Tag Archives: Helen Mirren

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980)

fiendish

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Peter Sellers’ last movie.

Fu Manchu (Peter Sellers) is a 168-year-old man, who on his birthday must drink a elixir vitae in order to remain youthful and alive. When one of his servants (Burt Kwouk) brings in the formula his shirt sleeve catches fire from all of Fu’s birthday candles and it causes the servant to use the elixir to put the flames on his sleeve out. This forces Fu to have his henchmen go on a international crime spree to find the necessary ingredients to create a new youthful formula for him to drink. After one of Fu’s men steals a diamond in an exhibit it catches the attention of Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Roger Avery (David Tomlinson) who then calls in two F.B.I. agents (Sid Caesar, Steve Franken) to help him on the case. They also visit the aging Nyland Smith (Peter Sellers) who is a former adversary to Fu and knows his traits well, but Nyland has become senile and eccentric. They also use the services of Alice (Helen Mirren) an undercover police detective who masquerades as the Queen, which they feel Fu’s men will try to kidnap, but when Alice gets kidnapped she falls-in-love with Fu and agrees to help him in his crimes.

This marked Peter Sellers last film and for all purposes it may well be the worst one he was in. He was just coming off high praise for his performance in the critically acclaimed Being There, but instead of using his career resurgence to find more highbrow fare he instead reverted back to his old ways of campy comedy. During the early 70’s, when he was in a lot of duds, his excuse was that he was doing it only for the money, but in this case I’m not sure of his reasoning. In any event it’s a train wreck from the first frame to the last.

Initially he was going to team-up with director Richard Quine as the two had worked together two years earlier in The Prisoner of Zenda, but they had a falling-out before production even began. Piers Haggard was then brought in to take Quine’s place, but he became horrified to learn that Sellers had taken it upon himself to rewrite the script turning it from a plot driven story into a cheap gag-a-minute stuff that didn’t seem to go anywhere. Haggard, despite Sellers objections, tried to turn the screenplay back to what it was, or at least in Haggard’s words, ‘give it something that resembled a beginning-middle-and-end’, but his attempts were futile and the whole thing becomes one, long misguided farce that goes nowhere and lacks any interesting elements.

A lot of the humor is lame and includes Nyland having falling-in-love with his lawn mower, which he takes with him everywhere even when he’s inside people’s homes. One segment has him ‘mowing’ the carpet of the inspector’s office, which is kind of funny, but then it cuts to a long shot where we see no damage to the carpet, so what’s the point of doing the gag if there’s no visual payoff? The bit where Nyland turns his country home into a flying machine had potential, but the abysmal special effects ruin it.

Helen Mirren almost saves it with her excellent performance and I enjoyed David Tomlinson in his last film, who shows more energy than the rest of the cast. Sellers though seems tired and worn-out and his acting lacks the required energy. In some ways he looks quite healthy here including showing a nice tan when he’s in the Nyland role, but this actually hurts the characterization as Nyland is supposed to be old and elderly, but despite his gray hair he really doesn’t look it. Peter’s two good moments comes when he’s in the Fu role and breathing heavily as he watches Helen strip, the bit at the end where he becomes a rock star is impressive and he seems to be singing in a completely different voice. If it was dubbed then it takes away from it, but if he was using his real voice then he deserves credit as it certainly didn’t sound like any of the other accents he had ever used in his career.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: August 8, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Piers Haggard (Peter Sellers uncredited)

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

Excalibur (1981)

excalibur 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: The sword is magical.

The mystical sword named Excalibur gets cast into a stone by Uther (Gabriel Byrne) and the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) proclaims that the next man to be able to remove it will become the King of England. Many try and fail, but years later it is Uther’s illegitimate son Arthur (Nigel Terry) who is able to do it.  Although very young he is able to create the Kingdom of Camelot with the help of Merlin. He also marries Guenevere (Cheri Lunghi) who has an affair with his most trusted knight Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and then his half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) steals away Merlin’s powers and uses them to try and destroy the kingdom.

The story is based on the book by Thomas Malory who supposedly wrote it while he was incarcerated. Although this film is considered a classic now it was not as well received when it was first released. Critic Roger Ebert called it ‘a mess’ and the great Pauline Kael described the dialogue as being ‘atrocious’. For me I found it long, but enjoyable even though I’m not crazy for this type of genre.

One of the things that I didn’t particularly care for, or find all that exciting were the battle scenes. Watching men roll around in the mud with their swords doesn’t come off as too interesting when compared to gun battles. There were also too many of them and all seemed too similar to the others with the final one ruined by having it shrouded in fog. In reality the knight’s armor was also always made by either steel or iron, but for this film they created it out of aluminum, which made it appear too flimsy and clanky. It is also given a bright glow, which was intentional, but I didn’t care for it.

What I did enjoy was the atmosphere particularly when they go off to search for the grail. The scene where the men approach an area that has dead bodies hanging from the trees and a crow sitting on a branch biting off one of the corpses’ eyeballs, which apparently took several days of continuously rolling the camera before the bird did what they wanted, is in one of the best moments in the film. I also liked the magical glow given off by Camelot when it is seen from a distance, but I would’ve liked a shot of the magical kingdom seen up close, which never occurs and was probably due to budgetary restraints, but would’ve been cool.

The performances are all-around excellent. Terry does quite well in the lead playing Arthur at different stages of his life, but I was most impressed at the way he came off as convincingly being only 19 at the beginning even though he was really already 35. Clay, who plays Lancelot, also looks like he was barely over 20 when in reality he was 34. Williamson is amusing as Merlin and Mirren is effectively evil as the villainess. This is also a great chance to see Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson in some early roles.

The movie moves along briskly and is overall entertaining although some the scene transitions and dramatic arcs were awkward. Those that are into medieval fantasy will clearly enjoy it more.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: April 10, 1981

Runtime: 2Hours 20Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Boorman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

O Lucky Man! (1973)

o lucky man

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: A young man’s journey.

Mick (Malcolm McDowell) is a wide-eyed young man entering into the adult world and full of Horatio Alger-like illusions of working real hard and becoming insanely rich while doing it. His first job is as a coffee salesman where he is told that ‘the-sky’s-the-limit’ in regards to his earning potential, so with the carrot-on-the-string firmly in place he dives into it, but ultimately finds little to show for it. He then meets up with a rich tycoon ( Ralph Richardson) and essentially becomes the man’s lapdog assistant only to learn that this doesn’t work either. After spending time in jail he comes back out into the world as a ‘reformed’ man extoling on the idealistic virtues of humbleness only to again meet with aversion and failure.

The film, which is based on an original idea by McDowell, is essentially a broad look at society’s many socio-economic class levels and how easy it is to fall down it, but hard to move up. Some consider Glengarry Glen Ross to be the bleakest indictment on the sales profession, but having worked in the business when I was like the character here first getting out into the working world I can say that this one is even more searing and accurate.

On a wider scope the film successfully works as a critical statement on capitalism, which due to the purveying political climate of the day most American audiences are just now ready to catch up to. Mick’s journey is more his eventual disillusionment as he slowly realizes that being a ‘go-getter’ and having a ‘good attitude’ isn’t going to be enough as the system is rigged so that the individual is more likely to lose than win and can’t really function otherwise. His efforts then become exploited while helping to make someone else richer as he tolls in the bottom rung doing lateral moves into areas that have potential promise, but only produce the same results.

Although the character’s perpetual delusions of grandeur become a bit annoying McDowell plays the part well. The intent was for him to play against type from the one that he did just previously in A Clockwork Orange by portraying someone who is clean-cut, respectful and obedient, but with all the transitions that the character goes through and at one point even having him strapped to a chair in much the same way that he was in the Kubrick film it eventually comes off more like a continuation of that part than a completely different one.

The fun of watching the film is seeing the supporting cast playing dual roles. Arthur Lowe is great especially in the part where he gets put into heavy black make-up to play the leader of a fictitious foreign nation. Rachel Roberts is good too with the erotic scene where she transfers coffee from her mouth into McDowell’s and then later as a poor woman who commits suicide, which has a foreboding quality to it since Roberts ended up doing the same thing five years later in real-life.

Fans of Helen Mirren will enjoy seeing her when she was much younger and playing the part of a rebellious daughter. I also liked the way Alan Price and his band fits into the film. They do the movie’s soundtrack, which is quite good, but instead of having their music played over the action the movie cuts away and captures them doing their renditions inside a sound studio, which in any other case would be considered distracting, but here helps accentuate the film’s  already cerebral tone. It’s also amusing how the band ends up becoming a part of the story as the McDowell character almost gets hit by their van, which allows the opportunity for Price to say the film’s best line “Are we suing you, or are you suing us?”

The film is full of many surreal and original moments and is so consistently inventive that you hardly notice its three hour runtime. However, to me the best part about it is the way it attacks and criticizes the status quo, which is something that no Hollywood movie ever does.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: March 26, 1973

Runtime: 2Hours 58Minutes

Rated R

Director: Lindsay Anderson

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube