The Ghost Train 1941 ***

GHOST TRAIN (1941)

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the identity of her grandfather has been the worldwide hot topic of the last month, so it comes as a relief to identify the star’s actual grandfather as Dad’s Army star Arnold Ridley, the author of the play that this 1941 comedy-chiller was based on. Ridley wrote his play in 1923, and took inspiration from his overnight stay in a now-defunct station, where the echoes of other trains created an eerie atmosphere. Many, many film versions followed, with this particular one forming a vehicle for the familiar talents of Arthur Askey.

Askey’s trademark catch-phrase ‘Ay Thank Yow’ was appropriated by Mike Meyers for his Austin Powers films, but there’s a fair range of Askey call-backs and references here, as well as a full-blown song and dance number. Askey plays Tommy Gander, a music-hall comic who provides a perfect chance to play himself. Gander is one of a merry band of travellers who miss their connection when he pulls the emergency cord on their train in order to retrieve his missing hat. Forced to spend the night as Fal Vel junction in Cornwall, the group are warned by a gloomy Great Western Railways employee of the ghost that inhabits the station, and the ghost train which passes through…

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Ridley himself (above) played the station master in his play, Herbert Lomas takes the role of Hodgin here, and there’s also a few substantial changes in the plot, with machine-gun smuggling communists replaced by Nazi Fifth-columnists as the villains. There’s jokes about Hitler, providing it’s really not too soon for JoJo Rabbit, and also some fun at the expense of such recent public figures as Napoleon. Ridley served in both world wars, so it’s fair to give him some extra lee-way when it comes to cultural sensitivity.

The Ghost Train actually stands up pretty well as a film seen from nearly eighty years later; the comedy is sharp, the mystery is neat and the suspense elements elaborate; there’s a long set-up involving how the ghost operates that actually does pay off. What a genuine war veteran like Arnold Ridley might have made of Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker is anyone’s guess; expectations of a night at the flicks have changed somewhat since this quaint little film-of-a-play packed them in.

 

Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s a the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

Drillbit Taylor 2008 ***

drill1_606Netflix has to up its game in terms of film curation; job lots will only get more expensive, and all streaming services have to look for accessible, marketable movies that audiences haven’t already seen to death. Step forward Drillbit Taylor, a 2008 comedy starring Owen Wilson and directed by regular Adam Sandler collaborator Steven Brill. A comedy drama about a homeless veteran who agrees to protect three precocious high-schoolers from bullying is hardly a must-stream event, right?

Yet Drillbit Taylor has a more interesting pedigree that the above summary might suggest. The pseudonym on the story credit, Edmond Dantes, hides John Hughes, master of the teen movie via The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. His later work moved towards such family-fare as Home Alone, Uncle Buck and Baby’s Day Out, but Drillbit Taylor certainly makes an effort to recapture the school elements so well drawn in his best films. It’s also one that returns to the bullying theme featured in films like Weird Science, and features a notable bad-egg turn from Alex Frost, all John Bender-style confrontation; it’s notable that the hero, Taylor, says ‘I don’t like confrontation,’ cementing the different attitudes of the adversaries.

There’s also a strange novelty about seeing a John Hughes high school that references You Tube and 8 Mile. The modernity comes from this being an early Judd Apatow entry, with Seth Rogen one of the script-writers; the three boys Drillbit Taylor takes under this wing seem to be prototypes for the Superbad kids. But it’s not immediately clear whose authorial voice created sub-plots like Taylor getting mistaken for a supply teacher and making whoopee with English prof in the staffroom; this film has a tricky tone by dint of its ‘kids in peril’ scenario, and that perhaps led to a stony response at the box-office.

‘Have it your way; there’s a reason why that’s the army’s slogan’ says Taylor to the kids, only to be met with the response ‘Isn’t that Burger King?” ‘And where do you think they got it from?’ replies Taylor. Exchanges like this make Drillbit Taylor something of a missing link between 80’s comedies and the Apatow production line; with a positive message about growing up, it’s a sunny, silly film that’s as diverse, confused and amusing as it’s hero.

