Tag Archives: 11/20

Carry On Doctor

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Hapless Dr Kilmore struggles to maintain his composure, reputation and job in the face of the sneering authoritarianism of Dr Kenneth Tinkle and formidable matron Lavinia. As secret passions boil away in the wards, the majority of the inpatients do their best to recover; but when Kilmore is unjustly removed, they are forced to take direct action.

When the mind over matter techniques of dodgy faith dealer Francis Bigger (Frankie Howerd) can’t stop him landing straight on his coccyx, he earns a stay in the male ward of the local hospital, between committed malingerer and wife-avoider Mr Roper (Sid James) and Mr Barron (Charles Hawtrey), suffering a pregnancy on behalf of his uncomplaining wife. Comings and goings in the ward, especially Mr Biddle’s (Bernard Bresslaw) insistence on visiting female patient Mavis (Dilys Laye), soon send Bigger into a private room, where he mistakenly comes to believe he only has a week to live.

Amongst the staff, meanwhile, pretty Nurse Clarke (Anita Harris) has the hots for popular Dr Kilmore (Jim Dale), and in the bosom of Matron (Hattie Jacques) lies a passion for ruthless senior physician Dr Kenneth Tinkle (Ken Williams). However, the arrival of Sandra May (Barbara Windsor), her chest bursting with gratitude for Tinkle because he previously saved her life, upsets the apple cart. Against hospital rules, she’s caught in his room; so Tinkle and matron hatch a plan to literally make Kilmore the fall guy. Roper and Biddle are outraged by Kilmore’s unfair dismissal, and with a little help from Nurse Clarke they prepare a patients’ mutiny to make Matron and Tinkle pay for their haughty ways.

It may be because the quirks of the National Health Service are fondly mocked by the British; or it may be because TV show Dr Kildare and the Doctor films (directed by Ralph Thomas, Gerald’s brother), complete with portrait of James Robertson Justice, loom large; or it could be because the Carry Ons made hospitals their second home (starting with Nurse, they also made Matron and Again Doctor); but Carry On Doctor feels to me like the archetypal Carry On.

In particular, Kenneth Williams is right at home as the snooty, superior, yet still bungling senior doctor who rubs everyone up the wrong way. Everyone, that is, except the secretly lustful Matron, played beautifully by Jacques. The chemistry between them (see Jacques laughing when they bump noses) provides much-needed underpinning, given the unconvincing business of Babs‘ infatuation with Kenneth, Kilmore’s disgrace and redemption, and the relatively flimsy storylines given to the rest of the cast.

Since much of the ‘action’ of Doctor is by its very nature static (Sid James, recovering from a heart attack, stays in bed most of the time), it’s lucky that the film has a couple of tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, it benefits greatly from a barnstorming performance by Frankie Howerd, his high-pitched incredulity and eye-rolling sarcasm adding a new dimension to the regular Carry On cast (Dandy Nichols, too, has a funny cameo as the garrulous Mrs Roper).

Secondly and more importantly, while Talbot Rothwell’s script may be light on plot, it’s absolutely packed with gags: silly ones, like the fully bandaged man who turns out to be invisible (’Oo, I still don’t like the look of him!’ Tinkle says); saucy ones, like Lavinia throwing herself at Kenneth, the daffodil (an in-joke harking back to Nurse), or Kilmore’s adventures on the roof; or more traditional fare, like the chaotic weddding of Bigger and his deaf companion Chloe (Joan Sims, superb and underused as usual), conducted by an equally mutton chaplain. There’s easily enough genuinely clever material to forgive lazy jokes such as (as happens more than once) looking under a sheet and exclaiming ‘That’s a big one!’

Inevitably, the passage of time means that it’s impossible to look at some aspects of Carry On films in the way their original audience saw them. In particular, the treatment of Babs Windsor’s trainee nurse here is dolly-birdism of the worst kind. She receives the ultimate ‘Phwoooar!” from a leering ambulance driver, takes her clothes off to sunbathe, then promptly disappears from the film.By contrast, Jacques is called a ‘battleship’ and other older ladies are referred to as ‘cows.’ Matron’s rough-house treatment at the hand of the female patients is also more suited to army barracks than a hospital, though this is at least Equal Opportunities humiliation since Tinkle is treated no better (indeed, he’s almost tortured!). It’s not worth getting too hung up on such things, but there is a slight feeling that the film is designed exclusively for working-class men, a feeling you don’t get in superior series entries such as Don’t Lose Your Head or Carry On Up the Khyber.

