Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

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As I live and breathe. Grown up father Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his three children get some help from Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) when the bank closes in on their home where his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps out following the death of Michael’s wife a year earlier … Cleaning is not a spectator sport. Perhaps it was inevitable that following the successful transposing of the classic film into musical theatre that Disney would go back to the toybox and raid one of their most significant creations, a live-animation hybrid that lingers long in the imagination and the heart. With songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman and set in ‘The Great Slump’ which we presume is sometime in the Thirties, this is a combination of race against time and treasure hunt, as the shares certificate is in the place least likely to be found – or the most obvious, if you know anything about movies/kites. There is a highly unlikely romance between Jane and Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary is rather astringent and inconsistent, the dour interior and visual designs lack the antique spark of the original and there are real longeurs in between the fantasy sequences. Breaking the contract with the audience, there is jeopardy in these, featuring a kidnapping that harkens back to The 101 Dalmatians or The Aristocats. You might recognise Willie the Operatic Whale in ‘The Royal Doulton Music Hall’ but there seems to be a real disconnect with the story and some diversionary tactics – Lin-Manuel Miranda has a speechifying song part in ‘A Book is Not the Cover’ that could be out of his own Hamilton. Meryl Streep shows up as Mary’s foreign cousin and has an upside down song (‘Turning Turtle’) which has little to do with anything. It’s odd that the true heart of the original only starts to be suggested in the finale, a coda to the action that visually resonates and practically pops perfectly off the screen – at last. Directed as well as he directs everything else by Rob Marshall, who adapted with David Magee and John DeLuca, at least this isn’t a remake and James Corden isn’t in it but Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke are. Everything is possible, even the impossible

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Vice (2018)

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How does a man go on to become who he is? Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is responding to 9/11 with other White House officials. We flash back and forth to his drunken antics as a young man, getting kicked out of Yale, his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) setting him on the straight and narrow when he’s a drunken linesman and then getting into Washington out of Wisconsin U as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and seeing everything close up and personal during the Nixon era. Rumsfeld’s abrasiveness gets them distanced from the office, where Cheney overhears the President discussing the secret bombing of Cambodia with Kissinger (Kirk Bovill). His father in law appears to murder his mother in law (never investigated) and Cheney and Lynne form a tighter family unit. He becomes Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) while Rumsfeld is Secretary of Defence and he is introduced by Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacob) to the Unitary Executive Theory. He has his first coronary while running to represent Wyoming and Lynne campaigns for his seat in the House of Representatives. He then becomes Secretary of Defence under George H. Bush during the Gulf War. When younger daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out, he resigns to prevent media scrutiny. He is CEO at Halliburton when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks him to be his running mate in 2000 but he demurs and says he’ll help select that individual. But when he satisfies himself that Bush Jr. is incompetent he gets him to promise that mundane issues like energy and foreign policy be left to him and he accepts the role and sets up offices in every possible executive area … He would be a dedicated and humble servant to power. How is it that some of the most penetrating films about politics have been made by comedy auteur Adam McKay? Is this the only way we can take our reality nowadays? Perhaps. This freewheeling exercise in postmodernism is incredibly formally inventive, audacious even, and the film actually stops and the credits roll for the first time at 47 minutes. And then we kickstart into the real story, once again, back to 9/11 and the film’s narrator (a great joke, by the way) asks us why on earth was Cheney having a private talk with his lawyer David Addington (Don McManus) in the middle of this unprecedented act of terror? Amid the family dramas, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror, Halliburton’s involvement, the Crash,and everything else that has beset the US since that date, Cheney was the real power behind the White House controlling everything, even the terms of public discourse – ‘global warming’ became ‘climate change’, and so on. Sometimes the synoptic approach is genuinely funny, sometimes it feels too episodic. The film is all about heart – heart attacks, a heart transplant, the heart of power and family. Cheney’s final monologue tells us what we already know and Bale offers a robust picture of a seemingly bland man pummeled into unchecked power by an ambitious wife who himself becomes an untameable and unstoppable juggernaut, he’s everywhere, all of the time, at every formative event in recent Republican Party history. It’s a jigsaw puzzle moving backwards and forwards through the decades that pieces together how one person’s worldview came to predominate in the culture. Irreverent, entertaining and fairly shocking, this will make you laugh and hurl, sometimes simultaneously. Vice is the word. You have to remember that if you have power people will try to take it away from you – always

The Natural (1984)

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I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

Tormented (1960)

