Percy 1971 ***

percy

1970 saw two movies in competition; not competing submarine dramas, not even competing competing magician dramas, but competing ‘search for a penis’ comedies. David Niven’s The Statue has already been covered in this blog; this entry deals with the rather more successful Percy, which was eighth in Britain’s top ten box office attractions. A quick cross-check with 2018’s top ten suggests that, in like for like terms, a cool £35 million would be the kind of sum earned. This Ralph Thomas film makes some fuss about being the first to deal with the presumably hot topic of penis transplants; the eternally put-upon Hywel Bennett plays Percy, an antique dealer who receives another man’s member after an accident and sets out on a quest to find out who it belonged to; a ‘genital mystery tour’ as Percy wryly suggests. This quest involves meeting a number of comely women, including Britt Ekland, Elke Sommer, Adrianna Posta and Sheila Steafel, and a surprising amount of introspective soul-searching, accompanied by a soundtrack by Ray Davies and The Kinks. Despite a couple of brief lewd moments, including a striptease to a xylophone instrumental of Lola, this isn’t a typical British sex-comedy, but seems to be leaning into some kind of existential angst. Things get a bit lost in the second half, but the cameos keep things moving, with Denholm Elliot on top for as Percy’s doctor, Are You Being Served? star Arthur English doing a comic routine in a pub, and Patrick Mower makes a personable playboy. Percy is best seen as a repository of dated fashions and dialogue; Percy’s Mini-Moke is something to behold, as are his garish outfits. Meanwhile various actresses  try their best to set pulses racing with such unwieldy chat-up lines as ‘If I want to discuss dogs, I call a vet’ and ‘What do you think of my reproduction Welsh dresser?’

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Reuben, Reuben 1983 ****

reubenWhy do some truly great films fall into neglect? Reuben, Reuben is a perfect case in point. Tom Conti won an Oscar nomination for best actor in 1983 for his performance as a drunken poet, with Dylan Thomas a clear inspiration. The screenplay, adapted from a novel by noted humourist Peter De Vries and then a play called Spofford, is by Julius J Epstein, who wrote everything from Casablanca to Cross of Iron, and that was also Oscar nominated as one of the five best adapted scripts of the year. It was the first film of Top Gun star Kelly McGillis. And it’s a funny, sweet and yet harsh and original story about excess and survival that’s not dated in any way. And yet there’s no Criterion Collection revival, nor even a spot on Amazon or iTunes, just a rare DVD or Blu Ray that, at twenty bucks a piece, won’t ensnare many casual viewers. The reputation of Robert Ellis Miller, director of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and this, was practically zero when he died in 2017, and that’s a shame for anyone with career highlights like this. Conti is ideal as Gowan McGland, a Scottish poet in suburban American, seducing women, drinking excessively, generally mooching off everyone and unaware that his behaviour is leading to a sticky end, and not one that he can possibly imagine. The problem is more than sex or alcohol addiction. Like Ray Milland in The Man With X Ray Eyes, McGland’s problem is that he sees too much; his wit pulls people towards him, but then pushes them away. It’s a tragic-comedy of the highest order, and it’s well-past high time something was done about restoring the reputation of Reuben, Reuben, which takes its title from the old song, and from the last line of dialogue in a devastating, surprising final scene.

Saint Jack 1979 *****

saint jack

There’s been a couple of flickers of interest from people about the ‘why can’t I see this film?’ category; this tag gets added if a film isn’t on any of the main streaming services, and occasionally a link is provided if the film is on You Tube or Daily Motion. This is tough on film-makers, who presumably are losing out financially by not having their film behind a pay-wall, but the thinking is that the exposure, temporary as it might be, might at least engender enough interest for a re-release or even a restoration. Both would be desirable for Peter Bogdanovich’s best film, 1979’s adaption of the novel Saint Jack. Reputedly, Orson Welles gave the book to Cybill Shepherd, who got the rights as part of a legal win over Playboy magazine; Hugh M. Hefner produces. In the late seventies, an adult-themed film like Saint Jack was still deemed to have potential at the box-office, although poor distribution kept Paul Theroux’s adaptation of his own book out of mainstream theatres. Ben Gazzara gives a huge performance as Jack Flowers, an ex-pat who runs a Singapore brothel, and turns to an auditor (the great Denholm Elliot) for help, only to find himself out of his depth when the CIA get involved. Saint Jack is a brilliant character study of a reprehensible man who is also a decent human being; this is a story where the moral messages are not cut and dried. George Lazenby, Rodney Bewes and Joss Ackland round out the cast as ex-pats; Saint Jack dares to point the finger at American and British behaviour abroad, and comes to unsavoury conclusions about human nature. The gap between the public perception of this film and it’s quality is remarkable; a portrait of a hustler’s hustle, it’s every bit as good as Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, but the lack of violent catharsis seems to have relegated it to the dustiest drawer in film history. See it while you can.

