I Was a Self-Isolating Internet Film Reviewer
Well, due to great public demand (all right, two people, but it was enough for me), we will be continuing with this column for the time being, despite the fact that my mill is entirely bereft of its usual grist. Still, could be worse, I suppose. After considerable (well, a few seconds) thought I have cooked up the following for your entertainment and enlightenment this week.
Carry On smells Rotten
First off, the inaugural instalment of a thread I have decided to call Next Best Thing. Obviously, there's no prospect of actually seeing any of the films I was expecting to enjoy (or not) at the cinema currently, and so we shall have to make do by watching the closest possible substitute to be found on the internet or DVD. For example, I had made vague plans to go and see Misbehaviour, another post-hashtag: 'metoo' (or hashtag: 'timesup', I always get them mixed up) film about a beauty contest being sabotaged by angry feminists. Even from seeing the trailer, this one looked vaguely familiar to me, and I eventually figured out what it was reminding me of – Gerald Thomas' 1973 offering Carry On Girls. I am entirely sure the makers of Misbehaviour would be delighted by this comparison.
(Yes, it's only week one of the lockdown and already we're reviewing late-period Carry On films. I know. Tough times all round.) This is one of the Carry Ons set in contemporary Britain, in this case the seaside resort of (hmm) Fircombe – the film is at least restrained enough to leave the double entendre implicit, and there is an interesting variety of pronunciations from amongst the cast.
A typical British summer is leaving the town struggling to attract tourists, according to slot machine tycoon, town councillor and general rascal Sid Fiddler (Sid James). It's all a question of average rainfall, apparently. 'I think nine inches is a very good average,' sniffs Councillor Augusta Prodworthy (June Whitfield in proto-Thatcherite mode). 'If you think nine inches is a good average, you've been spoilt. Ha-hyah-ha,' says Sid.
Against Prodworthy's wishes, Sid bounces the council into holding a beauty contest. On one level, the rest of the film is about Prodworthy and her fellow Women's Libbers attempting to sabotage the event and humiliate the mayor of the town (Kenneth Connor), while Sid orchestrates various absurd publicity stunts to promote it (one of them involves the six-foot-seven Bernard Bresslaw entering the contest in drag, and then being substituted by Valerie Leon without anyone noticing). But on another level it is basically about the director cramming the screen with as many attractive young women in a state of undress as possible and then letting his camera roam where it will.
I'll stand up for many of the films from Carry On's sixties heyday for including clever satire, irresistible wordplay, and cherishable comic performances, but this one probably marks the point at which the series slipped into a terminal decline, becoming crass and lazy. Many of the key performers are absent (this was the first film without either Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey), but the film does feature Robin Askwith, soon to star in a series of tacky sex comedies which this arguably anticipates. The only person involved with the ability to lift the material he's been given is Sid, but these films were never a star vehicle for just one person.
You can see the film is aiming for the same kind of commedia del'arte-style absurdism as the best of the earlier films, but the horrific gender politics and prurience of the script and direction drags everything back down to earth with a dull thump. The women are all harpies, slatterns, or sex objects; the men are idiots or relentless moneygrubbing lechers. Much tougher going than I remembered it being.
(Apparently one of the things which has fallen victim to the current crisis is filming on three new Carry On films. I am tempted to say something about a silver lining.)
Kinda Dawn of the Nearly Dead
Onto something a bit more recent and a lot more fun, as I thought we would check out some of the less well-known delights available from the likes of Netflix and Amazon in another new strand entitled Stream a Little Stream. It's getting harder to find older films on Netflix, but often I find it's these I am particularly drawn to – for example, Thom Eberhardt's 1984 cult movie Night of the Comet, which I don't think I'd seen in over thirty years. If nothing else this is a film which sends the valuable message that the collapse of society needn't all be doom and gloom.
The movie opens with a mysterious comet approaching Earth for the first time in 65 million years, and the people of the world gathering in streets and parks in anticipation of a spectacular display. Just about the only ordinary people not watching it are teenage sisters Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney), who – in a credulity-bothering development – end up spending the night in question in separate steel boxes, quite coincidentally.
When they emerge, they find Los Angeles deserted, under a baleful orange sky (this is all quite well depicted). It turns out that most people who were not in steel boxes during the encounter with the comet have disintegrated, while a minority will survive for a while as frenzied zombies. Bummer! What's a girl to do? Load up with automatic weaponry and hit the shops, of course!
Much of the considerable charm of Night of the Comet (working title: Teenage Comet Zombies) comes from the way in which it mashes together notably serious pieces of science fiction (Day of the Triffids, Dawn of the Dead, and The Omega Man, to name but three) and manages to produce something knowingly frivolous and tongue-in-cheek. It doesn't have anything like the heft or atmosphere of any of those, but then it's not supposed to. (Eberhardt apparently wrote his first draft of the script after interviewing teenage girls from California about what they'd do if the world ended.)
The actual zombies don't feature much and the film is much more about the girls (and a truck driver they befriend) having trouble with a ruthless group of government scientists wanting to harvest the blood of survivors (the scientists are led by Geoffrey Lewis and Mary Woronov - Woronov is stylish and practical in jumpsuit and leg-warmers). To be honest, the first act of the film barely puts a foot wrong, but after this it slows down and the jokes aren't as good, although Eberhardt continues to play with genre conventions with a knowing deftness.
In the end it's not clear whether this is meant as an actual parody or spoof of low-budget SF, or an unusually accomplished example of the form. Whichever it is, it's an almost wholly superficial piece of entertainment, but no less engaging for that.
The Nominate-a-Movie Challenge
'Hey, Awix, why don't you check out some of that free content off the internet that proper critics, or even you, never normally look at?' suggested an old friend of the column. 'I recommend any of the Blender Foundation movies or shorts.'
It turns out the Blender Foundation is a Dutch outfit dedicated to promoting access to 3D animation software. I couldn't find any of their movies, but I did see a short trailer/proof-of-concept for a fully-animated spy comedy called Agent 327 (as slick as anything from the American studios), and a short film named Tears of Steel.
Visually Tears of Steel is impressive from the start, which depicts a rocket launch – well, we're still obviously in the Uncanny Valley, but not egregiously so. Then we're in Amsterdam, where two young people are breaking up (he can't handle the fact she has a bionic arm). Then we're in a post-apocalyptic version of the same city, which is infested with giant killer robots. A small group is engaged upon a desperate scheme to save the human race…
Finding out how all this links together is one of the pleasures of the film, which often resembles a trailer or a proof-of-concept piece itself – you can imagine the makers showing it to Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson in the hope of getting funding to make the full two-hour version. As it is, it's all about the visuals, which are mostly striking and well-realised, but it does manage to find moments of pathos and depth too. There's obviously something very derivative about it, but then you could say that about many proper movies these days, too. Worth twelve minutes of your time, probably.
If you can think of a movie which is obscure and weird and free to view on the internet, and you'd like to witness the spectacle of my missing the point of it, please drop me a note and I'll see what I can do.
Next Week: My current expectation is to write about, on various pretexts, The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976), both of which are freely available to watch on the internet. Until then, stay sane and stay safe!