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Recent reviews

All reviews - Movies (51) - DVDs (43) - Books (7)

Casino Royale review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:47 (A review of Casino Royale)

`Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued. But he was honest enough to admit that he had never yet been made to suffer by cards or by women. One day, and he accepted the fact, he would be brought to his knees by love or by luck. When that happened he knew that he too would be branded with the deadly question-mark he recognized so often in others, the promise to pay before you have lost; the acceptance of fallibility.'

It's perhaps telling that what would become a global phenomenon - more due to the extraordinary success of the film series that moved increasingly further away from his novels - begins with the acrid, sweaty stink of a casino in the early hours of the morning, its glamour stripped away as James Bond calculates his winnings and losses. The premise of the book may be slightly fantastic (though rooted firmly in a failed scheme Ian Fleming himself proposed to bankrupt a Nazi spy during the war) but the approach is more down to earth, with the emphasis on the details (conveyed through intermittent quotes from secret reports or Bond's imaginative speculation) and atmosphere to make the tale more credible than it sounds. The senses are also evoked, Bond's sense of taste and smell often to the fore whether it's a casual mention of the villain's flatulence or the aroma of roast mutton in the air in a vivid description of the aftermath of a botched bombing. Described as looking like singer Hoagy Carmichael, far from the veritable superman he would become, this Bond is described as absolute Hell to work for, with not much heart and a tendency to get hostile when he senses himself getting too friendly. He doesn't even harbour any resentment for the victims who earned him his 00 rating, acknowledging that they were probably quite decent people who just got caught up in the gale of the world. As he notes, "It's not difficult to get a double-o number if you're prepared to kill people. That's all the meaning it has. It's nothing to be particularly proud of."

Where Bond walked through most of his screen adventures the same infinitely self-confident hero at the end as he was at the beginning, his certainties are challenged more in his print incarnation as he falls in love and questions the nature of his life - though in a way that's far more reminiscent of Raymond Chandler, one of Fleming's favourite authors, than great literature: the novels may be a bit more down-to-earth, but they're still superior examples of pulp fiction (so much so that the original US paperback was retitled You Asked For It). Thankfully it receives an excellent reading from Dan Stevens on AudioGo's unabridged 4-CD audiobook, managing most of the accents well without overplaying Bond's swagger or cynicism. The CD also includes a very unenlightening interview with Dan Stevens, who admits that hasn't read any of the books and focuses on the many differences to the film incarnation.

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James Bond 50 Years of Movie Posters review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:40 (A review of James Bond 50 Years of Movie Posters)

Dorling Kindersley's rather lavish book is perhaps more of a dinner table book than a coffee table book for one simple reason: it's huge. While you'll certainly need a lot of extra space just to turn the pages (male readers risk a hernia if the try reading it in their laps), it's a terrific overview of the film series that probably more than any other changed the way films were marketed. Unfortunately, it's also an unwitting demonstration of how unimaginative modern movie posters have become, with the ingenuity and wonderful artwork by many of the great movie poster artists of all time - Frank McCarthy, Bob Peak, Robert McGinnis, Renato Casari, Jean Maschi - giving way to increasingly identikit photoshop efforts. By the time you get to Quantum of Solace action packed artwork is a thing of the past, with GQ fashion shoots seemingly the model, a tragedy when you consider how iconic many of the great Bond posters like From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die or the 1967 Casino Royale are (gratifyingly this volume doesn't pretend that the EON films are the only Bond movies). Still, it could have been more dispiriting still: time precluded including all but the sly teaser for Skyfall, which has seen the laziest photoshopped posters in the series history.

