The Avengers (1998) *

As an adaptation of the original series, one of the most notorious examples ever of Hollywood getting it wrong, wrong, wrong: fiendishly miscast and missing the point from first second to last. It's facetious and silly; Uma Thurman is bad but riveting as Emma Peel; Ralph Fiennes is just plain bad as Steed, and Sean Connery comes over as a bit of a berk hamming up the villain role.
And yet there's something really compelling about it: it certainly slots comfortably into the top half of my guilty pleasures top ten. The sheer artificiality of it, the superfluity of style, and the way big ideas are introduced and then forgotten about give it a uniquely bizarre flavour. Also in its favour is the 85 minute running time - a clear giveaway of post-production desperation - which ensures it never bores, though God knows it baffles.

Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

Audacious exercise in Burke and Hare filmmaking, in which Blake Edwards attempts to construct a further vehicle for Peter Sellers literally from beyond the grave, by assembling a selection of outtakes from previous films in a flimsy new plot.
For the first half hour he  actually comes close to getting away with it, but then the clips dry up, Clouseau 'disappears', and the film becomes a ballsaching trudge, with Joanna Lumley as a journalist interviewing his old associates (including a dubbed David Niven) whose reminiscences provide forced segues into clips that everyone's already seen a hundred times. Then there's some new bits purportedly showing Clouseau as a young man. Then it just ends.

Curse of the Pink Panther (1983)

That sequel to Trail of the Pink Panther the world was screaming for, actually largely filmed at the same time, with some mutual cast members in different roles.
No Sellers outtakes this time but a brand new story in which the world's second worst detective is hired to find the still missing Clouseau, encountering all the usual guest stars while walking into walls and falling into their swimming pools. The suicidal star is Ted Wass, and he's okay. Since this is officially the weirdest film ever made it stood no chance whatever of being a critical or a commercial success and it didn't let anyone down on that score. Bizarre but necessary to add, therefore, that it's actually not all that bad, and the notorious finale - in which Clouseau is surgically reborn in the body of Roger Moore - may be one of the greatest ideas in eighties comedy: it's well handled by Moore, too.

Countess Dracula (1971)

One of the more visually arresting latter-day Hammers, with a good sense of period and a nice score, and benefiting also from an above average cast. Not another variation on the studio's recent infatuation with female vampires, it is in fact a fantasy based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, but it's fatally lugubrious, almost sickly in its mood, lacking entirely the thrills or scares expected of a Hammer Horror, let alone promised by the title, and it seems to go on forever.
It's odd to think they got that far and then fudged it: a full-fledged vampire film about an actual Countess Dracula would surely have stood a chance in the age of Yorga and Blacula.

The Damned (1963)

Weird and unreconciled collision of the mutually alienating sensibilities of Hammer Horror and director Joseph Losey, overloading a possibly rather trite tale with allegory, symbolism and a somewhat over-pronounced sense of its own daring.
Fans of Losey, and of that sort of thing, may find much to admire: it's certainly well made and there are many willing to hail it as a lost masterpiece. But it's probably fair to say that it has neither grown nor diminished in the years since it first appeared, when the paying punters near-unanimously declared it not worth the effort of sorting out, and so it's likely the majority verdict would remain unchanged today. I didn't care for it all.

The Sun Also Rises (1957) *

One of the better Hollywood Hemingways, with all the usual faults - overlength, elderly leads, neat and tidy glamour, too much emphasis on grandeur and spectacle and not enough on detail and insight - but some notable compensations, not least a fascinatingly self-deprecating performance from Errol Flynn and a small appearance by Juliette Gréco that hints at how much better it could have been with rational casting. All technical details superior, and a more authentic feeling of pessimism than might be expected.

Vampire Circus (1971)

Hammer horror at the end of the road: an intriguing idea and some stylish visuals lose the fight against puerile sensationalism and a screenplay that gives the impression of having been made up as they went along. Clumsy technical errors, a general air of nastiness, lightweight cast.

Così Come Sei (Stay as You Are) (1978) *

Unhappily married Mastroianni falls for teenage Nastassja Kinski and then learns that she might be his daughter in this formula age gap romantic drama.
Certainly not as a sensationalist as it sounds but developed without surprises, it holds the attention for all that thanks to some nice detail and two very charismatic leads.

Just Go With It (2011)

A comedy, meaning no harm but ultimately no more inspired or memorable than its title, starring Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler, a light comic actor whose true level of popularity I've never quite been certain of, but who, like Aniston, keeps working away in films that rarely seem to hang around long. He's showing his age in this one; getting a bit stocky, and it looks like he's dyeing his hair, but he's quite a nice little actor, albeit not one I would have picked from the chorus line personally.
It's full of references to contemporary popular culture, of which I understood just enough to realise how much of the rest of it went careening over my head, and even when they're not punchlining about tv shows and pop groups I've never heard of, they're talking very quickly, often at the same time, and with a lot of ambient noise. Two surprises though: first, when Nicole Kidman shows up half way through in a funny but basically nothingish guest star supporting role (the best bit, actually, is the hula contest where she and Jennifer try to upstage each other) and then at the end, when I found out it was a remake of Cactus Flower. I'm guessing the original didn't have Ingrid Bergman indulging in bikini rivalry with Goldie Hawn.

The Awakening (2011)

A ghost story with a twenties setting and Rebecca Hall from Vicky Christina Barcelona.
Plot-wise, it's that one again: the one that starts with the uncompromisingly rationalist ghostbuster disrupting a fake seance, then shows them going to a spooky old pile on their next case in the same confrontational frame of mind, only to have their certainties overturned after a few encounters with the other world, before a poignant resolution reveals a) their own personal involvement in the hauntings, and b) the fact that some of the people they had been interacting with throughout were in fact ghosts from the start.
It probably wasn't all that original when James Herbert wrote it up as Haunted 25-odd years ago, and a lot of M. Night Shyamalan has flowed under the bridge since then. (The film they made of Haunted with Kate Beckinsale was even more similar, being set, unlike the novel, in the twenties too.) This one's by Stephen Volk, still plugging away; the usual meticulously maintained period atmosphere and settings knowingly undermined by proudly deliberate anachronisms of characterisation and dialogue, a few good scares, and a made for television look to it.

Atlantic (1929) **

E. A. Dupont ended his days in Hollywood in the fifties, doing The Neanderthal Man ("HALF MAN! HALF BEAST!") and Problem Girls ("Nothing can tame them!"), and doubtless even he had started to wonder if he was the same man whose Variety (1925) had been one of the last towering achievements of German Expressionism.
Yes, times change, and it's not always easy to keep up, and perhaps he consoled himself that Fritz Lang was over there grinding out sausages too, but at least Lang still had a reputation left to squander. Dupont was kind of a forgotten man, which maybe hurts more than being maligned. His reputation drifted away in the thirties, and Atlantic  - the first talking film of the Titanic disaster - was, sadly and unjustly, one of the reasons why.

The film was shot in three versions: English, French and German, and the non-dialogue scenes are the same in all three editions. (As might be expected, the dialogue scenes are reportedly a little more naturalistic in the version Dupont shot in his native German.) It softens the impact of the play upon which it was based, which set the real events and various fictional dramas within a dramatised conflict of world views exemplified by two fictional passengers: a padre whose faith is faltering, and 'John Rool', an atheist novelist.
In the film, the novelist becomes the main figure, and a kind of surrogate for us; he is unable to walk, and so remains in the bar, watching and interacting as the various characters come and go. He ends up dying in an act of exculpation for his earlier cynicism, while the padre is downgraded to one of several equally important supporting characters. We never get any of his crisis of faith, and neither is Rool's atheism spelled out in block letters; the closest we get is a character telling him, "you make fun of everything that everybody else thinks beautiful".
Various other dramas are enacted for Rool and for us, one of them, interestingly, that of a family estranged from their father who is also on board - the central plot of the 1953 Titanic. (Though it would seem that the father in question is this time a renamed J. J. Astor.) Then there is a young married couple, expecting their first child but threatened with eternal separation as the ship goes down, saved by the selflessness of Rool himself, who gives up his own place in the lifeboat so they can all have a future together. Note that the idea of using the disaster as a backdrop to fictional dramas, which swiftly became the standard means of presenting the material, begins here.

As befitting a film based on a play, there is very little action; it's mainly dialogue in a seated posture, cutting between two or three spaces – the first class bar, the deck, the main staircase. But as an adaptation of the Titanic disaster, it is more accurate, and strives more for accuracy, than the above might suggest. The ship is not called Titanic, of course, owing to pressure from the White Star Line, who put considerable effort into protesting and trying to derail the film, but there is a great deal of factual and technical information that reinforces its links with the true story. The other factor, usually cited as anachronistic, that is relevant here is the obviously 1920s setting, as seen in the costumes, stylings and especially the music. But as no date is given, and the ship is not officially the Titanic, presumably the twenties setting is deliberate: it is a contemporary retelling. (This also gave the White Star Line another point of difference as consolation, along with the fact that this time all the real life characters have been renamed.)

