Tag Archives: 9/20

Carry On Cruising

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Wellington Crowther, Captain of the SS Happy Wanderer, finds his 10th anniversary cruise disrupted by the arrival of a new First Officer, Doctor, Chef and Steward. The holidaymakers are guaranteed to have a good time; whether the crew will survive the journey is another matter altogether.

The first Carry On in colour, Carry on Cruising is a surprisingly charming affair, largely because it sees Sid James playing against type. Sid is Capt Wellington Crowther, the ex-docker made good dismayed to find himself in charge of a rum bunch of officers new to the Happy Wanderer. Amongst the intake are superior First officer Marjoribanks (pronounced Marchbanks), played unctuously by Kenneth Williams; highly-strung Doctor Binns (Kenneth Connor); and gormless but cocky chef Haines (Lance Percival, something of an acquired taste), who is entirely suited for the job except for the violent seasickness he suffers from and the fact that he can’t cook.

In addition to the inevitable friction that arises between the crew, the film focuses on a small number of the ship’s travellers, namely Esma Cannon’s dotty old Miss Madderley, Ronnie Stevens as a perpetually drunk passenger who stays on board to drink the local booze whenever the ship winds up in port, and most of all blonde single girls Gladys Trimble and Florence Castle (Liz Fraser and Dilys Laye), out for a good time and, in Flo’s case at least, a suitable husband.

You might imagine that the standard Carry On rules apply and Sid will lust after one if not both of the girls; but whilst Flo does briefly imagine herself to be in love with the Captain, Sidney spurns her advances as he is old enough to be her father. If only the same happened in other films! It is left to Connor to do the wooing, and although he is his usual, weedy self, he is not particularly grating as he wears down Flo’s resistance.

Whilst Norman Hudis’ script is undoubtedly hit-and-miss, with the drunk and a colourless gym instructor both falling flat, when it hits the mark it can be very funny (a scene where Sid tries to psychoanalyse Ken but gets the tables turned on him springs to mind); and although there is the odd bit of innuendo and gratuitous undressing – nothing too naughty – it is good to note that both Fraser and Laye are given characters with more to do than look good and simper at the men.

Dilys Laye as the girl ready to fall at any man’s feet – especially after a few drinks – is especially impressive, and it is a shame she only made one more film, Carry On Spying, after this one. I particularly like her asking Crowther about the origin of his name: “Mother frightened by a boot?”

You never get the sense that the Happy Wanderer has really gone anywhere, and in a similar way the film never really goes on much of a journey, except for Dr Binn getting his woman. There is mention of Crowther going for a job on a Transatlantic route, but this doesn’t go far either, the film fizzling out with a 10th anniversary party for the Captain and the whole ship suffering the evils of Haines’ “International” cake. Carry On Cruising is by no means the funniest of the series, but it contains a good quota of laughs and is far from being the worst either. Good fun for those with a spare hour and a half on their hands and looking for a comedy to watch on cruise control.

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Emma

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Emma Woodhouse uses her privileged status to organise the lives of those around her; firstly approving the marriage of her governess to the widowed Mr Weston, then steering naïve Harriet Smith away from her humble suitor towards Mr Elton, the local vicar. Unfortunately, the scheme backfires when he declares his love to Emma instead; and her involvement in other social intrigues proves equally misjudged. Emma’s long-time friend Mr Knightley can only stand by and quietly despair.

With her governess (Greta Scacchi) newly married to Mr Weston (James Cosmo), the social world of Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) appears to be shrinking fast. She has care of her hypochondriac father (Denys Hawthorne), and fond acquaintance Mr Knightley (Jeremy Northam) is a regular visitor to Hartfield; but otherwise her days are spent administering charity to Mrs and Miss Bates (Phyllida Law and real-life daughter Sophie Thompson), the latter’s loquaciousness rendering her mum mute and Emma extremely impatient.

Little wonder, then, that she sees a project in gauche orphan Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), resolving to remove her affections from lowly farmer Robert Martin and transplant them to Mr Elton (Alan Cumming), who certainly likes hanging around the ladies. However, Elton amazes Emma by pressing himself on her and when she rebuffs him, he takes revenge by returning from Bath with an overbearing new wife (Juliet Stevenson).

Meanwhile, Mr Weston’s son Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), long the source of gossip and mystery, arrives in the county with scandalous tales of an affair concerning Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker), whom Emma considers a rather dull diversion. Emma believes she might be in love with Frank and then, when the feeling passes, considers him a match for poor, heartbroken Harriet; but she’s wrong about most of her headstrong assumptions, most of all the target of Knightley’s affections – and who might love him in return.

It’s frankly odious to keep harking back to the Beeb’s Pride and Prejudice whenever I get anywhere near a review of Austen (or even Austen-ish) material, but the fact is that it instantly became – and remains – the template for how to film the novels properly: long enough to do the plotlines justice and allow each character to take root and grow; expensive enough to convince in costumes and locations, both exterior and interior; and (most importantly) having an innate understanding of Austen, who enjoyed making fun of people’s foibles and weaknesses and their magnification in gossipy, localised ‘society’.

Beginning with a globe showing only Great Britain, it seems at first as though Douglas McGrath’s Emma is going to take all this on board; regrettably, although plenty of money has clearly been spent on the visuals – the countryside looks lovely, and there’s never cause to doubt the period details – it is only in this respect that the film truly succeeds.

The cast are game but Emma doesn’t make it easy for us to warm to their characters. In the title role, Paltrow copies Austen to the letter, in the sense that she portrays a thoughtless and rather spoilt woman whom no one will much like. Emma’s disregard for Harriet’s feelings is appalling, and although there is good in her, it takes a long while for us to see it, giving us time to grow tired of Paltrow’s dainty frame and impressive but over-pronounced accent. Jeremy Northam, meanwhile, lacks authority – and activity – as Knightley and the pair fail to generate much chemistry.

Collette, fresh from Muriel’s Wedding, seems to have been asked to do more of the same, only with an English accent; she’s very good at it, too, but Harriet’s clumsiness doesn’t sit well opposite Paltrow’s neat and petite manners. Elsewhere, McGregor is too glib and self-satisfied as Frank and is never a credible match for Emma; however, there’s much pleasure to be had in charming semi-comic performances from Cumming, Stevenson and especially Thompson as Miss Bates, cut to the quick by Emma’s most scathing put-down.

The inconsistency in performances is matched by the unsure tone of the narrative. McGrath seems unable to decide whether he’s filming an earnest period feature or a modern romantic comedy, and the thrust of the storytelling gets lost somewhere in the middle. The Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax subplot is teased for far too long, yet sidelined as soon as it arrives (except in how it affects Emma); and I still don’t know whether we’re meant to find Harriet ridiculous or pathetic in the true sense of the word.

The inevitable ball is staged well, but – sorry – doesn’t crackle with tension like those in the TV P&P, and more often than not the mood is dictated more by the tenor of the score (plinky when being comic, swelling and lush when romantic) than the actions or speeches of the actors. As a result, despite a few neat visual shortcuts, the film sometimes feels stodgy when it should bounce along on the springs of Austen’s wit. It doesn’t help that the film shoehorns in its own un-Austenian jokes – ‘Try not to kill my dogs’ is a passable punchline on its own merits, but it couldn’t sound more out of place in the world of Emma had Mr Spock beamed down to deliver it.

It’s perhaps unfair to Emma that I’ve re-watched it so close to seeing the perky, poppy Clueless for the first time. The story itself remains a thing of beauty and visually, so is this movie. On the other hand, I’ve never rated it as highly as other adaptations, for example Ang Lee’s stately Sense and Sensibility, because I’d frankly rather spend time with the Dashwoods (or the Bennets) than with Paltrow’s surly Miss Woodhouse. Not exactly badly done, Emma, but by no means a bullseye either.

Drop Dead Gorgeous

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Mount Rose, Minnesota is home to the area finals of the Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant, a contest celebrating its 50th anniversary. Gladys Leeman, Event organiser and former winner, is confident that neither perky poor girl Amber nor any of the other girls will obstruct her daughter Becky’s path to victory; and a sticky end awaits any of the contestants who look as though they might.

The beauty pageant has had a tough time of it this last twenty years. Always an essentially naff concept, by the start of the nineties beauty contests had practically disappeared from public view, vilified as outdated, sexist relics of a paternalistic age, only to come back coated with a new, critic-proof sheen of irony. It’s in this vein that Jann’s would-be documentary Drop Dead Gorgeous presents the contestants of the awkwardly-named American Teen Princess Pageant; but is it a Little Miss Sunshine-like swan or an ugly Carry On Girls-style duckling?

Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) is the local pageant organiser in the small farming town of Mount Rose, Minnesota. A winner of the contest herself back in the day, she now has a very nice life thanks to furniture-salesman husband Sam McMurray, and she fully intends to use the family’s influence to boost the chances of haughty gun-wielding daughter Becky (Denise Richards), by both picking and bribing the judges (Mike McShane, Matt Malloy and the film’s screenwriter Lona Williams).