Not that photoshopping is always bad: there are some good photo montages and teasers right through to the Timothy Dalton era (though the photoshop Licence to Kill quad is still a lowpoint) even when the producers decided to go with some of the dodgier artwork produced (the Moonraker teaser is infinitely superior to the clumsy final release ones). And while the book doesn't include every variation from the days when each territory would either adapt or even create its own artwork (and there's a lot of McGinnis' work from Thunderball that is curiously missing), there's a strong selection of foreign posters and even some lobby card sets, with even the more obscure foreign artists getting credited for their work. While the physical production isn't quite up to Taschen levels, it's on good quality colour paper, though it's a bit annoying that the UK quads for each poster are spread over two pages since the sheer size and weight of the book doesn't favour that presentation. The rest of the posters are better presented, though not all the one sheets are treated to the full page format when deemed too similar to other variations. There's also some unused concepts and sketches for several of the films from the days when United Artists seemed to be consciously moving away from the classic Bond poster style. All in all it's certainly worthwhile for the Bond movie fan with deep pockets and a lot of shelf space. And if you want to avoid being depressed by the last few lazy poster outings, try reading it from the back to the front and the book magically starts to get better and better with every page!

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James Bond 007 - Bond 50 [1962-2012] review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:38 (A review of James Bond 007 - Bond 50 [1962-2012])

NB: As is their wont, Amazon have bundled the reviews for the Blu-ray and DVD boxed sets together. This review refers to the Blu-ray edition. Please bear in mind that the DVD version only includes the one-disc versions of the films, losing nearly all the extras apart from the audio commentaries.

With the release of Skyfall imminent, EON and MGM/UA have finally got around to releasing the remaining Bond films that weren't on Blu-ray (with the exception of non-EON entries Never Say Never Again and the 1967 Casino Royale), releasing them in a lavish boxed set that's surprisingly sturdily constructed but offers virtually nothing new for those who have already faithfully collected the Ultimate Edition DVDs. The plentiful extras have been carried over pretty much wholesale from those two-disc releases, with one exception - Casino Royale is a strange hybrid of the two-disc special edition and first single-disc release, containing most of the special edition's extras but losing Martin Campbell's picture-in-picture commentary, two featurettes (The Art of the Freerun, Catching a Plane - From Storyboard to Screen), the revised documentary Bond Girls Are Forever, storyboard sequence and filmmaker profile featurettes (Martin Campbell, Chris Corbauld, Phil Méheux, Gary Powell, Alexander Witt and David Arnold). The version of Die Another Day only features the extras from the Ultimate Edition, with the much better extras from the original DVD release, including the 76-minute making of documentary, still AWOL.

The picture quality is for the most part very good, though it's not always as convincing as you feel it should be, with the suspicion that some scenes have been scrubbed up a little too brightly compared to the way they looked on the big screen. GoldenEye thankfully corrects the overcropping of the Ultimate Edition DVD release that was particularly noticeable when cutting off letters and numbers on video displays and is now in the proper framing but it has some noticeable DNR work done on it, though it's not as dramatic as some reports claim. More worrying is that the UK set doesn't offer the original mono soundtracks on the early Bond films that were previously released on Blu-ray, such as Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball, instead offering remixed stereo tracks that often favour the sound effects a little too much. The new to BD titles do contain the original mixes, but if you want them on the earlier films you'll have to buy the US set - which will cause a problem for those without multi-region Blu-ray capability since the set is a mixture of Region A-locked titles (Dr No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Licence to Kill, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) and Region-free ones (You Only Live Twice, OHMSS - thankfully the uncut version - Diamonds Are Forever, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies).

As for the exclusive extras disc - well, it's a huge disappointment. Rather than include any new extras from Quantum of Solace such as the deleted "The name's Bond. James Bond" ending or any of the slew of other promos or documentaries about the series it's just a brief selection of soundbites, very brief featurettes, a few video diaries for Skyfall and a collection of title sequences from the films. There's no booklet either, but at least the book-style packaging for the films is especially strong, has a space reserved for Skyfall and is designed for repeated use - which plenty of these films will be getting.

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Johnny English Reborn - Triple Play (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy) review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:26 (A review of Johnny English Reborn - Triple Play (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy))

Starts surprisingly well but runs out of steam too soon

For the first half hour or so Johnny English Reborn is a surprisingly funny spy spoof that's a huge improvement on the dire first big screen outing for Rowan Atkinson's hopeless yet supremely self-confident spy who was originally dreamt up for a series of credit card adverts and seemed ill-suited for anything longer than 30 seconds. Where that misfired more than it hit, the sequel begins rather well as the now disgraced spy is called out of his retreat in a Tibetan monastery (where he's learning, among other things, the martial art of dragging boulders with his testicles) by a reluctant MI7 to uncover an assassination plot aimed at the Chinese premier.

Some of the jokes are out of date - his sparring with Gillian Anderson's unimpressed spymaster, all impeccable but monotonous pronunciation, is like a flat rewrite of Judi Dench's scenes in GoldenEye that's 16 years too late - but there's plenty that does raise a smile or the odd laugh, not least a particularly well-executed parkour chase scene across the rooftops and along the dockside of Hong Kong where the joke is that, despite obvious audience expectations, English's ineptitude constantly fails to materialise as he never puts a foot wrong and repeatedly outthinks a killer with a minimum of effort. But once the action leaves Hong Kong it obviously forgets to pack the jokes for the return trip and becomes a tired but watchable run-through of stale routines that weren't that funny when they were being done back in the 60s when people first started making mediocre Bond spoofs - the clumsy would-be knowing banter with a villain over a game of golf, the gadget filled chase scene (here in a motorised wheelchair), the assassination attempts by a ridiculous villain (here an elderly Chinese cleaning lady) survived through dumb luck rather than skill... you've seen it all before, and better done, and compared to the likes of OSS 117 - Cairo Nest Of Spies [2007] [DVD] it seems stuck in the last century in the wrong way.

There are some compensations, with the biggest surprise how much better Rosamund Pike is here than in her genuine Bond film, Die Another Day, giving a much more natural and appealing performance in a role that's not much more than reaction shots and exposition before turning into the romantic interest just because that's part of the formula. It's a shame that she doesn't get more to do, but that could apply to most of the cast in a comedy that seems to have been made by a director who doesn't really want to do a comedy in a classic case of trying to turn the film he's been hired to make into the different kind of film he'd rather be making instead.

That problem is increasingly apparent from the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray and director Oliver Parker's rationale for cutting most of the funnier moments purely to keep the story moving while bizarrely leaving the now redundant and occasionally laborious moments setting them up in the final cut: in this kind of film the story is really nothing more than a near irrelevant coat rack to hang the jokes on, and it's the jokes that should take priority. As he rationalises his decisions as "small sacrifices worth making" to get to the next mundane plot point you can't help thinking he's the kind of director who'd cut the farting cowboys out of Blazing Saddles because it wasn't really moving the story forward. Not that there's much originality on display in them, but some - an extended walk-through the newly privatised MI7, English so preoccupied with trying out the gadgets in his car that he doesn't notice machine-gun firing killers are chasing him or a throwaway gag with some exploding chewing gum - are much better than what did make the final cut even if they did need a bit of tightening. The same could be said of the deleted scenes presentation as well since the disc doesn't offer the option to skip Parker's near-identical explanations for cutting the jokes out of a comedy.

Aside from a decent 25-minute making of and a not particularly funny gag reel the rest of the extras are the usual puff pieces on how Atkinson is the comic Messiah, though his perfectionism is absent from what makes it to the screen in the last two thirds of the movie. Like so many movies shot digitally rather than on film the 2.35:1 widescreen picture quality tends to vary from sharpness (usually in studio scenes and the Hong Kong section) to a rather soft, pallid, undetailed and lifeless look (most of the exteriors) but is acceptable. The triple play edition also includes a widescreen DVD with no extras.

