All You Need is Cash 1978 *****

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The lowest-rated show of the week when it premiered on tv in 1978, Eric Idle and Gary Weis’s mockumentry about popular British band The Rutles has gained a cult following. This is due in part to the stellar reputations of pretty much everyone involved, but also to the song-writing gifts of Neil Innes, who sadly in no longer with us as of December 2019.

All You Need is Cash is a satirical variety show in which members of the Beatles, Monty Python and Saturday Night Live combine to poke fun at the way the Fab Four’s exploits were reported. Innes contributed 20 songs to the soundtrack, charting the rise of Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry, the Pre-Fab Four. It’s impossible to write about them without hearing the voice of avuncular narrator and presenter Eric Idle, who contributes a peerless set of gags here, from the rat-cellar the band played in (‘”Rat Keller” means, literally in German, “Cellar of rats”. That’s not “Seller of rats”, a seller of rats, a person who sells rats for a living to another man as it were, of course not.’) to the band’s huge concert at Che Stadium (‘named after the Cuban guerrilla leader Che Stadium’). Idle also surfaces as such august experts as Stanley J. Krammerhead III, Jr., occasional visiting professor of applied narcotics at the University of Please Yourself, California.  

Mockumentaries usually have a higher number of celebrity cameos than jokes, but this early entry has tonnes of both, with comic talents like Dan Ackroyd, Michael Palin, Bill Murray and Barry Cryer all contributing brief but amusing scenes, and there’s also a hesitant Paul Simon and a strident Mick Jagger, who seems to find it remarkably in-his-wheelhouse to lie convincingly about his rivalry with the Rutles. George Harrison exec-produces and turns up, investigating the theft of pretty much everything from the band’s business address. Paul and Ringo reputedly weren’t amused by the film, but seem to have come round to it; it’s a loving tribute to the Beatles, even if it doesn’t pull many punches in making fun of them.

Best of all are Innes’s pitch-perfect parody songs, so good they’re fun to listen to in their own right. Ouch perfectly mimics Help’s simplicity, Get Up and Go sends-up Get Back, and Cheese and Onions perfectly nails the languid epiphanies of the Yellow Submarine/Magical Mystery Tour period. Before Spinal Tap, All You Need Is Cash is the original mockumentry, a delightful, funny feature-length comedy that features both subject and parodists in perfect harmony. Innes’ reward was a massive law-suit from ATV Music, but our improved laws on parody circa 2019 should ensure that his music will last a for a lunchtime and beyond.

Monos 2019 ****

Monos

Part of the attraction of awards season is the wild card entry; who had Monos down as one of the possible nominees in 2019? And yet this from-nowhere Columbian film about child soldiers has waged a careful campaign since making waves at Sundance back in January, with selected public previews to drum up interest, critical acclaim and a building reputation as a must-see film. Alejandro Landes’ film isn’t for everyone, for sure, but it’s a worthy recommendation, clear in purpose, effective in delivery, agonising in content.

The Monos are a group of commandos, gathered on a remote mountaintop where they have been detailed to guard a hostage. The reasons for the imprisonment of Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) are never clear, but Monos is very much war from the POV of a grunt, and that kind of information is not disclosed. The names of the kids say it all; Rambo, Wolf, Bigfoot, Smurf. They may carry machine guns, but they’re still children. The idea of kids acting like soldiers is played for laughs in Stranger Things, but the reality is substantially more grim. The kids also are given a valued cow named Shakira, but irresponsibility leads to its death. And when Doctora escapes, the fissures amongst the group crack open like wounds.

Although there’s a couple of striking scenes which place the activities of the children in some kind of wider context, part of the power of Monos is that our focus is tightly within the group; there’s echoes of Lord of the Flies here, and some of the jungle madness of Apocalypse Now, but Monos doesn’t slavishly reference either. The atavistic theme of Heart of Darkness is here, but the focus is more concern for what this specific environment does to the human condition.