The iceberg strikes earlier than any other film (relative to its total length): just 25 minutes into a 90 minute movie. (The berg appears to puncture the ship above the water line, but it does so realistically in terms of the damage created – a series of punched holes, rather than the single gash that had been the orthodox understanding until the ship was discovered many decades later.) There are some very good effects shots to follow, of the main staircase flooding, and of the submerging deck, and especially of the flooded ballroom, seemingly full-size or thereabouts, certainly not a miniature like the one in Night and Ice. But on the whole, Dupont denies us most of the spectacle we have come to expect, and most heretically of all, there is no actual shot of the ship sinking beneath the waves. Debate rages as to whether this has been cut or was never shot, compounded by the confusion caused by some documentaries, which splice together the final scenes of this movie and the submerging shots from the 1953 version. It seems that such a shot was planned, and possibly filmed, but never included in any release print – the decision being that the final horror should be left to the audience's imagination, perhaps understandable in a British production made less than twenty years after the event. But what we have instead is enormously powerful, and one of several moments that give the lie to the standard account of Dupont's inability to use sound film effectively. Through the final scenes, the lights continually flicker on and off as the ship dies, with dialogue continuing in pitch black. Just as the final descent begins, they cut out for good, and so for the last few seconds we see only a black screen. We don't see the ship sink, but we do hear it. It is a brilliant idea. Yes, it's a fairly obvious response to the demands of the new talking cinema, and certainly it's a lot cheaper to shoot it that way. But dramatically it pays its way too: it is eerily effective.
And so, for me, is the majority of the film. 'Stagey' acting is not something I have any difficulty with, and this is an exciting cast by anybody's standards: two stunning Hitchcock heroines: Madeleine Carroll, younger than we’re used to seeing her, and Joan Barry; dapper Italian comedian and director (and Mr Gracie Fields) Monty Banks, Valentine Dyall’s father Franklin as Rool (and if you’re familiar with Valentine’s acting style you can just imagine what his old dad’s like) and that grande dame of Edwardian and Victorian musical comedy, the great Ellaline Terriss, aka Mrs Seymour Hicks, who died aged 99 in 1971.
The lifeboat scenes are excellently directed, and some of the editing is also very fine. The film ends, after the terrible blackness in which we hear the great ship slipping to its doom, on a shot of the morning sun breaking through clouds; it concludes a film that I personally found to be all the things it is said to be not: entirely engrossing, powerful and moving. The recent restoration and reissue of Piccadilly did much to return Dupont to the consciousness of cineastes: when the full revaluation comes, hopefully Atlantic, too, will be fully redeemed.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) *

An early and in many ways defining example of the 1970s disaster movie, benefiting from an irresistible gimmick: a freak tidal wave causes a ship to turn over completely in the water, so the remainder of the film, detailing the survivors' struggle upwards to freedom, is played on a series of amusing upside-down sets.
As the rules dictate, the first half is basically soap opera, introducing a disparate assortment of characters via irrelevant, soon to be forgotten subplots. (We have the usual mix here: a sweet elderly couple, a precocious kid, a no-nonsense cop, a young girl who can and does sing, even a pre-ironic Leslie Nielsen.) Then at the halfway point, disaster strikes, and most of the characters we haven't got to meet yet are killed in grand fashion. Part two details the remainder's attempt at survival, with much ingenuity, self-sacrifice and peril, through the course of which at least two of the characters we're rooting for will also die. The only odd note here is the decision to make Gene Hackman's hero a pretentious, bad-tempered vicar.

Hard to decide what the fundamental appeal of these films was: was the thrill merely one of prurience/sadism, a kind of dramatic ambulance chase, or, more nobly, of enactment, an exercise in preparedness and vicarious survival? Or perhaps it was purely technical, and down to the sheer elaborateness of the special effects carnage? If the latter, this one comes up a little short forty-some years on: unlike the spectacular canvas of Earthquake or The Towering Inferno, most of it is shot in enclosed interior sets, with little real indication that we are in the bowels of a ship. Stock and model shots fill out what little footage there is of the exterior: even at the end, as the surviviors are cut free and helicoptered to freedom, we are denied a long shot, reinforcing the feeling that there is no ship, and minimising the sense of awe that is integral to the formula's effect.

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) was an unlikely and belated sequel, in which more or less nothing happens.

Piccadilly (1929) ****

The spectacular return to general availability of E.A. Dupont's Piccadilly reveals yet another convenient generalisation to be a myth, in this case that British silent cinema is devoid of surprises or rewards.
The film is a masterpiece on a par with the very best American and international silents while retaining a distinct national identity; it's steeped in the atmosphere of twenties London (as attractive and evocative as the American Jazz Age, but very different) and dazzlingly designed and photographed. Though the latter is admittedly mainly the work of imported co-production Germans, the film is nonetheless vivid, and intense, in a manner we have long been taught not to associate with British films of its time.

The closest comparison would be with Pabst: there is much of Pandora's Box here; but it's even better. Anna May Wong's Shosho should be every bit as iconic and widely-celebrated as Brooks's Lulu: she is as captivating as Louise, as luminously photographed, and fully as modern in her light, naturalistic acting style. (Also giving a quiet little lesson in screen acting is Charles Laughton, in a short featured cameo as a bad-tempered diner.)
It's a film that has to be seen on a big screen: the BFI's DVD is certainly gorgeous (but for Neil Brand's horrid new score), but the detail - especially of the Piccadilly Club itself - is lost on tv. This is a film that truly overwhelms you, in composition, lighting, performance, and in sheer style.

Life Stinks (1991) *

Mel Brooks attempted to break out of the genre parody rut for the last time with this variant on Sullivan's Travels, Trading Places, and all those other films where rich people pretend to be poor for a bet. But what should have been his most interesting film since The Twelve Chairs must ultimately be counted a disappointment, which chokes itself on sentimentality after a generally spirited first half hour. Scattered moments thereafter, and a pleasantly daft finale, make it worth sticking with, and it certainly didn't deserve the drubbing it received at the time.

Gunfight at Comanche Creek (1963)

Standard issue Audie Murphy, with the star as an undercover detective posing as an outlaw to bring a notorious gang of desperadoes to justice. Despite the title, no Indians.

Joe Kidd (1972) *

Pleasingly unpretentious western from the top end of Clint Eastwood's Hollywood career, with Rawhide and the Italians behind him but his mature American persona still to be finalised. All good fun, with premonitions of Unforgiven, a lively ending in which our hero drives a train through a saloon bar, and the expected pictorial strengths.

The Vikings (1958) ***

Sumptuous, glorious tosh, with plenty of blood and thunder and superb location photography. In fact, it is often surprisingly vivid and compelling, at least for as long as its pick and mix assortment cast are not struggling with the dialogue. Then it becomes the Hollywood hokum you expect, but the two halves never drift too far apart, and the whole remains irresistible entertainment - one of the last examples, in fact, of the traditional Hollywood epic working at full blast with neither cynicism nor the itch for reinvention. Kirk Douglas plays a Viking who doesn't want to grow a beard because he didn't want to grow a beard to play a Viking; in perhaps the most famous scene his eye is torn out by a falcon. The climactic funeral is rightly iconic, as is Mario Nascimbene's superb score. Orson Welles narrates.

The Seven Year Itch (1957) **

Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe are very amusing in this laid back and basically inconsequential example of second-drawer Billy Wilder. Of course, even a coasting Wilder delivers more sophisticated fun than many another filmmaker at their best, and though censorship has somewhat robbed this one of its basic purpose there are a few good laughs here, and a lot of pleasant.

Frozen (2013)

Not too bad an example of the new look CGI Disney style, with a few nice effects and moments, spoiled only by the songs and the ridiculously large eyes of the two central characters.

House of Wax (2005) *

Odd but not uninteresting post-Scream slasher horror from the Dark Castle team: probably their most effective since their first, House on Haunted Hill, after a string of disasters (13 Ghosts, Ghost Ship and Gothika)

An original story which references House of Wax and Mystery of the Wax Museum only subtly - a villain called Vincent, the accidental peeling away of a wax face, the wax figures melting in a fire - and concentrates for the most part on Texas Chainsaw-style redneck torture horror, the film is nonetheless more compelling than the average, and just ten years on, so self-conscious is its modernity, it's almost as distant a period piece as the 1932 original. (Doubtless there is a generation already that will need to be told who Paris Hilton is.) Unexceptionally if undeniably nasty, but kept afloat by some superb set design and the fact that wax house settings never fail.

Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

The Muppet Christmas Carol had many followers, but the trick didn't work a second time: this further attempt to give the well-loved puppets a literary adaptation as a framework to play out their antics proved too ill-fitting. There's just too much plot to get through for sufficient opportunities to present themselves, and the spirit (and point) of The Muppet Show are nowhere evoked or recalled, though most of the familiar puppets (some, alas, with decidedly less familiar voices) pass through. Very poor songs and a surprisingly lacklustre human cast finish the job.

Quartet (1948) ****

One of the greatest compliments that can be paid to Quartet is that watching it feels somewhat akin to reading four Somerset Maugham short stories.

