Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

When it comes to movies, everyone has their share of guilty pleasures. These are movies that we realise are bad and so we feel guilty about watching them, but we enjoy them nonetheless. And often people will list their guilty pleasures in their blogs, but sadly I have to wonder if many times these are truly that person's guilty pleasures. After all, such lists often include films that are admittedly left of centre, but are good nonetheless. For instance, if I was going to make such a list, I might include Phantom of the Paradise, Motel Hell, and Phantasm, even though all three films are rated "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes. What I have chosen to do instead is to list what are truly my guilty pleasures, movies that are truly so bad that I feel guilty enjoying them. I do hope that your opinion of my critical judgement does not suffer from knowing that I like these movies...

The Silencers (1966): The Silencers was the first of the short lived series of Matt Helm movies featuring Dean Martin in the lead role. And even from an adaptation of the Matt Helm novel, it fails. Italian descended Dean Martin is horribly miscast as Matt Helm, who was fiercely proud of his Nordic heritage. And it should be pointed out that Matt Helm was not exactly a spy. Technically he was a counteragent for the United States government, the man whose job it was to neutralise or kill enemy agents. More simply put, he was a government assassin. Needless to say, the movie departs a good deal from the novel. The novel centres around Helm, sent to Mexico to extract an agent, who then finds himself involved trying to save a group of American scientists and Congressmen.

In the movie Matt Helm is more or less a straight forward secret agent. As to the plot of the movie, it centres on Helm's efforts to stop an evil organization called "Big O" from detonating an atomic bomb over New Mexico. Further distancing the film from the novel is its style. The Matt Helm novels are very gritty and realistic--they actually have more in common with hard boiled detective stories such as those of Philip Marlowe than the bigger than life adventures of James Bond. On the other hand, the movie is done in a tongue in cheek style.

From all appearances, The Silencers was contrived simply as a vehicle for Dean Martin to act like, well, Dean Martin. He womanises. He boozes. There are even a few of his songs. The rest of the cast are merely window dressing, from beautiful women like Stella Stevens to the villain Victor Buono. The plot is paper thin and many of gadgets and technology are simply downright silly. The film is even outright racist, with Victor Buono in yellowface.

Still, I cannot deny to enjoying this movie every time I see it. I have always loved Dean Martin. He is one of my favourite actors and singers of all time. And I have always loved to see him going through his schtick--boozing, womanising, and making easy going jokes. The silliness of much of what goes on only adds to my enjoyment. So much of the movie is so unbelievably silly that I cannot help but laugh. As a Matt Helm adaptation and a serious spy drama, The Silencers fails miserably. As an unintentional comedy, it succeeds admirably.

Casino Royale (1967): In the Sixties it was Charles K. Feldman who owned the rights to the first James Bond novel Casino Royale. Unfortunately, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman beat him to the punch with a 007 movie, namely Dr. No. Feldman went to EON Productions with the goal of a joint production of a movie based on the first 007 novel. Having experienced difficulties with Kevin McClory (the screenwriter, director, and producer who had collaborated with Fleming on various draughts for proposed Bond TV and movie projects) in the production of Thunderball, EON Productions was a bit nervous about collaborating with anyone else. For this reason, they turned Feldman down. This is how Feldman's adaptation of Casino Royale began.

Feldman believed he could not possibly compete with Broccoli and Saltzman's series of James Bond movies, so he hit upon the idea of spoofing 007. Sadly, the production would be troubled from the beginning. Peter Sellers was cast as Evelyn Tremble (the poor schmuck who was assigned to impersonate Bond), and Sellers took it in his head that he wanted the movie to have a more serious tone. Sellers would pressure for rewrites on a screenplay that had already been written by three men. In the end, Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, John Law, Wolf Mankowitz, Michael Sayers, Terry Southern, and Billy Wilder would all contribute to the screenplay. For that matter, the movie would have no less than five different directors: Val Guest, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish.

The movie Casino Royale departs from the novel in many ways beyond being a spoof. In fact, only Bond's card game against Le Chiffre in the Casino Royale is retained from the book, although in the movie it is actually Evelyn Tremble who plays against him and not Bond (the genuine article being played by David Niven). As to the movie's plot, putting it politely it is a mess. Written by eight different writers, the movie is wildly uneven, with some rather dramatic shifts in style and tone. At times the humour also seems a bit scattershot and haphazard. Some jokes are uprorious. Others fall flat on their face.

Still, I find Casino Royale to be a very fun movie. Uneven it may be, the movie does have its share of golden moments. In many way the movie acts quite effectively as a commentary on the whole spy craze that was taking place at that time. And many of the performances are actually quite good. David Niven is sterling as always as the one, the only, the original James Bond. And Woody Allen Allen is not a mere parody of the villains typical to the official Bond franchise, but a demonstration that ultimately such megalomaniacs are merely psychologically and sexually frustrated losers. Casino Royale is not a great film. I won't even say it's a good one. But it is fun movie.

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987): There are many who write this off as merely another slasher film, particularly since it is a sequel to the atrocious Prom Night. That having been said, beyond its name, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is absolutely no relation to Prom Night. And it is hardly a slasher film. The movie centres around a prom queen (the Mary Lou of the title) murdered in the Fifties who returns to her old high school in 1987 to exact revenge. In this respect is is very derivative, drawing not only upon Carrie and The Exorcist, but Nightmare on Elm Street as well. And I must confess the movie does tend to give out in the end, with a rather standard ending that is a let down. But up to that point it is one fun ride.