Not that the competition is particularly fierce, in the main, since it includes chubby dog fanatic Tess Weinhaus; Molly Howard, adoptive daughter of enthusiastically pro-American Japanese parents (with a disgruntled natural child); toothy nymphette cheerleader Leslie Miller, complete with ubiquitous jock boyfriend; and Lisa Swenson, eccentric devotee of her brother’s New York drag act. But then there’s Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst); although she’s so poor she has to work in a funeral home and a canteen, she is both perky and talented, driven by an overwhelming desire to emulate Diane Sawyer that impresses her dipso mother (Ellen Barkin) and her mum’s friend Loretta (Allison Janney).

Amber is clearly a threat, so when ‘accidents’ start happening around the contestants – farm girl Tammy’s thresher explodes before she gets on stage, Amber’s admirer Brett gets shot in the head, the Atkins’ trailer blows up – suspicions are rife that things are rigged in Becky’s favour; suspicions more or less confirmed by Amber’s insanely difficult interview with the judges and Gladys’ refusal to let Amber on stage when her tap outfit – suspiciously – goes missing (luckily, Lisa steps into the breach).

It’s easy to invoke the name of Chris Guest at the mention of the word ‘mockumentary’, but to be absolutely fair to Drop Dead Gorgeous, it came out before his excellent Best In Show. Jann’s film is different in approach to Guest’s films, in any case, as while Guest’s actors inhabit the characters and let most of the jokes come spontaneously out of their mouths, the characters here are tightly-scripted, and each scene is engineered to deliver one particular joke.

And to be fair (again) the film features a decent sprinkling of funny moments, the height of the satire displayed in the anorexic state of the previous year’s winner, Mary Johanson (Alexandra Holden); but equally, there are bits that don’t work at all, and one of these is a supposed high point, after Amber has wowed the audience with her tap dancing. I have no theological concerns about Denise Richards dancing with a foam Jesus on a cross whilst singing You’re just too good to be true, but in execution the joke falls completely flat (Richards can’t sing, Jesus looks cheap, the crowd aren’t sufficiently shocked), and what should be outrageous comes over as tasteless for effect. The same is true later on when the film runs out of ideas and brings us mass vomiting in the state finals.

Perhaps one reason why the film doesn’t really work is that the young cast fail to stamp their personalities on their parts (there are too many contestants, too); and while Kirstie Alley works hard, the stand-out performances come from Malloy as the disturbingly keen judge John Dough and – of course – the brilliant Allison Janney, who guides Amber after her mother is confined to a wheelchair.

One more thing about the plot: the film sets up Gladys Leeman, her daughter, or both, as manipulative cheats, prepared to do anything to ensure Becky triumphs; and it is something of a disappointment to discover that all is exactly as it seems to be. I understand that making Amber either the shock winner, or the cynical genius behind the ‘accidents’ out to frame the Leemans, might have been a corny move (Bob Roberts?), but seeing the story play out completely straight is deflating – as is the extremely telegraphed nature of Becky’s post-win demise.

Furthermore, it’s a shame that when the film goes to great lengths to assert its documentary nature – the crew fall over into shot, meet up with a crew from Cops, and there are captions explaining the doctrine of non-interference – an intrusive soundtrack takes away from the movie’s otherwise naturalistic feel, often appearing out of nowhere and treading on actors’ lines.

Given the subject matter, it’s perhaps no surprise that Drop Dead Gorgeous comes across as broad and a little crass, and slightly inappropriate for a documentary format that favours subtler material. The cast could have done with a little more comic talent to free up the scenes, but this might also be a problem with the subject matter – beautiful and funny is a rare combination indeed. That said, Drop Dead Gorgeous raises enough laughs to pass a perfectly pleasant hour and a half, so long as you adjust your brain – not to ‘drop dead’, exactly, but to ‘slightly vacuous’.