Like Beast of No Nation, Monos shines a light on a subject that’s obviously distressing, but there’s no sense of exploitation. The rapid erosion of morals in our political world will have a direct repercussion for the kids that follow, and Monos is quick to point out the potential for decline. Monos is not a lot of laughs to be sure, but it’s an important, sociologically relevant film that resonates in 2019’s changing climate of increased moral anxiety.

The Good Liar 2019 ****

liar

It’s nice to see Helen Mirren and Ian McKellern back on screen; he’s 80, she’s in her 70’s, and at that age, wizards, crones, vampire queens and alien rulers are the kinds of parts that seem to land with a thud on their agent’s desks. So modest crime-drama The Good Liar marks something of a change of pace from the sillier Hollywood work, central roles in a two-hander con-job film that’s dialogue and character based; the source is a novel by Nicholas Searle, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.

Bill Condon is writer/producer here, always with a waspish sense of dark humour; Roy (McKellern) is a con-man, who creates elaborate financial scams with his partner (Jim Carter) in London over a decade ago; the mobile phones and occasional period cars get the idea across. Roy is romantic but alone, and gets involved in an online dating site, which puts him in contact with Betty (Mirren), a retired history professor. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of Roy’s motives, but who is Roy, and what does he really want from Betty?

Any story about con men (and women) should have the audience searching for possible marks, and The Good Liar’s title suggests that none of the information we get should be taken as read; a neat opening shows Roy and Betty completing their dating profiles, ticking the boxes for no smoking or drinking while they enjoy their vices. But Condon’s film aims to go deeper that petty personal hypocrisies, with atrocities committed during the Nazi Germany regime relevant to the narrative plot twists.

The Good Liar has reputedly, made $30 million on a budget of a third of that; a little sleeper for Warner Brothers that could probably use some awards traction to cement success. The spy quality of the story doesn’t quite fit the traditionally turgid nature of awards-season dramas; The Good Liar aims to keep us guessing, and just about makes it to the conclusion without any let-up in tension. McKellern revels in a character who fakes ill-health, only to spring into action as he enters a sleazy strip-club. Mirren, meanwhile, appears to be a soft touch, but seems to physically change when she begins to realise the truth of her situation. And there’s an edge to proceedings, with a couple of shockingly violent scenes that keep the stakes high.

Entertainment isn’t usually high on the list of qualities that awards-voters seek, and The Good Liar risks getting swept away amongst more ballyhooed work. But it’s a smart, well performed drama that perhaps goes over the score in the final scene; nevertheless, fans will enjoy a couple of vintage performances for the most respected of actors.

Star Wars 1978 *****

Star Wars

Of course, once upon a time in Hollywood, there was no A New Hope about it. George Lucas may have had a number of trilogies planned in his Starkiller sequence, but it was unusual to have a sequel at all in those days, so Star Wars was the title, short and to the point. With a glut of product that shows no sign of slowing down, it’s worth taking a moment to remember why, for a generation, seeing the original film in 1978 was like getting hit by lightning.

A number of things went right in Star Wars, mostly deliberate, some have to go down as the best of luck. Some of the personable young cast went on to remarkable careers, notably Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. For the older cast, British stars like Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness added RADA gravity to the fight between good and evil. John Dykstra was the special effects lead, inspired by footage of WWII fighter planes to create ‘dirty space’, with dynamic designs for X-Wing and TIE-fighters, all dwarfed by massive Star Cruisers and the Death Star against a background of inky black space. Considerable imagination was at work in all aspects; from tiny Jawa merchants and vicious Sand-people, to the collection of misfits in the Mos Eisley cantina, where a grotesque jazz band played and the clientele were a little rough around the edges. And who, or what was Darth Vader? You never even saw behind his mask! What was that tentacle creature that lived in the bin-chute? And that ‘walking carpet’ Wookie, you know, he’s actually a thousand years old! And wrapped around it all, a joyful, dramatic John Williams score that made your heart soar and your knees weak as you stumbled out of your local flea-pit, squinting in the bleak light of the real world.

