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.

 

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.

Scrooge 1970 ***

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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!

Hawk The Slayer 1980 ***

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There must be something about the worthy quality of film-watching during awards season that makes it so appealing to file copy on so-bad-it’s-good entries. And so we return to the sacred text of Hawk the Slayer, a bizarre fantasy film by Terry Marcel which featured briefly in Netflix’s recent Maniac tv show. Why would a hot director like Cary Joji Fukunaga be a fan? Well, because Hawk the Slayer is one of the cheesiest films ever made, and that’s the appeal; if you’re looking for production values, imaginative plotting and social relevance, stay away. If venerable British character actors, Morricone-goes-disco music cues and shonky dialogue are palatable to you then Hawk slays over and over again, much like an automatic crossbow.

Yes, automatic cross-bows are a big thing in this film, but then, so is dialogue like ‘The hunchback will have something to say about this!’ Hawk the Slayer is set, according to the poster, in a word of sword and sorcery, one where Voltar (Jack Palance) reigns supreme. His brother is Hawk (John Terry), and a flashback reveals that Voltar tied Hawk to a tree and tried to make things happen romantically with Hawk’s wife (Catriona MacColl), a plan which ended badly. The two bothers are sworn enemies, and things get worse when a survivor of one of Voltan’s massacres seeks sanctuary in a monastery, encouraging Voltan to kidnap the Abbess (Annette Crosbie). Hawk sets out to rescue her, with the help of a merry band including a dwarf, a sorceress (Patricia Quinn), a giant (Bernard Bresslaw) and a quick-firing elf.

There’s some familiar names in there, and even more further down the cast list; Roy Kinnear, Harry Andrews, Patrick Macgee, Ferdy Marne, Warren Clarke, Graham Stark and more all appear as Hawk gets bogged down in all kind of inessential sub-plots. But things are pulled along by a weird production design that features lots of fog and lots of Star Wars-lazer effects, plus a rousing score by Harry Robinson hiding under the name Robertson; imagine Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and you’ll have a handle on the epic disco sound featured here.

Hawk the Slayer wears various Star Wars influences with pride; Voltan’s helmet is much like Darth Vader’s, and the explanation for why he wears it is familiar. It’s worth remembering that one of the appealing elements for children seeing Star Wars back in 1977/8 was that it was never revealed what was under Darth Vader’s mask, and a sequel seemed inevitable for that purpose. That sense of mystery arguably created today’s franchise cinema.

Hawk The Slayer might be a rip-off, but it’s a fun, idiosyncratic film that’s gaining momentum as a cult item; if Fukunaga has James Bond watching this is No Time To Die, it would make some kind of sense, although you’d have to use the same goofy logic as an automatic crossbow requires.

Click the link below to see if the film can be viewed in your territory…

Hussy 1980 ****

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Post Star Wars, there was a brief period where there remained a vogue for adult film; not pornography, but serious-minded dramas which reflected the seedy side of life. Saint Jack, Atlantic City, Tales of Ordinary Madness are all quality films that followed on from the mainstream success of Emmanuelle, and reflected a desire to see believable characters on the screen depicted with a new sexual frankness. Matthew Chapman’s debut film Hussy, like most of the above mentioned films, was rapidly forgotten about post 1980, but now resurfaces to demonstrate that it’s something of a neglected classic, not least because it features brilliant performances, not just from Helen Mirren in the titular role, but from the whole ensemble cast.

Mirren plays Beaty Simons, a call girl who hangs around a bin-juice encrusted urban nightclub with other prostitutes, oblivious to regular, grand performances by disco pioneer Patti Boulaye, who seems to be previewing material for the Royal Variety Performance. Beaty has a past and a child, but still finds idealism enough to fall for chauffeur Emory (John Shea), who seeks to take her away from the squalor she lives in and share the similar squalor that he lives in. After some fairly raunchy sex scenes, the plot takes over as Emory fends off Max (Murray Salem) an outrageous gay criminal with a plan, while she bristles at the intrusion of her old pimp Alex (Paul Angelis) who moves in with them. Both Salem and Angelis give extraordinary, larger-than-life performances here, barely giving the leads any space to work. Indeed, the second half of the film hardly features Mirren at all, but focuses on a deal gone wrong that leads Max and Alex into a bloody mess.

Hussy is something of a blot in Mirren’s esteemed copybook, regarded by many as a crummy sex-movie that’s borderline exploitation. And yet, if you’re broadminded enough, it’s also a very good film indeed, and catching Chapman on his way up (a descendent of Charles Darwin, he later wrote Color of Night and Runaway Jury) while also giving Salem something substantial to do; he later wrote the screenplay for Kindergarten Cop. Shea has proved to be a dependable actor as well, making Hussy something of a hothouse for talent. If you can ignore the hideous 70’s décor, music and attitudes, it’s a powerful little B movie that’s worth braving the ignominy of having Hussy on your search history.