And so it should, you snort derisively, because, of course, an adaptation of four Maugham stories is exactly what it is. But films that announce themselves as adaptations of a specific author can rarely be relied upon to adhere with any great respect even to the letter of the originals: capturing their spirit is almost always beyond them. Look at Edgar Allan Poe: he must have been given the possessive name check in dozens, perhaps hundreds of movies, some of them terrible, many good and a few of them certain masterpieces. But how many have any qualities reminiscent of actually reading one of his tales? I'm not sure I can think of any.
Neither should greater than average fidelity be inferred simply from the fact that Maugham felt sufficiently paternal towards this production to give it his personal imprimatur, introducing and closing the film as himself, with endearing nervousness (those fidgety fingers!) in a studio mock-up of his own study that, according to accounts, almost spooked him with its accuracy, the more so when he discovered that a paper knife he took to be his own (he fiddles with it through much of his opening address) was in fact made of papier mache. Many another author had been happy to take the money and run - often as fast as they could - from productions they knew would do their literary reputations no possible good, but, they reasoned no doubt correctly, very little harm either, while swelling their bank balances to a degree that more than compensated for the unmistakable feeling of having joined the oldest profession.
But Quartet really is the exception. There is a profound subtlety to it, a desire to convey in miniatures of gesture, dialogue and event exactly that quality of minute observation that makes Maugham's short stories among the best ever written.
Surprisingly, it is the spirit that is recreated rather more than the letter: the adaptations are not religiously unadorned, and the desire to tidy them up dramatically, particularly in terms of narrative pay-off, is more freely indulged than one might think, especially if you haven't read the stories for a while, and only becomes apparent if you then return to them. It's the capturing of their essence, as I said, that is so striking: that brittle, half-concealed iceberg psychology, where the very scarcity of surface revelation somehow makes naked the vast reserves of emotion and meaning beneath.
The four stories are each beautifully transferred, each establishing a perfect mood, never outstaying their welcome, and varying the bill only beneath the skin: there are no jarring transitions in style or feel; each episode is clearly a part of a perfectly unified whole, and yet one is light and amusing, one tragic, one quixotic, one powerfully moving. The last, 'The Colonel's Lady', feels like the best, but as much because it is a culmination, a drawing together of all the elements of the preceding three, as for its own specific virtues, striking though they are. Fascinating as every moment of this story is (concerning the effect on a staid marriage of the wife's unexpected success with a volume of racy poetry), note just how much is conveyed in the first scene, where nothing much happens at all, but in which we eavesdrop on the couple at breakfast and learn all we need to know about them as individuals and as a couple, simply by observing the bland formality that has taken the place of intimacy between them. (And how much is conveyed by such seemingly inconsequential lines of dialogue as the husband's: "You know I cannot bear to see people cutting string!")

It could be argued that the transition between stories should somehow have been handled in such a way as to allow the viewer time to digest what they have just seen before haring into the next (though I can't think how, other than with three intervals, which actually may not have been all that bad an idea), but the overall effect is hardly lessened by what can sometimes feel a little bit like being ushered around an art gallery by an over-officious guide, intent on making you see everything when what you really want to do is stand and contemplate, at your own pace. But that hardly detracts from what is plainly one of the most adult and stylish British films of its era - and rare in any age is a film so happy not to lead its audience by the hand towards its intended effects but content to let them find their own way.
Quartet is a certain triumph, but in keeping with its sources, one perversely incapable of announcing itself thus. It is also one of those rare films that becomes more interesting with repeated viewings.

Chicago (2002) *

While it has been plausibly argued that the pop video style direction of this film's numbers - all micro-second cuts from close-up to odd angle to different close-up to different odd angle - represents a devolution in the art of the movie musical, denying the displays of sheer artistry that the old masters displayed in their long masters and allowing too much room for fudging and faking, this remains as exhilirating as it is dizzying, infectiously energetic and well performed by the whole cast.

Vertigo (1958) **

Strangely underrated on its release, and hysterically overrated thereafter, this oddball melodrama is usually now cited as the greatest of all Hitchcock movies.

I'd choose something slightly more typical myself: this one (though often hailed as quintessential and boasting obvious - if superficially developed - thematic appeal to those whose love of Hitchcock is dependent upon his being acclaimed as an intellectual screen artist) has a strange and intense atmosphere that makes it seem in many ways quite untypical (as does its reliance on plot mechanics for its cinematic effect).
Too long in all, clunkily structured and with a plot that makes no sense, it is nonetheless very impressive and frequently engrossing scene by scene, with uninhibited leads and several bravura sequences and visual touches.

It should be noted, however, that its chief claim to academic veneration - the seemingly necro-erotic sequences in which an increasingly obsessed Stewart attempts to mold Novak into the image of her supposedly dead alter ego - are broadly and hurriedly developed, after more than an hour of the cornball mystery plotting to which they then almost immediately give way again, as the film rushes to its hurried if undeniably effective finale.

Funny Face (1957) *

Weird musical with dull numbers that coasts almost entirely on the easy charm of its leads, but does offer an amusing pastiche of the 1950s existentialist outsider culture.
Viewers are, however, perfectly entitled to find Hepburn vastly more adorable at the beginning, before her capitulation to the world of superificiality for which the film seems intent on soliciting our approval and applause.

The Woman in Red (1984) *

Hard to imagine this film making much of an impact anyone who stumbles upon it now, though it will probably still offer enough easy, sitcomdram-style entertainment to make it worthwhile to any susceptible to Wilder's easygoing charm. (Or to connoisseurs of eighties aesthetics, if such animals exist.)
But at the time it was a big popular success and something of a talking point, while the poster image became briefly iconic, doing for Le Brock what 10 had done for Bo Derek. (Sadly, like Derek, she didn't have the depth or versatility to sustain a career, and after an equally decorative role in Weird Science faded from the scene.) Chances are, anyone around at the time will remember the scene of Le Brock dancing over a subway vent; just as likely they'll remember little else. It's success was further extended by a Stevie Wonder hit single about telephones.

On the one hand it shows just what an interesting and worthy creative figure Wilder was at this time: long having turned his back on the Mel Brooks school that informed his first couple of directorial ventures, he opts here to make a film that is not merely romantic farce but which also attempts to deal with some genuine issues and 3-D characters. (The other thing that comes across, in a film that strives to be alternately gritty and raunchy as well as comic, is the sheer sweetness of the man, and his generosity of spirit.) On the other, it doesn't quite pull it off: the film feels bitty, and too many threads and ideas are developed hastily or abandoned mid-stream, while the characterisation is too often fudged for the sake of narrative expediency.
Still, a point for trying, and for nostalgia.

Lost in Translation (2003) *

A difficult film for me to assess objectively, since it seems to arouse strong feelings I cannot share, compelling me to defend it against those who dismiss is as hollow and pretentious (and still more so against those who criticisise it for its supposedly condescending cultural imperialism), but also to rein in those who find in it any great excess of profundity or emotional power.

The whiff of the emperor's new clothes hovered around it from the start, and it is perfectly true that it is a thing of attitudes and poses more than insight or meaning, and that its style is basically its heart. On the other, I'm not sure anybody involved in the making of it has ever claimed any different, there is certainly something to be said for style, and it is surely true that it does for all that have a very definite and unique atmosphere, one that no other film - including no other by its gifted and always worth bothering with writer-director - has ever quite duplicated. (See Somewhere to get a sense of how its apparent simplicity may be more skilful than you think.)
First time round it manages to compel without ever quite deceiving the viewer into thinking it ever intends going anywhere; subsequent viewings make it easier to enjoy the trappings, the two central performances (now rightly pantheonic) and the visual detail, freed from any hopes that it will surprise or change gear along the way.

All About Eve (1950) **

This is, of course, the Bette Davis film that rounded off her golden Hollywood period. It is a very good movie rather than a great one: as always with Mankiewicz it is at least half an hour too long and only perfunctorily filmed; the dialogue is the thing, though even this could do with judicious pruning.

It survives mainly on account of a few waspish one-liners, a generally convincing evocation of the solipsism of the theatrical community and fine performances. As well as Davis's superlative Margo Channing, a great actress facing middle age and usurpation by the insufferable Eve, there is George Sanders as venemous critic Addison DeWitt, against whose absurdly rapturous description of one of Eve's performances as "a thing of music and fire" Davis characterises herself as "an old kazoo and some sparklers". It is to Sanders that Mankiewicz donates the film's best and truest line: when Marilyn Monroe's lousy aspiring actress asks "Do they have auditions for television?", Sanders replies "That's all television is, my dear: nothing but auditions." But it's Thelma Ritter who comes close to stealing the show as the wisecracking Birdie, the humblest but wisest person in the room when Eve makes her first move, and the only one to instantly see through her act.

White Christmas (1954) **

The first film in VistaVision, taking us right back to that moment when Hollywood began advertising its desperation with wide screens and three hour biblical epics and polaroid glasses. But behind the half-filled canvas and the distorted picture was an entirely old-fashioned enterprise, filmed in that scrumptious, thick Technicolor that made every frame look like it had been painted on to the screen.

All in the studio, too, before the real locations fetish gripped filmland and consigned the movie lots to oblivion (it predates that fifties innovation at least). Everything, from a 1945 war zone to the snowy Vermont resort that fills the screen in the final number, is movie makebelieve, conjured from plywood and plastic by the industry's last great craftsmen. What price realism against this? A charming and simple story, lovely lead performances, Bing Crosby confirming yet again that as well as a voice he really did have something special as a screen presence (though God knows what it was: it certainly defies sober analysis), heroes like Grady Sutton and Sig Ruman and Mary Wickes in support, great Irving Berlin numbers.
Hollywood's decline was going at full speed by 1954, but films like this remind you it was still way nearer the top than the bottom. Imagine the luxury - the sheer, decadent luxury! - of being able to turn your nose up at a film this gorgeous!