 

Jojo Rabbit 2019 *****

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Taika Waititi bears the burden well, but it can’t be easy being the funniest man in the world. The New Zealander has risen through Eagle Vs Shark, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople as the great white hope-shark of comedy as we move into the 2020’s; he writes, he directs, he performs and his work is suffused with worldly humour; ‘We are like sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves,’ is how the minister explains life to a boy in Wilderpeople, and Waititi’s ability to carve comedy out of real tragedy is what marks him out as a special talent.

Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, JoJo Rabbit sees Waititi travel down a familiar yet treacherous route; poking fun at Hitler, Nazi Germany and, by association, the Holocaust. It worked for Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Roberto Benigni, less so for Jerry Lewis; Waititi plays Hitler, springing through the air, mimicking the gestures of the 20th century’s most notable failure of humanity. But there’s no better target for humour that the Nazi party; it just raises the bar for getting the jokes right. Waititi does go for slapstick, but he undercuts it with bitter-sweet pathos; a child follows a butterfly to a gallows in one of the film’s most striking sequences.

Otherwise, like Judith Kerr’s book When Hitler Stoke Pink Rabbit, this is a helpful way of getting young people up to speed on one of history’s darkest periods. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) suffer from an absent father-figure, and the boy has an imaginary friend in Hitler. A trip to a Hitler Youth camp results in the boy being blown-up by a grenade, which leaves him with scars. Stuck at home, Jojo begins a friendship with a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) who Rosie has agreed to hide from the authorities.

There’s echoes of The Tin Drum here, and even David Bowie’s turn in Just a Gigolo; Nazis are played for laughs, with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant all contributing comic turns, and yet all have more depth than might initially be expected. The specific target here is not so much Hitler, but those who chose to follow him, and why.

Jojo Rabbit will divide critics and audiences, even as it picks up awards nominations. For some, the subject matter cannot be laughed about, even if the film’s heart seems to be in the right place. Waititi takes a traditional mentor trope and turns it on its head here; what if you choose the wrong heroes to follow? There will be many who will scurry back to such fantasies as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, or prefer for reasons of taste the public hand-wringing that David Mamet described as ‘Mandingo for Jews’. Everyone has the right to grieve in his or her own way.

But like it or hate it, and whether you think it’s funny or not, Jojo Rabbit is an essential and important film for 2020; the rise of despotism and the one-man-state was, until recently, thought inconceivable in the West, and right now, the threat is sudden and real, and whatever lessons we learned in 1945 will have to be remembered and heeded again. Jojo Rabbit is a comedy with a point, and Waititi’s timing is right on the money.

 

Car Trouble 1986 NA (no award)

car troubleConnoisseurs of utter tat will be drawn to FlickVaults’s recent revival of David Green’s Car Trouble, a British film from 1986 which offers all the crudeness of a Confessions of a Window Cleaner film but without any of the voyeuristic attractions. This is an entire feature film based around one unfunny joke; how it got made, with a reputable cast, is anyone’s guess, but after a spotty history on VHS and DVD, Car Trouble pops up on YouTube to horrify the unwary.

Taking the key role of Gerald Spong, Ian Charleston of Chariots of Fire fame is matched up with Jacqueline Spong (a post Educating Rita Julie Walters) as a British couple who seem to be in the throes of a loveless marriage. He thumbs through copies of Razzle (50p each) and fantasises about owning an E-Type Jaguar, while she fancies the salesman who is keen to sell it to him. Spong has got a 2CV which he sells to a crooked mechanic (Stratford Johns); money isn’t really an issue, since Spong has a job as an air-traffic controller at the fictional Stanwick Airport, but he’s also something of a tight-fisted miser. To add insult to injury, Jacqueline borrows his prize Jag and gets stuck inside during the act of coitus with her foreign lover, and local police/ fire-fighters have to carve them out.

And that, indeed, is the action of Car Trouble, which seems to be an unwanted vehicle for John Cleese; Spong is all moustache and marital angst, while another scene sees a car attacked with a tree-branch as in Fawlty Towers. Such eighties ephemera such as Jacqueline’s Relax T-shirt and the use of Billy Idol’s Mony Mony on the soundtrack date the film specifically, as do barely single entendres such as ‘It’s only an old knob’, uttered when part of Spong’s car falls off.

A final scene in which, vague spoilers, Spong engineers for his wife’s holiday to be ruined by arranging for the jet to collide with another plane, with up to 1000 casualties, suggests that black humour was the intention here, but since practically none of the jokes land, it’s hard to tell. This is Michael Winner-level British comedy, where the entertainment value lies in viewing the whole topsy-turvy enterprise and wondering how this, or indeed any film could be this awful.

Jumanji: The Next Level 2019 ***

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The fourth entry in the Jumanji franchise is pretty much a re-tread of the third; an overlong adventure with a vague video-game theme, with a few added guest-stars without which this would be fairly indistinguishable from the previous film. Aimed specifically as small kids, Jake Kasdan’s sequel manages to remove some of the crude sexism of the previous entry, but there’s little improvement in the overall package.

Like the first film, there’s a lugubrious intro to various young characters, hardly memorable for the first film; Spencer (Alex Wolff from Hereditary) is the only one who makes an impression. He’s chilling with his grand-father (Danny De Vito) when his dad’s old friend Milo (Danny Glover) comes to visit. All of them get sucked into the Jumanji video game, which leads to a confusing version of the laboured body-swap humour previously featured. If you can’t remember who Bethany, Martha and Fridge are, then it’s pretty hard to work out what’s happening when they get trapped in the bodies of their avatars. It’s all really just an excuse for googly-eyed schtick from Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black, who grab for their pay-check with both hands.

Gillan is introduced, legs akimbo, in tiny shorts, and with the camera zooming right into her crotch; one of the regrettable elements of the franchise is the leering emphasis on objectifying women in children’s entertainment. Fortunately, The Next Level doesn’t force her into quite such demeaning situations as the first, although locking lips for a snog with Johnson, who is old enough to be her dad, is particularly stomach churning. Awkwafina also turns up to self-sabotage her own Oscar campaign for The Farewell, looking somewhat embarrassed to ride a flying horse in the interest of exposure.

There’s a nice idea buried here; only Rhys Darby as the exposition-heavy host captures the right satirical tone for making fun of video-game clichés. Otherwise, there’s some elaborate set-pieces involving ostriches, monkeys, rope bridges and a climactic punch-up set to Baby I Love Your Way. Jumanji: The Next Level passes the time, but there’s nothing new or exciting about it. The first film was lucky to come up against an almost universally disliked Christmas blockbuster (The Last Jedi) which was overlong and not particularly suited to families. The Rise of Skywalker is still an unknown quantity at the time of writing, but it seems unlikely that Jumanji: the Next Level will be so lucky with throwing the double-sixes again.

Cry Onion 1975 ****

onionWith a title that’s right up there alongside Surprise Sock in the ‘surely not?’ mistranslation stakes, Cry Onion lives up to a silly name by being the mother lode for onion fans. A nice find on Amazon Prime, Enzo G Castellari’s 1975 Western should ensnare a few viewers on sheer curiosity value. The setting is a Western town called Paradise City, but the grass is not green and the girls are not pretty. If someone does take you down to Paradise City, then you’ll likely be smelling of onions for days.

Cry Onion opens with a frank description of onion juggling, before unfolding a wider picture of the root vegetable and what possible uses they might have. Onions are eaten, used as weapons, drunk; even the main character’s name is Onion. Played by the great Franco Nero, Onion is an onion farmer who loves onions, and is prepared to fight for his life to protect his onion crop. Onions are to him what melons are to Mr Majestyk or bananas to Mike Connors in Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die; they’re our hero’s way of life.

It’s always hard to assemble a great cast for a low-budget film, but when the subject is onions, the big names assemble. Nero is sending up his Django role, with the assistance of Sterling Hayden, fresh from working with Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick, while Martin Balsam uses his experience of working for Hitchcock to play a land-owner who reveals an Inspector Gadget metal hand on a ten foot retractable arm during the final fight sequence. Onion also has help in the form of Archie, a farting white horse in a straw hat, and two comedy child gangsters.

Cry Onion is a burlesque film in the vein of Loaded Guns; it’s a parody that eventually loses momentum due to reliance on speeded-up fight scenes and circus choreography. It’s also a lot of fun, with the impeccable Nero wide-eyed and mugging like crazy, but in the context of the madness around him, catching the mood of this crazy, crazy film admirably.

To see if Cry Onion can be viewed in your region, click the link below…