The Ghost of Peter Sellers 2019 ****

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Peter Medak went to hell and back on the 1973 comedy Ghosts of the Noonday Sun, a film from the worst period of it’s errant star, Peter Sellers. Sellers graduated through some awesome comedy work on radio via The Goon Show to international film-stardom via The Pink Panther franchise. The attention went to his head, and his early 1970’s vehicles would test the patience of anyone; watching The Great McGonagall or Soft Beds, Hard Battles is agonising, because the star is clearly a comic genius, but the films are pitifully unfunny. Medak’s 2019 reflection on working with Sellers is, however, something of a joy to watch, because the director is able to conjure a complete, warts and even more warts portrait of their working relationship. With sparing use of clips from the original film, which is available elsewhere, Medak details some truly awful behaviour on set; notably faking a heart-attack to skip back to London and have dinner with Princess Margaret while the entire crew waited anxiously for news of his condition. Medak also manages to put together some additional detail that’s telling; a cigarette commercial featuring Spike Milligan is something of a gem, and reveals the rich vein of anarchic humour that both men aspired to. Films about film-making are often vain-glorious affairs, but The Ghost of Peter Sellers is one of the best because it’s so painfully honest; to rephrase Billy Wilder’s aphorism, they film-makers start out wanting to make a great film, and by halfway, were delighted to think they’d have any kind of film at all. Medak may have failed to rein in Sellers’ antics in 1972, but he gets the last laugh here.

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The Canyons 2013 ***

If you take late period Paul Schrader, post-Affliction but pre-First Reformed, and give him an original script by Bret Easton Ellis, you’d expect some nihilistic stuff, and in The Canyons, you’d be pretty much right.  Loathed by audiences and critcs on initial release, a quiet revival on Amazon Prime should help rehabilitate the reputation of this cool, otherworldly thriller. Ellis has cultivated a specific style of expression through narration and dialogue, but he strips out the pop-culture references and has his characters express themsleves in an even more opaque way here, which creates a striking blankness ideal for privileged LA wheeler-dealer Chritian (James Deen) and his floozie wife (Lindsay Lohan). There’s an undercurrent of menace, and a disturbing lack of the kind of moral spoonfeeding that most films offer, making The Canyons somewhat experimental in outlook. Letting it all hang out, Lohan gives the film’s best performance, and mature viewers seeking a bitter shot of the darker side of Hollywood could do worse than giving The Canyons a visit.

Not Quite Hollywood ***

Australia’s cinematic birth and early years as an exploitation darling is the subject of Mark Hartley’s documentary, with lurid scenes from the films themselves interspersed with some enthusiastic talking noggins, notably directors Quentin Tarantino and Brian Trenchard-Smith. Starting out with sex comedies like Alvin Purple, and reaching the Mad Max films by way of The Man From Hong Kong, this is a lively portrait of an anything-goes ethos at work, with crazy film-makers executing crazy films, and an equally wild audience seemingly awaiting each project. Even hardcore genre fans won’t know every film mentioned here, and clips from Dead In Drive In and Mad Dog Morgan are intriguing. Surprisingly, this didn’t reach must of an audience in it’s homeland, but as a calling card overseas, this Oz-sploitation flick lays out the central tenets of a notably fun cinematic subgenre.

VHS Massacre 2015 ***

Amazon Prime has a small and decidedly idiosyncratic collection of films about films; directors Kenneth Powell and Thomas Edward have created a Valentine to the old VHS format that’s hardly definitive, but is engaging and pertinent. Visiting closing Blockbuster sites, and documenting the obvious decline in the service, they look into whether streaming means the end of physical media, and mine a seam of nostalgia, notably showing VHS-off competitions where competitors bring along the most outré items they can find. Amusingly, there’s a tremendous slam on Amazon that the streaming giant seem to have missed in platforming this doc, but there’s also some sage words from the perennially savvy Lloyd Kaufman of Troma about how today’s streaming doesn’t begin to rack up the revenues of past formats. With Netflix still only providing the ‘cream; of their viewing figures, it’s hard to know the truth, but declining choice suggests that since VHS, it’s been something of a massacre for creative film-makers in the digital age.

Classic Movie Bloopers: Uncensored ***

Blooper reels are many and fragmentary online; this feature attempts to showcase a stream of bloopers from classic Hollywood films, and there’s no talking heads or graphic interference with digitally-concealed mouth movements. James Cagney and Errol Flynn appears to be having a good time, Humphrey Bogart less so, Edward G Robinson Bob Hope and Bette Davis too and the reaction is not always laughter. It’s clear that actors are sometimes drunk, or that some other subversive behaviour is going on. Theses reels were seen at Hollywood parties of the time;  the very occasional narrator implies that the stars were displeased but the innocuous film assembled here. There’s certainly remix potential in an extended montage of scenes of Ronald Reagan struggling to put on a pair of trousers. It’s a strange time-capsule of ordinary behaviour from faces we’ve only seen in start seriousness, and it’s generally fun to watch the gods revealed to have feet of clay.

Beasts: The Dummy 1976

After The Quatermass trilogy chilled UK audiences on television and worldwide via three Hammer films, Nigel Kneale had quite a master of horror reputation. He didn’t consider himself to be a genre writer, and this entry in his Beasts tv series isn’t supernaturally inclined or science fiction-based, although genre elements are present. The Dummy is a study in a mental breakdown, that of an actor, Clyde Boys (Bernard Horsfall) who is returning to the role of the dummy for an eight film. Wearing the elaborate suit has taken a physical toll, and the film- production around him is threatened by his reliance on alcohol to get him through the day. Producer Bunny (Clive Swift) is on hand to try and steer the production away from the rocks, with Clyde’s wife, her lover, a nosy journalist and all manner of intrusions complicating the set. Kneale certainly knew what kind of shenanigans go on during a film’s production, and the way that Bunny attempts to befriend Clyde while subtly trying to remove him from the film rings true. The Dummy doesn’t deliver much in terms of scares, but it’s an interesting little grace-note from a writer who had plenty of experience of unhappy cinematic collaborations.

The Rewrite 2014 ***

rewriteWriter/director Marc Lawrence is something of an invisible auteur, making a series of popular rom-coms with the likes of Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock which generally do well, yet his name is unnoticed. The Rewrite is one of his best, pitting Grant’s jaded screenwriter Keith Michaels into the academic snake-pit of an East Coast college. Despite his slovenly manner and non-existent teaching methods, Michaels becomes a hit with his class, and gets to strike romantic sparks with Marisa Tomei. While some of the details of the class are unpersuasive, the atmosphere of the classroom is warm and enjoyable, and as the rain-drops fall on the windows outside, Grant’s wayward teacher is good company in this undemanding comedy with few laughs but more than a little heart.