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Morecambe & Wise - The Intelligence Men / That Riviera Touch / The Magnificent Two review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:22 (A review of Morecambe & Wise - The Intelligence Men / That Riviera Touch / The Magnificent Two )

A mixed bag of the trying hard, failing miserably and surprisingly okay

Intended by the Rank Organisation as a replacement for Norman Wisdom when he made noises about leaving the studio, Morecambe and Wise's big screen career never really took off - hardly surprising considering the poor quality of their first two films. Part of the problem was that, despite their TV work showing the influence of screen double acts like Laurel and Hardy, the scripts never really played to their strengths: no extended routines, no amateur dramatics, no comic musical numbers, just characters that could probably be played by most capable comic actors throwing in the odd bit of backchat. Fine as long as the backchat was funny, but too often the scripts were flat and the situations old stock well past their sell by date. But at least this set brings their three features together in one budget package, though ITV Studios have spared almost every expense on mastering the DVDs themselves.

The Intelligence Men is the most Morecambe and Wise of their films: it may play at times like a script intended for Norman wisdom and Jerry Desmonde, but it's been reworked to allow them plenty of room for comic routines, verbal and physical, a couple of comic dance numbers and Ernie's love of amateur dramatics with his constant disguises while Eric gets to play the cowardly smart Alec. Both stars get to play themselves (or at least their on-stage personas) rather than being shoehorned into different and untried characters and there are some nicely cinematic bits of business, particularly Eric being lured into the right office by following a series of attractive women. The plot is fairly thin, with Eric mistaken for a dead hitman who was really an undercover British secret agent and his MI5 handler Ernie going through a slew of quick change disguises as they try to uncover an assassination plot. Parts of it completely fall flat while others never rise much above the modestly amusing, yet it's the kind of film that's rather better than you remember it being: it's certainly not a patch on the best of their TV work at the BBC, but enough of it works modestly often enough to provide a fair amount of enjoyment.

Unfortunately there's nothing to enjoy about the DVD transfer, with ITV Studios offering a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that's been DNRed to death - the excessive Dolby Noise Reduction often softens the image to near waxwork levels and adds slight and unwelcome blurring to fast movement. You're probably better off recording it off the TV the next time it's on. The only extra is a tatty fullscreen transfer of the original trailer.

Morecambe and Wise's second stab at big screen fame, That Riviera Touch, is easily their worst, seeing them saddled with a stock plot and too few gags as traffic wardens who beat a hasty retreat to the south of France after giving the Queen a parking ticket only to get innocently involved in one-eyed smuggler Paul Stassino's deadly dirty deeds. Cue disappearing corpses, Suzanne Lloyd's appealing femme not-quite-fatale and the inevitable `big' back projection-heavy comic climax (in this case a water skiing and parasailing chase) that doesn't deliver much in the way of laughs or thrills.

While their first film tried to exploit the strengths of their TV routines, there's next to none of that here: no extended routines, no amateur dramatics, only one comic musical number (with Eric miming to Ernie's singing to woo Ms Lloyd) and only a couple of running gags. It's the sort of weak effort that could have been played by most capable comic actors despite the odd modestly amusing moment here and there. It's painless if you're in a forgiving mood, but the material is just too thin to work as a film.

To add to the general half-heartedness of the film itself, ITV Studios' DVD is a poor fullframe transfer that, like their other Morecambe and Wise features, has had far too much Dolby Noise Reduction applied to it, softening the image and adding the odd moment of blurring.

"We were doing quite all right until you opened your big mouth. `Long live the President.'"
"How was I to know they'd just shot him?"

Their final shot at the movies, 1967's The Magnificent Two, is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination but it's certainly a considerable improvement even if it is more mildly amusing than funny. This time they're a pair of down on their luck travelling salesmen trying to sell Action Man figures in the middle of a South America revolution until - as anyone who's ever seen a comedy involving South American politics can guess - Eric's resemblance to the dead figurehead of the revolutionaries sees him catapulted to the presidency where he naturally becomes a target for the people who put him in power.