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No one will ever have you! Jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) lives on the beach in Cape Cod and is preparing to marry Meg Hubbard (Lugene Sanders) when old flame Vi Mason (Juli Reding) turns up to stop him and falls to her death from the local lighthouse when he refuses to lend her a hand as the railing breaks.  Wet footprints turn up on his mat, a hand reaches out to him, Vi’s voice haunts him and he starts behaving strangely particularly in front of Meg’s little sister Sandy (Susan Gordon).  Blind landlady Mrs Ellis (Lillian Adams) explains to him that similarly supernatural stuff happened when someone else died in the area. Then the beatnik ferry captain Nick (Joe Turkel)  who took Vi to the island to see Tom appears and starts getting suspicious that she never returned particularly when wedding bells are in the air … I’m going to live my life again and stop running. With a pedigree crew – director Bert I. Gordon co-wrote with regular collaborator George Worthing Yates – who did the screenplays for some great pirate movies and sci fis including Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, which starred Hugh Marlowe, frequently mistaken for Richard Carlson – you’d be expecting a class act. And it’s a good story hampered by a minuscule budget which gives off a different kind of aroma. The effects are hilarious – particularly good is some woman’s hand entering frame when Tom is in young Sandy’s company and he hits it and runs off.  Sandy sees nothing, of course. My favourite moment is when Vi’s disembodied head appears and Tom reaches out and enjoys a tussle with a blonde wig which he then wraps in paper and throws down a step only to have it picked up by his blackmailer and opens it only to find dead flowers. Despite Carlson’s character mutating into a murderous beast and his ex spinning a Monroe-esque vibe, and the hilarious hey-daddy-o exchanges with the beatnik boatman (whom you’ll recognise as Lloyd the bartender in The Shining), by far the most complex performance comes from young Gordon (the director’s wonderfully talented daughter). The ending is satisfying indeed if you like really proper ghost stories. However if you think you’re going to hear some decent jazz, well, it’s hardly a priority in a camp outing such as this. This was Sanders’ last film in a strangely brief career.  She’s a perfume, she’s a footprint, she’s a hand, she’s a space in a picture

Only the Valiant (1951)

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Aka Fort Invincible. Plugged up the pass just like a cork in a bottle.  Following the Civil War in New Mexico when a vital fort guarding a mountain pass is threatened by gathering Apaches, dour West Point Captain Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) picks the most disposable bunch of malcontents and psychos to hold out until reinforcements arrive, whereupon various personal animosities bring them closer to killing him than the enemy as the Apaches cut off the water supply and they turn on each other … It’d be just as easy if the whole patrol committed suicide in there.  This tough frontier story is mainly of interest nowadays perhaps for the presence of Barbara Payton, a cult figure whose short sharp shock of a career was assisted by being involved with this film’s producer William Cagney before she went sex-mad and off the rails. Her role is mostly confined to the opening segments when her putative husband Holloway (Gig Young) rides out to his death, and she wrongly blames Lance. However it’s a really interesting piece of work that’s quite brutal in both theme and execution. Adapted by Edmund H. North and Harry Brown from a novel by Charles Marquis Warren (he would go on to become a director and created Rawhide for TV), the sense of a Fordian world (Fort Apache) is enhanced by the presence of Ward Bond, playing a seriously drunken Irish soldier always cadging people’s canteens. The reason for your presence on this patrol won’t be carried on any record book, Peck declares as he assembles his equivalent of The Dirty Dozen. There’s an amazing fistfight between two warring soldiers in front of their Indian assailants who whoop and jeer as if it’s a cockfight;  there is an explosive start to the final sequence; and the Gatling gun is introduced as a revolutionary way to cut down on soldier numbers when the cavalry finally come calling. More than a cult item after all, and while the mostly studio-bound production is sometimes hampered by odd interactions between the principals, there is striking photography and the ratcheting levels of tension are expertly maintained from the get-go. Even if Peck didn’t like this, he’s outstanding as the commander who eventually gets the respect of his extraordinarily treacherous motley crew. Watching these guys get picked off is quite the thrill. Directed by Gordon Douglas. You who know all things know nothing

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

Anything (2017)

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You don’t want to live in Hollywood. Struggling to cope with the death of his wife and following his own suicide attempt, Mississippi widower Early Landry (John Carroll Lynch) moves to Los Angeles to be near his sister Laurette (Maura Tierney) who works in development at Sony and lives in Brentwood with her wheelchair bound husband Larry (Bradley Wayne James)  and teenage son Jack (Tanner Buchanan). A stranger in the city, Early endures the dinner party from hell when a widow (Bonnie McNeil) says she can’t stop thinking about her dead husband. His life is changed forever when he gets a place of his own in Hollywood and grows close to his transgender prostitute neighbour Freda (Matt Bomer) and experiences a different kind of love in a ramshackle building where everyone’s got their own problems … When I first got here I had a pulse. That and a desire to die. Practically an essay in kindness and intersectionality, this very contemporary mood piece has its origins in a 2007 stage play written and directed by Timothy McNeil who does the main duties here. With beautiful impressionistic handheld cinematography by James Laxton (who works a lot with Barry Jenkins) we see downtown LA as Early gets to experience it:  shopping at Ralph’s, eating at Canters, hiking in the hills, stopping at the burger stand. These interludes and montages disguise the fact that most of the action takes place in Early’s new home. His interactions with his neighbours including songwriter Brianna (Margot Bingham) and her junkie boyfriend David (Michah Hauptman) are blunted with alcohol and he finally sees in these marginal people echoes of his own life and its limitations following a happy 26 year-long marriage.  Lynch is nothing if not an unconventional romantic lead – as Brianna says, like Andy Griffith’s sadder brother.  He imbues this supposedly simple man with incredible complexity and warmth. (Let us not forget Lynch is a fine director too, having helmed Harry Dean Stanton’s last film, Lucky). The abortive attempt to introduce Freda at a dinner party with Laurette and family is grindingly difficult and ends in tears:  rather fantastically, everyone behaves just as you’d expect but the writing it so good and lacking in crude stereotypes you’d expect elsewhere. This is all about pain and lack of empathy. Bomer is superb as the beautiful prostitute who cannot believe her feelings for this tightie Southern whitey and she endures the horrors of detoxing when Early decides they’ve got to quit their respective demons.  She’s a mess of feelings and conflicts with all sorts of arresting ideas and lines and a desire to change her life, it’s just that this relationship was definitely not on her agenda. It’s a sweet romantic drama with rough corners about acceptance and making the best of what and who you’ve got. In this small scale but rewarding film we are reminded that love and friendship find a way, no matter what we do to get in the way. In spite of all your love letters and your stars you really fucking hate me

Times Square (1980)

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We are having our own renaissance. We don’t need anti-depressants, we need your understanding. Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) is a Brooklyn runaway and street musician constantly hassled by the New York City cops and when she fakes a fit they dispatch her to a psych ward for some scans because there doesn’t seem to be anything really wrong with her. Pam Pearl (Trini Alvarado) is a dreamy kid who wants to escape her overbearing politico father (Peter Coffield) the wonder boy at the mayor’s office and  she writes to a late night DJ Johnny Laguardia (Tim Curry) as Zombie Girl. She winds up in the same hospital room as Nicky and they form an uneasy friendship. Nicky is convinced that Pam’s poems could help her with her music and they run away, taking refuge in an abandoned warehouse on the Hudson and working at a strip club (with their clothes on). Nicky writes music and their story as The Sleez Sisters is covered by Johnny as they grow an army of teen girl fans … A new iconoclast has come to save us – it’s The Sleez Sisters! A Thelma and Louise for teens, this is the soundtrack of my young life – starting with Roxy Music’s Same Old Scene and featuring everything from Gary Numan’s Down in the Park to Patti Smith’s Pissing in the Street, it’s a hugely sympathetic, fascinating time capsule of the Times Square Renaissance when it was apparently safe to be a girl on the street and Hard Times, Oklahoma Crude and The Onion Field were playing in the local fleapit. There is a fairytale fantasy quality to the setting and this mismatched pair’s adventure as they tear through the city and recognise each other’s characters as they truly are – I’m brave, you’re pretty, declares Nicky. She is so on it, it’s not true. And she says what everyone feels when they’re young:  I don’t expect to live past twenty-one that’s why I’ve gotta jam it all in now. Her Jaggeresque affect is emphasised on several levels – her appearance, her cockiness, and the line, This is for Brian Jones and all the dinosaurs that disappeared as well as the blond guitarist who backs her onstage. Johnson gives a towering performance as the husky-voiced freak destined to be a frontwoman in a band; and Alvarado is immensely appealing as the rich girl who needs to break free; while Curry is definitely the sideshow, offering pithy comments as he narrates their runaway journey with all the astonishment and empathy he can muster as someone keen to up his 4AM listenership as well as feeling some adult concern for a troubled starstruck kid who’s probably off her meds. When the girls have got what they need from each other their response to the schism is radically different and it’s moving.  They are both artists seeking an outlet for their expressivity but feel the limits of their age – 16 and 13 respectively. When they break free, you feel nothing will ever stop them – they are so brave in comparison with the adults who surround them. There is a father-daughter issue in the film and that scene of Aristotelian recognition when David sees Pam in the Cleo Club could have been horrible but it works okay.  Irony is writ large in the humorous use of I Wanna Be Sedated banging from the boombox Nicky totes around the hospital prior to the girls’ escape. There are lots of incidental pleasures in this prototypical essay on the culture wars – Elizabeth Pena in the opening scene; trying to spot author Billy Mernit as one of the band The Blondells (he’s written a great book on Hollywood romcoms); figuring out that the birthdate for Alvarado’s character is the actress’s own (it’s on the bus advert). And let’s not overstate the impact of the best soundtrack of any film of the Eighties, produced by David Johansen, who duets with Johnson. The Manic Street Preachers covered her song, Damn Dog. What a talent Johnson was but the producer Robert Stigwood who apparently promised much for her did not turn up the goods and she has completely disappeared off our radar. Written by the film critic, songwriter and King of Marvin Gardens scribe Jacob Brackman from a story by the director who has done so much to popularise disc jockeys in cinema, Mr Allan Moyle: may he take a bow for being so good to his female fan club by making this because running away and living a punk rock life never seemed like a great idea until this came out with its energy and spit and fury.  What is he telling us? That the amazing music you listen to is never quite as important as the music you hear within. All together now, Spic nigger faggot bum – Your daughter is one!

The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough