Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Through a calculating catalogue of interventions, inscrutable Michael Rimmer rises from a nobody to the head of a marketing and polling company, attracting the attention of leading politicians as he goes. Gaining a pretty wife and a safe Tory seat, Rimmer continues to climb the greasy pole until he becomes unopposed ruler of the country. Will nobody stop him?

When he walks into the tatty offices of Fairburn marketing agency claiming to work in ‘Coordination’, no-one gives smartly-dressed Michael Rimmer (Peter Cook) a second glance; certainly not Mr Ferret (Arthur Lowe), whose gaze is firmly fixed on secretary Tanya (Valerie Leon). However, once Rimmer has his foot in the door, he starts making huge changes: firstly, out goes Ferret, leaving Rimmer in charge of day-today business such as sexing up a campaign for humble humbugs; next, he sexes up the company’s surveys in the name of publicity, acquiring the talents of rival pollster Peter Niss (Denholm Elliott) and using them to destroy the credibility of Peter’s former employers.

As Michael’s star rises, he comes to the attention of Conservative leader Tom Hutchinson (Ronald Fraser); Michael duly helps to get the Tories elected, partly by sending out signals that the party is anti-immigration (much to the horror of Richard Pearson’s shadow Home Secretary), partly by giving terrible advice to the Labour incumbent at No. 10, Blacket (George A. Cooper). He also manages to acquire his own safe seat and a trophy wife in fallen show-jumper Pat (Vanessa Howard), though – as she is to find out – Rimmer’s ambition is all-consuming, and apparently without morals or limits.

Grrr. I’ve seen The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer twice in fairly short succession, and I have no idea whether I actually like it or not. I should, by rights, love it, since it features a host of the best British comic/satirical faces that the 1970s – or any time period – has to offer. I’ve not even referred to John Cleese’s wonderfully fawning performance as Pumer above, so you can imagine that the cast is pretty stellar: aficionados of British comedy will lap up the brilliance of Lowe and Fraser, while enjoying cameos by Ronnie Corbett, Diana Coupland, Graham Crowden, Frank Thornton and many more.

What’s more, the script, by Cleese, Graham Chapman, Cook and director Kevin Billington, is full of sharp little jokes that get to the heart of the game played by all politicians, ie. break your manifesto promises and ‘blame the last lot’. I particularly like Hutchinson’s line ‘I will act…in matters of principle I’m always acting.’ Much of the material feels remarkably fresh, showing how little politics has moved on in forty years – where West Indians used to be the bogeymen, it’s now East Europeans; summits with the US President are trumpeted to the hilt, however pointless they turn out to be. Plus, in the jaw-droppingly rude advert for Scorpio humbugs, the film absolutely nails the maxim “sex sells”. Satisfyingly – if that’s the word – the scene is clever, funny, quite a turn-on and makes a point.

On the other hand, I’m not convinced that Michael Rimmer quite works as a film, especially at this distance of time. Most obviously, there are the 1970s references that you’ll need a history guide to appreciate: Cooper puffs a good pipe as the PM, but the Harold Wilson stuff is pretty meaningless – did he use tarot cards and follow astrology? Was he obsessed with being on television? Does it matter? Then there’s the inevitable crumpet factor deployed in Billington’s entirely un-satirical close-ups – at times the film could almost be Carry On Conniving.

Furthermore, although the film manages to drive a story line through material that could have felt a lot sketchier, the subplots aren’t developed fully: Niss’s play for Pat peters out, Vanessa Howard baring all for no great reward; and Ferret’s humiliations build rather awkwardly to his own pay-off. On which note, while the penultimate idea – granting a referendum on everything, then promising an end to the referenda in exchange for dictatorship – is smart, Michael Rimmer’s parting shot is poorly chosen.

The parallels to the JFK shooting are pretty close to the knuckle; not only that, the scene is without any obvious satirical or comic content – apart from the would-be assassins cancelling each other out – and results in the viewer leaving the film with an oddly numb sensation, not helped by the sinister, abrupt freeze frame (Billington’s direction in general is workmanlike). It’s not as if everything in the main plot sings, either; the assault on Swiss gold via a very British cold makes for a picturesque but unfunny five or six minutes.

Then there’s the issue of the lead turn. I prefer Cook here compared to Bedazzled, but he glides through the film with a single, self-satisfied expression on his face. It’s clearly done for a reason, to show the calculating, emotionless way people can slide their way up the greasy pole, and in a sense it’s right that Rimmer should be something of a blank; but Cook’s one-note performance doesn’t do much for the film as entertainment – we don’t feel connected to him as either hero or villain. Compare Cook to Lowe, or Elliott, or anyone else who injects nuance into his or her performance (or, to put it another way, acts) and you’ll see what I mean.

Most comedies suffer from a paucity of acting and writing talent: Michael Rimmer’s tragedy is that it has too much, and the writers haven’t been able to marshal it all: who in their right minds lets a brilliant Cleese slip quietly out of their movie; a befuddled Corbett; a gorgeous Leon? I’m relieved that the film lacks the scabrous misanthropy of The Magic Christian, disappointed that there are only rare glimpses of Pythonesque glee (the Election night coverage offers rare glimpses), and overall…no, still can’t tell you. If it helps, I picked this up for 99p in a high street store; at that price, it’s worth every penny.

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Indecent Proposal

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Happily married and very much in love, David and Diana Murphy discover love doesn’t pay the bills when recession hits. The couple head to Las Vegas to gamble their way out of trouble, but when that tactic (predictably!) doesn’t work, high roller John Gage comes up with a startling suggestion: 1 million dollars for a single night of passion with Diana. Although the couple dismiss the idea, it does offer a way out of their financial woes; on the other hand, there’s no guarantee that either of them will be able to cope with the aftermath.

Though high school sweethearts David and Diana Murphy (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore) married young, they appear to be a perfect match: he’s an architect, she sells real estate. David has plans for a dream house and Diana knows where he can build it, but they stretch themselves financially to make the dream real; and when the economy goes bust, they suddenly find themselves $45,000 short in the face of a $50,000 bill.

In desperation, the couple head off to Vegas with their last five grand and David miraculously gets half way towards their target, while Diana eyes up some pretty dresses and billionaire playboy John Gage (Robert Redford) eyes her up in turn. The next day Lady Luck deserts David, leaving them flat broke, though John ‘borrows’ Diana for luck while recklessly placing million-dollar bets. The loan evidently puts an idea in his head, for later that night he puts the titular proposal to David and Diana. They are both mortally offended, naturally, but after a sleepless night Diana agrees to have sex with John for the sake of her and David’s future plans and David’s lawyer friend Jeremy (Oliver Platt) draws up a contract.

Diana’s whisked off to John’s luxury boat, while David frets in the casino. In the following days, the couple discover that John has not only robbed them of their marital security and trust, he’s also bought up their house and land; David is unable to forget the pact he made with the Devil and the pair fall apart, not helped by John’s ruthless pursuit of his wife. As David struggles to get his act together and Diana starts appearing on John’s arm, the relationship appears doomed to end in divorce – and what good is money if the love’s gone?

Indecent Proposal is constructed around a very simple question: What would you do? It’s clearly designed to get moviegoing couples and groups asking each other whether they would be prepared to pimp out their partners, or themselves, for a cool million dollars, and to that end the film answers its own question pretty well. The film doesn’t linger on the act – in fact, a discreet veil’s drawn over John and Diana’s indecency – but instead concentrates on the aftermath of the couple’s decision to let John buy Diana’s body for a few hours.

Harrelson is pretty good as the unhappy cuckold consumed with jealousy at giving his wife to another man, though – this being 1993 – the shadow of Cheers still hangs over him, and to an extent the film follows a believable path as neither David nor Diana can bring themselves to touch the dirty money they ‘won’ in Vegas. The story is told with a ‘near the end’ frame and a helpful (if fitful) narrative from both David and Diana, and there is enough chemistry between the two to make us feel something for their plight, if that’s the right word for their self-inflicted situation. And arching over the whole movie is the larger question of whether everything – sacred vows, trust, love, friendship – can be bought with sufficient cash: does everyone really ‘have their price’?

The problem is, Indecent Proposal is nearly two hours long and the central moral issue can’t sustain itself through the running time. It’s half an hour before John pops the question, during which time we’ve established a link between sex and money in a second glossily-shot sex scene, and had plenty of time to ask why a supposedly bright couple would try to defy the odds by gambling away the little cash they had in Vegas. Then, both during and after the act, the film dawdles along with nothing much to say as it slowly plays out the aftermath of the decision to take Gage’s money, with a number of daft, dragging scenes (John shows Diana round his pad, John – cringingly – invades her citizenship class full of stereotyped immigrants, David starts to reassemble his life by teaching) until it suddenly introduces a hippo motif and, before we know it, Billy Connolly is auctioning off the contents of a zoo!

Although the screenplay lacks focus (we hear ‘Have I ever told you I love you?’ far more than we need to), the film is let down more by a lazy, unmotivated turn from a slightly grizzled and very bored-looking Redford – though, since all he ever seems to say is ‘Let me show you something’, you can hardly blame him. Redford’s Gage is simply a man with a lot of money, the inert catalyst for change in the Murphys’ marriage who is as empty, character-wise, as his massive house, so you feel neither sympathy nor enmity towards him.

Though Demi Moore tries harder than Redford, she is used little better in the key role of Diana. Director Adrian Lyne makes sure she looks fantastic at all times – indeed, the film often has the glossy look of a soft-core feature – but her acting style is strangely cold and forbidding of empathy; in short, she looks far too glamorous to be cash-strapped and desperate, and always seems to know it. Finally, Oliver Platt is amusingly sleazy as the film’s obvious comic relief – Jeremy’s contract, with its “John Garfield” clause, is icky but also funny.