But the film is what it is: and what it is, for the most part, is funny. Carry On Doctor isn’t the most exciting of the series by a long shot, but its hit-rate of jokes ensures that you simply don’t have time to get bored. Although they don’t all play as full a part as they might, all the gang are here – joyously, the film pre-dates Jack Douglas – and they are all on top form with Rothwell’s material. Carry On Doctor has a few ills of its own, but as long as you’re immune to rank sexism, it’ll cheer you up on a miserable day.

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Mrs Henderson Presents

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Towards the end of the 1930s, wealthy widow Laura Henderson finds herself with more time and money on her hands than she knows what to do with. On a whim, she buys London’s run-down Windmill Theatre and strikes up a feisty relationship with producer Vivian Van Damm. Mrs Henderson averts box-office disaster by scandalously inaugurating Britain’s first nude revue; but when war arrives, moral outrage is the least of the company’s worries.

London, 1937, and Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) buries her husband, for many years her companion in India and elsewhere. Their son Alec having been killed in the First World War, Mrs Henderson finds single life very lonely; she doesn’t enjoy the hobbies – sitting on committees, doing crochet – suggested by her good friend Margot (Thelma Barlow), and neither, being nearly seventy, is she impressed by Margot’s suggestion that she takes a lover.

One day, she drives past the closed Windmill Theatre and – just like that – decides to buy it. Despite arguing with him from the outset, she hires Jewish producer Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to put on a show, a combination of revue and vaudeville cleverly called ‘revuedeville’, a show that plays throughout the day and becomes so successful it’s universally copied, nearly causing financial ruin. Mrs Henderson, however, decides to do as they do in Paris and instructs Van Damm to assemble a nude revue.

He does as he’s told, cobbling together a troupe of nervous ‘real’ women to accompany singers Jane and Bertie (Camille O’Sullivan and Will Young) and the leggy Millerettes, while Laura sweet-talks Christopher Guest’s Lord Chamberlain Lord Cromer (or ‘Little Tommy’, as she knows him), who objects to the proposed nudity but is as enchanted as the audience when the curtain goes up and the girls are presented in still, arty tableaux. However, Mrs Henderson’s excitement sours when she discovers that Van Damm is spoken for; and the tight little family enjoyed by the girls, including Maureen, Vera and Peggy (Kelly Reilly, Sarah Solemani and Natalia Tena), is disrupted by the bothersome World War II. But isn’t theatre’s motto ‘The Show Must Go On’? If the redoubtable Mrs H has anything to do with it, it certainly will.

Your first question about Mrs Henderson Presents may well be to do with the nudity – is this BBC Films project a period Showgirls? The answer is ‘of course not’, and this is much to the film’s credit. There’s a fair amount of flesh on show, but apart from a hint of harmless sauce it’s all presented as an unerotic, tasteful and artistic enterprise. An equal opportunities one, too – they don’t warn you about Bob Hoskins’ todger on the DVD cover.

But the point is that the controversy of the Windmill’s nude revue is just a backdrop to the bigger story. This film’s not about naked women, or men, or art, at all; it’s about the indomitable spirit of Londoners, rich and poor, during the Blitz. Quite right too, except that’s a history lesson we’re exhausted with already – and while I applaud the total lack of gratuitousness and titillation, there’s a slight feeling of being conned, of being lured into a strip club only for Simon Sharma to deliver a po-faced lecture whilst blocking your view.

I’d have liked to have known more about the girls, where they came from, why they were taking part in the shows: what we get is a two-line summary from ladies who are much of a muchness, apart from Maureen. She gets matchmade by Mrs H, provoking the film’s big crisis which has some emotional impact. Otherwise, the film is much too polite, too British, too damn nice for its own good – for example, I’m not sure all the visiting squaddies were quite as fresh-faced and respectful as they’re portrayed here.

Still, it does contain moments of sly humour, for example the mouse that causes ‘accidental’ movement amongst the nudes, Cromer getting into a flap over ‘The Midlands’, or Laura’s ruses to sneak back into the theatre after she insults Mrs Van Damm and swears never to return.

