Saturday 28 July 2018

Carry On Regardless (1961)

Carry On Regardless was the fifth of the Carry On films. It was released in 1961.

Carry On films in general are not renowned for complex plotting but this one is almost entirely plotless. It’s actually nothing more than a series of sketches. That’s not really a problem. The quality of the sketches is variable but most are fairly amusing. The extraordinarily strong cast helps a good deal.

The premise is that a group of desperate unemployed people have answered a newspaper advertisement placed by the Helping Hands Agency. The agency is run by Bert Handy (Sid James). The agency claims to be able to provide people to do just about any temporary job that can be imagined. Naturally the enthusiastic but hapless assortment of misfits assembled by Bert Handy usually manage to make a fairly spectacular mess of things.

They create mayhem in a hospital, on a railway station, and at an Ideal Home Exhibition. They almost manage to break up numerous marriages. They are hopeless enough when sent to the correct assignments but when the scheduling system at the Helping Hands office goes awry and they start getting sent to the wrong assignments it all becomes total chaos.

There are some quite clever moments, and even some inspired ones such as the marvellous spoof of The 39 Steps (including the famous Forth Bridge train scene).

This film has most of the early Carry On regulars - Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor, Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques. This was the final appearance by Terence Longdon who’d been made in most of the early Carry Ons and it’s the first appearance by the delightful Liz Fraser who ended up making four Carry On films. Sid James had joined the team in the previous entry, Carry On Constable, and was already becoming the star player.

The episodic format of this film meant that there were appearances in minor rôles by a truly extraordinary wealth of British comic talent - Patrick Cargill, Sydney Tafler, Fenella Fielding (who was later to be a memorable sexpot in Carry On Screaming), Eric Pohlmann, Howard Marion-Crawford and countless others.

A particular highlight is the appearance by Stanley Unwin. Unwin was a unique comic talent. His trademark was his ability to speak fluent Unwinese. This was a private nonsense language he’d invented. What made it clever was that it wasn’t mere gibberish. There was a system to the way he mangled ordinary words and it was always on the borderline between making sense and not making sense. You could more or less figure out what he was saying even when you couldn’t understand a single actual word. And it sounded like a real language and had a rhythm to it. Unwinese is used very cleverly in this film.

There’s some mildly risque stuff but it’s rather tame compared to the later Carry Ons. One of the fascinating things about the Carry On series is that they were made over a time period (1958 to 1978) that saw censorship go from being quite strict to being almost non-existent. At first it seemed like a good thing. The Carry Ons were arguably at their peak from about 1964 (Carry On Spying) to 1971 (Carry On Henry). They were able to get away with being cheerfully naughty without descending to crassness. By the late 70s crassness was becoming the order of the day and the decline of British comedy was well and truly under way. Comedy needs some limits. It needs some discipline.

Of course this time period also charts the long sad tragic decline of the British film industry which was booming in the late 50s and had become a walking corpse by the late 70s.

This is possibly the most good-natured film of the series with the crew of misfits at the Helping Hands Agency actually having a certain camaraderie and even a certain affection for one another.

On the whole the format of loosely linked sketches works well and it helps to keep the pacing brisk.

The ITV Studios DVD (part of their Carry On Ultimate Collection boxed set) offers a very good anamorphic transfer and the extras include an audio commentary featuring Liz Fraser (who interestingly enough blames the Carry On movies for wrecking her career!) and Terence Longdon.

Carry On Regardless is perhaps not one of the very best of the Carry On movies but it’s far from being the worst. In fact it's unfairly underrated. It’s consistently amusing and it can certainly be recommended.

Thursday 19 July 2018

The Thing (1982)

John W. Campbell's classic 1938 science fiction novella Who Goes There? was first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks in 1951, under the title The Thing from Another World. This is a much-revered 50s sci-fi movie although if you’re familiar with Campbell’s novella it’s a bit disappointing. Given the enormous influence that the films of Howard Hawks had on his work it’s not altogether surprising that in 1982 John Carpenter chose to do a remake, to be titled simply The Thing. Carpenter decided to stick rather more closely to Campbell’s story.

The movie opens in spectacular but enigmatic fashion, with a helicopter pursuing a dog over an icy landscape. The helicopter is piloted by a crazed Norwegian and it lands at a U.S. base in Antarctica. The helicopter has come from a nearby Norwegian base and when a group of the Americans checks out the Norwegian base they begin to get an inkling of the horror about to engulf them. Those Norwegians found a wrecked spaceship and they awakened something that had been sleeping in the ice for a hundred thousand years. That something is a shape-shifting monster.

