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Strictly Confidential (1959)
Honour of the regiment, old boy...
Yes, it's a slightly creaky and low budget 1950s comedy with a minimal plot, but anyone who loves the world of the shabby, down at heel, faux-genteel English confidence trickster will love this film.
The two male leads have great chemistry as a pair of fake ex-military city gents getting out of their depth in a share dealing swindle in 1950s London.
There are some lovely comic moments and amusing repartee. I particularly liked the scene with the tricksters at home in their bedsit in London's seedy Camden Town district, getting dressed up in dinner jackets to attend a posh dinner - and having to walk all the way to Kensington because they can't afford the bus fare.
William Hartnell is also good as an old fashioned but efficient company boss who refuses to fall for the pair's tricks. Well worth a watch.
Carry on Emmannuelle (1978)
Please put us out of our misery
I do think this is possibly one of the worst films I've ever seen. Carry on England was dire, but the Windsor Davies/Ken Connor routines weren't bad and the film seemed at least competently produced, but Emmanuelle is just poor from so many angles - technically - the awful cheap film stock which looks like it was leftover from a Shake 'n' Vac commercial, the crass innuendos and the need to hammer home obvious jokes (eg: I left in 1953. But the war ended in 1945...?).
Then there's the stock footage of London tourist spots in a lame attempt to interest overseas viewers, and the rubbish sub-Terry Gilliam 'special effects'. We also get the staple flouncy homo and comedy pakistanis. The acting is woeful with the good actors looking embarrassed or bored and the bad ones trying too hard. Miss Danielle, though very pretty, was I suspect overenthusiastically cast in the Mary Millington mould - perhaps the protégé of someone in the film industry who promised to 'make her a star'.
It's also very dated in its approach to sex. You can almost hear the writers thinking 'all that innuendo in the fifties and sixties is old hat, man. This is the permissive society now, and, like, sex is cool and everybody's doing it, even fat old ladies in launderettes!' This results in a number of sordid 'gags'(middle aged servants spying on a couple in bed, a leering football team queueing up for a gang bang, references to contraceptive pills, but strangely no reference to the clap, which I would imagine Emmannuelle must have picked up a few times - though perhaps STDs didn't exist in the mind of 1970s scriptwriters... etc).
The film even opens with the seventies fantasy of random strangers joining the 'mile high club'. One or two jokes made me laugh 'You for coffee? No I'm staying here' but these were few and far between.
This could have been so much better in the hands of a competent scriptwriter and the old Carry On gang, but as it is this is a sad shadow of the former films and not really a Carry On at all, but a feeble dated British sex comedy, which is neither sexy nor funny.
The History Boys (2006)
More than a whiff of lavender...
This film had such great potential and reminded me in many ways of my own schooldays, and did have some very funny and touching scenes (Brief Encounter!), but also failed on so many levels: 1. Wrongly marketed. Not a criticism of the film as such, but it was marketed in the trailers as a knock-about comedy, along the lines of an English 'American Pie'. I suspect this is the reason why so many dimwits walked out in horror when confronted instead by 'long words'.
2. Little or no analysis of the social and class implications of a bunch of middle/lower middle class state school boys going to Oxbridge. It was just taken as read. To be fair, Alan Bennett does say in 'Untold Stories' that an analysis of the Oxbridge experience is the subject for another film, but it would have made a better one, in my opinion. It was also extremely unrealistic in that all the boys got places - In my school only about half did.
3. The unrealistic treatment of homosexuality. I hesitate to use the term 'gay agenda' as it is generally the preserve of American fundamentalists, but the whole Dakin/Posner/Hector/etc love triangle (or should that be love square) did not ring true.
I went to an almost identical school at around the same time and I can assure you that there was NEVER any overt talk of same sex relationships, and boys I have know from other grammar and minor public schools have confirmed this. You simply would have been ostracised or beaten up if you had.
Yes of course there were boys who we knew or suspected were gay, and masters too, but the scene where Dakin hugs Posner and Posner says 'is that it' would just not have happened. Also, Dakin revealing himself as a predatory bisexual was a bit unlikely for someone of his age and experience - he hadn't even got to 'second base' with the school secretary so why would he have the confidence to attempt the seduction of a male teacher? Much as I admire Alan Bennett, this all seems to me purely the fantasy of an elderly homosexual playwright, which brings me onto my next point:
4. The unrealistic dialogue. The boys were simply TOO precocious. 17 and 18 year olds, even Oxbridge candidate geniuses, in my experience just don't talk like that or have that depth of interest in history and literature, or universal knowledge of films like 'Now, Voyager' and 'Brief Encounter'. Again, this was the dialogue of a 72 year old playwright being put into the mouths of the boys.
5. I got the impression that the black and Asian boy were put in as a gesture, and this is confirmed by the fact that they have little dialogue or character development, in fact pretty much the only lines they got were racially charged ones. This strikes me as the somewhat heavy-handed stamp of liberal/left guilt and tokenism.