The film’s not really about the nude revue, then, and the episodic structure of the script, which constructs the story in a blocky, clunky fashion, demonstrates the lack of a dominant theme: Mrs Henderson drives past theatre and looks pensive, Mrs Henderson ‘suddenly’ hits on the idea of a nude review, Van Damm decides to use real British girls and immediately fishes Maureen out of a canal. This bittiness is also reflected in the film’s technical aspects, which are a real mixed bag: London looks wonderful, the cast are dressed and made up to perfection, and the revues are recreated with verve and entirely appropriate showtunes. However, there’s a disconnect between the recreation of period London and scratchy black and white footage of the Blitz, especially when the film later has an obviously fake go at showing the capital ablaze, with Mrs H looking on.

Luckily, most of these issues are swept aside by the superb performance of Dame Judi Dench: she’s haughty, cheeky, occasionally unhinged, but also full of tenderness, her eyes reflecting a lifetime of love and loss for her husband and especially for her son, buried in France (even if I wasn’t totally convinced by her rationale for funding the show). However variable the quality of what’s going on around her, she sparkles, and sparks off Hoskins who – for once – gets to play a slightly posh role, and plays it well. Kelly Reilly doesn’t fare so well in this exalted company, and while Will Young is perfectly fine, he doesn’t exactly demand a career in the movies. Guest isn’t on screen for long, but as usual is very funny.

Assuming you don’t watch Mrs Henderson Presents demanding sex or sauce, you’re likely to find it a handsome film, with humour and a surprisingly strong streak of nobility and decency – its ultimate message could be paraphrased as ‘naked women helped win the war’! The film’s ripe sentimentality does mean that it lacks anything like an edge, and you might hope for more, and more substantial, human tales to accompany Dench’s brilliant performance; in general, though, this show deserves to go on.

Hollywoodland

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: George Reeves, TV’s first Superman, is found dead and the police come to the conclusion that he committed suicide. Acting on a tip-off, dogged private investigator Louis Simo does some digging and finds more than one party with reasons to hold a grudge against the troubled actor. However, Louis’ pre-occupation with the case lands him in all sorts of trouble.

In 1959, Superman actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead in his bed. The police instantly write the death off as a suicide, but private dick Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) gets wind that it’s not as simple as that, and pitches the idea to Reeves’ mother that the death may not have been self-inflicted. As Simo delves, he discovers that Reeves – who had a role in Gone with the Wind and starred in The Adventures of Sir Galahad – was the long-time lover of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM executive Eddie (Bob Hoskins).

Eddie already has a Japanese mistress, George needs contacts, and Toni is desperate for love and attention, so the arrangement seems to suit them all; but George’s ambitions of being a bona fide star only get him as far as a TV version of Superman. The part is badly paid, poorly written, requires him to wear a naff suit (until later, when it’s shot in colour) and doesn’t do his body any good, but he has fun on set and becomes a massive hero to kids. The downside is that he becomes typecast – his role in From Here to Eternity is cut down because audiences make fun of Superman appearing in another film* – so opportunities for him to grow as an actor are limited.

When the series is cancelled in 1958, Reeves goes to New York in search of new possibilities, much to Toni’s dismay; and she’s devastated when he comes back with young fiancée Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) in tow. George becomes increasingly dependent on alcohol, and makes a painful show reel for a wrestling gig he’s offered; and then he’s dead. But would he really commit suicide with a directing gig coming up? Or was greedy, aggressive Leonore’s finger on the trigger? Or could Eddie, a man not above dirty dealing in the Hollywood Hills, have arranged the hit as revenge for his wife‘s turmoil?

As Simo keeps finding more questions than answers, he neglects his troubled client Mr Sinclair, which ends unfortunately for Mrs Sinclair; and as a result, Louis turns to drink himself, mortifying his son Evan (Zach Mills) when he turns up, shapeless, at his school. What’s more, Eddie doesn’t take at all kindly to guttersnipes poking around in his business.

One of my constant mantras about watching films has been ‘Go in with an open mind’. Unfortunately, I had the idea in my head that Hollywoodland was a film about George Reeves, and to find that was only partially the case came as a big disappointment. Of course, the life and death of Reeves is the reason the film exists, and you do get a sense of the events of his life, his career, why he may have taken his own life and why other people might have taken it for him. On the other hand, I came to the conclusion that screenwriter Paul Bernbaum got to about the hour mark of a story about George’s life, then got stuck, and invented Simo and his problems just to bring the film up to a respectable length.

The result is not bad, as such – Brody makes for a terrifically weaselly private dick – but the guff surrounding his ex-wife and grumpy child, his girlfriend/receptionist, and his guilt over what happens to Mrs Sinclair, all feels like padding. As a viewer, you want to be where the action is, namely with George; and while Simo’s business is written, acted and brought to life with some skill, he’s not supposed to be the star of the show.

Straight reconstructions (such as The Notorious Bettie Page or Good Night, and Good Luck) can be slow and worthy, but I think Hollywoodland’s diversion into Chinatown/LA Confidential territory is ill-advised, especially when we have no particular motive to care for the protagonist. It doesn’t help that after replaying three versions of what might have happened to Reeves on the night of his death (the film plays fast and loose with its flashbacks), Simo seems to settle on the original and least controversial option. Talk about an anti-climax!

Still, Hollywoodland’s period setting is always immaculate and, unlike the similarly-themed Black Dahlia, the acting is of a very high standard. Affleck shows that he can act without a smirk on his face, and Lane plays Toni Mannix with just the right mixture of self-assurance and neediness. Hoskins convinces as the studio head, Tunney brings a glamorous but unhappy edge to Leonore (she’s shunned in George’s will), and Lois Smith is a forceful presence as Reeves’ mother, who may not be as close to her son as she lets on. In fact, the whole cast are impressive (notwithstanding Zach Mills’ distracting ears) – it’s just a shame so many of them were involved in the sideshow rather than the main feature.

I can’t blame Hollywoodland for not being the film I thought it was going to be, but I do find the idea of a real life being investigated by a fictional one to be jarring, especially since Reeves’ outings in the Superman costume come and go so quickly; with Affleck in good acting form, I could have happily watched a whole film about the actor‘s life, loves and death without Simo (good though Brody is) wondering whodunit. Still, next time I see it I’ll know exactly what I’m in for, and I reserve the right to come back and change my mind, and my score, completely.

NOTES: If you trust Wikipedia, this isn’t true. I said ‘if’.

Hello, Dolly!

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: ‘Marriage broker’ and general life-fixer Dolly Levi has plans to fix the life of grumpy half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder by arranging to have him marry her. To do this, she enlists the services of Cornelius and Barnaby, underlings at Horace’s hay feed shop in Yonkers, to sweep Horace’s intended Irene and her hat-shop assistant Minnie off their feet as they discover, for the very first time, the joys of New York.

Although the genre has made a strong comeback in the 2000s for young and old viewers alike, the last great decade for musical films has to be the 1960s: West Side Story won Best Picture at the start of the decade; My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music took the honours in the middle years. Hello, Dolly! won a number of Oscars but missed out on the big prize, losing to the gritty Midnight Cowboy; and in subsequent years heavyweight films such as Patton and The French Connection took the centre stage. This film, based on a Thornton Wilder play The Matchmaker and with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, may be the last hurrah for the big, old-fashioned song-and-dance musical, then; and its star turn makes sure the decade goes out with a bang.

The story is fairly simple: young widow Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) travels to Yonkers with two jobs on her mind, seeking inspiration from her late husband Ephraim as she goes. The first job is to attract the attention of grumpy shop owner Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) away from a marriage of convenience to milliner Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew), towards herself; the second task is to smooth over Horace’s objections to the relationship between his niece Ermengarde and her beau Ambrose (Joyce Ames and the lofty Tommy Tune).

When Horace leaves to call on Irene anyway, Dolly encourages his employees Cornelius and Barnaby (Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin) to copy his example and head into town; they do so, with the avowed and scandalous intent of ‘kissing a girl’ (it is 1890, after all), encouraged by Dolly to visit a certain hat shop run by Irene and her young assistant Minnie (E.J. Peaker). As luck – or rather, as Dolly – would have it, the whole group turn up simultaneously in the luxurious Harmonia Gardens, Cornelius and Barnaby penniless but entertaining Irene and Minnie regardless; Ermengarde and Ambrose hoping to win money to set themselves up in a polka contest; and Horace, disappointed by Irene’s habit of keeping men in her closet, dating a supposed heiress with an incredible resemblance to one of Dolly’s best friends. It’s hardly conceivable that they will all be kept apart, especially when Dolly is the restaurant’s favourite guest.

If it’s immediately apparent that this tale could be told with considerably less fanfare, and budget, than any of the Oscar-winning musicals named above, nobody told the people at 20th Century Fox, who spent over $20 million recreating late 19th Century Yonkers and New York, and the magnificent Harmonia Gardens set, with loving care. Against these magnificent backdrops and with the help of entirely serviceable tunes, Hello, Dolly! plays out as a mixture of farce and open-air ballet – and here is the first of the film’s snags.

For whilst the songs are perfectly nice – the title number being the most memorable – their extension to incorporate lengthy dance sequences after they have served their purpose becomes tiring after a while. In part, this is purely a matter of taste, and keen connoisseurs of dance will find an awful lot to enjoy in the set-pieces, either the massed dancing in the streets and parks or the astounding acrobatics of the waiters; for me, however, a lot of it is dancing for its own sake (unlike, say, much of the dancing in The Sound of Music) and I struggled to enjoy much of it.

The bigger issue, however, is with the cast. Michael Crawford struggles with his American accent and has a pretty weak singing voice, though he cannot be blamed for the fact that his facial expressions are synonymous (in Britain) with Frank Spencer from the (later) sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Matthau, meanwhile, seems tremendously ill-at-ease, perhaps because he is in a Gene Kelly film but can neither sing nor dance; he would be a disastrous choice were he not so good at being grouchy in the non-singing, non-dancing parts of the film, and his knack for stone-faced comedy stands in welcome relief to his employees’ capering in and out of wardrobes, under/over tables etc.

And finally, you have La Streisand. In just her second film, Barbra plays Dolly with such a staggering amount of overweening self-assurance that you cannot begin to picture her as a grieving widow. Admittedly, part of the problem lies with the character, since Dolly has to be a go-getter to make her way in life; but the film makes such a fuss over her, and Streisand makes such a show of enjoying the attention, that when the film asks (as it undoubtedly does) ‘Don’t ya just love her?’ the only reasonable answer is ‘not particularly.’

It doesn’t help that Streisand is obviously much too young for the role, being twenty years Matthau’s junior, so her conviction appears to be the brashness of youth rather than the direct honesty of experience; fortunately, her strong and unique vocals are excellent throughout, which may not redeem all the film’s faults but certainly offsets some of them.

Hello, Dolly! is the epitome of overblown, and feels like an anachronism when put alongside late 60s historical events such as the Vietnam war or the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But to judge a film against its political backdrop is overly harsh, and much of this one is perfectly passable, and highly polished, entertainment whose nostalgic value would have been immeasurably increased by a less modern central performance. If nothing else, it contains a few minutes of Louis Armstrong, a true American icon, and you can’t complain about that.

sex, lies and videotape

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Unfulfilled housewife Ann Bishop-Mullany is forced to confront her fears about sex when her husband John invites old acquaintance Graham to stay. Although Graham isn’t actively threatening – indeed, he’s impotent – Ann is both intrigued and disturbed by the stranger and his voyeuristic hobbies. Meanwhile, John conducts an affair with Ann’s liberated sister Cynthia – but for how long can he keep Ann in the dark?

On the surface, John and Ann Mullany (Peter Gallagher and Andie MacDowell) are the financially-successful embodiment of the 80s American Dream, but you don’t have to delve too deeply to find the fault lines: while she gave up her job (at John’s suggestion), leaving her plenty of time to fret about the world’s problems and her lack of a sex life, John is having it all ways, raking in the cash as a lawyer and fooling around with Ann’s ‘extrovert’ sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

When John’s friend Graham (James Spader) comes to stay, he makes a curious first impression: he wears black, grows his hair long and doesn’t appear to work; stranger still – as Ann discovers to her disgust – Graham overcomes his impotence by videotaping women talking about their sex lives (and sometimes providing a more practical demonstration). Not sharing her sister’s hang-ups, Cynthia introduces herself to Graham, indirectly sparking off a catastrophic chain of events for John and Ann’s marriage. However, is the frank-seeming videographer quite the plain dealer he seems?