You can't exactly accuse Rank of stinting on the production values here: South America may have exactly the same vegetation as Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire in the same way that every British country road in a 40s Hollywood film looked just like Coldwater Canyon and the capital city will be familiar to anyone who's seen The Singer Not the Song, but there are surprisingly elaborate and destructive action scenes, as well as a surprisingly high body count for a comedy. The latter starts to make sense when you remember that producer Hugh Stewart was himself a combat photographer who was the uncredited director of the Oscar-winning wartime documentary Desert Victory and was an advisor on Schindler's List because of the footage he shot of the liberation of Belsen. Not that the film is exactly a weighty treatise on the horrors of war: it all ends with the kind of sexist joke involving female soldiers that you'd never get away with today. Bananas it's not, but it has its nostalgic charms as inoffensive rainy day stuff, as pleasant and instantly forgettable as Ron Goodwin's jaunty score.

ITV Studios' DVD is letterboxed, but the print is faded and has had way too much Dolby Noise Reduction applied to it - the cast don't quite leave vapor trails in their wake as they move across the screen, but there's certainly some unwelcome blurring in places. Ironically the picture quality on the theatrical trailer included has none of those problems.

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Just a Minute: Clement Freud Classics (BBC Audio) review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:19 (A review of Just a Minute: Clement Freud Classics (BBC Audio))

Not something you're likely to listen to more than once.

An odd one, this. While some panel shows can have a life on CD, it's usually the ones that have enough freeform comedy like I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue that tend to fare the best because the rules are loosely enforced (and occasionally incomprehensible) in the pursuit of comic gold. Unfortunately, with Just a Minute the whole point is the rigorous enforcement of the rules, and the constant repetition - without repetition - of the same basic round, which can get a bit samey after four episodes. And this is a collection of complete episodes rather than highlights, meaning that there are plenty of slow patches between the good bits. The best of this collection is the very first episode, with the rivalry between the deadpan Freud and the vocally gymnastic Derek Nimmo already firmly in place - Freud's reason for interrupting Nimmo is almost worth the price of the disc on its own. But while Freud gets his moments, there's little sense that this is collecting his finest minutes or interruptions, with the more than able guests like Kenneth Williams, Paul Merton and the much-missed Linda Smith getting their share of the laughs. But having listened to it once, it's hard to imagine that it's something you're likely to want to listen to again, making it one for the show's fans rather than the casual comedy fan. Not something you're likely to listen to more than once.

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Cabin Pressure Series 2 (BBC Audio) review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:14 (A review of Cabin Pressure Series 2 (BBC Audio))

"Arthur is basically just a passenger in a hat, and that's only because he made himself a hat."

After providing BBC Radio with what may be its best comedy in years, John Finnemore's second series of Cabin Pressure shows only a marginal loss of altitude and still provides plenty of laughs. Working on the principle that if it ain't broke, don't fix it - perhaps not so applicable to a show about a cut-price charter airline where if it IS broke, don't fix it and it'll hopefully sort itself out - the formula is the same, with only new destinations and a few new revelations about the characters this time round. Once again it's an enjoyable four-hander between Stephanie Cole's authoritarian owner, her idiot son John Finnemore, Benedict Cumberbatch's insecure upper class pilot (who finally lets slip how he became a Captain so young) and Roger Allam's glorious deprecating co-pilot, and once again they play off each other perfectly. This time round they face obstacles like having to go on a refresher Safety and Emergency course, ferry a very dysfunctional orchestra complete with conspiracy theorist who thinks the crew are trying to kill her to Gdansk, deal with a very obstructive ground control in Spain to win a bet, ferry some very disgruntled relatives and, as always, come up with stupid games to while away the boring hours in the air. It may not quite match the first class standard of the first series, but it's still a hugely enjoyable flight that you'll take more than just once.

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Cabin Pressure Series 1 (BBC Audio) review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:12 (A review of Cabin Pressure Series 1 (BBC Audio))

"Again I fear you flatter my knowledge of cat pathology."