Robin Hood (1973)**

A later Disney film that divides opinion: the idea of casting the familiar roles with a variety of animals is certainly eccentric, the straightforward (at times almost Hanna-Barbera-ish) animation is certainly very different from the textured quality of Snow White, and the music score adds a layer of dislocation not too far removed from that of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoniette. But I found it disarmingly good-natured, well-paced and fun. Plus it reunites the Pigeon Sisters from The Odd Couple.

Clockwise (1986)*, A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Fierce Creatures (1997)

Three starring vehicles for John Cleese, the former Monty Python writer-performer and for many the most important single living figure in British comedy (largely on account of Fawlty Towers, a surprisingly traditional but impressively controlled and often irresistibly funny BBC sitcom).

Of these three, it is the first, Clockwise, that trades most explicitly in the legacy of Fawlty; it is also by far the least-remembered and appreciated of them, perhaps because Cleese had no hand in the screenplay. Yet it seems to me by some measure the best; indeed, for the first fifty minutes or so it looks set to be a small post-Ealing classic of British social comedy, with Cleese's Brian Stimpson (basically Fawlty recast as a school headmaster) gradually losing his reason as he tries, against relentless obstacles, to get to a headmasters' conference in Norwich. 
Sadly, it trickles away to nothing in the final third of Michael Frayn's screenplay: regardless of his reputation, someone should have pressed a collaborator (or polisher) on him, ideally Cleese himself, who knows a thing or two about comic narrative momentum. 

A Fish Called Wanda proved an inexplicable smash hit at the time of its release, though I doubt many come back to it today with the same undimmed fondness retained for Fawlty. The Ealing heritage is here made explicit by the recruitment of Charles Crichton as director, but it's always struck me as very rudimentary stuff indeed, with few laughs and fewer surprises, and little value even as a time-passer thanks to its relentless cruelty and mean-spiritedness. 
The plot is an elaborate thing about unlikely robbers pulling off an unlikely heist, but any resemblance to The Lavender Hill Mob ends with the pedigree and the précis.

Fierce Creatures, a second trip to the well for the same players, proved as surprisingly difficult to launch as Wanda had been surprisingly successful: poor previews led to its withdrawal, and to extensive, almost certainly detrimental re-shooting with a new director. What finally emerged was generally conceded to have just missed the mark, with a weird premise about a huge American conglomerate buying a small British zoo and making it stock only ferocious animals. But while it is scarcely any more inventive or important than Wanda, it is, surely, a hundred times more likeable.


The “Confessions” series

Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974)
Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975)
Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1976)
Confessions From a Holiday Camp (1977)

By far the most famous and well-remembered of the 1970s British sex comedies, the Confessions, along with the distinctive features, physique and mannerisms of their iconic star, Robin Askwith, have come to be seen by many as the very definition of the sub-genre.
They marked the first and most successful attempt by a major studio (Columbia) to muscle in on a hitherto scuzzy and bargain basement industry, resulting in a strong infusion of well-known faces (who might hitherto have refused to be seen dead in any such thing) and basic but effective comedy. (Among the many guest stars, John Junkin, Liz Fraser and Linda Hayden distinguish themselves by each appearing twice in different roles; the latter, Askwith's on-off real life girlfriend, is the sympathetic female lead in the first, and a phoney French-accented member of the background crumpet assortment in the last.)
And they were, for a while, phenomenally successful: pitched as Carry On films in which you can actually see the breasts and pubic hair of the female stars, they effectively ended the Carry On series as a going concern, which tried vainly to catch up with the new mood before dying of embarrassment.
Ironically, however, the Confessions themselves came to an end not long after, after only four titles, partly because it is the fate of all radical innovation to become commonplace in the blink of an eye, but also because the set-up of the films was too restricting and allowed for only superficial variation, whereas the Carry Ons had established a format where the usual cast and jokes can be inserted into any imaginable modern, historical or fantastic framework. With the Confessions, audiences soon tired of the limited formula, and a slew of imitations (such as Stanley Long's Adventures series) staled the whole concept in quick time anyway.
Each film concerns Lea's brother-in-law (Anthony Booth, Tony Blair's father-in-law) starting some new business, which Askwith's Timmy Lea does his accidental best to ruin with a combination of slapstick sexual misadventure and goonish physical ineptitude. The reappearance each time of his family (father Bill Maynard, mother Doris Hare - Dandy Nicholls in the first film - and sister Sheila White) add to the saminess of the films, and hastened their demise, though Maynard invariably provides the most substantial laughs.
Watched en masse, there are a few surprises in the films. The popular image of Askwith's character - a randy and absurdly successful lothario who scarcely has to look at a woman to end up bashing about on the floor with her - only really comes to be in the first sequel. Confessions of a Window Cleaner, Val Guest's original film is - by the standards of the rest - an oddly sincere character comedy about a young man's coming of age, with only a small number of more-explicit-than-usual sex scenes to distinguish it from the likes of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. Timmy is a virgin when we first meet him, and a gauche and nervous sexual inadequate thereafter, who is taught technique and confidence by the experienced older women - those habitual oversexed housewives of seventies comedy - he meets on his daily rounds. (His soap suds-drenched scene with Sue Longhurst is perhaps the most famous of the series.) But he almost immediately falls in love with Linda Hayden's young policewoman, and finishes the film within an inch of getting married.
It's the second film, Confessions of a Pop Performer (directed like the rest by Norman Cohen), that perfects the formula. (Also in its favour is a good supporting cast of comic players, as well as some funny pop songs that represent the height of musical degeneracy in the last few minutes before punk, when rowdy delinquent pop oiks still can, and do, play piano.)
But the limitations of the set-up are already looking fatal by the time of Confessions of a Driving Instructor, which plays as a series of unconnected chunks held together with gossamer - boring and increasingly irrelevant sex scenes, comedy turns from Maynard and Windsor Davies, broad physical slapstick.
Ironically, it's the last in the series, Confessions From a Holiday Camp, that gets the mix right: the situations are reasonably funny, there are a few genuine laughs, the regular characters are integrated legitimately, and even the sex scenes have some basis in the narrative and pay off comedically.
But despite the climactic captions advising audiences to avoid imitations, and a closing narration from Askwith indicating yet another adventure, after this Timmy Lea confessed no more.


Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Vietnam vet John Rambo, last seen under arrest following a rampage in which he killed and maimed several policemen, is bizarrely revived as an avenging hero in this preposterous, if undeniably efficient action extravaganza, loved by audiences and loathed by critics, that became one of the cultural signposts of the Reagan era in America.

First Blood, a very different and basically admirable thriller, had become Stallone's biggest hit since Rocky in 1982, and he responded to its success in exactly the same way. In both films he had bravely offered audiences a hero who was basically a loser, and allowed them only the most ambiguous of victories at the end.
When the public embraced them, he rewarded them with radically re-inventive sequels, in which the same characters suddenly turn from losers to the exact opposite: pure comic book heroes, one dimensional and indestructible. It's hard to decide which is the least likely: that loveable dope Rocky Balboa could genuinely become the heavyweight champion of the world, or that the mentally ill war casualty John Rambo could be successfully re-enlisted on another top secret military mission. But in Stallone-land, that's what happened.
Strange, that all of the innate good creative sense (and taste) that Stallone displayed in creating both characters in the first place was so spectacularly abandoned when it was rewarded with box-office success. But then, he did know his audience: Rocky II and First Blood Part II were both box-office smashes.

Thirty years on, Rambo plays inevitably as a period piece, and in the extent to which it spoils the sincerity and seriousness of the first film it is basically to be regretted. On its own terms, however, it remains a blazingly vigorous and pacy action caper for those whose tastes run that way, and of much historical interest as a reminder - in these days when even Batman is portrayed as divided and tormented, in pretentious epics praised for their moral ambiguity - of how a film much condemned for its prurient violence and sensationalist appeal still upheld establishment ideals.

First Blood (1982) **

Though he maintained a high celebrity profile, Sylvester Stallone found it surprisingly difficult to duplicate the box-office success of Rocky, other than in direct sequels. Unexpectedly, this gritty action shocker - basically just another spin on the now  ten-year-old Deliverance formula - turned out to be his only other certain smash of the decade, giving rise to its own run of extremely eccentric sequels and establishing him as one of the key icons of 80s Hollywood.

This original invariably surprises audiences coming to it fresh on the strength of the popular image of John Rambo, its main character. Far from the indestructible avenger of the blockbusting sequels, this authentic Rambo is a mentally damaged Vietnam vet, adrift and friendless in an age that would rather forget about him, who goes on a survivalist rampage after he is goaded and wrongly imprisoned by the sheriff's department of a quiet redneck town.
The action sequences are exceptionally well-staged, but the film takes time to establish the human drama, and the final ten minutes, in which Rambo collapses with grief over the memories that torment him, puts the mayhem poignantly in context, and remind audiences of the very real talent Stallone delights in revealing only in lightning flashes.
A Kewpie doll please, Maltin.


Possession (2002)

Having never read the Booker Prize-winning novel upon which this is based, nor seen any of LaBute's other films, I have no idea how valid the two most generally-offered criticisms of this film are: that it is a simplistic travesty of the former, and so self-consciously different from the rest of the latter as to make sense only as a stylistic experiment, with no real heart or any other raison d'etre.