If there was one element that Star Wars wouldn’t work without, it would be the casting of Harrison Ford as Han Solo. It’s not unusual for central characters to be blandly underwritten, a blank surface that the audience can project themselves onto, and wholesome farm-boy Luke Skywalker worked just fine in that respect. But what a friend he had in Han, an intergalactic smuggler who CNGAFF about the rebels, the plot, or even the film; Ford famously wasn’t confident about George Lucas’ writing, and, like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, gives the impression he’d rather be somewhere else, which is perfect for a character who acts like he doesn’t care, but secretly does. Han is more like something from Sergio Leone than Luke’s goody-two-shoes, he’s got no time for the force and light-sabers, just give him a good old-fashioned blaster. Han shoots first and doesn’t have time to ask questions later.

Both director and actor may well have been running out of patience when Ford improvised his comic response over the intercom to a stuffy Death Star operator, which ends abruptly when Hans uses his blaster to shoot the console and remarks ‘It was a boring conversation anyway.’ Back in 1978, it was a line that caused uproar in the cinema, drinks and sweets thrown in the air, cheers, applause, drumming on the backs of seats. Star Wars was not about boring conversations, it was about anarchy, taking it to the man, beating the system against incredible odds.

Fast forward to 2019, and everything has changed. Star Wars isn’t about beating the system, it is the system, the template for which most big films take a lead, including the Star Wars films themselves. British actors are still villains, the cream of young talent are the heroes, the effects are more amazing than ever, and yes, there’s still humour left in the films. But the sense of fun, the lack of responsibility, the carefree sense of adventure seem long gone; both the actors and the characters had tragedies ahead of them, and Star Wars catches them, like the audience, in a moment of blissful adolescence, a simultaneous sunrise and sunset of the heart.

Cats 2019 ***

cats

Can we retire, or look for alternative phrases to describe, the phrase computer generated effects? Because it’s not computers that generate the uncanny look that ruins movies, it’s the people who operate the computers. Tom Hooper’s film of Cats has attracted a circle-jerk of critics keen to put the boot into one of his film version of one of musical theatre’s most venerable properties; aside from some regrettable uses of CGI, it’s pretty much exactly what any film of Cats would be expected to be like.

Without making any great claims for Hooper’s film, the people who hate this film wouldn’t have liked it if Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig had co-directed it; Cats is what it is, a twee slice of 1970’s musical theatre. One of the obvious reasons that Cats has not been filmed before is the lack of narrative; taking a cue from TS Eliot, the action of cats is really just a slew of famous people dressed as cats of different characters, introducing themselves and then vanishing.

Old-stagers like Judi Dench and Ian McKellern just about make their sections work, young bucks like James Corden and Rebel Wilson make fools of themselves; without a story to preoccupy us, there’s a train-wreck fascination about watching confident performers like Jason Derulo so far from their comfort zone. In terms of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, Jennifer Hudson does well with the show-stopper Memory, but there’s three or four decent tunes here, with Magical Mister Mistoffelees landing well. And while celebrity casualties include Idris Elba and Ray Winstone, who deservedly crash and burn squarely with their genuinely awful work here, Taylor Swift really dominates the screen in her bit, and suggests that she could be a real musical-theatre star if the pop-star gig doesn’t work out for her.

Cats is something of a freak-show, but it probably doesn’t deserve to the butt of every joke. It’s a straight, reverential adaptation of a well-loved property that will appeal to and satisfy fans of the music. Rather than polish off their strained cat-based puns, critics might be better to let this kind of thing live-and-let-live; it’s a random collection of stars performing a random collection of songs in weird make-up. There’s a place for such a film, and it’s likely to be gifted and re-gifted between elderly relatives for many Christmases to come. But watching Jennifer Hudson perform Memory, it’s hard not to be distracted by her having a massive hairy torso like Geoff Capes. Perhaps the real problem for any film of Cats is that it puts the audience too close to the stage, as some things look better from the back of the dress circle.

