingdom." Think of these as the adventures of a cousin Buchan's Hannay doesn't know.
While the series has a few notable guest appearances (Charles Gray, Dennis Lill, Colin Jeavons in an unfortunately wasted part, Joanna David, Bernard Kay, Martin Clunes, Richard Pasco, etc.), most of the then-young actors supporting Powell are quite good.
Perhaps the series is slyly tongue-in-cheek, but it isn't nearly as rude as I feared to the exciting Edwardian literature I am so fond of, and which Buchan exemplified.
Orders Are Orders (1954)
Interesting for Historical Reasons
Who is Brian Reece? He's the star of 1954's "Orders Are Orders." He died in 1962. In this film he is ably supported by the often overlooked, but always invaluable, Raymond Huntley. So much for them.
"Orders are Orders" is about an army base is overrun by motion picture people making a cheap sci-fi flick about an invasion from outer space.
Three show-biz legends have parts in the movie. First, Peter Sellers, just finding success on BBC radio's "The Goon Show." Then, Tony Hancock, who was soon to embark on his own radio series, and would go on to great fame on BBC television. Finally, Sid James, anchor of many "Carry On" movies.
Hancock is the most disappointing. He bumbles around trying to act funny as a military band leader. He does have a few good moments, as when he tries to turn the march his band has been playing into a waltz.
Sellers, on the other hand, is too restrained. Arguably the finest slapstick artist in movies since the silent era, Sellers' modus operandi is often to let characters and jokes develop slowly. In a 78-minute movie chock full of characters it seems unlikely a beginning movie actor in a supporting role would be allowed such latitude. His low-key performance can probably be chalked up to inexperience. It's too bad, because Sellers (still in his early, chunky period) can go high-octane.
Sid James, perhaps because of his role as a flamboyant movie-maker, gives the film the charge it needs. He bustles through trying to steal every scene he's in, and mostly succeeding. From the moment he appears, every time he goes off-screen the movie starts to die.
All three of these stars-to-be have significant if not above-title roles in "Orders are Orders." Their long-time fans may be disappointed, but it's worth seeing these young performers feeling their way to stardom that was waiting just around the corner.
In all this, I have talked little about the film itself. There's not much to talk about. If it were not for the fact that three of its performers went on to major stardom, two on film and one on British television, this movie would probably never see the light of day. Fans of bad sci-fi might enjoy it for insight into the making of those pictures.
Donald Pleasence and Eric Sykes have bit parts. Don't blink.
Dropped like a Rock
"Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century" often cannot help betraying its 1970s roots. Buck occasionally strolls around in wide "Saturday Night Fever" collars and many of his night spots look just a step away from disco.
Overall, the series started out likable. Gil Gerard, who in these fatophobic days might be considered a bit chunky in his flight suits, came in with a twinkle in his eye and a grin to show that whatever silliness was on hand, we should swallow it easily.
The first season began with a movie-length story (released in theaters). Beginning in 2491, Earth fliers find Buck frozen in his spaceship from 1987. Buck tries to adjust to changing styles and mores, but he always proves the good, old twentieth century way was better. This is especially true in matters of cuisine. One episode has Gary Coleman (hands up, all who remember Gary Coleman) as a leader of a society who also just happens to be from the twentieth century, and who is on a constant search for cheeseburgers, fries, and milkshakes).
The first season has a few interesting guest stars. Lovely Pamela Hensley, the bad guy in the pilot, returns intermittently to make Buck marry her. One wonders why he doesn't want to marry a beautiful princess until, in one episode, she produces the dog-collar he'll wear.
Another episode features Roddy McDowell and Jack Palance. Ray Walston (Uncle Martin from "My Favorite Martian" appears in the Gary Coleman episode. The biggest surprise was Playmate of the Month for August 1979, Dorothy Stratten, playing a beauty-contest winner, just a few months before she was shot in the face by her estranged husband. There is also a welcome appearance by a very young Markie Post, who must have been sewn into her costume.
The first season got very silly at times but it never ceased to be fun.
The second season was another kettle of fish. Instead of being Earth-based, it was set in a "Star Trek" type of format with Buck and his lovely sidekick (Erin Gray, who was a blonde in the the first series and a brunette in the second) looking for human life in the galaxy.
The second series was more serious and adopted a liberal-preachy tone. Instead of one adventure after another, Buck seems to go from one leftist screed to another. It's no wonder it tanked. Shows like this should be for fun, not forums for political indoctrination.
Also in the second series, the show also committed near heresy by not bringing Mel Blanc back to voice the robot Twiki. In the wake of "Star Wars" cute little droids were in, and Buck Rogers had Twiki. Voiced by Blanc in the first series, Twiki's role was to come out with twentieth century expressions Buck had taught him. While the little guy might have been extremely annoying, Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny and most of his friends) was able to make it funny. Apparently there was a scramble to bring Blanc back after viewers quite rightly complained.
