Tag Archives: 9/20

Brideshead Revisited

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Callow and (relatively) impoverished student Charles Ryder travels up to Oxford and befriends young bohemian Sebastian Flyte. However, as Charles becomes acquainted with the Flytes and their ancestral pile, Brideshead, he finds himself falling for both the house and Sebastian’s spirited sister Julia, causing conflict with the family, their faith and most of all their imposing matriarch, Lady Marchmain.

Aspiring artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) needs a friend at Oxford, since his schooling leaves a lot to be desired and his widowed father (Patrick Malahide) isn’t remotely interested in the boy’s progress. Luckily, Charles encounters bon viveur Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and despite the sarcastic comments of Sebastian’s friends – and the fact that the flamboyant aristocrat is unhealthily attached to his teddy bear, Aloysius – the pair quickly become good friends. In fact, Sebastian is besotted with Charles and takes him to Brideshead, a sprawling house which Charles comes to consider a second home as he becomes more acquainted with the Flytes: strait-laced elder brother Bridey (Ed Stoppard), charming sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), younger sister Cordelia (Felicity Jones) and devout Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), who frets over Sebastian’s lifestyle and dismisses Charles as a ‘painter from Paddington’.

As Charles travels with Sebastian and Julia to visit Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), living in Venice with his mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi), he discovers that his passions truly lie with Julia rather than Sebastian; though she rejects him, their passion eventually finds a physical expression, causing havoc with both Julia’s marriage to opportunist American Rex (Jonathan Cake) and her faith.

There is, of course, no law governing literary adaptations, so there is theoretically no reason on Earth why Julian Jarrold and BBC Films (amongst others) shouldn’t have a go at filming Evelyn Waugh’s celebrated novel. On the other hand, much like Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, this film has to live in the shadow of a ‘definitive’ TV adaptation, in this case an 11-part production made back in 1981.

I’ve not seen ITV’s Brideshead Revisited, so (unlike P&P) I can’t give a blow-by-blow account of the differences, but it is clear that condensing the plot into two-and-a-bit hours leaves significant gaps in the story: most notably in respect of minor characters (Charles’ wife Celia (Anna Madeley) falls out of the picture very easily), but also in respect of Sebastian, who is largely forgotten once consigned to Morocco.

Although the film is infused with Lady Marchmain’s fervent Catholicism and the guilt it imbues in her children, Brideshead Revisited the movie is in essence a simple love story, the tale of a social climber who uses Sebastian’s forlorn affections to reach the woman he really loves, only to find that his actions destroy the possibility of that love enduring. And while the tale is handsomely told, at times the film feels more like a hurried sprint than a dignified walk through Brideshead’s grounds.

The result of the film’s haste is that Brideshead Revisited only scratches the surface of its characters, so the viewer’s empathy is limited: are these not poor little rich kids (and adults), swanning about in finery, with endless leisure time to fill between wine-quaffing, holidaying, and occasional fretting about what God thinks of them? I certainly didn’t feel particularly heartbroken about Julia and Charles’ relationship, nor did I worry overly about Sebastian or Lord Marchmain’s eternal souls; and in that sense the film doesn’t do its job.

Compensation comes in the shape of some arresting performances: Matthew Goode is quite,er, good in the lead role, while both Whishaw and Atwell acquit themselves adequately as youngsters whose spirits are crushed under their mother’s disapproving gaze. That said, the real impact is made by the senior actors: Patrick Malahide is gloriously vile as the sneering Mr Ryder and Gambon customarily effective in a cameo role; more than these, Emma Thompson’s icy performance dominates the picture, much as Lady Marchmain dominates her children. While Thompson is on screen, the film packs a real punch, and although her influence lingers throughout, it is a shame that she is lost to the story from around the half way mark. I should also mention the contribution made by Yorkshire’s impressive Castle Howard (reprising its role of Brideshead from the television series), a fabulous setting for the action; Venice, as always, looks good on film too.

I have tried to avoid describing Brideshead Revisited along class lines, since even with the Flytes’ evident entitlement there is no reason why they could not have engaging lives, or that the satire implicit in Waugh’s novel could not sear off the screen. Nevertheless, there is something lacking in this adaptation which means that, despite good acting, a decent score and impeccable production values, this film feels – for the most part – sterile and underwhelming. Those who have seen the TV adaptation may say what’s lacking is the nine hours of material lost to make a single movie, I couldn’t tell you; what I can say is that while the film looks every bit as sumptuous as you would expect from a British-made period drama, it lacks the substance and weight to do justice to the source material.

Carry on Follow that Camel

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Shamed by accusations of cheating at cricket, Bertram ‘Bo’ West and his faithful butler Simpson head off to Africa to join the French Foreign legion. Although life is initially harsh, they soon get one over on their vainglorious leader, Sergeant Nocker, though the freedom this gives Bo gets them all into trouble. Worse, Bo’s beloved Jane follows him out to the desert to tell him that the whole thing is a ghastly mistake and gets herself lined up as wife no. 13 to a sabre-rattling Sheik.

I’m willing to bet Lombard Street to a China orange that if you took a survey of the general public nowadays four-fifths wouldn’t have a clue who Beau Geste or the French Foreign Legion were, and of the fifth that could tell you something more than half would mention Follow That Camel, the Carry On team’s take on P.C. Wren’s British hero (like Don’t Lose Your Head, the ‘Carry On’ bit was only added later after studio wrangling).

Bertram Oliphant ‘Bo’ West (Jim Dale) is our hero, who does the decent thing and heads off for the Legion when his ‘friend’ Humphrey, enamoured with Bo’s beau Jane (Angela Douglas), accuses Bo of tripping him up at the crease. With his faithful servant Simpson (Peter Butterworth) for company, West joins up and is introduced to the Fort’s hierarchy: effete Captain Lepice (Charles Hawtrey) and monocled German Commandant Maximilian Burger (Kenneth Williams). Bo, used to a nice breakfast and being dressed by others, struggles to adapt to the harshness of Legion life and incurs the wrath of waspish Colour Sergeant Nocker (Phil Silvers); until, that is, he discovers that Nocker is earning his stripes by telling tall tales of bravery when in fact he is cosily ensconced in the bar run by Zig-Zig (Joan Sims).

Armed with this information, Bo and Simpson’s lives suddenly become a lot easier; but during a night on the town both Nocker and West fall prey to the charms of exotic dancer Corktip (Anita Harris), secretly working in the employ of the Legion’s sworn enemy Sheik Abdul Abulbul (Bernard Bresslaw). Meanwhile, Jane has travelled to find Bo and is amazed to encounter Burger, her old fencing teacher from finishing school; he, however, is only a temporary diversion as her search for her wronged man leads her into the arms of the Sheikh. With the lady gone and West and Simpson held captive too, Nocker must raise the alarm and get a full-scale rescue underway. But how to convince Burger of the urgency of the situation when a disgruntled Zig-Zig has spilt the beans about the American’s medal-winning deceit?

Casting and writing are always the two crucial factors that make a Carry On film sink or swim, and in Follow That Camel casting is absolutely key. One instantly notices the lack of Sid James (through illness) and Barbara Windsor, naturally, but more important than this is the inclusion of Phil Silvers, presumably to help sell the film in the US. Perhaps because of the cosmopolitan nature of the Foreign Legion, Silvers’ brand of sarcasm fits surprisingly well into what you might imagine to be a quintessentially British picture, and he’s an imposing and entertaining presence even if clearly a little unfocused and a few years past the top of his game (he apparently read some of his lines from cue cards).

Williams is, as usual, excellent as the Commandant and he shares some good jokes with Hawtrey, even though the latter is – like Sims – underused. Bresslaw enjoys baring his teeth as the baddie and Dale is fine as the hero, Butterworth not too annoying as his retainer; and whilst Anita Harris makes for a rather scrawny femme fatale and Angela Douglas a bland damsel in distress, we can be thankful that this film predates the incorporation of her namesake Jack into the Carry On company.

The script, meanwhile, is a real curate’s egg. Talbot Rothwell always seems comfortable when writing about military life so it’s little surprise that the best bits of Follow That Camel deal with discipline and the fact that the troops’ ‘superiors’ are really nothing of the sort. There’s also the usual quota of nudging innuendo and general tomfoolery – Humphrey, ashamed of himself, both shoots and hangs himself (and lives to tell the tale!) – but on occasion the film’s cheerful sexism (the harem of busty lovelies is present and correct) strays too far.

No doubt the dimming of lights and casual refrain of ‘Travelling alone, miss?’ from a succession of men towards Jane was a hoot in the 60s, but now those scenes feel vaguely sinister; there are also some gags that must have raised eyebrows at the censor’s office, such as the name of the distant outpost Fort Zuassantneuf (a pun on the original Zinderneuf) and the shadows cast from the Sheik’s tent. Furthermore, although the film keeps its end up for a good hour, once the Legion troops into the desert it flags considerably, with only a sandcastle competition and a decent mirage joke to enjoy; the finale at Zuassantneuf shows a modicum of invention, but it’s little more than a dry run for the more polished climax to Khyber that followed the next year.

[Carry On] Follow That Camel isn’t the greatest of the gang’s parodies by a long stretch, but it looks the part (a major feat considering it was filmed on a Sussex beach) and there’s enough in it to make it feel relatively fresh, quite apart from Silvers’ unique turn. It contains nothing particularly classic in terms of comedy, but neither does it contain anything so bad that you’d escape to the Legion to forget.

Bel Ami

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Amoral, amorous and absolutely skint, soldier Georges Duroy comes to Paris and latches onto army acquaintance Charles Forestier looking to get on in the world. Although Forestier’s wife is, initially at least, immune to his charms, he’s more successful with the impressionable Clothilde. However, what Duroy – variously renamed Duroy de Cantel and ‘Bel Ami’ – really cares about is money and influence; the key to both may ultimately come from upright Mme Rousset.

Slumming it in a single, dirty room on his return from Algiers, Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) looks upon the wealthy citizens of Paris with a jaded, jealous eye. A chance meeting with fellow soldier Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) offers an invitation to more polite society. Charles’ politically astute wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman) helps Georges to write a column for newspaper La Vie Française, while Georges begins an affair with neglected wife Clotilde (Christina Ricci). When Charles – dubbed ‘Bel Ami’ by Clotilde’s daughter – discovers that Duroy has no talent whatsoever, the chancer is forced to turn to Virginie Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas), who resists Duroy’s reluctant advances but gets him a job in charge of gossip.

Still full of ambition, Georges takes Forestier’s wife and job as soon as his old friend dies, though Madeleine is apparently more interested in France’s plans for Morocco and her friend the Comte de Vaudrec (Anthony Higgins) than her impetuous new husband. Jealous of his exclusion from the in crowd, Georges begins an affair with Virginie; scandal is sure to follow, though the Roussets may offer an ultimate insurance policy in the shape of their young daughter Suzanne (Holliday Grainger).

Two films immediately came to mind as I watched Bel Ami. The first, Dangerous Liaisons, had a similar setting, a similar sense of scandal beneath the surface and a similar (if younger) Uma Thurman. The second, Barry Lyndon, featured an eerily similar tale of a handsome but penniless man making his way in the world by whatever means necessary. Of course, it can’t be helped that this came out well after Kubrick and Frears’ films, and the theme of the social climber is a movie staple (Sunset Blvd, to name just one more); on the other hand, knowing what had gone before it, Bel Ami had a lot of work to do to feel different and fresh.

It doesn’t. The perfectly decent set dressing and costuming recreates late 19th Century Paris quite nicely, but the things unique to Bel Ami, its tale of murky politics and finances surrounding France’s intentions in North Africa, and the even murkier relationship between press and government, come and go without making the impact they should; Rachel Bennette’s script joins the dots between the political intrigues, but concentrates far too much on Georges and his women.

Unfortunately, you rarely get a sense of what Pattinson’s character is about, beyond his piercing, sulky glare and determination to – pardon my French – shag his way to the top. Is he driven by the shame of his impoverished background? Or the desire to control others? Is he a slave to psychopathic greed and lust? The answers are lost as the film reduces the tale, more or less, to Georges loving Clotilde but using Madeleine and Virginie to his advantage. I suspect the film suffers from the same problem as Brideshead Revisited or Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, namely that it sprints through details and incidents that need to occur at a more deliberate pace for us to feel their importance.

Given that the story itself is much less interesting than it might have been, Bel Ami could still have distinguished itself by having an edgy atmosphere, by really getting into the decay of Georges’ mind. The problem is, for a film that was billed as an erotic tale of lust and seduction, it feels far too often like a polite period drama, a feeling bolstered by the uninspired, string-heavy score.

Its occasional glimpses of nudity are just that, glimpses, something to spice up the trailer; and while a more explicit film might have been no better, it would have made Bel Ami vastly more memorable. As it is, the story plays out with the plot and film-making seldom threatening to excite or surprise – a notable exception is when Madeleine turns the tables and uses sex as a weapon against Georges.

Nor do the actors do much to make their roles feel substantial. It’s not that anyone’s bad* – indeed, the multi-national cast do well to find a common English accent to represent their Frenchness (!) – but equally nobody stands out, the always-excellent Scott Thomas excepted. Pattinson looks intense but doesn’t inhabit the part to any degree, while Thurman acquits herself rather better than Ricci, who feels studied and stilted by comparison (and certainly looks an unlikely mother). It doesn’t help, either, that Glenister and Meaney, with their facial hair, look very similar, though Glenister remedies the situation when his consumptive cough carries him off.

Bel Ami has widely been labelled a dud. It certainly has little to interest Pattinson’s Twilight fans, and those looking for Maupassant’s biting satire will be disappointed to find a grim-faced drama, for the most part indifferently performed. Still, although it’s not nearly as painterly as Barry Lyndon, or as vicious as Dangerous Liaisons, it’s a handsome and competently constructed film that’s far from terrible and suggests a novel worth seeking out. Mad as it might sound, this film would have benefitted from taking a leaf out of Kubrick’s book by pausing, though not for too long, to let events sink in.

NOTES: Actually, I wasn’t particularly convinced by James Lance’s Foreign Minister, though that’s probably because I’ve spent years thinking of him as Ben in I’m Alan Partridge.

Tropic Thunder

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Three actors fail to capture the drama and emotion of the Vietnam War, so the director hits on the idea of sending them out in the wild, only to strand them in the jungle with half a script and blank-firing guns. As they face real enemies their inner demons also surface, until they hardly know who, where or what they are – and it doesn’t look as though they’re going to get much help from the eccentric studio head, Les Grossman.

It has all the ingredients of a great Vietnam War Movie. A tale of brave soldiers fighting their way through the jungle, written by a man who was there, disabled veteran ‘Four Leaf’ Tayback (Nick Nolte), and starring an eclectic mixture of Hollywood hotshots: Tugg Speedman (Stiller), action hero of the never-ending Scorcher franchise, not to mention the overlooked drama Simple Jack; broad comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), trying to shake off his image as a fart gag man (and a drug habit); and celebrated Aussie thesp Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), so devoted to his role that he has changed his skin colour for the movie.

Despite these stars and up-and-comers Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Kevin (Jay Baruchel), the movie isn’t working, so fiery producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, padded beyond recognition) sends a rocket up the ass of Brit director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). Damien responds by flying the actors into the remote jungle and telling them they will be filmed as they track their way back; however, the director departs unexpectedly, and the band of brothers suddenly find themselves alone in hostile territory. Kirk refuses to break character, Tugg refuses to believe the cameras have stopped rolling, and Jeff is incapable of doing anything without his ‘jelly beans’.

Tayback – hiding a couple of secrets up his sleeves – and pyrotechnics man Cody (Danny McBride) are kidnapped by the drug-running operation of pint-sized overlord Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo). No great loss, perhaps; but when Tugg is also taken it brings his agent Rick (Matthew McConaughey) and Les into play, and asks the other actors to put on the performance of their lives to stage a rescue worthy of an Oscar-winning blockbuster.

Ben Stiller has appeared in dozens and dozens of movies, but a Stiller-directed film is something of a rarity, thirteen years spanning the distance between The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder, the delirious Zoolander coming in the middle. And initially at least, it’s Zoolander to which this film bears closest comparison, Stiller’s Tugg Speedman echoing the model’s moody poses and almost total lack of brains. But the next film I thought of was Three Amigos, since this tale of actors-taken-for-real-fighters is surely a variation of the Martin/Chase/Short vehicle, only – given the unbelievable complications involved in rigging up the entire jungle with cameras – much more contrived. You could argue that Galaxy Quest is a better comparison still; whatever, it’s hard to argue that any of it adds up to a coherent, original whole or a cogent satire of either the movie business or movie star vanity.

Tropic Thunder is less an ensemble piece than a collection of star turns, a smorgasbord of bits and pieces; and inevitably, some parts are tastier than others. Robert Downey Jr. is simply brilliant, layering on the levels of character, making Sgt Osiris thoroughly believable while another believable character, blond bombshell Kirk Lazarus lies underneath. It’s a shame that Brandon T. Jackson is so wet as his genuinely black, drinks-flogging sparring partner, his rap-star masculinity predictably undermined by potential homosexuality.

Coogan and Baruchel are both underused, while McConaughey is occasionally funny but spends much of the film showcasing Tivo boxes and Nintendo Wiis. Jack Black takes a long time to do anything worthwhile but comes good in the end, while every second Nick Nolte spends on screen embarrasses the hell out of ‘comedian’ McBride.

Finally, the appearance of Tom Cruise as the grotesque Les Grossman is certainly a bold surprise, but in the main its impact comes through shock value rather than intrinsic humour. I may well warm to him and his funkly dancing on future viewings – or I may not. Bill Hader, as usual, hangs around in the background trying (and, as usual, failing) to catch some reflected glory.

Which leaves us with Stiller’s Tugg Speedman. Tugg’s adventures turn him into a panda-killer, then the tormented plaything of Tran, who makes him re-enact Simple Jack on a nightly basis for the compound. I like Stiller and found much of what he did pretty funny – especially the way he discards his adoptive child – but this statement has to be severely qualified. Firstly, because he’s so upstaged by Downey Jr.; secondly, because some of the comedy is so mean that labelling it as a satire on what actors will do for awards just doesn’t cut it as an excuse.

I am, of course, referring to Stiller’s portrayal of Jack and his ‘full retard’ conversation with Downey Jr. The dialogue is undeniably offensive and besides, hadn’t the issue already been comprehensively covered in Kate Winslet’s episode of Extras? You could also accuse Tropic Thunder of adding disrespect to Vietnam veterans to its list of outrages – though I think that’s a harder charge to make stick than the one of occasionally falling into lame parody, such as Stiller doing Brando in one of a number of nods to Apocalypse Now.

In fact, it’s obvious* that Tropic Thunder is aiming to be the Apocalypse Now of comedy movies. It doesn’t come off, though, despite a number of strong performances, Cruise’s memorable one and a big budget which allows for any number of pyrotechnics, helicopters and other stunts. Put simply, it’s just not funny enough often enough. And this is why, unlike Coppola’s masterpiece, I severely doubt Tropic Thunder will be particularly celebrated thirty years down the line.

NOTES: Not least because Stiller said so himself, here.

Broadcast News

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Serious-minded news producer Jane Craig hates the style-over-content journalism embodied in the likes of glib but handsome sports guy Tom Grunick. That is, at least, until they begin to work together. Meanwhile, brilliant reporter Aaron Altman carries a torch for Jane and a burning ambition to make it as an anchor, but he should be careful what he wishes for.

The world of serious TV news is being flooded by lightweight drivel, but some in the business are still willing to stand against the tide of infotainment. For example, there’s spiky producer Jane (Holly Hunter), who together with intelligent, neurotic reporter friend Aaron (Albert Brooks) rallies against rising star Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a charming but utterly vacuous sports reporter. However, when Tom is brought into the Washington bureau where Jane and Aaron ply their trade, Jane finds him increasingly interesting; firstly, when he’s asked to front an emergency broadcast about the bombing of a NATO base in Sicily, he – with Jane’s and, indirectly, Aaron’s help – presents the story flawlessly. Secondly, he also comes up with an emotional report on date rape which really brings him to the attention of the network heads, not least national anchor Bill Rorich (Jack Nicholson).

Jane finds herself falling for Tom despite her instincts, packing Lois Chiles’ statuesque Laura off to Alaska when she gets too close, while a jealous Aaron struggles with his feelings for Jane and his equally strong pride. Matters come to a head on the night of the Correspondents’ Dinner: Jane plans meticulously for her night of passion with Tom, while Aaron suffers a meltdown during his shot at presenting a routine weekend bulletin. And in the face of swingeing budget cuts at the station, the aftermath could prove life-changing for all three of them.

Though it’s tempting to describe the plot of Broadcast News as a typical love triangle, to do so is not particularly accurate: since Aaron loves Jane, Jane loves Tom, and Tom loves…Tom, it’s more of a love line than a triangle (Aaron has intense feelings about Tom, but they’re certainly not based on love). It may sound like the stuff of soap opera, but the film is lifted by a number of elements, not least the acting from the three leads which is consistently impressive.

In tandem with James L. Brooks’ sharp, funny script (“I say it here, it comes out there”), the trio give us three divergent personalities with great depth of character: Jane’s control freakery is contrasted with her aching – aggressive, even – need to be loved, and her relationship with Aaron – always saying the smart, snippy thing instead of the considerate thing – is fascinatingly balanced. Even the profoundly shallow (if that’s allowed) Tom has interesting nuances – his vanity is a result not of arrogance but of insecurity. These high quality characterisations are ably supported by the likes of Nicholson (fleeting but fabulous), Robert Prosky, Joan Cusack and Peter Hackes.

Well-acted characters, of course, are not the same as likeable, sympathetic characters, and it’s hard to deny that in essence Broadcast News is a tale of materially-comfortable yet endlessly self-pitying media professionals. Just as failing to cry didn’t soften Cameron Diaz up in The Holiday, it’s hard to feel too much for Jane’s solitary tears when she makes life so damn difficult for herself; and the same goes for Aaron, who would be quite cuddly if he wasn’t such a jerk.

As for Tom, he has women throwing themselves at him and a meteoric career path ahead, yet he’s troubled by a lack of integrity? No violins, please. Still, the impressive, credible execution of scenes such as Tom’s first broadcast and Aaron’s sweaty disaster compensates for bits which don’t come off so well, for example the prologue showing the protagonists as kids, which is an overly cutesy touch; or the cosy ‘seven years later’ epilogue which, since we’ve never really come to care for our leads, feels redundant. There are also things the film can’t help, such as how silly some of the hairstyles now look (Cusack comes off particularly badly), how chunky the videotapes are, and the slightly awkward (in retrospect) use of Libya’s ex-Colonel Gaddafi as America’s bad guy du jour.

Broadcast News is a difficult beast, a film whose quality of writing and performance is unquestionable, but also a film which left me feeling lukewarm towards the characters I should surely wish well or root for somewhere along the way. Perhaps, like having big hair or wearing shoulder pads, it was easier to empathise with dysfunctional high-achievers in the 80s without feeling too ridiculous.

NOTES: One final thing – I’ve not mentioned it in the review because I’ve not yet seen it, but I get the distinct impression that this movie lives in the shadow of Network, which I very much want to see.

For Your Consideration

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: The cast of little-heralded film Home For Purim are rocked by the news that at least one of their number has been mentioned in connection with Oscar nominations. Despite downplaying the buzz, the rumours have an ever-increasing effect on the actors’ behaviour and mental state as the time comes for names to be named.

If you have read the WFTB reviews of This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show (A Mighty Wind has gone AWOL for the time being), you won’t be surprised when I say I’m a big fan of Christopher Guest and am well aware of the familiar rhythms of his and Eugene Levy’s work, and the quirks of his trusted and much-used cast. For For Your Consideration the team have taken a different tack, forsaking documentary-style cinema verité and interviews with the protagonists for a more conventional exploration of the making of Home for Purim, the film-within-the-film.

The structure of For Your Consideration threatens to be complicated to explain, but Guest – as director of Purim, Jay Berman, and as director of the film proper – does a good job of delineating his characters. Star of the film is Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), an actress whose peak has come and gone without ever attracting the big time; in Home for Purim, she is the dying mother in the Pischer family, gathering together for a Jewish festival; her husband is played by Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer), a frustrated veteran not getting the attention he feels he deserves from agent Morty (Eugene Levy).

Their children are both doing their bit in the war effort, but whereas Sam, played by actor Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan) is a model son, daughter Rachel (Callie Webb (Parker Posey)) is a disruptive influence, bringing home a girlfriend to the feast. Despite this scandal, the family’s love is heart-warming enough for a Hollywood insider to see Oscar potential in the performances, initially for Marilyn but later for Victor and even Callie.

Naturally, the actors do their level best to conceal their delight; around them, however, the whirlwind threatens to spiral out of control, interest in Purim whipped up by – amongst others – eccentric publicist Corey Taft (John Michael Higgins), diaper heiress and dippy producer Whitney Taylor Brown (Jennifer Coolidge), Hollywood TV reporters Chuck and Cindy (Fred Willard and Jane Lynch) and a moneyman from the studios played by Ricky Gervais, who sensitively requests/demands the film be re-imagined as Home For Thanksgiving.

If this seems like a lot of people, it is, without even mentioning Bob Balaban and Michael McKean, the writers of Home for Purim who become ever more disgruntled with the way things are going. A total of thirteen people are featured on the DVD cover and this gives an effective picture of the film’s problems: with so many characters, very few actually get a chance to shine, with Guest, McKean and Lynch in particular reduced to very minor parts.

Of those who do grab the spotlight, Higgins’ publicist feels more like a caricature than a fully-rounded character, whilst Willard’s customary ignorance makes you wonder how Chuck ever got a job in television. Shearer and Posey are both very good, but the film really belongs to O’Hara: a gracefully fading diva at the film’s beginning, she gets caught up with the ‘buzz’ and involves herself in a desperate attempt to roll back the years as she courts publicity for the film and herself. Marilyn is a fascinating, funny and ultimately tragic exercise in the willingness of actors to have their vanity stroked, and even though she should know better she deserves her fleeting moment in the sun.

Guest’s films have traditionally been structured in terms of rehearsal and performance. In For Your Consideration, the first act deals with the production of Purim/Thanksgiving, the second the days leading up to the climactic moment of the film, the Oscar nominations. But the first act is so long, and the second so short and anti-climactic (I won’t give away why), that the film struggles to achieve any sense of cohesion and balance. This wouldn’t be a problem if the jokes were up to the usual Guest ensemble standard, but something about the ‘traditional’ shooting of the film appears to restrict them (the cast talking to reporters isn’t a particularly elegant device). There are decent jokes, of course, such as McKean’s thoughts on why you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water (“You’d have a wet, critically injured, baby”); for one reason or another, however, the illusion of spontaneity is nowhere near as strong as in other films. Also, I don’t know if it’s merely the presence of Gervais in the film, but the relationship between Victor and Morty is very reminiscent of the actor/agent partnership in Extras.

As a final thought, perhaps it’s not the style of For Your Consideration that rankles as much as the subject matter. In Waiting For Guffman and his other films, Guest presents us with a host of small-town eccentrics, just a little larger than life, who he ribs very gently; here, the mocking is less than affectionate and the audience struggles to find someone to empathise with, since Marilyn, Victor and the crazies around them do not seem to be drawn from real life at all.

As Robert Altman has already shown in The Player, it is much easier to satirise Hollywood by presenting its absurdities with a straight face, or even a scowling one: it helps vastly, too, if the Hollywood you present is one with plenty of genuine star quality (lovely though she may be, Claire Forlani doesn’t quite cut it). For Your Consideration is perfectly good fun, and all praise to Guest for shaking up his formula; but if he wanted to do things differently, his focus probably should have been trained in another direction than on his own profession.

And Now for Something Completely Different

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: The Monty Python troupe regale cinema audiences with a selection of favourite sketches from the first two series of their Flying Circus.

If you were fortunate enough to own a colour television set in Britain in 1969, you might have enjoyed the lunacy served up by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam in their show Monty Python’s Flying Circus in its full glory. If, however, you were one of the great majority who only saw TV in black and white, or lived outside of the country, Playboy bigwig Victor Lownes had something for you – a cinematic presentation of some of the best sketches from series one and two, recreated on film for the pleasure of Transatlantic audiences.

The world of Python may need some explanation to the uninitiated, especially to those who only know the later films. Well, the best way to find out is by watching, but essentially it’s a warped, silly world where Hell’s Grannies beat up innocent young men, where timid, dull accountants transmogrify into blackmailing TV show hosts, where huge cartoon cats destroy neighbourhoods and groups of suspiciously butch women re-enact battles by flinging themselves into mud.

First impressions of the film are not promising, however, because while the material is the same as the TV show, a number of things are immediately apparent: firstly, the film is made extremely cheaply, with minimal effort made to recreate locations and sets – Idle refers to a “low-budget movie like this” at one point. This drabness cannot but diminish the comedy, and it’s very apparent in sketches such as ‘Marriage Guidance Counsellor’ and ‘Nudge, Nudge’; where the original video was colourful and on TV the small sets looked intimate and authentic, the real locations used for the film are empty and uninspiring.

Secondly, the absence of a studio laughter track is initially unnerving; of course, Python historians will tell you that the early shows were received in almost complete silence anyway, but it feels unnatural for the sketches not to be punctuated by an audience reaction. Thirdly, a film consisting of sketches connected via semi-random links must by definition feel bitty and incohesive.

As to the material itself, it’s something of a mixed bag. Sketches which rely to any extent on obsolete aspects of English life – the city worker in the bowler hat, old cars, pre-decimal currency – obviously struggle for relevance, while the film also shows how outdated attitudes towards homosexuality (Chapman’s sexuality isn’t really a get-out), women and race now appear – it’s not a huge issue, but a few formerly commonplace phrases really stand out to a modern ear. Also, a number of sketches riff on television shows, an idea which made absolute sense for TV but falls flat on celluloid. Terry Gilliam’s animations intrigued me as a child, but nowadays I’m less struck by their surrealisms than how primitive they look; there are certainly too many animation sequences in the film as a whole.

On the other hand, about halfway through you get the ‘World’s Deadliest Joke’ sketch, an extended conceit with a hint of a plot, and from this point And Now… picks up the pace. ‘Dead Parrot’, surely the Bohemian Rhapsody of comedy sketches, segues into the deliriously silly ‘Lumberjack’ song, which is followed in turn by the fun ‘Dirty Fork’ sketch, where Jones, Palin, Idle and Cleese take turns to outdo each other whilst a mortified Chapman and dolly-bird-in-residence Carol Cleveland look on.

The film closes strongly too, with the stinging and ultimately morbid satire of ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’. Throughout, the highly-strung mannerisms of John Cleese make him the undoubted star of the show, with Palin a close-ish second; but all the cast are comfortable with their own material, and if skits like the double-vision mountaineers and self-defence against fruit aren’t quite as warm on film as they were on telly, they are still performed skilfully and raise a decent laugh.

Trends in both television and comedy move on, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus is currently out of vogue – while Life of Brian and Holy Grail continue to gain respect and new fans, the TV series is now seen as more miss than hit – and anyway, Spike Milligan got there first with Q5 (as the Pythons themselves admit). And Now For Something Completely Different doesn’t really do the job as a ‘best of’ compilation – Parrot Sketch Not Included will serve you better for that, since it contains the Ministry of Silly Walks and the Spanish Inquisition – and the lack of any money or cinematic flair makes this film a slightly cold experience. Nevertheless, the quality of the writing and performing ensure that it’s very rarely unfunny for more than a couple of seconds.