Sunday, 27 October 2013

Airplane! (1980) & The Naked Gun (1988)

The 1970s seemed to be the decade of disasters, or near disasters in the cinema. Whilst there were hijackings of  trains and airliners in real life, in the cinema every three years or so out came another airborne disaster movie, packed with stars in varying stages of their careers, in highly melodramatic and often improbable stages of peril whether in tower blocks, overturned liners, earthquakes and volcanoes, or most often of all, in the skies.

Improbable they may have been, but they successfully kept me away from flying for several years (as much as audiences were also dissuaded from swimming after Jaws.) The market had been well and truly laid bare with Airport 1979: The Concorde - following on from Airport 1975 and Airport '77, going all the way back to Airport in 1969, meaning that the series had spanned practically the entire decade.

Just one year after the last Airport film, at the beginning of the 80s came its spoof, and the mother of all spoofs.

There didn't seem to be a huge difference from this.... this.


Such a genre was ripe for parody, but when it came, the source material was interestingly not from the 70s, but the similarly insecure 1950s.

It is probably extremely difficult not to see Zero Hour nowadays without laughing at the many unintentionally funny scenes which Airplane! was to directly parody - some of the lines are even exact reproductions!

Back in their early Kentucky Fried Theatre days (of which the anarchic comedy Kentucky Fried Movie was an early film effort), the brothers Zucker and Jim Abrahams videotaped  a movie one evening in order to study the commercials that were useful material for parody (such as the Yuban "Jim never has a second cup" coffee ads), but their eyes were drawn irresistibly to the film that emerged between them: Zero Hour. Starring Dana Andrews as a traumatised WWII fighter pilot who suddenly has to re-utilise those skills when the entire crew of an airliner contract food poisoning, the film had limitless melodramatic and comedic possibilities, but played straight. It was so redolent of the 1950s, that the actual sounds of the aeroplane in Airplane! are not jets, but propellers.

The idea of a parody of Zero Hour was seized upon by Paramount, and veteran producer Howard Koch (who co-wrote Casablanca) helped guide these manic undergraduate filmmakers on their airborne laughter ride of a lifetime. Many of the jokes were crude, some topical ("I haven't felt as bad as this since we watched that Ronald Reagan film"), but the bottom line was that all were funny. Depending on your taste.

With a major Hollywood studio and producer to guide it, the project therefore attracted all manner of established veterans who were happily willing to send-up their image, even if few of them they were ever qualified for comedy. Some seasoned veterans were surprisingly adept, and all gave fine deadpan comic performances: Robert Stack, Peter Graves (my personal favourite), Lloyd Bridges - and Leslie Nielsen. In the latter's case, something of a future career was forged on this kind of comedy; no longer the straight-laced hero or the earnest pragmatist for Mr. Nielsen anymore (such as the captain of the Poseidon), oh no.

As a spoof, Airplane! cast its shadow for many years, so that come 1988, its memory was still fresh in people's minds, as much surely as Nielsen's deadpan doctor. And don't call him Shirley.

Immediately after the success of Airplane! (whilst an imitative follow-up Airplane II: The Sequel was being made by other hands), the Zuckers spread their wings onto television itself, spoofing that even more ubiquitous entity on TV, the cop show. Police Squad! received a small but nonetheless devoted cult following, only lasting one series, but left possibilities in later years for further development on the big screen....

For my 18th birthday, I decided to treat my parents to dinner, rather than them treating me, as I had officially come of age; in return for that, about a month later they offered to take me out to dinner somewhere some weeks later. The film we went to see that evening: The Naked Gun.

The cinema was the Century in Clacton (already covered with some nostalgia elsewhere in this blog), in the big screen with some of the Clacton denizens. My most vivid memory of that evening at the pictures was that of my mother exploding into laughter at the sight of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran being kicked in the groin and punched by Lt. Frank Drebin (Nielsen), to reveal a mohican punk hairstyle under his turban! (The Zuckers often had this "explosive" effect their audiences.)

This rather sinister prologue to The Naked Gun seems oddly prescient, in view of subsequent political events where we (ie. America) went to war or near-war with most of these nasties, the two missing from the picture at the time being Saddam Hussain and Osama Bin Laden. Chief baddie of the piece however, is Vincent Ludwig (pronounced "Ludd-wigg"), played by the ever panther-like Ricardo Montalban, who could play scary villains in his sleep, and as the poster publicity so aptly puts it, "even Mother Theresa wanted him dead".