Derivative it may be, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is incredibly inventive in the way it uses the material from its various sources. The movie features some truly creative horror scenes, and it has a great sense of the Grand Guignol. Wendy Lyon, who plays the innocent teen who becomes possessed by Mary Lou's ghost, give a great performance, easily slipping between teenage innocence and Mary Lou's controlled evil. The movie moves at a good pace and it has a very well developed plot, offering more exposition than the average horror film. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II has always received bad reviews, but it should not. It is one of my few guilty pleasures I can truly say is good.

Hudson Hawk (1991): When it was first released, Hudson Hawk received horrible reviews. In fact, it still receives horrible reviews. Bruce Willis plays Hudson Hawk, a master cat burglar who times his heists by signing songs, has just been released from prison and no intention of going back. Unfortunately for Hawk, he finds himself wrapped up in a truly Bondian plot. If Hudson Hawk received some truly atrocious reviews, it may well have been because of the absurdity of it all. The movie features clockwork technology of the sort seen in Our Man Flint, and makes free use of a mixture of mysterious history, secret societies, and conspiracy theories. And the whole thing climaxes in a remote castle. What is more, the film makes free use of surreal humour, complete with cartoon-style slapstick and sound effects. For many critics there can be no doubt that this was all too much.

Now from my standpoint, I must admit that there are times when the film meanders, with characters sometimes going off in pointless directions. And the film can at times be confusing. It is also rather uneven, with some of jokes falling flat. That having been said, Hudson Hawk has a wonderfully over the top quality that I can't help but love. While there is much about the film that doesn't work, there is much about it which does. In fact, it comes off as a wonderful cross between a Sixties spy spoof and a Thirties screwball comedy, with quite a bit of irreverence thrown in for good measure. If critics did not get Hudson Hawk, then perhaps it is because they took it as a serious attempt at an action movie than what it really is: a perfect piece of high camp. Not very good in some ways, but very enjoyable.

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995): Most reviews I read of Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight either said it was a movie made for fifteen year old boys, that it was a tad dull, or both. I cannot deny that fifteen year old boys would love the movie. Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight was not based on any story from the classic E. C. Comics--the screenplay is wholly original--but the story that unfolds is truly in the spirit of the comics. It is unabashedly gory and possessed of its own strict code of morality, just like the classic E.C. stories.

Indeed, while I will admit that the movie can move slow at times, it has a whole lot going for it, particularly a very original premise and its very own mythology. Quite simply, it revolves around a artefact called the Key (as in the Key to the gates of Hell) which for millennia has been guarded by a series of Demon Knights. It seems that to keep the Key from falling into the wrong hands, God arranged to have the Key filled with the blood of Jesus and then guarded by the Demon Knight. This takes us to the present day American West. The latest Demon Knight, Frank Brayker, is old and on his last legs. Worse yet, he is being pursued by the Collector, a high level demon charged with getting the key. Brayker must appoint his successor, who turns out to be a young thief named Jeryline (played by a young Jada Pinkett Smith), and turn the Key over her while keeping it out of the Collector's hands.

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight benefits not only from a wonderfully complex mythology, but from some very frightening scenes and some great action sequences. And for those who love gore, there is plenty of gore to be had. Jada Pinkett Smith gives a sincere performance, and does quite as an action hero. In all, the movie feels what it might have been like had E.C. Comics decided to issue a superhero title, but one crossed with Tales from the Crypt. This is a movie that fifteen year old boys would enjoy. But I think it is also a fun film that horror fans of any age would enjoy as well.

The Last Legion (2007): Okay, the history portrayed in The Last Legion is about as far off the mark as one can get. And the movie is admittedly made on the cheap. The performances range from the fairly good (Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley) to the simply awful. And I have to admit that the script can be rather goofy at times.

Still, for me The Last Legion works. Goofy and silly it may be. The acting may not always be the best and the direction can be workmanlike, but ultimately it works as a good, old fashioned, Saturday matinee movie. It reminds me of those sword and sandal movies Hollywood and Italy churned out by the scores in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It has its fair share of exciting fight scenes. And it knows when not to take itself too seriously (it is a lot more fun than the somewhat staid King Arthur). And where else will one get to see the sexy and beautiful Aishwarya Rai kick arse?

Well, there you have it. My list of five guilty pleasures. I hope that you have not lost respect for me now and that you will still pay some attention to my film reviews. I can promise you this. My tastes have not grown so bad that now I now count John Hughes as one of my favourite directors (now there's a man whose movies may be guilty, but they're hardly pleasures)....


Jim Marquis said...

I'll have to check out The Last Legion. I actually liked King Arthur quite a bit, mostly because it actually got into the Roman-British stuff...

I think it's hard to define what constitutes a "guilty pleasure". For example, I felt guilty loving Peter Jackson's outrageous zombie film Dead Alive but I couldn't help it, it was so outrageous.

Unknown said...

I had fun with The Last Legion. It wasn't exactly good but I did love the Roman aspect of the story.

And I too loved King Arthur. Not quite sure why that film is so disliked.

Row Three

dino martin peters said...

Mr. Canote, so so sorry that it took us so long to find your remarkable reflections on our Dino playin' Matt Helm in "The Silencers." It's crystal clear that you are one sold out dude to Dino! Know that your wise words are bein' shared this day with all the pallies gathered 'round ilovedinomartin.