It doesn’t happen often, thankfully, but I’m altogether stymied by Sex, Lies, and Videotape. On the one hand, it’s a movie that, despite its sit-up-and-beg title, is much coyer about the physical act than it might have been. Instead, surrounding John and Cynthia’s trysts there’s an awful lot of talking about sex: Ann to her therapist, Cynthia to Ann, Graham’s subjects to his camcorder. As such, you wonder at times if film is even the right medium for the tale, or whether it could have been equally well presented as a play or radio play. Apart from the fact that the women seem to feel they can be completely free and honest in front of Graham’s camera, no great play is made of the invasive yet seductive power of the lens, which appears to be an opportunity lost when you think about the questions a film like Peeping Tom asks of viewers and filmmakers alike.

Initially, too, the symbolism of the film feels wearily overt and mundane. Graham, the no-possessions drifter, is an obvious negative image of the wealthy John: Graham is blond and wears a black shirt and jeans; John is brown-haired and wears white shirts and businesslike braces. As Ann discovers John’s lies and goes in search of answers from Graham, the change is represented by Ann removing her white clothes and going to the dark side – of her wardrobe.

As the characters (metaphorically) reveal themselves, however, things begin to click into place. Even though none of the characters are particularly warm or cuddly, Soderbergh tells his quietly tragic, intimate tale of fibbing, philandering and floundering adults with calm authority, the actors responding with naturalistic, low-key performances. John’s comeuppance is rather satisfying, as is Cynthia’s increasing self-respect, whilst Ann’s journey – the real thrust of the film – is involving and credible (MacDowell, much maligned in other roles, is thoroughly convincing here). Graham is a more difficult character to get a handle on – he has to contend with an absolutely shocking mullet, for one thing – but his shifting motivations make him interesting too, even if his ultimate reward doesn’t feel entirely deserved.

Soderbergh (26 when he made the film) treats his subject with remarkable maturity, but Sex, Lies, and Videotape is not without lighter moments. There are some nice jokes, whether from the hopeless barfly (Steven Brill) who infests the bar where Cynthia works or, more subtly, in Ann’s sexual hang-ups (see how she abuses her wine glass) supposedly stemming from global ecological crises; I’m also convinced that the treatment she gives the mixer tap in the kitchen is intentionally Freudian. Finally, the director also livens up an otherwise unshowy film by using Graham’s videos to play cleverly with structure, playing events out of sequence so that we learn what’s happening at the same time as the characters.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a curious piece. It’s peopled with well-heeled, self-obsessed characters who don’t exactly demand sympathy (like the later Closer), and the pace and tone are both fairly glacial; on the other hand, while it doesn’t have the dramatic pull of a piece like The Ice Storm, it’s a film which handles its adult themes intelligently, especially impressive considering this was Soderbergh’s debut feature. It’s really not something that I can either recommend or caution against; but its individual, independent aesthetic absolutely makes it worth a watch.

Inglourious Basterds

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: A band of gung-ho Jewish-American soldiers take the fight to Hitler’s Nazis in the occupied France of 1944. Tales of their brutal exploits reach the ears of Hitler, who has every right to be concerned: he’s due to attend the premiere of Goebbels’ latest propaganda piece, and it’s not just the ‘Basterds’ who want to sabotage the event. Just as well that the Führer has the bloodhound-like Hans Landa – aka the ‘Jew Hunter’ – on his side.

Nazi-occupied France in 1941 is no place to be harbouring Jews, especially with the notorious ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) on the case. When Landa re-visits the farm of Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), he senses and kills the hidden Dreyfus family, but young Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to flee with her life. Three years later, Shosanna is running a Paris cinema under a pseudonym and catches the eye of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero whose exploits have been made into a film, Nation’s Pride, by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller petitions for the film to be premiered at Shosanna’s cinema and when Landa turns up to assist with the evening, she redoubles her own plans to turn the night into a Nazi bloodbath.

Meanwhile, a crack unit of Jewish Americans under the leadership of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is terrorising rank-and-file German soldiers, their fears multiplied by legends of the ‘Bear Jew’ Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) and the ‘Inglourious Basterds’’ recruitment of homicidal Nazi-killer Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). They become involved in Operation Kino, a plan hatched by the British Army to get Lt Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) into the premiere alongside actress/double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger); their meeting doesn’t exactly go to plan, but Raine decides that he must attend the premiere with Bridget, Donny and nervous Omar (Omar Doom). After all, Adolf Hitler is rumoured to be coming, and what better Nazi scalp could there be than der Führer?