The plot is just a little more involving and dramatic than the average episode of Police Squad!, and also even scores one or two points up from Airplane!  by having Frank Drebin as the central protagonist of the story rather than having several character viewpoints.

That, coupled with some hilarious set pieces. The terrorism prologue I've already mentioned, but there are plenty of others such as the hilarious opening credit sequence, Drebin's hand caught in a fish tank, and the climactic baseball game (complete with Jeanette Charles herself as the Queen) where the tone-deaf Drebin unwisely stands in for a famous opera singer and is required to sing Star Spangled Banner. My favourite is the farcical car chase with a Learner Driver (such a real possibility in the car-obsessed United States), and her bewildered instructor beautifully underplayed by the late John Houseman in a priceless uncredited cameo.

The teaming of Nielsen and his sultry but inwardly kooky leading lady Priscilla Presley was sufficient to see through two successful sequels, The Naked Gun 2 and a Half: The Smell of Fear and The Naked Gun 33 and a Third (a title for older audiences to recognise), the last in the series featuring two figures who sadly became almost as infamous as the Zuckers and co.: O.J.Simpson, and his murdered wife Nicole Brown Simpson.

Neither Airplane! or The Naked Gun are masterpieces, but if films were scored on how much they made (and still make) audiences laugh, they would win the Gold and Silver at the Comedy Olympics every time.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

There are countless versions of this play done to death every summer, it is the perennial Shakespeare in the Park favourite (such as the Priory Players' 2013 version - left). There have been a few cinema versions too, most recently a stylish and enjoyably relaxed 1999 version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer. This particular forgotten classic however comprehensively belies the notion that Shakespeare is only for British actors.

Being a Hollywood film, its cast is therefore mostly American, although with only one or two expatriate Brits thrown in to that endearing, now long lost community once known as the Hollywood Cricket Club.

The team behind the camera, significantly, is also richly European and talented, primarily that of its chief coordinator Max Reinhardt, who brought his grand semi-musical interpretation of Shakespeare's play to the silver screen with the assistance of Warner Brothers. And a silver screen it is too, shimmering with light and magic thanks to Hal Mohr's cinematography, in the spirit of the story. Another significant name attached to the project was composer/arranger Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who began a long association with Warners.

The remaining cast were from the cream of Warners' contract players. Ensemble character stars like Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Dewey Robinson and Joe E. Brown were regular comedic faces in those days, and they add to the flavour of the film in their scenes as the mechanicals - and at their centre of course, is the one and only James Cagney.

The sight of Cagney's head being transformed into a donkey's is one of those rare cinema moments that just has to be seen, worth the admission alone, for the sheer novelty of seeing this legendary movie gangster being transformed into something rather different. Cagney invests the role of Bottom with all the passion and enthusiasm that he brought to all his cinema and theatre work, and is a suitable reminder that he was more than just a tough guy.

The transformation of Bottom is a highlight for me, particularly in any film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as the play usually cheats the audience of seeing the transformation by having it take place offstage. Bottom's antagonist, in this case, is the mischievous Puck, played with a delightful childish chuckle and
revelatory energy, by Mickey Rooney (on loan from MGM). As summoned by the imposing Victor Jory as Oberon, Puck also works his mischievous magical influence on the young lovers of the piece (for Shakespeare comedies wouldn't be Shakespeare comedies without them!), Ross Alexander, Jean Muir, crooner Dick Powell, and taking her bow on the silver screen, pretty young Olivia De Havilland, who emerges as Hermia with all the eager enthusiasm and talent of a young actress fresh out of drama school. The cinema was a medium she was to later adapt and soon grow to love.

In short, all those involved in A Midsummer Night's Dream hurl themselves into it with great gusto, as well as the knowledge that they were involved in something unique and quite special. Sometimes Shakespeare is taken for granted as being good just because it's Shakespeare. This Hollywood (but never Hollywoodised) classic demonstrates just how enjoyable the play can be. For me, it's the definitive film version.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Goldfinger (1964)

The Bond Brand

For me, the Bond films are an acquired taste. Very formulaic, and rigidly so until Casino Royale in 2006. With their variations, the Bond formula generally seems to run as follows:

1. The opening shot (literally) through a gunsight

2. The pre-credits sequence

3. The titles and theme song

4. The mission set-up (with M and Q)

5. Meeting the villain and Bond Girl No. 1

6. Meeting Bond Girl No. 2

7. The finale

All these elements found their ideal mixture in Goldfinger in 1964, the defining film of the series which also had one of Bond's most formidable adversaries, with Sean Connery at his most assured in the central role from first scene to last.

He may not be the exact Bond as written in the books, but as with so many good actors' interpretation of a role, Connery is the image that has stayed in the minds of cinemagoers, and which all subsequent Bond actors in the role have since had to emulate.

It probably helped Sean that he had actors the stature of Honor Blackman to deal with, fresh from The Avengers, as Pussy Galore - probably the most outrageously named character in the movies.

And then there is Goldfinger himself - brilliantly played by Gert Frobe in a role which set up his international film career - and his equally sadistic Oddjob, memorably played by Japanese American wrestler Tokiyushi "Harold" Sakata, with a nice line in sly grins and a lethal bowler hat.
Goldfinger is not a supervillain per se, but one who is sadistic enough to leave Bond to die in a famous laser execution scene - nothing at all to do with the Ian Fleming novel, but one of a number of the film's beautiful conceits.

In Fleming's novel there was an unsuccessful attempt to raid Fort Knox - but this was the 1960s, the era of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, and the emerging space age, when all things were possible, and in director Guy Hamilton's eyes, the idea of a break-in not working would be understandably anti-climactic to the cinema audience. There are various ludicrous twists such as the nerve gas sprinkled over the fortress only having a limited effect, but the film carries you along with enough suspense to make it look as if Goldfinger is really going to succeed in his elaborate scheme. For me, it's easily the most enjoyable of the series.

Thereafter, the Bond films went on an artistically downward (but financially upward) spiral of increasingly fantastic plots, gimmicky gadgets, and self-parody, but those that succeeded King Connery have their various interesting slants on the character. Connery's unfortunate successor was George Lazenby, who by his own admission couldn't act, and worse still had the challenge of emotional scenes that neither Bond or Connery had ever ventured into. Nevertheless, On Her Majesty's Secret Service remains one of the most underrated of the series.

 For many, Roger Moore became the Bond they most associated with, certainly the longest serving, from 1973 through to 1985. His laid back style fitted into the tuxedo easily, from his grounding on The Saint and other suave film and TV shows. So what if the sight of a car becoming a submarine was a bit daft - Moore was enjoying himself, and so were the audience.

The unluckiest of the Bonds was probably Timothy Dalton, who only had two refreshingly action-packed stabs at the character in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, before contractual difficulties, the transition of the Broccoli legacy from one generation to the next, and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, meant that Bond laid low for a while. When he returned, it was in the shape of suave Pierce Brosnan , who like Roger Moore had done his groundwork on TV in the likes of Remington Steele. Up until Goldeneye in 1995, he was - next to Cary Grant - the Best Bond That Never Was.

When Brosnan cited Goldfinger as being his main artistic inspiration for becoming an actor, things had come full circle. Now Daniel Craig has, for better or worse (and mostly better), taken on the role deep into the 21st century and the post-Cold War years. The plots are becoming more baffling, the gadgets are gradually escalating once again, and in this Size Zero supermodel age there's always plenty of opportunity for more Bond girls (Barbara Bach, Grace Jones, Carey Lowell, Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry among the most notable), so the formula is looking good after 50 years of repackaging.

Goldfinger was the peak of Bond's cinematic accomplishments, but there's still life in the old dog yet.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Cry Freedom (1987)

It strikes me with a tolling bell that it's a quarter of a century since I first began active regular cinemagoing - it began with The Mission to some degree, but my own conscious choice to go the cinema and see a film that interested me was Cry Freedom - a good choice. Another strong memory is that of the slightly quaint ritual (for a film of more than two and a half hour's length) of a now strange word appearing in the middle of Richard Attenborough's political drama at the Odeon Colchester Screen 2.

This was also the era - it seems astonishing to think now - when South Africa was still firmly entrenched in the grip of legal racial segregation. Astonishing now to think that such a thing could have existed, astonishing then to think that Apartheid could have been dismantled at all, by anything other than violent means. That it didn't was thanks to the likes of Nelson Mandela (freed at last in 1990 after 27 years imprisonment), the sustained pressure by those corporations and nations (who did not include Great Britain) that imposed sanctions on South Africa's wealthy economy, and also the slightly underrated F.W. de Clerk - South Africa's Gorbachev to some extent - who climbed down from his predecessors' extreme enforcement of Apartheid. And not least of all, from campaigners like Sir Richard Attenborough.