The Little Hours 2017 ****

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Aubrey Plaza’s role in Park and Recreation could have set her up in a rut; her dour demeanour and caustic attitude inspired countless memes, but ran the risk of making Plaza something on a one-trick pony. Thankfully her film work has established that she’s anything but. Films like Safety Not Guaranteed and Ingrid Goes West show a diverse range, but her role as producer and star in writer/director Jeff Baene’s The Little Hours suggests there’s more to come. Based on The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, it’s a medieval comedy which covers some of the same ground as Pasolini’s celebrated film, and has a similarly improvised style. The Little Hours features naughty nuns, randy mutes, and all sorts getting into amorous and sexual escapades in the Italian countryside. Plaza seems to have brought her client book from her Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre days, with comic icons Nick Offerman, Dave Franco, John C Reilly, Molly Shannon and Paul Reiser amongst a very recognisable cast. The results are generally charming and occasionally hilarious; Reilly has a great scene discussing sin, and Fred Armisen has a brilliant cameo as a scolding Bishop.

The Happytime Murders 2018 ***

The Happytime Murders is a much-kicked around project that’s actually kind of fun despite the critical mauling it got. Brian Henson has a cool attitude about his father’s legacy; he says it was very much Jim’s belief that the Muppet fans who were now adults would buy into an adult version of the puppet favourites. This script went through a number of rewrites and stars, and it shows, but the basic idea is amusing in a Roger Rabbit way; a world where depraved humans and puppets co-exist, and a Raymond Chandler-style whodunit that takes place there.  Melissa McCarthy seems to have engaged a personal screenwriter to allow her some of her trademark rants, and there’s good support from her Bridesmaids co-star Maya Rudolph. Bill Baretta has become a Muppet stalwart playing various well-loved characters in recent movies, and he does a nice job of making the cop-turned-detective Phil Phillips a happy centre for all the nonsense. It’s X-rated humour , supposedly adult but actually juvenile jokes all the way. The Happytime Murders doesn’t have the outrageous brio of Team America or Sausage Party, but it delivers a few precious laughs, and it’s only the most po-faced of virtue-signalers who won’t get some low-brow amusement out of the silliness.

On Chesil Beach 2018 ****

Adapting Ian McEwan is a tricky business; for every Atonement, there’s a The Children’s Act; not everything that works on the page adapts well to the big-screen. McEwan himself adapts On Chesil Beach, and Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan stars alongside Billy Howie as Florence and Edward, two newly-weds whose wedding night is blighted by their own lack of understanding on sex. Dominic Cooke’s film is a two-hander in a theatrical way, but the 1962 setting is well-caught through a few persuasive details, and the lunar atmosphere on the beach itself adds a certain cinematic feel. Ronan in particular excels here, managing to create a complex picture of a woman who is bound by the conventions of her time, but understands that she could, and might still, rise above them. The codas, bleak as they are, are almost a relief after the intensity of the wedding-night and aftermath; On Chesil Beach is adult fare, and one of the best representations of McEwan’s work to date.

The Gift 2015 ***

Joel Edgerton’s first film as writer/director is an accomplished psychological thriller that owes some of its dramatic heft to Michael Hanke’s Hidden, but has a deliberately off-kilter momentum of its own. Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play Robyn and Simon, who move into a big house in LA. Their domestic bliss is short-lived; a chance meeting with an old friend of Simon Gordo (Edgerton) leads to a few unexpected visits, and leads Simon to the conclusion that Gordo is stalking him. The result is one of the more restrained entries in the Blumhouse canon, and better for it; Edgerton touches on issues about bullying, homosexuality and repression while keeping a tight, believable narrative on track. The ending is a little hokey, but the slow-burn route to the climax is worth taking, with Bateman’s usual suave cool being blown and Edgerton relishing the chance to play a sinister and threatening stranger.