There are very few things I can say with complete confidence about Inglourious Basterds, not being a connoisseur of War movies – specifically, not having seen The Dirty Dozen or the Italian knock-off/homage which lends this film its odd title. What I do know is that Tarantino knows his films, and I’m sure that the vast majority of Basterds’ movie references flew right over my head as I watched; but I can still give an opinion on the piece, and my immediate verdict is ‘not overly struck’.

It’s a shame, because in places there’s plenty to admire. Since it’s driven by cinema, the climax taking place in one, the plot is unsurprisingly sure-footed; the style is confident, too, the camerawork fluidly swooping over the heads of our characters, the violence explicit and visceral when it arrives. Tarantino boldly presents an alternative, movie-bound universe where Hitler can be shot to pieces in 1944 by brave Yanks and although we know that’s not what actually happened, we accept it as part of the conceit of World War II seen – and heard – as Revenge Western.

The universally-feted Waltz is terrific, but he is merely the standout in a host of strong performances: Pitt is (in)gloriously brash, while Fassbender’s Hicox is convincing (until his fatal mistake) and both female leads, Kruger and Laurent, are very strong.

So what’s my problem? Well, there are a few. Firstly, Tarantino has storytelling issues. The film essentially runs three story strands simultaneously: Raine’s Basterds, von Hammersmark’s role in Operation Kino, and Shosanna’s retribution (pitched against any or all of Landa, Hitler, and the Nazis in general). While these strands physically converge at the film’s climax, they never become contingent; would Hitler and his cronies not have perished in the fire anyway, regardless of Donny and Omar’s bullets?

Perhaps because of this, Inglourious Basterds comes over as disconnected, a self-conscious construct rather than a credible fiction, a film made by someone expert in World War II movies but ignorant of – and caring little about – the war itself. The lack of resonance with historical facts means that despite impressive set decoration, costumery and so on, the film never feels as real as Valkyrie or even Mother Night. And since I’ve mentioned some strong acting performances, I should also point out that Mike Myers’ English General is lousy, Rod Taylor is the worst screen Churchill you’ll ever see, and Martin Wuttke’s Hitler isn’t much cop either.

Secondly, it’s not as if everything about the story works. The queasy comedy of Raine, Donowitz and Omar posing as Italians at the premiere of Nation’s Pride just doesn’t work: not only is it not funny, someone would surely have had them shot, or at least got the high-ranking Nazis out of harm’s way, as soon as it was discovered that they were frauds (ie. immediately). But as we are reminded at every single moment, this is a cinematic construct, not a true history. There are also some directorial tics that I didn’t enjoy: the eclectic soundtrack, which shoehorns a Bowie track (from another film) into a WWII drama; or the silly arrows pointing out infamous Nazis in the cinema.

However – and thirdly – perhaps Inglourious Basterds’ biggest failing is Tarantino’s self-indulgence. He’s evidently testing his own mettle, and the patience of his audience, by stretching out a number of key scenes to the point where they become tiresome, deliberately daring the viewer to lose confidence in the scene before the inevitable explosion of violence arrives. If you’re absolutely caught up in the drama, this technique is potentially effective; I merely got bored.

There is, as I say, much to applaud in many of the scenes, especially the opening encounter between Landa and M. LaPadite and the tense meeting in the cellar between von Hammersmark and Hicox, which swirls intriguingly between outwardly celebratory parties of protagonists who all have their own interesting sub-plots. However, each scene could have lost at least a third of its running time without harming the film one bit.

I don’t quite know what Quentin was hoping to achieve by making so many of the scenes in Inglourious Basterds as long as they are. He may have been allowing them room to breathe, in which case the writing’s not as strong as it needs to be (it certainly lacks the snap of his earlier work); or he may have simply been showing off, in which case he’s literally wasting our time. Whatever, I got fed up with the film’s empty machismo, its absurd fantasy that the Americans would’ve shown Hitler what for if only they’d sent “the boys” over to do the job.