Radio comedy has been hit and miss for years, its best shows soon departing for BBC while weaker ones seem to drag on for series after series because of the absence of anything better to replace it with. Cabin Pressure is unlikely to make the transition to the box because of a combination of the budget required for a series that follows a charter airline on its bargain basement travels across the globe and the commissioning of the Little Britain team's Come Fly With Me, but it certainly is one of the best comedies BBC Radio has come up with in years. It's a simple premise that's basically a four handed between Stephanie cole's authoritarian owner, trying to keep her one plane in the air and out of debt, her idiot son John Finnemore (clearly not so idiotic in real-life since he wrote the show), Benedict Cumberbatch's insecure upper class pilot and Roger Allam's gloriously deprecating co-pilot. Luckily the casting is inspired, with the four playing off each other perfectly and being blessed with great dialogue as they either ward off the boredom or deal with their far more difficult than they should be charters, whether it's obnoxious passenger who insist on smoking or obnoxious drunks who are spectacularly big tippers - but only if you grovel enough. as comedy it doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it certainly keeps it spinning with real panache and plenty of genuine laughs.

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A low flying bedroom farce

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:10 (A review of Boeing Boeing [US Import])

A hugely successful French bedroom farce given an American makeover and then shot in France (well, the exteriors at least), 1965's Boeing Boeing is one of those swinging sex comedies that now looks rather innocent. Tony Curtis is the Paris-based reporter who keeps three separate air stewardesses (British United, Lufthansa and Air France) under the illusion that each is his fiancé, keeping them all in his apartment and oblivious via judicious use of the airline timetables and split second timing, and with some world-weary help from housekeeper Thelma Ritter. Naturally disaster is on the horizon as new jets cut hours off the flying time and delays mean their arrivals all start to coincide, and at just the point that rival newsman Jerry Lewis blackmails his way into staying at his apartment. You can write the plot developments yourself from there as Curtis tries to juggle the girls from one room to another and Lewis tries to move in on his territory, but considering how difficult it is to transfer farce to the big screen even when you're not translating it to another language it's fairly well executed of its kind even if it isn't a laugh a minute. This time it's Lewis who underplays, breaking with his usual screen persona in his last Paramount film to play a smoother operator while Curtis gets increasingly flustered and the girls (Dany Saval, Suzanna Leigh and Christiane Schmidtmer) play up to their national stereotypes, which isn't particularly offensive here since everyone in the film is a stereotype. It's the sort of thing you'd describe as a soufflé if it weren't for one of the girlfriends insisting that "soufflés are for people mitout teeth!" - not particularly nutritious, but pleasing enough if you're in the right mood for it.

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Likeable heist comedy that makes good on the funny

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 7 February 2013 05:07 (A review of Who's Minding the Mint?)

Once a seemingly regular fixture on TV but absent without leave from the schedules for years, Who's Minding the Mint? is one of those comedies that for much of its first half seems to be getting by more on its good nature than laughs - in many ways it's a bit reminiscent in style and look to many of Disney's live-action comedies of the 60s - but genuinely does deliver the funny in the second half. Jim Hutton is the Federal Mint employee (okay, it's really the Federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing, but try getting a title out of that) who is already under suspicion from his boss because of his lavish lifestyle, which he funds by taking advantage on 60-day free approval offers on cars and condos, and who finds himself facing a potential 10-year stretch when he accidentally destroys $50,000. His only hope is to print up another $50,000 before anyone can discover the loss, which means breaking into the mint with Walter Brennan's wannabe printer, but naturally it's not quite as easy as that, and soon he finds himself with a small army of partners all in on the action for a larger slice as greed increasingly takes hold - Jack Gilford's deaf safecracker, Milton Berle's pawnbroker, Joey Bishop's compulsive gambling sewer man, Victor Buono's would-be seadog, Bob Denver's ice cream man, Jamie Farr's non-English speaking lookout and Dorothy Provine's infatuated paper cutter. Naturally further complications ensue that see the break-in rushed forward so that half of them are in fancy dress and Brennan's pregnant dog is along for the ride, which could smack of desperation but which turns out to be surprisingly funny, especially since director Howard Morris just lets the comedy happen with a light touch rather than constantly nudging you in the ribs and loudly telegraphing all the jokes. A fun movie, nothing more, nothing less.

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