I think Mr Bennett was basing the characters on his memories of grammar school boys in the early fifties, who probably were more erudite, but since the cultural revolution of the sixties (of which Mr Bennett no doubt heartily approves) adolescents mainly don't think or act like that any more, as popular culture has dumbed down immensely. The boys all spoke and acted far more like third year undergraduates than sixth formers. How many 18 year olds have a wry, sarcastic take on Christianity like the religious boy? How many 18 year old boys, however good looking, would act like Dakin?
I think the main problem is that The History Boys is a somewhat expressionist play ('a poem, not an essay' as Pinter would put it) which has been rather clumsily translated into a naturalist film and given a populist gloss. Whilst it has a lot of great scenes, overall it just doesn't work as well as it could. Sign me up for the Dead Poets' Society instead!
Whistle Down the Wind (1961)
I'll call my kitten Spider. And when he grows up I'll teach him to hate yours!
Once in a while you come across a film that is perfect - and this film is one of them. It has everything - humour, pathos, skilled acting, beautiful cinematography and it deals with the deepest questions of human existence. I found myself alternating between laughter and tears. It seems to touch on deep themes which films rarely dare to nowadays - themes of belief, faith, and the meaning of love.
The photography of the bleak Lancashire countryside is superbly crisp, the facial expressions of the actors (especially Mr Bates) let us know exactly what is going on in their minds but subtly, in a way that is never seen nowadays in films where everything must be made explicit.The children interact entirely naturally and they are not merely credulous, but curious and questioning ('he's not Jesus, he's just some fella'). Some scenes are deeply moving, in particular when the children dance under a tree to the music of 'We Three Kings' in joy and praise at seeing what they believe to be their Saviour - seeming to sum up the deep, almost pagan connection between religion and the English countryside.
The film deftly deals with the changing England of the time. By the early sixties, mainstream Christianity had begun to lose its hold on the English people (this was the time of Bishop Robinson and the 'Honest to God' debate); the decaying, plundered church is representative of the decline in organised religion, juxtaposed with the 'true' faith of the children. The religious figures, however, are not pilloried as would be the case in most modern films - they are treated sympathetically. I particularly liked the look of awkwardness on the Sunday school teacher's face when she is asked a question about Jesus which she knows she cannot answer with any honesty, and which she clumsily sidesteps.
In many ways the film is an elegy for a lost England - an England where children roam the countryside freely, where the nearest telephone is half a mile away, and where children live in relative material poverty but with strong familial love, where the simple pleasures of life are enjoyed - playing in the open air, having a birthday party at home, or reading late into the night. The film could not realistically have been made even just ten years later.
The secret to knowing who you are is WHERE you are, and WHEN you are
I first saw this film on its cinema release and thought it a gentle, slightly dated but amusing English comedy. Watching it again last night (it was given out free on DVD with a Sunday newspaper) I realised what a greatly underrated, highly intelligent film it is. In fact I suspect it is a little TOO intelligent for mainstream audiences, which perhaps is why it has never been a blockbuster.
What impressed me was the highly philosophical nature of the plot which deals with the artificial nature of timekeeping in modern society.
Stimpson suffers from the modern disease of believing that all the problems of life can be solved by the imposition of obsessive man made order and regulation (something our present Government appears to suffer from also) in particular with regards to timekeeping. His whole identity is based on timekeeping and he is unable to relate to anything outside his own worldview. Stimpson is the classic tragic overreacher who doesn't realise that his attempts at control are actually having the opposite effect.
The sense of dislocated identity is a recurrent motif in the film. The senile old ladies are not merely there for comic relief - they act as a mirror to Stimpson's own disintegrating sense of self. One of the ladies (the late great Joan Hickson) is stuck in a 'loop' of consciousness relating to sherry glasses, and the other is convinced that she is in the place she has already left, but the third lady, 'aren't we lucky people!' represents the childlike happiness of those who are literally outside time - her polite bewilderment and contented singing at the end of the film as Stimpson is led away underscore this neatly.
Other motifs of dislocated identity and location abound. Stimpson drives a car which does not belong to him, and which does not belong to the girl he takes it from, who is also not licensed to use it. It is then driven in a completely random, directionless way across fields ('we don't need the track!')until it has to be rescued by a tractor which Stimpson refuses to see even though he's standing right next to it. (This particular sequence, with the Morris 1100 driving over the fields, has an almost lyrical quality to it, especially to someone who spent most of his childhood holidays in a similar car).
Stimpson then spends some time in a monastery, where the characters, like the senile ladies, are outside of time in the conventional sense - almost stuck in the middle ages - again the innocent happiness of those outside time is shown by the monk cheering on Cleese in his chase after the car.
Finally Stimpson makes his last ditch attempt to reach the conference in a car stolen from someone who again, does not own it himself, and in a stolen suit which does not fit him which, in a hilarious counterpoint to his own crumbling identity, falls to pieces while he is wearing it.