The show also changed William Conrad as its opening announcer, but this was a minor, if unsettling at first, point.
The second season also brought in long-time professional ditherer and dodderer Wilfred Hyde-White, who was even more doddering than usual. I suppose he was brought into compensate for the lack of humor in the second series. I've always admired Hyde-White's performances, but he appears out of his element here.
There is also a character who is suppose to be half-hawk but he actually just looks like a man in a feathered hat. The less said about him, the better. And there's a robot who is terminally annoying.
So, thumbs way up for the original pilot. Thumbs mostly up for the first series, though occasionally the thumbs may go a little slack in a few dumb episodes. And finally, middle fingers up for series two, after which "Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century" disappeared into a timely oblivion.
Between "Star Trek" and "Far-Out Space Nuts" this show probably flops closer to the latter. Still, it's worth looking if you like faux-space stuff and have a low threshold for the suspension of disbelief. Or if you want to see Erin Gray in extremely tight costumes.
Carry on Abroad (1972)
Nicely Representative Carry On Cast
"Carry On" movies come in three basic flavors. Several early ones are heart-warming but still happily silly. The historical and movie spoofs ("Jack", "Spying", "Cowboy", "Cleo", "Jungle" etc.) are preferred by many aficionados. The third kind are set in ('70s) modern dress with scripts containing wall-to-wall double-entendres. And single-entendres.
"Carry on Abroad" is a quintessential example of the third type. Of the long-term "Carry On" repertory company Connor, Williams, Hawtrey, Sims, Jacques, James, Windsor, Bresslaw and Butterworth appear. Adding June Whitfield (making her first "Carry On" since "Nurse" more than a dozen years before) and the twitching Jack Douglas (in his second "Carry On" movie outing) gives the film a nicely representative "Carry On" cast.
"Carry On Abroad" takes its cast on a tour to a foreign resort (actually, the parking lot of the studio), where Murphy's Law is proved at every turn. Kenneth Williams runs the tour agency, Peter Butterworth and Hattie Jacques run the hotel that hasn't been completed, and the rest run rampant.
Some of the attitudes are offensive by today's standards but some of the attitudes were offensive back then, too. Some of the attitudes will continue to be offensive in the future, whether posterity becomes more Victorian in sentiment, or whether it continues to expand into politically-correct, anti-free speech liberalism. "Carry On" movies of this flavor were made to offend.
"Carry On Abroad" does have a serious bone in its body, too, in the June Whitfield sub-plot, but that doesn't detract us long.
The six stars should be taken in context. "Carry On" movies were made as cheaply as possible and are not meant to be judged in the same way as one appraises, say, "Doctor Zhivago"
Carry on Spying (1964)
More Than a Carry-On
"Carry On Spying" is more than just a "Carry On." Like the previous entry in the series starring Bernard Cribbins ("Carry On Jack"), "Spying" is a good spoof of a film genre in its own right.
"Jack" had upped the "Carry On" ante, with non-"Carry On" actors outnumbering the usual "Carry On" team. It was also the first of the great movie spoofs in the "Carry On" tradition.
"Spying" -- coming on the heels of "Jack" -- is among the best spy spoofs ever.
Kenneth Williams (using his "Hancock's Half Hour" snide voice throughout), Cribbins, Charles Hawtrey, and Barbara Windsor (in her first "Carry On") are inept agents sent out by "The Chief" (Eric Barker) to recover a formula.
Also among the good guys are Jim Dale, as a James Bond type character (looking remarkably like a young Timothy Dalton) who is always being thwarted by his own colleagues.
The sets are fantastic. There is the high-class restaurant where Williams and Cribbins are in black tie and Hawtry is in the clothes of a cycling racer. There's the "Vienna" set (actually a sound-stage at Pinewood) so reminiscent of "The Third Man" one almost expects to see Orson Welles lurking in the shadows (he isn't, worse luck). The have a cross-country train like that where so many espionage thrillers have taken place, and which gives one the feeling of constant, claustrophobic movement despite being stage-bound. They wonderfully capture the spirit of the Casbah in a scene with Eric Pohlmann, who was in several episodes of "Danger Man." And there are the space-age corridors of the underground hide-out of the bad guy, with the futuristic, slightly off-kilter oblong doors.
The timing of the film could not have been better. Made after "Dr. No" and contemporaneous with "From Russia With Love" (which also had an exciting train sequence), "Spying" came out just as James Bond was prepared to explode with "Goldfinger." Because of its black-and-white photography it really seems closer in spirit to the great television show "Danger Man" -- though the Vienna scenes could have been cut out of "The Third Man." It's hard to believe Michael Caine's "Harry Palmer" movies were released after "Carry On Spying."
"Carry On" movies were always at their best with spoofs of specific movie genres. "Carry On Spying" is one of the better entries in the series and can stand on its own as a remarkable spoof of espionage thrillers. Anyone who knows their espionage noir, or loves the "Carry On" spoofs, will dig this flick.