Salt and Pepper 1968 ***

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Continuing with my selective Sammy Davis Junior season, this Richard Donner film was presumably enough of a hit to spawn a sequel, One More Time in 1970. There’s something of a lurch of tone between the two films, much like the one between Our Man Flint and In Like Flint; the sequels killed each franchise by toning down the expensive action and doubling down on silly comedy. Salt and Pepper plays better than One More Time, yet there’s still more than enough cultural dissonance to make it a revealing snapshot of swinging sixties mores.

Salt and Pepper are Sammy Davis Junior and Peter Lawford, two nightclub owners in London’s seedy Soho district, a ‘legitimate sewer’ says Pepper. There’s quite a few exterior shots which give a picture of the strip-joints and clubs at presumably a prosperous time for exploiting women, an establishment called The Strip-It features largely. The characters are always in trouble with the law, and the laughs start when a Chinese call-girl is murdered in the club. This sparks action, in that the boys have to find the real killer before the police pin the killing on them, but it’s also notable that there’s no sense of gravity or sadness about a woman’s death. In fact, it’s genuinely disturbing that Pepper attempts to chat up the girl, unaware that she’s dying; ‘She’s stoned,’ says Pepper. ‘Maybe god has sent us a gift?’ asks Salt with a cheeky smile. ‘No, we’ll return this package unwrapped,’ says Salt, as if passing up an opportunity to force themselves on semi-unconscious women was something unusual and sad.

Salt and Pepper has a real setting, but the behaviour captured is extreme and cartoonish, an issue which is never resolved. Comic subjects include such jovialities as police station bombings, and the japes run all the way up to government level where we see the prime minister prepare to fire nuclear weapons on Scotland for reasons too convoluted to explain. Lionel Blair stages a musical number while Jeremy Lloyd, Graham Stark and Geoffrey Lumsden wander around as Central Casting stuffy Brits. John Le Mesurier plays a villain complete with a pirate’s eye-patch, pursuing Sammy and Pete as they scoot down Carnaby Street around in a yellow mini-moke kitted out with oil slicks, machine guns and other familiar accoutrements.

Donner would go on to capture another racially charged partnership in Lethal Weapon, but judged by today’s standards, Salt and Pepper is notable as one of cinema’s most  cess-pits of toxic masculinity. It’s not just women that are treated as a non-precious commodity. ‘I was a fag here for two years,’ says Pepper of his alma mater, prompting some world-class bug-eyed mugging from Salt and the reply ‘You’re secret is safe with me.’ White, heterosexual men rule the roost, set the agenda, and everyone else is just decoration. MeToo has licenced a few sanctimonious bores, but if you want to see why such movements are absolutely necessary, Salt and Pepper captures the rancil feel of a time, leaving the worst possible taste in your mouth.

https://www.amazon.com/Salt-Pepper-Sammy-Davis/dp/B0096HLH00/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=salt+and+pepper+1968&qid=1573379365&sr=8-2

Judy 2019 ****

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There’s now a substantial awards season sub-genre of evocations of the lives of the rich and famous. Usually with the BBC logo on the front, these films are cheaply made, with a few period locations, and have the feeling of vanity projects for the stars. So from Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool to Stan and Ollie via My Week With Marilyn, these impersonations usually feel like they’ve been created to generate some awards traction; Rupert Goold’s Judy is easily the pick of the bunch so far.

The key factor here is Renee Zellweger, who has had plenty of snippy articles written about her appearance in the past, and seems to have been able to channel that negative energy into a remarkable, heartfelt portrait of a star in decline. With ex-husbands Sidney Lufts (Rufus Sewell) and new lover Mickey Deans (Finn Witrock) in tow, Judy Garland and her kids arrive in London cica 1968 to play a series of shows under the auspices of entrepreneur Lord Delfont (Michael Gambon). The shows are a risk, and Lonnie Donnegan waits backstage ready to fill in if Garland can’t continue with her act.

Booze and pills both enable and disable Garland’s performance, and triumph and disaster seem to be interlinked as the performances go from hit to miss. Of course, those in the audience for these London shows knew all about the star’s reputation, and there’s an element of a bear-pit here that partially explains how quickly the audience’s ire rises. Garland herself took advantage of the tension, tailoring her stage-act to deliberately raise questions about her fitness to perform. Tom Edge’s screenplay, taken from Peter Quilter’s stage-play, makes no bones about Garland having been abused from an early age in various ways, but what makes this incarnation fly is that Garland is portrayed, not as a victim, but as someone who is able to understand and articulate her own experiences and fight back

The musical scenes are very strong, with Zellweger’s voice up to scratch, and a real edge as we, like the audience, wait to see if Garland will be on song or not. There’s a few show-biz cliches here, but as Zellweger knocks it out of the park as a heart-breaking, self-aware middle-aged heroine, this is about as good as a film on this subject can be.