The second criticism sounds a bit shabby to me - the intrinsic absurdity of auteurism finally coming back to bite the auteur in the ass - and anyway, when the remake of The Wicker Man arrived the debate became a degree less important anyway.
But what seems to me the film's biggest narrative fault may well be a consequence of the first complaint, that being the way that a literary discovery that is nothing short of monumental, but which has gone completely unsuspected for a century, is stumbled upon accidentally, and then the subsequent investigation casually produces reams of corroborative evidence from dozens of sources and locations in at least two countries, all of which has somehow passed over the heads of previous scholars, even as it was passing under their noses.

That aside, the film is a careful and sincere piece which blends a story about 21st century academics investigating a Victorian literary romance with a recreation of the romance itself, stocked with enough interesting roles to keep the wolf from the door of most of Britain's Jane Austen acting industry, and giving Gwyneth Paltrow yet another chance to show off what is possibly the best fake British accent in the business. (Perversely, or possibly with deliberately mischievous intent, Trevor Eve is cast as one of the film's very few Americans.)

Final Destination (2000)

Popular addition to the post-Scream ironic teen horror boom, the longevity of which as a franchise must have surprised even its biggest fans.
Ironically, given how soon after Scream it came, critics were even at this stage praising it for its general seriousness and for eschewing the nudge-and-wink approach that was already standard, and already staling.
It also re-integrated supernatural themes with the new formula, and in its biggest error of judgement, revived the hoary old idea of giving all the characters the surnames of famous genre actors and directors.
Time has not been massively kind overall: a nail-biting opening segues into an inevitably anti-climactic whole, since once the ingenious premise is established there is nothing left for it to do, other than punctuate mechanical suspense with ingenious vignettes of spectacular death. Four sequels followed, and more may yet join them, suggesting that no matter how formulaic the material - and to be honest, this pretty much redefines the term - they'll keep coming out to watch teenagers die provided you can keep coming up with inventive ways for it to happen.

Run For Your Wife (2012) *


This long-gestating film version of Ray Cooney's phenomenally successful stage farce opened to excoriating reviews, many hailing it as the worst film of the year or even the worst British film of all time, and a much-quoted first weekend take of around £750.
Hard to imagine just how utterly bewildered Cooney must have been left by such savagery, when the target was as jolly, harmless and pleasant a piece of work as this. What a bunch of pretentious, humourless bores.

I had been tipped off before the screening I attended (its only showing in Bath) that where audiences were actually getting a chance to see it they were enjoying it enormously, and sure enough, my crowd had a thoroughly good time: lots of loud, unforced laughter throughout, and a decisive summing up of “well that was brilliant!” from an elderly lady at the end. The situations might be just a little too ludicrous for that suspension of disbelief necessary for truly great farce, but the construction is clever, the pace unflagging, the direction efficient, and most of it is extremely funny.

Nice performances all round, especially from Neil Morrissey (who gets the lion's share of the laughs), Christopher Biggins (who gets most of what's left over) and Nicholas Le Prevost (who gives a performance of effortless comic charm, of a sort I thought I'd never see again outside of re-runs.) Casting Danny Dyer in the lead was a mistake – he looks far too loutish for a role that needs as much audience sympathy as it can possibly get – but even he has a defter comic touch than I predicted (a measure, perhaps, of Cooney's proven expertise in extracting fine comic performances from his casts).

Cat People (1982)

When it was announced that Lewton's masterpiece was going to be remade, paying more explicit attention to its considerable erotic undercurrent, fans divided sharply into two camps: those who thought it a valid and intriguing exercise and those who damned it as heresy.
On release, though, they swiftly recombined to establish the overriding consensus: good idea or bad, the film is just terrible.
Perfect though I feel the original to be, I had no particular problem with the concept (and the casting of Nastassja Kinski in Simone Simon's role seemed especially promising), but the finished film is neither atmospheric nor excting, and it's not even all that sexy.

Sadly, because the potential was there, the film never stops making mistakes. The plot has been altered almost beyond recognition, and in silly ways that totally undermine the point and the tension of the original story. The elements that should have proved most inspiring are replaced with new and vastly inferior alternative ideas, while well-worn highlights, like the darkened swimming pool scene and the mysterious woman who acknowledges Irina, are retained (and just tamely re-staged) even though they no longer make any sense in the revised narrative.
The inclusion of Malcolm McDowell as Kinski's incestuous cat person brother is on its own a disaster from which no production could recover, but just to make sure a bizarre mystic back story and the kind of ending that seems specifically designed to annoy audiences act as insurance. Add to this the inhumane use of real animals and a horrible Giorgio Moroder score (including a Moroder-David Bowie collaboration of the sort that comes along only once in a lifetime, or less if you're really lucky) and all is truly lost.
Even Kinski, set certain to compensate with her hitherto effortless erotic power, seems constrained by the eccentricities of the material, as well as drably styled and saddled with an unflattering short hairdo.


Magnum Force (1973) *

Dirty Harry tracks down a vigilante death squad operating from within the San Francisco police department, in a sequel that confirms just how much you can get away with when you have a foolproof formula.

The one and only new twist is the plot gimmick: a grovelling apologia to Pauline Kael and her proxies, who accused the original of pandering to vigilantism and labelled it fascist. In bending over backwards to disprove that charge the film comes off as cynical and, far worse, disrespectful of the audiences who loved the original just the way it was. ("I'm afraid you've misjudged me," Harry says at one point.)
Apart from that one dubious innovation it sticks like super-glue to the established template: the rookie partner, the battles with superiors, the snarled catchphrases,  the selection of incidental assignments (including one that Harry happens to intercept while eating at a hamburger restaurant and embarks upon still chewing)... all are present and correct. It's also far too casually paced, a ninety minute movie that comes in at a flabby 124; with tighter direction and editing at least half an hour could have been trimmed without removing any one scene in its entirety.
And yet, despite all that, the bastard works, and never even begins to seriously tax the patience of anyone who loves to see Clint going about this kind of business. Just having him show up in the role is to have half the film's job done: it would have to be terrible to fail with that kind of a head start, and for all its faults, it's far from that.

Fever Pitch (2005) *

British viewers will know it better as The Perfect Catch, a nicer title, albeit one rather mischievously designed to hide the fact that it was another version of Nick Hornby's paean to English football, which had already been filmed in typical dead weight British style with Colin Firth.

This transatlantic baseball makeover is streets ahead, and a genuinely enjoyable romantic comedy. Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon are equally charming, and click together on screen with an effortlessness surprisingly rare in this genre. Too bad it didn't go over bigger at the box office, as it represented a major step up for the Farrelly Brothers, who older readers may recall were briefly important names in American film comedy.


Going the Distance (2010)


Slightly misjudged formula romcom, undone by the sheer obnoxiousness of virtually all the central characters.

A few good laughs and scenes, but a will-they-won't-they romance needs to try much harder to make the audience care whether they do or not than this one. Drew Barrymore labours to bring her usual effervescence and likeability to a character hardly deserving of either.


Marnie (1964)

After The Birds had been given the very generous benefit of several doubts, this came as final proof that highbrow acclaim was the worst thing that could possibly have happened to Hitchcock.

Where once he was free to take on just about any project that appealed to his sensibilities, now each new film had to be an event, different from what went before and with some new gimmick or sensation to justify his involvement. As a result, the films become strange mixtures of hubris and uncertainty, replacing the uncomplicated confidence of his best work with a painful self-consciousness and straining for significance that the material is increasingly unable to justify or sustain.
This naive and untypically overlong melodrama, sold as a daring and sophisticated psychosexual thriller, labours under the triple imposition of his most hokey plot since Spellbound, a massively artificial production, and Sean Connery, the latest in a series of miscast leads that would prove a problem for the rest of Hitchcock's career. Tippi Hedren is elegant and watchable in a basically unplayable role, but the big revelations, when they finally come, are risible in the extreme.

Ironically, Vertigo, which had left critics and audiences equally perplexed just six years earlier, would have gone down a storm at this point: instead he offered a cranky imitation of that overrated but vastly superior film, stuffed with Freudian cotton wool. Nonetheless, and I suppose unsurprisingly given its preoccupations, a revisionist cult has grown around the film. Robin Wood has claimed that if you don't love Marnie you don't love cinema, in which case I am happy to accept that I don't love cinema.


“Halloween” series


Halloween (1978) *
It is often the case that the more groundbreaking a film was, the harder it is to see what all the fuss was about a generation or so on, and it's surely the case here. But even with its innovations now commonplaces, this is still a good, scary piece of work, a Psycho-like confidence trick that works brilliantly once, though the longueurs certainly get longer with repeated viewings. John Carpenter's era-defining score, a nicely conveyed small town atmosphere and a fresh and likeable cast help the somewhat mechanical jolts and judders find their mark, and Donald Pleasence is a hammy delight as the obsessed psychiatrist. (All the same it's a pity both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing turned the role down: had they not done so the transition between their era and the one this ushered in would have seemed a lot smoother and less confrontational.)

Halloween II (1981)
Straightforward second helping, prosaically rewriting the plainly supernatural implications of the original film's ending, and replacing the mood and suggestion with simple-minded blood and thunder. Don't fall into the trap of blaming that on stand-in director Rick Rosenthal, though: the extra splatter was added by Carpenter himself after principal photography was completed in an effort to goose the film up a little (just as he had done, rather more successfully, in The Fog). It's an ironic compliment to the influence of the original that in just three years a simple retread seemed unworkably stale.
It's nice to see Jeffrey Kramer again, after his immensely likeable work in Jaws and Jaws 2.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983)
A major disappointment at the time, this curious effort to extend the series using 'Halloween' as a banner title for unrelated stories has subsequently become a cult favourite among later generations on television. The fact that the idea was deemed a mistake, and so this is the only film in the series with a plot totally unlinked to the others, makes it seem odder still today. Originally scripted by an uncredited Nigel Kneale, it's a campy fantasy about a deranged toymaker, with Tom Atkins returning in the lead after his good services in The Fog, and a ghoulish ending. As a time-passer, not too bad.

Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) *
A new team revived the original concept after a five-year lay-off in an obvious programmer that nonetheless has enough pace, style and excitement to qualify as perhaps the most entertaining of the whole series, including the original. The twist ending is unexpected and clever, and Danielle Harris's performance is one of the best ever by a child performer.

Halloween 5 (1989)
Inevitable but undistinguished extension, which never justifies the need to spoil the ending of part four. Some noble attempts to revive the mysterious, supernatural aspects of the original help very slightly to hold interest in what is otherwise the standard recipe of mayhem and pursuit.

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
Released after the plainly ailing Pleasence's death, this sequel takes the original idea into some very strange areas indeed, and gamely clears up the mystery of the man in black that was introduced in the previous film and that, six more years down the line, surely nobody was worrying about too much. So weird it can't help but hold the interest to some extent, but the formula elements are routinely deployed.

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998) *
Inanely titled but otherwise admirable reinvention of the original, made under the wing of Kevin Williamson, with something of the savviness of Scream but none of the self-mockery, and Jamie Lee Curtis making a splendid comeback in the lead (with mother Janet Leigh in support). The story ignores the bizarre developments of recent episodes, and after a tense first half turns into simple, excellently directed stalking and jumping out of dark corners.It's as formulaic as can be, but somehow it works all over again. As with the equally admirable Halloween 4, however, it finishes with a splendid last scene that shouldn't have been tampered with, but the film's success meant a further sequel was inevitable.  Director Steve Miner had made some of the early entries of the rival Friday the 13th series.

Halloween Ressurection (2002)
A further extension, now firmly in the idiom of the post-modern, post-Scream self-referential slasher, with a reality TV subplot and an audacious death for Jamie Lee Curtis to kick things off. Nothing like as bad as it could have been or is reputed to be, but nobody's idea of essential viewing. Nice to see Rick Rosenthal returning as director.
The last  of the series to date, the film was followed by a remake of the original in 2007, and a subsequent Halloween II that was not a remake of the original Halloween II - it would all be terribly confusing if it mattered a damn, but under the aegis of Rob Zombie the films were so wretched in both conception and execution that it's easier just to pretend they don't exist. The only point of interest was the return to the series of Danielle Harris, as a different character in each film.

The Intelligence Men (1965) *

First of three big-screen outings for Morecambe and Wise, all generally accounted as failures, though audiences liked them well enough at the time, and eyes both fresh and sympathetic may well find them far from the dead end of official estimation.
This is pre-packaged comedy, for sure, making few more demands of the talent than it does of the audience, but it's still often very amusing for all that, with a lively climax, a number of effective if well-spaced highlights, two ideal stooges in William Franklyn and Francis Matthews, and consistently entertaining work from the leads.
Also a key film for we small but devoted band of Tutte Lemkov addicts.

Grease (1978) *

Perhaps the oddest of all phenomenon movies, achieving huge box-office success at the time and if anything even greater cult longevity thereafter, first as an exercise in fifties nostalgia for seventies audiences, then as seventies nostalgia for original audiences too young to pick up on the references at the time. 
(I expect I was one of many that saw it on its original release and understood not one word of it; I didn't even realise it was set in the past. Among a myriad misreadings of the sexual references I thought the line 'Did she put up a fight?' was 'Did she put up and fight?', asked enthusiastically because boys like fighting). 
Almost senseless, in the light of what it has become, to offer objective criticism, but overall it’s surprisingly good, if surprisingly plotless: very energetically directed (by Kleiser, a big favourite of John Waters and the director of that other great relic of my youth, The Blue Lagoon) and well edited. 
The cutting between shots during the musical numbers is done with dexterity and judiciousness, and some of the songs are charming. (I don't like them all, simply because I'm not a fan of fifties music, and the three show stoppers – ‘Summer Nights’, ‘You’re the One That I Want’ and ‘Greased Lighting’ - are just too accurate as pastiches; I find the latter in particular near-unendurable.) 
The leads are all good to excellent, with Stockard Channing taking top honours in a role few performers might, on the face of it, have seemed less suited for, and John Travolta, much underrated for his unusual ability to combine the functions of dramatic actor and self-mocking song and dance man, while at all times retaining possession of one of the weirdest faces on any man ever, is also very impressive. 
Best of all, room is also found for Sid Caesar, Eve Arden and Joan Blondell.

Grease 2 (1982)

A second trip to the well, with a gender switched but otherwise carbon copied plot, that didn't have the good luck of the first either at the box office or in terms of cult longevity.
Despite plenty of energy and the same desire to please as the original, it suffers from unavoidably second-drawer casting and incredibly unmemorable songs.


Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974) *

Hammer's last Frankenstein picture is an oddity indeed, deliberately conceived in an era of upheaval and experimentation as a conscious experiment in back to basics aesthetics, with as many original contributors on board as possible.
Unfortunately, austerity measures demanded a savagely low budget, necessitating that the film be almost entirely shot in a few claustrophobic studio interiors. It's grim, too, with several surprisingly unsavoury grand guignol flourishes and a pervading air of gloom, while the monster make-up is as weirdly over the top as the film's title. The result was a film that remained unreleased for two years (and as long again in the US), but such is the professionalism of the studio, even at this low an ebb, that, to aficionados at least, it remains interesting and oddly compelling at all times.

The Gentle Sex (1943) **

 "Women... women all over the place... They think they're helping, I suppose..." 

So begins director Leslie Howard's narration, but like much else in the film (especially the credits, picked out in needlepoint) it is clearly ironic. In fact, the film both announces and welcomes the changing social status of Britain's womanhood. 
Howard had returned to England from Hollywood when war broke out to make propaganda films. With the exception of The Lamp Still Burns (1943), a similar effort about wartime nurses for which Howard is credited as producer, this film (in which he takes no acting role) was to be his last before his plane was shot down in 1943. Though direction was completed (without credit) by Maurice Elvey, after Howard's mistress suddenly died during production, Howard's is the film's controlling voice. 
This is instantly established by the opening sequence, in which we glimpse him from behind on a balcony overlooking a railway station, choosing, like a Greek God, the women whose destiny he is to control (or rather, whose progress the film is to follow). Thus as narrator he is selecting the characters just as he must have chosen the actresses as director. (The viewer must decide which of the two provides the accompanying voice-overs: "Oh, we must have her... We might keep an eye on this one, she looks worth following.") 
This omniscient tone, both an irony and a comfort in the uncertain times in which the film was first received, is countered by moments of unexpected realism, as when a central character is reported missing, presumed dead. It is the uncertainty of the communication that surprises today (we never receive definite information), but it would have struck a recognisable, and of course harrowing, chord at the time. Our knowledge of Howard's own death so shortly after intensifies the effect of such moments still further. 

In order to salute the real-life equivalents of its subjects, the film affects a semi-documentary style, casts character actresses rather than stars in the leads, and uses genuine military personnel as walk-ons. It also contains much discussion of how a post-war future should be constructed. (Present-day audiences may find the simple optimism of these sequences among the saddest parts of the film.) As such, it resembles Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944), another film that drew a distinction between why we fight and what we are fighting for.

The Woman In Black (2012) *

A film that has done the seemingly impossible: justified the use of the revived name of Hammer Film Productions, honoured the traditions of the studio’s past, evoked much of its style, and at the same time managed to appeal to a broad, modern audience that have no interest in, or perhaps even awareness of, the original films. As a film it’s good, as a juggling act it’s amazing.