The only thing the film lacks is perhaps a little more background on what changed Stimpson from being a hopeless timekeeper to an obsessive one, and what happened to him after he was caught.
Lundi matin (2002)
Defense de Fumeur
A quirky, amusing little film about a French factory worker attempting to get away from it all. The factory scenes at the beginning definitely show a strong Jacques Tati influence and the rest of the film is very much a French version of a Mike Leigh film. Like a lot of French films, plot is not particularly important, but the characters and the atmosphere just wash over you.
My favourite characters were the cigarette smoking, sports car driving grandmother and the fat old man in the wheelchair, M. Albert. The scene where his carer pushed him down the hill in his wheelchair was hilarious! If you like gentle, atmospheric foreign films that don't really 'go' anywhere, then this one is for you.
The Knowledge (1979)
How do you get from Manor House station to Gibson Square?
I was surprised to see so few comments on what I think is an excellent play, by the very talented Jack Rosenthal.
Non British, and even non-Londoners are unlikely to find much of interest, but anyone who knows the capital well will find this an enjoyable little film.
It concerns a group of Londoners who are all on the same 'knowledge' course, the gruelling test set by the Metropolitan Police which all cabbies must take before they get their coveted 'green badge' or taxi driving licence.
The test involves learning every street and public building within six miles of central London - a massive feat of memory that only 30 per cent of applicants manage to pass. The students must spend every waking hour cycling or motorbiking around London so that they know the city back to front.
It is this challenge that provides the dramatic tension and much of the humour of the play, as the test begins to take over every aspect of the students' lives, and leads their wives and girlfriends to despair.
The tour de force is by the late Nigel Hawthorne, who plays 'Dracula', the extremely strict test examiner, who behaves rudely and oddly to try to simulate the difficulties the drivers will experience when in their taxis.
Mr Rosenthal's light touch on the big issues of life is much missed in our present era of earnest, heavy handed drama, and the film is also a delightful period piece showing a London which in many respects has not changed to this day, but in other respects could almost be in the nineteenth century.
Carry on Abroad (1972)
A hilarious low budget romp for the carry on team. This film sends up both foriegners and Brits. The new idea of package holidays was a rich vein for comedy in the early seventies (see also the brilliant 'Are You Being Served' film), a time when most British people had never been abroad before (except perhaps during the war), so there was much scope for humour.
Amazingly the British weather held up long enough for the island of Elsbels (Camber Sands) to look convincingly like a mediterranean resort (well...in winter anyway!) but a large number of scenes are indoors anyway, so it doesn't matter. All the usual smut, innuendo, and gags about falling down hotels are there, and I defy anyone not to chuckle a few times. The only slight downside is the rather poor acting by Kenneth Williams' assistant, but she is extremely 'easy on the eye' so gets away with it.
My favourite scene is when the prison guard gives the gang the 'fine old British gesture' of two fingers up, to which Kenneth Connor replies 'Damned FILTH!'.
Best Defense (1984)
On a dull evening at home recently I saw this was showing on ITV2, and I settled down to enjoy what I thought would be a reasonably amusing comedy.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were one of the greatest ever comedy acts. Peter Cook was a hilarious solo act. Dudley Moore was a brilliant musician...but NOT a good solo comedy player.
All Mr Moore's films seem to have him in an ill fitting three piece suit and horrible seventies hairstyle, running manically around hotel corridors and swearing a lot. This film is no exception.
It just didn't have any really funny moments. Mr Murphy (whose scenes were slotted in later) had one or two funny lines but that was about it.
If Saddam Hussein got the idea of invading Iraq from this film, that would be a good reason to ban it!
The original 'bunny boiler'
I happened upon this film while channel hopping, and initially I was convinced it was a French film dubbed into English, because of its long static shots and arty feel.
Whilst it may have been groundbreaking at the time, the film now comes across as standard arty sixties psychobabble, a style that has been parodied so many times by the likes of Harry Enfield and the Fast Show that it is hard to take seriously.
The main things I liked about the film however were:
The photography: the crisp black and white film and the long, lingering shots and good use of close up make this seem more like viewing a photography show than a film. It is VERY well filmed, and the sense of claustrophobia in the flat was well conveyed (whoever said it was a 'tiny' flat should see my place in London...). By the end of the film I felt I had lived in that flat.
The period atmosphere. Most films made in England at that time limited their location work to factory chimneys, back terraces, or Carnaby Street boutiques. This film, with its atmospheric shots of London streets, pubs etc almost makes you feel you've been transported to London in 1965. That world, before the social and economic upheavals of the late sixties, less than forty years ago, seems to have more in common with 1865 than 2004.
It was also nice to see a young Helen Fraser (the manicurist) who British viewers will recognise as the old battleaxe wardress in 'Bad Girls'.