This is essentially a paranoia story, with the paranoia made considerably worse by isolation and claustrophobia. Bad weather conditions mean the U.S. base is out of contact with the outside world. And that monster can take on the appearance of any living thing. Any of the twelve crew members at the case could have been taken over by the monster and there is absolutely no way of telling. It’s an inherently frightening idea and Carpenter extracts every ounce of terror from it.

The problem for these guys at the base is not the usual horror movie problem of how to destroy the monster, although obviously they need to do that as well. Mostly though they need to find a way to tell who’s been infected and who hasn’t, and that’s almost impossible to do.

The monster is certainly terrifying but it’s also fascinatingly ambiguous. It’s not actually evil.  It just wants to survive. It intends to do whatever it takes in order to survive. It’s like any kind of predator. To survive it has to kill. From our point of view it’s evil, but then from the point of a prey species a predator does seem evil. The monster is also absolutely and implacably alien.

The movie is about the monster but mostly it’s about the men who have to face its onslaught. They’re not soldiers and they’re not heroes. They are to some extent misfits, because after all spending very long periods of time cut off from civilisation in the middle of Antarctica is the kind of thing that is inevitably going to attract misfits. They have to function as part of a team but it doesn’t come naturally to them. They are afraid and they are suspicious. Faced with an appalling situation they have to do the best they can. Some of them do poorly and some perform fairly well.

It’s also about leadership, but it doesn’t approach the subject in the familiar Hollywood sort of way. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) ends up as leader because he’s the only one who is both willing to take the job on and capable of doing so. He doesn’t suggest putting the matter to a vote. When it becomes necessary he simply takes over. His main qualifications for the job are his ability to assess the situation in a brutally realistic manner and to take whatever steps need to be taken. If that requires shooting someone who gets in his way then he’s quite prepared to do so. He’s a leader, not a contestant in a popularity contest. He doesn’t care if he’s obeyed out of fear rather than love, as long as he’s obeyed. He’s really a quiet inoffensive kind of guy but he knows what has to be done and he accepts the consequences.

There is one weakness which Carpenter alludes to in the audio commentary - there are twelve main characters and they’re not very well defined. There are a number of characters who really serve no purpose other than to distract and confuse the audience. Eliminating two or three of the characters would have enabled the remaining characters to be developed in a bit more depth.

Having said this I have to add that the acting is generally extremely good.

This is a visually stunning movie. It’s not just the special effects. The location photography is gorgeous, the sets are terrific, Dean Cundey’s cinematography is breathtaking. This was Carpenter’s first big-budget major studio movie and every penny of the budget is well spent. There are also some extraordinary action scenes with as many explosions as an action fan could wish for, and some very cool flamethrower sequences.

One of the things that makes this film so visually arresting is the constant juxtaposition of ice and fire. Fire is virtually the only effective weapon against the monster and fire seems particularly menacing in a landscape of snow and ice and bitter cold. And there’s no question that explosions look particularly impressive in an icy landscape.

The Thing proved to be a bit of a box-office disaster. Various reasons have been suggested for this. My feeling is that this movie has an identity crisis. The outrageous totally over-the-top gore tends to mark this down as a trashy drive-in movie for teenagers. But it’s not a trashy drive-in movie for teenagers. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent and rather serious science fiction movie exploring some interesting themes. It’s a movie about men under extreme pressure, it’s about fear and suspicion, it’s about trust and what happens when trust becomes impossible, it’s about doing what has to be done even when it’s very unpleasant. But what audiences tended to notice was the violence and the gore.

This movie is also notable for having not a single female character, not even in a bit part, for which it was (quite absurdly) attacked by some critics.

The Thing looks great on Blu-Ray. There’s more than one Blu-Ray release. There’s a barebones release and there’s a special edition release with lots of special features. That’s the one to go for because, among other extras, it includes an audio commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell and their commentaries are always a joy.

The Thing’s reputation has grown considerably since its release. Despite the excessiveness of the gore it’s an extremely fine exercise in science fiction horror and it’s highly recommended.

Thursday 5 July 2018

Escape from New York (1981)

Escape from New York is John Carpenter’s iconic 1981 science fiction action adventure flick about breaking into the world’s toughest prison. The prison is Manhattan. In the future world of the movie the whole of Manhattan Island has been turned into a maximum security prison, this being seen as the only answer to the ever-increasing crime problem.

This is a prison that nobody ever leaves. Once you’re there you’re there for life. There are no guards on the island. The prisoners can do whatever the hell they like. Nobody cares. The whole island is surrounded by walls, minefields, sophisticated surveillance system, helicopter patrols, you name it. No-one has managed to escape. Escape truly is impossible.

But in this story the problem is that first it’s going to be necessary not to break out but to break into the prison, and then get out again. The reason it’s necessary to get in is that the President of the United States is there. His plane was hijacked by urban terrorists. Not only that, the President has with him an incredibly vital recording and that recording is going to be needed within 24 hours at a major international conference. The fate of the world depends on that recording. Which means there’s a time limit. The President has to be extracted and it has to be done within 24 hours.

And it can’t be done by conventional means because the President has fallen into the hands of some very nasty people and if they see a single helicopter or a single soldier trying to mount a rescue mission they’ll kill the President immediately.

The man in charge of the prison is Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) and he has a plan. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is a slightly psychotic ex-special forces guy turned bank robber and he’s about to be sent to the Manhattan Prison. Hauk offers him a full pardon if he can get the President out. The task is impossible but Snake Plissken may just be mean enough and crazy enough to pull it off.

Needless to say there’s a fair amount of mayhem once Snake is infiltrated into the prison (by glider). Snake manages to accumulate a number of allies. They’re vicious and/or entirely untrustworthy but that doesn’t bother Snake. What matters is that they may be useful to him. These allies include Cabby (Ernest Borgnine) who seems to be New York’s only surviving cab driver, and also Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). Brain is a kind of scientific advisor to the self-appointed Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).

There’s plenty of violence and it can get fairly brutal at times although it’s not as extreme as you might expect. There’s certainly no actual gore.

The acting is a major strength of the film. Kurt Russell is terrific as the totally amoral totally ruthless Snake, a man more cut out to be a villain but in the insane and evil world of the movie he’s the closest thing there is to a hero. Snake just doesn’t care about anything, which is why he has a chance of succeeding. Lee Van Cleef as Hauk is pretty similar to Snake. He’s ruthless and amoral but he happens to be, technically at least, one of the good guys. Isaac Hayes is suitably malevolent. Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton both put plenty of enthusiasm into their performances.

Donald Pleasence plays the President. He’s also technically one of the good guys, and he’s also in reality just as ruthless and amoral as Snake Plissken. The only difference is that being a politician he adds hypocrisy to the mix of endearing personality features.

The movie was made on a budget of around six-and-a-half million dollars. That was a lot more than Carpenter’s previous films but Escape from New York is an insanely ambitious movie for such a budget. The extraordinary thing is that visually it works, and works very well indeed. The special effects were done ultra cheaply and they look splendid. The whole look of the movie is dark and sinister and incredibly hostile. The visual style has been copied countless times since.

This is a move made entirely with old school special effects. Everything is done with animation, or miniatures, or matte paintings or the other techniques that pre-dated CGI. When you take this, and the low budget, into consideration Carpenter’s achievement really is phenomenal. This movie is an object lesson in what you can achieve visually with talent, imagination and hard work.

Insofar as the movie has a message it seems to be that the only thing that does more harm to society than out-of-control violence is out-of-control law enforcement. The world of Escape from New York is a complete moral vacuum. When men like Snake Plissken and Hauk look like heroes you have a society that has a lot of problems. This is a fairly bleak dystopian tale. What’s interesting is that we don’t get any glimpses of what “normal” society looks like.

I’m not saying that it’s all that profound in the political and social points it makes. It does have a fair amount of leftover 70s cynicism and paranoia. At least we don’t get any speeches.

The Region 4 Special Edition DVD comes with a pleasing swag of extras including two audio commentaries. The really good news is that one of the commentary tracks features John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. There’s nothing more enjoyable than hearing Carpenter and Russell talking about the movies they made together.

This movie is stylish and it’s fun and it was a definite hit. There would be lots of violent action movies made in the following couple of decades but Escape from New York has a bit more class than most of them, and Snake Plissken as played by Kurt Russell is one of the great action heroes. Highly recommended.