There are the expected anachronisms of course, of the sort which no modern film set in the past could now be expected to avoid, annoying though they are all the same: designer stubble, men walking about in the rain without hats, characters suggesting they “get the hell out” of places, and ugly modern metaphor-speak (Daniel Radcliffe’s boss urges greater commitment from his employee on the grounds that they “don’t carry passengers”).
And Radcliffe is too young; there’s no point pretending he isn’t. But neither would it be right not to add that, given that initial handicap, he delivers an excellent performance that does everything possible to make you forget, or at least excuse, his fundamental unsuitability for the role. His commitment and intensity cannot be faulted – his facial acting alone has to carry a good fifty percent of the film – and if he never quite convinces us he’s a widowed lawyer with a four year old son, well… Julie Ege wasn’t my mind’s idea of an Edwardian feminist adventuress in Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and I can’t say that worried me unduly either. These are precisely the kind of eccentricities that Hammer must be allowed.
 The rest of the film? Well, it’s not especially original and it’s not especially ambitious, so hyperbole would sit ill on its frail shoulders. But in terms of the limits it sets for itself, there's not much wrong with it at all. Even rendered in tacky digital format, the art direction is astounding, the photography is rich, the locations are beautifully atmospheric. (Did you not dream of seeing a Hammer character making his way up and down a baroque staircase left of frame again? Dream no more!) At least two of the big scare moments work better than anything comparable in any of the similar films to which this has been compared, and the lingering sense of dread that strings them together is better yet. There’s even a slightly sappy ending that, a meaningless close on the Woman in Black’s face notwithstanding, honours the original Hammer’s commitment to ultimately restored order, even to restored order within a framework of Christian dogmatics.
 I liked the casting, too, which seemed to me chosen by the classic Hammer method: an attention-catcher in front, sturdy support from traditional talent (Ciaran Hinds is rock solid) and a fine third-row of well-chosen rhubarbers (David Burke, probably tv’s best ever Dr Watson, gets a line or two as the village bobby; Victor McGuire gets one as an anguished father). It’s good to see them, and they have the feel of a new Hammer repertory. If any of them showed up again in the next one it would be wonderful. It is in such matters as these that the true Hammer flavour can most usefully be recalled.
What the studio really needs is an overarching identity that links its new films to each other, rather than something that links any of them to the past.

Unfaithfully Yours (1984) **

This is one of those heretic remakes, another being the Mel Brooks version of To Be Or Not To Be, that take on an original so acclaimed that it is impermissible to suggest revisiting it was even a good idea, and absolutely forbidden to dare admit that the interloper might be as good as its source.
The reason it is so imperative to deny any such thing, however, and in the case of both films, is because it is so manifestly true.
But Lubitsch and Sturges occupy a secure position in film history, and it will wobble neither's pedestal to concede that, in their very different ways, the remakes are fully comparable to the originals, and in some ways perhaps even superior.

The advantage this one has over its inspiration is that it streamlines the action. Sturges had an amazing comic imagination, but also a profligate and undisciplined one, which was fine when he was firing on all cylinders, but which at other times could leave the narrative feeling a little flabby and unfocused. The original Unfaithfully Yours, in which orchestra conductor Rex Harrison imagine three separate means of dealing with what he believes to be his wife's infidelity, is perhaps a good case in point. But here, Dudley Moore (so much more likeable than Rex) concocts only one plot, a hopelessly convoluted 'perfect murder', which then goes deliciously wrong at every step in a final third that surely eclipses the Sturges version on a purely laugh-count basis.
Forget the inherent heresy and you should find yourself enjoying a relaxed and charming comedy, almost certainly Moore's best post-Arthur vehicle, with enjoyable concert hall backgrounds and nice work from Armand Assante as the supposed rival, Albert Brooks as Moore's naive confidante, and Nastassja Kinski as his wife. The latter, an icon of early-eighties cinema, is here at the zenith of her mainstream popularity, stunningly beautiful, playing nicely against Moore, and clearly enjoying herself in a rare comedy role.

Atonement (2007)

Fashionable despair-porn for the terminally ironic: insincere, weightlessly cast and pretty boring to boot.

It has its strengths, I suppose: good photography, general seriousness of intent, signs of a budget well spent... none of these bare minimum qualities are to be taken for granted. But I don't like it.
I don't like the ending, for a start. The central character, supposedly the novel's author, first gives us an ending in which the various conflicts are resolved and some kind of happiness restored, then tells us it did not really happen that way; the lovers were both killed without meeting again, wrongs were never forgiven etc etc. People like happy endings, she explains, but life cannot be expected to conform to such expectations.
Which, if it were a real autobiography, would be fair enough, and very moving in its own way. But this is a fiction, written by a man called Ian, so what's the point? Why ignore his own moral? Why say that audiences and readers prefer to leave with a sense of hope, hint that the very point of fiction may have something to do with these matters, and then not only renege on that trust but do so in such a sneaky, clever-clever way? The answer has nothing to do with narrative or dramatic effectiveness, and everything to do with a writer showing off.
Still, at least it makes sense as a literary device, confided to us at the end of the book in a voice that has been speaking to us throughout. The film's desperate attempt to convert it into a dramatic twist, by suddenly showing the central character in old age (with the same hairstyle she had when she was twelve) explaining it all very... very... very... slowly, on an incredibly unrealistic chat show, doesn't play at all.
And we have the usual problem with period. Visually it's fine: the hairstyles, the decor, Keira Knightley's swimming costume - all of these are spot on. But the rest is baloney. Adrift in the solipsistic ignorance of their own times, modern actors are no longer able to inhabit the more robust skins of earlier generations - they look like kids at the dressing up box; they can't even smoke casually. Especially annoying, then, to see them pretending to be World War II soldiers. (Tip to director: next time you want to convince us that the Dunkirk evacuees were brutal, despairing maniacs, don't include any real documentary footage of the genuine article, with humanity and stoicism and decency shining from every face.)
As a piece of drama set before and during the war, I simply don't buy a second of it. I have very protective feelings about the nineteen-thirties, which seem to me the most optimistic as well as the most tragic years of their century, and this sequence of events simply does not fit there.
These people, and their fecklessness, pettiness, self-obsession and incontinence, have not come from there.

Targets (1968) ****

Like the French New Wave directors, Peter Bogdanovich began as a critic before going on to make movies heavily informed by his passion for directors like Hawks, Hitchcock and Welles, imbued with a poignant sense of loss that chimed well with the so-called ‘nostalgia boom’ (when audiences suddenly realised that, with the collapse of the studio system, something cherishable had been lost beyond recall.)
Targets (1968), his directorial debut, is many things: a thoughtful and brilliantly tense thriller, a love letter to the past and a poison pen letter to the present, an elegy for Hollywood’s golden age, and – for its star Boris Karloff – the kind of loving valediction of which all actors must dream.

Karloff plays Byron Orlok, a horror star who decides to cancel his next film and retire because he has grown to loathe Hollywood, and the modern world, and feels like an anachronism amidst slick new kinds of film-making and vapid young audiences:

Everybody's dead. I feel like a dinosaur. Oh, I know how people feel about me these days - old-fashioned, outmoded... 'Mr Boogeyman, King of Blood' they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream... I couldn't play a straight part decently anymore. I've been doing the other thing too long... and even that isn't the point. You know what they call my films today? Camp, high camp.
Wait a minute, I want to show you something. My kind of horror isn't horror anymore. Look at that. 
[He produces a newspaper, headlined YOUTH KILLS SIX IN SUPERMARKET.] 
No-one is afraid of a painted monster.

He will honour one last professional commitment - to introduce his new film (actually Karloff's 1963 Corman quickie The Terror) at its drive-in premiere. 
As we follow him through the day in the company of his director friend Sammy (played by Bogdanovich), Karloff/Orlok holds court on old age, the decline of the movies, the golden age, and modern society. We see him argue with agents and studio heads, reminisce, get drunk and fall asleep, and even watch himself on television in Howard Hawks's The Criminal Code.
Karloff told Bogdanovich that one of his lines in the film was the truest he had ever delivered. When the writer-director asked him which one, he replied: "The one when I'm looking out the car window at the city streets and I say, 'God, what an ugly town this has become.' My Lord, it's never been truer." 
Perhaps the most impressive moment comes when Orlok is, with the utmost reluctance, meeting the moronic, trendy interviewer who is going to speak to him as he introduces the movie ("When I was a kid, Mr O, I must have dug your flicks four zillion times. You blew my mind." "Obviously.") So infuriated is he by the inanity of the questions he decides instead to tell a story to the audience, and launches into it. It's a short, clever tale of the unexpected about a man who meets Death in person, delivered hypnotically by Karloff in a single fluid tracking shot that moves slowly to extreme close-up in time for the punchline. It is utterly mesmerising, and the crew burst into spontaneous applause after shooting it. Later Bogdanovich noticed that Karloff's wife Evie had been discreetly crying. "Do you know how long it's been since a crew has applauded for Boris?" she explained quietly. 

Throughout all this, Bogdanovich is constantly cutting to a second, seemingly unrelated story, concerning a disaffected young man, living a sterile, joyless existence with his wife and parents who, we soon learn, is dangerously disturbed. Eventually, he murders his family and we watch him matter-of-factly take his gun collection to a water-tower, climb it, and shoot randomly at the cars passing by on the nearby freeway.
As the two stories alternate, they begin to brush against each other. ("Guess who I saw coming home? Byron Orlok!", the young man tells his family at dinner. "Did he scare you?" jokes his father, explicitly evoking Orlok's own analogy between his tame, old-fashioned horrors and the new horrors of the real world.) We realise that each man is moving in ignorance of the other to the same ultimate destination: the drive-in. Here, as Karloff approaches to make his public appearance, the young killer climbs the scaffolding behind the screen and, through a small hole in the fabric, begins shooting at the audience. They finally meet in the film's final moments in a confrontation that is dramatic, clever, and moving. Walking blithely into danger, Orlok disarms the killer and slaps him hard in the face, encountering for the first time not just the evil but also the banality of this new kind of horror. "Is that what I was afraid of?" Karloff asks in sadness and disgust.

