The Ghost of Peter Sellers


A comic genius lost at sea.

(2018) Documentary (1091Peter Medak, Peter Sellers, Joe Dunne, Spike Milligan, Nora Farnes, Simon van der Burgh, Louis M. Heyward, Susan Wood, John Heyman, Liza Minelli, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Robin Dalton, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Costas Demetriou, Tony Greenberg, Dennis Fraser, Piers Haggard, Robert Wagner, Anthony Franciosa, Rita Franciosa. Directed by Peter Medak

 

We Americans love a winner. What movies do we go see? The box office champions. We figure if everyone else wants to see it, it must be good. Still, there is something fascinating about a colossal failure – it brings the rubberneck instinct in all of us.

The thing is, Ghost in the Noonday Sun is not even a legendary failure like Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar. Maybe it should have been – it had everything going for it. It’s director, Peter Medak, was fresh off The Ruling Class and was considered one of the brightest young directors in Hollywood. The star, Peter Sellers, was widely acknowledged as a comic genius and perhaps one of the greatest comic actors ever. His buddy from The Goon Show, Spike Milligan, had written a script for a pirate movie. The production would be based in Cyprus and the producers built a working pirate ship for the movie. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything.

They should have gotten the hint when the pirate ship was run into a dock and sank on the first day of production. “We were cursed from Day One,” intones producer, the late John Heyman. It was 1973 though; excess was not a problem. Hollywood was thriving, after all. But there were signs, according to Medak.

Sellers had personally recruited Medak to the project and for his part Medak jumped at the chance to work with a legitimate genius. However, just before production started, Sellers had split with girlfriend Liza Minelli and was, as Medak puts it, “catatonically depressed.” He hadn’t read the script but once he read it, he realized that the movie was a disaster waiting to happen and instantly became focused on getting out of doing it. He went to the lengths of faking a heart attack (he had a well-documented heart condition that would eventually kill him seven years later). Sellers fired producers right and left, only showed up to the set when he felt like it, and alienated virtually everyone. He tried to have Medak fired, had such a vitriolic row with co-star Anthony Franciosa that neither actor was willing to appear in the same frame together.

Medak eventually completed the film and when he went to the wrap party, nobody from his own film was there; only a couple of technicians from another film working on the island. The studio (Columbia) deemed it unreleasable when they got it and it stayed on the shelf until it got an unheralded home video release on VHS. It’s not hailed as a lost treasure, nor is it even remembered as a massive failure. It’s just…ignored. Still, it was enough to destroy Medak’s confidence in himself, and derail his career; he wouldn’t direct another film for five years and he would rarely get the opportunities to direct high-profile films ever again, even though he did some decent movies like The Krays and Romeo is Bleeding as well as being regularly employed in television – he was unable to control his star so no studio would take a chance on a big-budget film with him ever again. Now in his mid-80s (he was 80 when this was filmed), the pain is very much still there. He breaks down a couple of times during the movie and clearly has issues letting go, even though Sellers’ former agent Nora Farnes gently implores him to, while Heyman, showing remarkable perspective, reminds him “it’s only a movie.”

Whether this turned out to be the catharsis he clearly intended it to be, only Medak knows. For the rest of us, it’s a deep dive into how a big movie can descend into absolute chaos, particularly when a mercurial star has way too much control. Medak has over the years kept a good deal of mementos from the movie; production logs, letters from Heyman urging him to get control of the situation or he would be fired, still pictures, home movies and yes, footage from the ill-fated film itself.

It turns out to be a fascinating exercise, perhaps more so for Medak and cinematic buffs than for the general public but it is to a large extent the equivalent of watching a train wreck. I don’t think movie sets are run quite the same way anymore and while situations like this one could conceivably happen again, producers generally have insurance policies that cover this kind of thing. Back then, nobody got paid if the movie didn’t get made, so despite the surreal chaos, Medak soldiered on, knowing that the end result would be catastrophe. But sometimes, the best revenge is survival.

REASONS TO SEE: Bittersweet but fascinating. A cautionary tale of how one person can hijack an entire production.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have limited appeal beyond cinema buffs
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sellers would go on to win an Oscar for Being There. He died in 1980 at age 54.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in La Mancha
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
House of Hummingbird

Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War