Snakes on a Plane

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Young surfer dude Sean Jones is definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time when he stumbles across gangster Eddie Kim murdering a prosecutor in Hawaii. FBI hotshot Neville Flynn promises to protect Sean as he’s secretly transported on a domestic flight to Los Angeles, but he’s tested like never before when Eddie catches on and unleashes a cargo-load of hyperactive, venomous snakes on the flight and its unwitting passengers.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged – or if it isn’t, it damn well should be – that the internet is simultaneously the greatest and most horrendous invention of modern times. One of its more peculiar effects is that it allows for enormous amounts of instant feedback on almost any topic, often tongue-in-cheek feedback by tech-savvy youngsters that crusty old moneymen don’t quite know what to do with. Such was the furore over the mere name Snakes on a Plane that studio bosses were convinced not only to keep the once-working title but to up the ante on the film’s swearing, sex, violence and gore. All that, just for some corners of the web to react to the film’s release with ‘Is that all it is – snakes on a plane?’

To its credit, Snakes on a Plane gets cracking pretty quickly. Motorbike enthusiast Sean (Nathan Phillips) is hanging out in Honolulu when he finds himself face to face with a tortured prosecutor at the wrong end of mobster Eddie Kim’s (Byron Lawson) bad mood. In fleeing, Sean is spotted by Eddie and his henchmen, who instantly come to get him.

Luckily – and for reasons that are never explained – Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) is on the case and arrives in the nick of time to dispose of the immediate threat and convince Sean to testify in the City of Angels. As extra protection, Sean is given a decoy plane and the whole of first class to himself; but Eddie has spies everywhere and arranges to smuggle hundreds of snakes on board the plane, sprayed with pheromones to make them extra mad.

Hostess Claire’s (Julianna Margulies) last day on the job is made a nightmare by passengers annoyed at being bumped down to coach, including rapper and cleanliness obsessive Three G’s (Flex Alexander) and his bodyguard Troy (Kenan Thompson), but their venom is nothing compared to that of the snakes when they’re unleashed on the unsuspecting manifest. Armed with only a taser, sporks, his wits and a hotline to herpetologist Steven Price (Todd Luiso), Flynn must almost single-handedly keep the plane in the air, and the passengers alive, long enough to deliver Sean to LA and bring Kim to justice. When pilot Rick (David Koechner) doesn’t make it, the snakes take a back seat to the pressing issue of how they’re going to land.

The title-cum-pitch is one of the world’s great titles, of course. It is, however, a joke, an idea to have a good laugh about before keeping as an over-the-top climax or (more probably) ditching entirely. And this is where the overwhelming emphasis on internet chatter ruined the film; because by sticking slavishly to the idea of snakes on a plane, it also gets tied down to the formulaic and predictable boundaries of the action/disaster movie, only without much of a budget or – since nearly all the action takes place on the plane – room to manoeuvre.

Despite a few nice gags (including a good visual one in the galley), I’m not sure Snakes on a Plane would have worked as a parody, given that Airplane! covered all the ground there was to cover and Jackson’s appearance in National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon suggested comic acting was not his strength. But it certainly doesn’t have the weight of a full-blown action thriller (compared to, say, Air Force One), because snakes on a plane don’t really allow for that sort of material. What you do get is the usual assortment of passengers: sexed up newlyweds, a couple of boys travelling alone, a mother and baby, an obnoxious businessman (what’ll happen to him, I wonder?), and so on; many of the lesser ones get dispatched gruesomely after the snakes see them in not particularly exciting snake-o-vision (it’s green!).

Jackson and Margulies keep order and develop an unconvincing relationship whilst Phillips makes for an unsympathetic prize witness whom you don’t really care about. Neither does the film, actually, since the resolution of the Eddie Kim plot is left to the viewer’s imagination. Most of the snake attacks, created with good but manifestly artificial CGI effects, are noisy and confused, but the film’s real problem is that it lacks any ideas other than its big one.

Its idea of tension is to copy a scene from Jurassic Park, its idea of comedy is to have kids’ TV favourite Kenan Thompson fly the plane, and its idea of raunch is to slip in some obviously inserted scenes of boobs, gore and swearing (Jackson delivers the notorious multiple mother-loving line with no conviction at all). What it needed was some wit or imagination, some characterisation that would’ve made Samuel L. work harder, or a satisfyingly jarring twist. After all, you know there are going to be snakes on the plane, and it’s disappointing that the film works out exactly as you think it will.

Snakes on a Plane has to score quite well because it’s fun in a pulpy way and I had as much fun as anyone reading the message boards before it came out, particularly the talk of sequels like Badgers on a Bus, Ferrets on a Ferry, Gophers on a Gondola etc. However, the film is the victim of the hype generated for it by others, and it can’t be good that any movie is better-loved before anyone’s seen it than after its release. Great title, decent cast, and a fun video from Cobra Starship to wrap it all up: overall, however, a stunningly average film.

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.