As I said, this is a gripping thriller, a profound rumination on cultural decline, and a salute to a great star that allows Karloff a chance, at just the right moment in his career, to show exactly the kind of work of which he is capable. He made other films after, Curse of the Crimson Altar in England and some terrible back-to-back quickies in Mexico, but apparently always referred to Targets, with metaphorical if not literal accuracy, as his final film. One can easily imagine many another old actor watching it and wishing that they had been given an opportunity to round off their career so show-stoppingly.
Bogdanovich followed the promise of the the film with three deserved smashes (The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc? and Paper Moon) and then an unending run of bad luck, if not bad movies. Films like At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976) reflect not so much a drop in standards as a sense of being left behind by fashion. Though major commercial and critical flops, there's not much wrong with them except, perhaps, opportunistic casting. He still makes good films when he's given the chance - The Cat’s Meow (2000) for instance - but in the final analysis, Targets remains his masterpiece.

Two Days In Paris (2007)

Julie Delpy's comedy about a French girl and her American boyfriend wandering about Pairs is the most unembarrassed Woody Allen imitation since Kenneth Branagh's In The Bleak Midwinter, over which it perhaps just has the advantage of not assuming we won't realise. There's also a dash of the rambling-around-with-a-guy-and-talking movies she made for Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), and of Sofia Coppola.

I went predisposed to like it because I like her (the Trois Couleurs came out when I was at University, so she - and Binoche and Jacob - were kind of my generation's Beatrice Dalle) and because it looked quirky and had good reviews. It was round about this time that I learned never to trust reviews of quirky indie movies, or rather to trust them rigidly, but in the certainty that if the reviewer thinks they're just terrific then I'm going to hate them. (In fact it was this and Broken Flowers that convinced me.)
So, for the last time, I was led blindly by the geezer in The Times who said he was dreading it but ended up bowled over by its wit, insight, sophistication and what-have-you, and by the quote on the poster from some broad about making sure you wear waterproof makeup because she laughed until she cried. Oh please... 
An early dinner table scene promises well, but the rest is complacent and witless: hateful characters, brazen toadying to the European anti-American consensus, and not even a well-conveyed sense of Paris. Adam Goldberg's character, in particular, is obnoxious beyond all endurance, and the film panders relentlessly to fashionable metropolitan certainties and pieties. I feared at the time that it was set for cult status, but I don't see anybody referencing it these days, which is something at least.
Two Days in New York, a 2011 follow-up, omitted Goldberg and added Chris Rock and Vincent Gallo as himself: hard to imagine what it might be like, and few people seem to have even heard of it.

Berserk (1967) *


And berserk it most assuredly is: a demented potboiler about a black-gloved psycho offing the acts at Joan Crawford's circus during the show, with ticket sales rising every time as the punters come back hoping for a repeat performance.
It's easily the better of Joan's collaborations with producer Herman Cohen, and along with Horrors of the Black Museum probably Cohen's most sheerly entertaining film, the absence of men in gorilla suits notwithstanding.

Though she looks a bit like Franz Liszt in the slightly embarrassing scenes where she has her hair down and Ty Hardin has to pretend to be madly in love with her, there's no denying Joan looks sensational for a woman of 61 in the big top sequences: her legs are still a knockout in tights. It's probably the least demeaning of her end-of-career horror roles: she has loads of well-tailored costumes, and the role is swaggering and brassy and non-camp. According to Cohen the role was originally written for a man, then hastily rewritten (though not much, I'll warrant) when Joanie stepped in. It is a star part, just not in a star movie.
But the film itself offers myriad other delights for connoisseurs, including the once in a lifetime casting of Joan, Diana Dors and Judy Geeson as the three-generational female leads, Robert Hardy as a foppish Scotland Yard detective accidentally stepping in elephant shit, Michael Gough having a tent peg hammered through the back of his head and out the front while he's standing up (just one of the film's wildly inventive and physically impossible murder highlights), Philip Madoc sawing Diana Dors in half for real (another one), a song and dance number from the circus freaks, and a full performance from Phyllis Allan and her intelligent poodles.
Though the parade of real circus acts shown in full tends to slow it down a little in the second half, the film is good guilty fun, and with a genuinely surprising villain.

The Deep (1977)* The Island (1980)


Jaws was both blessing and curse to author Peter Benchley.
Creatively it was mainly a curse: far from giving the freedom to write anything he liked it straitjacketed him as an author of maritime peril, whose subsequent novels never quite sold well enough again to justify the occasional experiments such as the ecological fable The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, or such entirely dry land ventures as Rummies and Q Clearance. Later books like Beast and White Shark have an oddly melancholy air, not because there is anything wrong with them - strictly on its merits Beast is among his best - but because they are so very formulaic, and reveal an author clearly unhappy with the job he has been handed.

But that was all in the future when he embarked on The Deep and The Island, and the success of Jaws was still ringing loudly and inspiringly, even if he was already becoming accustomed to the tiresome line that it was an amazing film based on a disposable novel. (It is now impossible to avoid encountering this sentiment wherever the book and the film are mentioned in the same sentence: suffice to say here that it is depressingly untrue: it's a splendid book, just very different from the film.) Nonetheless, it is interesting to compare the books and the films of these two follow-up ventures, which between them more or less sealed his fate as an author.
The Deep seems like a rather cynical cash-in, as if he had thought to himself that he would deliver a surefire potboiler to consolidate the success of Jaws, and then move on to weightier fare. As a result, it is a novel that reads like a novelisation, clearly conceived in his mind as a screenplay, and though never dislikeable or dull, almost certainly his weakest book on its own terms. But snatched from under Universal's nose by Columbia, it nonetheless made an eminently lively and entertaining movie, with no expense spared and everything but the kitchen sink thrown into its two hours-plus running time, including treasure seeking, drug smuggling, voodoo, a touch of sex, and of course a few underwater beasties for security. Clearly the aim on everybody's mind was to produce that quintessentially 1970s kind of super-entertainment, and to stick as close as possible to the Jaws blueprint, even to the point of retaining the services of Robert Shaw. With some gorgeous underwater photography, several well-staged action sequences and a lush John Barry score it repackages the Jaws ingredients with skill and energy, if not, perhaps, an excess of fresh imagination. And Jacqueline Bisset, whose wet t-shirt was reckoned a major factor in the film's success, makes for a good sexy heroine: the one thing, the producers must have reasoned, that Jaws lacked.

Though neither quite hit the Jaws peaks, both book and film were comfortable successes, and though it seems obvious to us now, there was no real reason at the time to think that the wheels were about to come off the Benchley express. As a result, he must have begun work on The Island with quiet confidence: still obliged to retain the trademark trappings of the ocean thriller, but free to try a rather different kind of narrative. For my money, the result was his finest ever novel, a thrilling, sometimes scary and always fascinating sociobiological jeu d'esprit, concerning a crazed anthropologist who has first discovered, then befriended and is now experimentally cultivating an island of inbred but authentic 18th century buccaneers still living the pirate's life oblivious of the world around them: the maritime equivalent of the apocryphal Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle and still fighting World War II. Into this lost world stumbles Blair Maynard, an American reporter and his son, the latter of whom is made instant convert to the pirate life, while the former is imprisoned as breeding stock.
Jaws producers Zanuck and Brown weren't going to repeat the mistake of losing The Deep to Columbia, and snapped this one up for Universal, where it was shot as an adults only thriller, with some extremely strong and unpleasant gore effects in the opening scenes and a sharp eye for brutality throughout: an odd decision given that a huge part of the success of Jaws was due to its careful retention of an A certificate, and its calculated appeal to children as well as adults. It should have cemented Benchley's position as a master thriller writer, instead it more or less finished him. Ironically, while The Deep was a minor novel that made an enjoyable and successful film, The Island was a terrific novel - but the film is an inexplicable mess. And it would seem that Benchley had nobody to blame but himself, either: while his earlier screen adaptations were all collaborations, with Benchley delivering the first draft and more experienced screenwriters re-structuring, tidying and polishing, the credits would have us believe that this time we are looking at entirely his own work, yet it is full of bizarre deviations from his original book, and all of them disadvantageous.
Some may be excused as impositions from the studio, in particular the central and monumental miscasting of Michael Caine as Maynard, whose dogged masculinity and bell-clanging Britishness (clunkily accommodated in the script) are totally wrong for the character Benchley created. Others are unavoidable: when you can actually see him smartmouthing Caine, rather than imagine him as your own child, it's impossible to give a damn about the welfare of the insufferably brattish son, and this creates a second massive hole in the film for audience interest to leak through.
But the rest of the film's errors are unnecessary and self-inflicted, not least the main and unconquerable folly of making the pirates eccentric rather than bestial. Constantly muttering gibberish to each other in squeaky voices, led by a loony David Warner and stocked with cosy British oddballs (David Warner, Dudley Sutton, Colin Jeavons, Don Henderson), the colony play as macabre comic turns, whereas in the book they were truly terrifying. It's an act of self-sabotage from which no film could recover, especially given the overt simplification of the other characters' motivation, and the loss of the book's fascinating passages of evolutionary speculation. And Benchley the novelist has always had a problem with anti-climax, carefully taken care of by the other screenwriters in Jaws and The Deep, but left to stand here. 
Quite lost amidst these problems, sadly, is the splendid performance by Frank Middlemass as the villainous doctor who funds and studies the pirates.