As you can read, I dislike Pretty Woman, but at least Garry Marshall’s film has a brash, colourful 80s warmth and Gere’s billionaire has some history and charm behind his wealth. Indecent Proposal‘s prostitution is of a different kind, a slick, soulless affair in both plot and execution, the torpid involvement of Robert Redford proving a misstep in the venerable actor/director’s career. Still, as the movie suggests, we all have to do things we rather wouldn’t to pay our way in the world.

History of the World: Part I

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Think you know your history? Well prepare to think again, as Mel Brooks presents the story of man, from primitive cavemen to the decadence of the French Revolution, in his own inimitable style.

The ascent of man has been chronicled many times and in many ways, but never quite like this. Starting with a wicked spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey, renowned funster Mel Brooks and friends take us through some of the most notable events in history, narrated in stentorian fashion by Orson Welles. The quirky evolution of Sid Caesar’s Stone Age man is followed by a previously unrecorded episode from the life of an accident-prone Moses (Brooks); we arrive next in Roman Times, where stand-up philosopher Comicus (Brooks again) earns Nero’s (Dom DeLuise) displeasure at Caesar’s Palace and flees Rome with pretty Vestal Virgin Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes) and light-footed slave Josephus (Gregory Hines) in tow.

A brief song-and-dance by the Spanish Inquisition brings us to the French Revolution, where randy King Louis XVI (Brooks yet again) frets over the imminent arrival of Mme Defarge’s (the always wonderful Cloris Leachman) rabble, leaving a doppelganger to see to Pamela Stephenson’s Mlle Rimbaud, willing to do anything – that’s anything – to free her imprisoned father (Spike Milligan).

I don’t know whether it’s truer of comedy than any other artistic endeavour, but it’s certainly true that when comedians are hot, they’re hot and when they’re not, they’re pretty lousy. And it’s alarming how cold Mel Brooks is as writer, director and star of History of the World: Part I. The episodic structure suggests a lack of inspiration, though the term ‘episodic’ really does too much justice to some of the ‘episodes’ since only two sections – Roman Times and The French Revolution – have any sort of story or substance at all.

However, the bittiness of the material isn’t nearly as damaging as the fact that so little of it is funny. The 2001 spoof is juvenile but raises a laugh because it’s so unexpected, but most of the rest is a mixture of the puerile and the overfamiliar. The hard work that goes into creating a set and props for the Fifteen Commandments is paid off weakly, while I get the distinct impression that ‘Roman Times’ was inspired by the critical and financial success of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Unfortunately, the inspiration doesn’t make it as far as the writing, with the result that the director, DeLuise, Madeleine Kahn (as Empress Nympho) and so on are forced into slapstick and manic gurning to raise laughs, while Brooks recycles material from Las Vegas cabaret and Carry on Cleo (the Vestal Virgins played by Playboy Bunnies) and still struggles for giggles, hindered as he is by Hines’ unexciting turn (he’s no Cleavon Little) and the overwhelming blandness of Humes’ attractive but boring Miriam.

Airplane!-style literalisms fall flat (‘The streets are crawling with soldiers’), and although I’d never call Brooks racist or homophobic, he panders to lazy stereotypes throughout – he’s never been averse to using dolly birds as set dressing, of course, so it would be redundant to complain about sexism.

The remainder of the film is afflicted with the same issues, exacerbated by a sense that Brooks is raiding his own back catalogue for ideas. I don’t think there’s a direct Python influence in the Spanish Inquisition sketch, but the idea of a soft-shuffling musical number making light of an episode of persecution of Jews might just ring a bell with fans of The Producers, augmented here by nuns paying tribute to Esther Williams. Similarly, the French Revolution brings us Harvey Korman as a constantly mispronounced Count de Monet and Andreas Voutsinas as his ‘saucy’ friend Bearnaise, ripping off Blazing Saddles and The Producers in one fell swoop.

As a result, and because the plot is a fairly lame excuse to engage Stephenson and others in bosom-heaving and bodice-ripping, the attention wanders into spotting familiar British faces and figures: Cleo Rocos, Bella Emberg, Nigel Hawthorne, Andrew Sachs and so on. In fact, the cameos are generally more interesting than the jokes, so you might also spot Hugh Hefner, Jackie Mason, Bea Arthur – and John Hurt as Jesus. To be totally fair, the Last Supper skit is pretty good, but it’s one of very few moments of quality and originality. Brooks’ comedies are often extremely broad and all the better for it; here, however, you’re left wishing you were watching the infinitely more substantial films in which the jokes first appeared.

Like so many things in life, the first thing that came to mind immediately after watching History of the World: Part I was an episode of The Simpsons. I’m thinking of the one in which Bart briefly becomes a comedy sensation with the catchphrase ‘I didn’t do it!’ and ends up repeating his shtick to a jaded and unappreciative audience. I’m afraid Brooks’ shtick comes unshtuck in much the same fashion in this lazy and only fitfully funny compendium. I don’t know if Part II – trailed at the end of this movie – was ever going to be made, but I’m not in the least bit sad that it didn’t come to fruition, even if Jews in Space was to prove prophetic for Mel’s next project.