Spies in Disguise 2019 ***

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“I call it Fifty Shades of Yay!’ shrieks an exuberant Tom Holland in Blue Sky’s new animated film, a vehicle that pairs the Spiderman star with venerable character actor Will Smith for some espionage capers. This Fox/Disney co-production is cannily placed in the festive market to mop up an audience of kids who are too young or unwilling to debate the ins and outs of Emperor Palpatine’s sex life circa Xmas 2019.

Troy Quane and Nick Bruno’s film is based on a short called Pigeon Impossible, which offers a title which shoe-horns pigeon-based humour into a spy theme. And that is where Spies in Disguise goes, unexpectedly; a good forty minutes of the film sees superspy Lance Sterling (Smith) transformed into a humble pigeon. He’s helping do-gooder scientist Walter Beckett (Holland) as the two come into conflict with super-villain Killian (Ben Mendelsohn, typecast beyond redemption) and his metal hand. Killian has a drone army in place for nefarious purposes, and has set-up Sterling as his patsy; transformed into a pigeon, Sterling fights to clear his name and save the world.

Spies in Disguise pretty much drops the pigeon angle for the last half an hour and becomes a straight spy spoof, but not before it’s generated a few good lines. ‘I don’t think that subtitle was in my favour’ Sterling quips as foreign henchmen gather around him. Better still, although the production has a sleek Incredibles look, the film doesn’t rely on big guns and weapons; Walter prefers glitter bombs and holographic kitten distractions, and the conflict between the boy and the older, more experienced Sterling attempts to defuse macho stereotypes.

It’s notable that Spies in Disguise also offers a more hawkish stance towards geopolitics than other kids films, with Sterling teaching Walter about the need to interfere in foreign affairs. It’s a moot point, but this Blue Sky production doesn’t labour it, and with a notably slick car chase that gets off to a slow start when Sterling can’t get into his own car, plus some cool character designs, it’s a satisfying cinema outing for families who just want a quick sugar-rush and a few laughs rather than the final confusing instalment of a forty year old story.

Scrooge 1970 ***

scrooge

Christmas films are a mixed bag, reliant on tapping into pre-existing sentiment and beliefs. The best of them, like It’s A Wonderful Life or Love Actually, cast a wide net and hope to engage us with a developed sense of community, raising awareness of the world around us during a time of celebration. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is arguably the most loved and remade Christmas Story that is not overtly religious; instead, there’s a supernatural theme cannily used to uncover a simple but effective sense of well-being.

Coming hot on the heels of Oliver!, Scrooge was expected to cement a new genre of all-singing, all dancing literary adaptations; it did not. Part of that failure was ascribed to Albert Finney’s miscasting as Ebenezer Scrooge, but in truth, he’s offers exactly the kind of weighty, self-important character that a self-absorbed miser might require, and makes his conversion all the sweeter. Less effective is Alex Guinness as proto Force Ghost Jacob Marley, looking something of a sight in chains; even Kenneth More’s Ghost of Christmas Present is somewhat grotesque, and songs like I Like Life are less than classics.

But where Ronald Neame’s film hits the mark is with the song Thank You Very Much, performed twice in the film, once by Tom Jenkins (Anton Rodgers) and then again by Finney, capering down the sets of London streets in his nightgown. Both versions see the inhabitants of London joining in the throng, with street-urchins dancing away their poverty in a way that Monty Python would later parody. Rogers, looking bizarrely like former PM David Cameron, delivers the song with perfect timing, and the artificial sets give it the feel of The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. It’s a show-stopper par excellence.

Scrooge is also a story that works well for various religions in that it depicts a man literally throwing off the restraints of his material possessions in favour of attaining a more developed sense of enlightenment. Scrooge uses his wealth to gratify, not himself, but those who share his universe, and it’s a lesson that he is glad to learn. He recants his errors of judgement, and that ability to see beyond what’s good for ones-self is what makes Scrooge a classic Christmas movie. If you’re reading this review, then all I can say is, Thank You Very Much!