Cats 2019 ***

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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.

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.

The Courier 2019 ***

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At something of a low-point, I decided to play various James Bond video games, one of the best of which was Blood Stone. During the final one-man commando raid on the villain’s supposedly impregnable fortress, the bad guy has a monologue over the intercom system that goes something like ‘I don’t know why you ever thought you could beat me, Mr Bond. The odds are so impossibly stacked against you. You are a fool to ever imagine that you’d have a chance against me…’ This monologue became inadvertently amusing as Bond massacres the elite forces, blows up the compound, destroys the entire place and yet still the voice on the tannoy continues disparaging our hero ‘Why don’t you just give up, Mr Bond? I don’t know why you ever thought you could beat me, the odds are so impossibly stacked against you…’

Zackary Adler’s real-time thriller The Courier is riddled with exactly this kind of unfortunate juxtaposition of cool action and by-the-yard dialogue; ‘You’re trapped …in a meat grinder!’ a stooge salivates at our intrepid heroine. After a prescient credits sequence depicting the Statue of Liberty descending into hell, The Courier is established as the title, but also the name of the central character, played by Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. She’s set up as a patsy by an elite group of terrorists who are trying to stop Nick Mursh (Amit Shah) from testifying against master criminal Ezekiel Mannings (Gary Oldman in an eye patch and quoting Joe Biden of all people). The Courier doesn’t take this lying down and rescues Mursh, only to find herself pinned down in an underground car-park. As she decimates her enemies with improbable ease, the bad guys taunt her remorselessly through the public address system, but she’s determined to save Mursh and bring Mannings to justice.

This thriller is billed as “From the producer of The Darkest Hour’ and The Courier is of interest to see exactly how Gary Oldman’s acts of career self-sabotage have reached Nicolas Cage levels within just two years of winning an Oscar. Oldman’s phoned-in performance in Hunter Killer was no fluke; on this evidence, he’ll will be doing cheap insurance adverts in a few months. Otherwise, The Courier has plenty to offer for when you want to shift your mind into neutral; Kurylenko does pretty well with her multiple fight scenes, and there’s a goofy adolescent jauntiness about this whole techno-music and motorbikes enterprise that keeps you watching.

The John Wick movies have demonstrated that genre thrillers can be elevated by careful handling; The Courier has the right cast and a reasonably novel idea, but the sheer number of clichés eventually undo it’s good intentions, in fact, it’s hard to imagine why it ever thought it had a chance against such overwhelming odds….

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…

One More Time 1970 ***

One More Time‘We know what turns you on’ says the opening song in One More Time, but if stars Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Junior actually do know what turns us on, there’s little evidence of it in this slapdash comedy. Writer by the brother of Dr Who’s Jon Pertwee, Bill, and directed by Jerry Lewis, it’s a sequel of sorts to 1968’s Salt and Pepper, but is mainly designed as a showcase of the talents, resistible as displayed here, of Davis Junior.

Davis and Lawford are Charles Salt and Chris Pepper, two hipster nightclub owners who fall foul of the law in some kind of Merrie England as featured in Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. Lawford plays a double role, Pepper and his twin brother Sydney, who is murdered with a deadly dart and replaced by his brother, swapping the dead body for his living one to investigate the crime. Although the two are supposedly best buds and partners in crime, Chris Pepper doesn’t tell Charles Salt, and allows his friend to think that he’d dead.

This means a good hour or so of Sammy Davis Junior wandering around an English country house vaguely synching to some incredibly maudlin tunes; a sequence in which Davis descends a staircase singing Where Do I Go Now? seems to last for weeks. The personable Lawford is stranded with some character comedy, which isn’t his strongest suit; Lawford can barely be bothered playing a thinly veiled version of himself, so playing another variation on the same person is something of a strain to watch. Meanwhile Lewis indulges himself with some strange set-pieces, including snorting snuff and a lengthy parody of the final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001 as Davis reacts to a country-house bedroom with the same awe that Kier Dullea reacts to the Monolith. It’s an odd, vaguely racist scene which fits with the general indignities that Davis goes through here, having drinks thrown over him, called a ‘chocolate dandy’ and generally side-lined in a way that constantly has him breaking the fourth wall to complain.

One More Time is probably best remembered for one single scene, seemingly improvised without reason, in which Salt finds a hidden doorway that leads to a cellar where Dracula (Christopher Lee) and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) are working; the gag seems to be that Gothic horror lies beneath traditional British values. Otherwise, when the words ‘that’s it’ appear instead of “the end’, One More Time must have had even the most hipster-cat audiences begging for it to stop; with Lewis directing Davis Junior well beyond excess, it’s the audience who must truly have felt mugged. As a side-note, One More Time offers a good argument against smoking; everyone quaffs fags like their lives depend on it, and there’s even huge close-ups of full ashtrays to present bona-fide testimony to the performers’ enthusiasm for cigarettes.

 

Poor Devil 1973 ***

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Fancy spending 73 minutes in hell with Sammy Davis Junior? That’s the resistible premise of Poor Devil, a ragged tv series pilot that resolutely failed to launch back in 1973, and has promptly been festering inside the dustiest bin of cultural history until Amazon Prime decided to feature this benighted offering as part of its 2019 line-up.

Sammy Davis Junior plays, well, himself as Sammy, the put-upon messenger boy of a big-wheel power-broker. But before you can say Frank Sinatra, it’s revealed that Sammy’s boss is Lucifer himself, played by Christopher Lee, not entirely escaping the bad-boy type-casting which he regularly cursed. Lucifer summons Sammy from his regular gig shovelling coal into the fires of hell, and offers him a fresh start by collecting the souls of wayward human beings in San Francisco, namely Quincy star Jack Klugman as Burnett J Emerson. Identified as Burny by Amazon’s permanently off-kilter subtitling, Klugman’s character is disaffected by his department store job, and seeks revenge on his boss (Batman’s Adam West). Sammy offers to utilise the collective might of San Francisco’s Church of Satan to empty the department store on Xmas Eve as a practical joke, and seeks Burny’s soul as reward for the deed.

If the above synopsis appeals to you, then please get in touch and explain why; it’s kind of like It’s A Wonderful Life but in reverse, and it makes no sense that Lucifer and his cohorts seems to be so civically minded as to want to punish selfish department store bosses. Indeed, Poor Devil feels like a feature-length ad for the wholesome ethos and deeds of the Church of Satan, with which Davis was allegedly, from some accounts, involved. Vanishing and appearing in an underwhelming special effects, Davis prowls around in hideous garb shouting ‘Right on!’ and other hip phrases, while Lee looks genuinely mortified by the depths to which he has sunk.

Awful as this film is, it’s also a fascinating picture of human desperation as a number of household names create a work of non-art that probably wasn’t even the best thing in the timeslot on the day of transmission, My on-going campaign to embarrass Amazon by capturing their half-assed and inherently disrespectful nonsense subtitling continues with the choice offering below.

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And you can see the whole marvellous shebang by clicking the link below…

The Jigsaw Man 1983 ***

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Are YOU looking for daily updates on Arthur Negus? Almost certainly, the answer is no. And yet, I have news of the ancient, long-passed BBC antiques expert, because he drifted across the stream of my Amazon Prime account like the answer to a madman’s prayer during last night’s perusal of Terence Young’s forgotten 1983 thriller The Jigsaw Man.

As a teenager, The Jigsaw Man seemed exactly like the kind of drab espionage fare best avoided, but either the film or my tastes have changed because this critic found himself drawn to such musty charms. But how to persuade others to join me? After an exchange with no less august a figure than Derrick from excellent review site The Ferguson Theater ( http://derricklferguson.wordpress.com/) about films that have merits outside of their conventional values, I came up with this shortlist of ten further reasons to watch The Jigsaw Man, an all-star spy caper very loosely based on the Cambridge Five. Michael Caine plays a Soviet defector who returns to the UK to play a cat and mouse game with British authorities, but no simple summary can capture the many facets of such an enterprise….

  • Would you like to see Donald Pleasence’s house? For indeed, it is the Chiswick maison of the British character actor that forms the backdrop to key scenes here.
  • There are no cameos from Captain America or the Hulk here, but how about a brief nod and a wink from British household entertainer Max Bygraves to add value?
  • While we’re talking cameos, would a brief hello from composer and national treasure Sir William Walton help seal the deal?
  • Would you like to see screen titan Sir Laurence Olivier face to face with David Kelly, best remembered as Basil Fawlty’s Irish builder in Fawlty Towers?
  • Have you ever hoped to see a car chase through Royal Windsor safari park, with monkey and giraffe action included in the fruit-stand-toppling action?
  • What kind of cultural value would you put on seeing James Bond and Rocky Horror star Charles Gray without his wig?
  • Talking of Bond, how about reuniting classic Bond director Young with regular stars in his films like Gray, Sabine Sun and Vladek Sheybal, instantly recognisable via From Russia With Love, and his impeccable musical performance in The Apple?
  • Speaking about reunions, how about bringing Olivier back in tandem with Michael Caine, years after their brilliant combination in Sleuth?
  • Why not have Michael Caine speak, not only in a comedy Russian accent, but a third comedy voice which is supposedly an Oklahoma oilman? Or dress up as a priest?
  • And why not throw in any other available British character actors, lets say, Robert Powell, Susan George and Michael Medwin to fill out the cast?

The takeaway is; there are other reasons to watch a film other than because it’s good by some definition. The Jigsaw Man had various, well-documented production problems, and key scenes are rushed and garbled; the flashback seems to have been lifted from another film. If you’re seeking thrills, don’t bother. But is you’re interested in Britain, film-stars, nostalgia or any number of cinematic ephemera, The Jigsaw Man is well worth exhuming from whatever dusty crypt it has lain in since 1983. The link is below…