That said, I didn’t dislike Inglourious Basterds at all, because although it’s self-indulgent and overlong, Tarantino’s talent – with a big helping hand from Waltz – comes through. However, people with a deeper investment in the conflict may feel he’s being thoroughly disrespectful; those with a shorter attention span may just switch off instead.

Big Top Pee-wee

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Pee-Wee Herman’s world is turned upside-down when a circus troupe lands on his farm during a storm. Not only do the animals cause havoc with the livestock – a hippo taking a particular interest in Herman’s buddy Vance – but trapeze artist Gina plays havoc with Pee-Wee’s heart, much to the dismay of his intended, Winnie.

Neither Paul Reubens nor his extraordinary creation Pee-Wee Herman have ever made much of a splash in Britain, barring a couple of unfortunate newspaper headlines a while back, so it would be easy to write Big Top Pee-Wee off as a forgettable kids’ movie, mainly notable for being directed by the man who gave us Grease. On this basis you might decide to give it a miss altogether but – depending on your sense of humour – that would be a pity.

The caveat in the last sentence is important because many people will dislike this film immensely for one simple reason: Pee-Wee Herman. He’s a curious character, on the one hand geeky, effete and camp, on the other waspish and – in this film, anyway – given to testosterone-fuelled lunges at his prim and proper fiancée, teacher Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller). Though they meet for lunch every day, Winnie doesn’t even know what Pee-Wee likes in his sandwiches, forcing him to face the hostile glares of the old townsfolk when he goes into the store for something to eat.

An approaching storm sends Pee-Wee and his best friend, talking pig Vance, back to their farm to get all the animals into the cellar; luckily, they are unscathed, but they emerge to the discovery that an entire circus run by Mace Montana and his diminutive wife Midge (Kris Kristofferson and Susan Tyrrell) has landed on the farm. Though the townspeople are as unwelcoming to the circus as they have always been to Pee-Wee, he persuades Mace to stay and give the circus a holiday, a gesture that allows him to get to know the lovely Gina (Valeria Golino) rather better.

Mace, after taking a tour of Pee-Wee’s research facilities (his creations including a hot-dog tree), decides that his circus needs fresh ideas; meanwhile, when Winnie and Gina find out about each other, Pee-Wee suddenly has more than one balancing act to perform, whilst also finding a way of getting his miserable old neighbours to come and see the show

On the surface, it’s preposterous that a strange man-child like Pee-Wee should find himself the object of affection of two women, but the joy of Big Top Pee-Wee is that it willingly embraces the bizarre and surreal, presenting farm animals sleeping in their own beds and thumb-sized women like everyday events (I loved the miniature breakfast Midge serves up). Pee-Wee is certainly an acquired taste, but his character, and the film in general, show a strong streak of invention that you might not expect from a children’s film.

Actually, like the main character, the film has a split personality; so while the farm, the talking animals, and the assorted oddities of the circus (including a mermaid, a troupe of acrobats who take Winnie’s fancy, and Benicio Del Toro playing a dog-faced boy) are likely to keep children amused, there is a more adult vein too, for example one of the longest kisses in film history and a naughty Monty Python-like use of footage suggesting Herman, erm, becomes a man.

Also, though the point is far from hammered home, the parochial hostility of the town to anyone who is different – they turn up at Pee-Wee’s farm with flaming torches – lends the film a poignant note; whilst celebrating his individuality, there is something simultaneously funny and sad about Pee-Wee lining himself up with the array of circus freaks. These little touches, along with the weird and wonderful jokes and Kris Kristofferson providing nice ballast as the circus owner, help the film to bowl along pleasantly, which is just as well since the plot doesn’t really go anywhere and the romance between Pee-Wee and Gina, despite all the kissing, is hardly on a par with Bogart and Bergman.

The film also fails to find a satisfactory climax, since the circus show is simply that, containing a mediocre song and little that is new apart from Herman and friends’ high-wire act; that said, I have never understood the appeal of circuses anyway, so merely not finding these scenes unbearable is a form of praise.

I am given to understand that many people consider this film a poor cousin to Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and until I have seen that film I wouldn’t dare disagree. Nonetheless, I found Big Top Pee-Wee to be lively and light, and even if the movie is inconsequential and quickly forgotten, the quirks of the title character make him a great deal more fun than his tongue-tied English cousin, Mr Bean.