Attenborough of course, had made Gandhi, which featured a brief early sequence where the Mahatma begins his great crusade for freedom by fighting for rights for Indian immigrants. This "sequel" of sorts to Gandhi covered many of the same themes, transferring Gandhi's values into the rather more complex but charismatic figure of Steve Biko, played with dignity and style by Denzel Washington, a star in the making.

John Briley's screenplay also gave a winning portrayal of the human and heroic side of Steve Biko.

Biko's story is told from the perspective of Daily Dispatch editor Donald Woods, played by another emerging American star, Kevin Kline. There were those who criticised this notion of the Black Consciousness movement seen through the eyes of a white liberal perspective, although if anyone takes the trouble to watch the film this is a stance which Biko quickly mocks.

Nonetheless, mindful of the audience reaction (particularly in America) and the lack of focus on Biko's story, the makers chose late in post-production to reedit the film that began sequentially from Biko's struggle to Donald Woods', so that some of Biko's thoughts and experiences could be told in flashback by Woods during his escape from exile.

Crucially, this structure also leaves one of the major set pieces for the end: the infamous Soweto massacre in 1976. The impact of the massacre leaves an imprint on the mind. That, and the film's closing message, where the many hundreds of other victims besides Biko are listed, together with the "official" causes of death - a powerful indictment of a regime that at the time seemed immovable and invincible.

It is a fitting tribute to the film that Nelson Mandela himself thanked Attenborough years later, for awakening the world to the cruelty of Apartheid and bringing about its eventual downfall.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

It Happened Here (1964)

Dilys Powell mentions in her review of It Happened Here how the British can be rather complacent about the winning of the World War II, when they did not suffer the trauma of occupation (with the minor exception of the Channel Islands.)

Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo however, brought these elements sharply into perspective, drawing on the experience of the French just across the Channel, and transposed it into a chillingly believable occupied Britain of 1940. It was also in Brownlow's small way - as someone who wasn't personally involved in the war - his own WWII film as a tribute to those who gave their lives to fight fascism, by demonstrating what would have happened if they hadn't.

On a threadbare budget, Brownlow's initial concept was brilliantly and economically filmed with the support of fellow film student Andrew Mollo who worked on the authenticity of the uniforms and the general militaristic look of the film, the two young film makers using whatever out of the way run-down - and still bombed-out - locations they could find in the 1950s, with the remainder of the budget covered by Woodfall films in 1964, who provided the means for the minor dramatic framework of a nurse (Pauline Murray) resettled into London after her local village is attacked by partisans.

My own curiosity in the film was aroused by the presence in the (mostly non-professional) cast of Sebastian Shaw - the original Anakin Skywalker himself, from the original Return of the Jedi. (Not only Shaw, but also a future cinematographer for The Empire Strikes Back, Peter Suschitzky, also got his first break on It Happened Here.) Murray's experiences with her old friends when contrasted with her harsh new fascist masters, underline the difficulties that face those who actually were occupied during WWII, that the rest of us all too easily brush under the carpet.

Nurse Murray watches her friends about to be arrested outside Belsize Square

The ending to the film, where our erstwhile nurse is tending to the wounded (of either side), was probably the best the makers could manage given the budget, but still makes a telling anti-war message. Wars don't just end like that  - hostilities may cease, but for the ordinary person it is a severe period of recovery and recuperation, as the wounds dig deep and take their time to heal. It should also be noted that the effects of Britain's sacrifice in World War II were still being felt for years afterwards - rationing remember, was not removed until nearly 10 years after the war.

There have been many versions of an alternative Nazi future (including most recently, a bizarre Nazi-style future dictatorship in the blockbuster V for Vendetta), but It Happened Here is by far the best, most chillingly authentic depiction, without dwelling upon obvious imagery such as Hitler at 10 Downing Street or swastikas over Buckingham Palace. No, what is at work here is a much more persuasive, downbeat documentary-type view felt very much by those at the ground level, which adds to its chillingness as a depiction of day-to-day ordinary life in extraordinary - and thankfully hypothetical -  circumstances.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films