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Capsule Reviews (July 2006)

Skeleton Man (2004) Johnny Martin

For about ten or fifteen seconds this looked like it was going to be pretty bad. Thirty seconds in I knew it was going to be truly awful. An ancient Indian is back to cause death and destruction because of something or other, I don't know. But he gets to walk around slowly and pose in a big black Darth Vader cape with a skeleton mask on. With an axe that mysteriously turns into a sword in the next scene. Wussy ladies say things like 'Help me. Please. He's coming.' Which of course he is, after causing electrical problems. And he does his slasher thing and then rides off into the darkness on a horse. Oh and of course everything blows up. Lots of explosions. Lots of blood.

Then the rest of the credits roll and we switch to an army team led by someone trying to be John Claude Van Clooney getting taken out by our friend, the Skeleton Man, who now rides a black (I mean brown, I mean black, hell it keeps changing) horse and sees and switches in and out view like the Predator. And he now has a spear. So in come the search and rescue team which looks like a bunch of kids from college. But apparently half of them are Delta Force. And... it carries on with sort of complete nonsense for an hour and a half.

There are two things I can say for it. One is that it's really gruesome for a TV movie, though I don't know what channel it was made for. The other is that there's always something really bad happening, leaving no time at all for boredom. Other than that this is the worst slasher movie I've ever seen. It has more continuity errors than any other film I've ever seen. It has more continuity errors than the spoof films that throw in lots of continuity errors as a joke. The acting is bad rather than abysmal and much of that may be because the cast know precisely what a turkey they're in. The director has a stunning list of credits to his name. Unfortunately they're all as a stuntman. The other credits for acting, producing and second unit direction are a little less prestigious, and his direction list is one film long. Thank goodness.

A commenter at IMDb said that there are porn films with better plots. I really like that quote and when it comes to this movie, it's entirely true.

Flying Down to Rio (1933) Thornton Freeland

Roger Bond and His Yankee Clipper Band are playing in the Date Grove of the Hotel Hibiscus in Miami. An uncredited Franklin Pangborn is the hotel manager and he's charged with whipping the staff into shape with the assistance of head waiter Eric Blore, who may well not have ever played anything except butlers and valets and waiters and such. The staff are rather notable and as this is a musical they're naturally musically inclined.

The womanising songwriter and band leader is Gene Raymond, who was the other guy in Red Dust and also failed to impress me much in films like Mr and Mr Smith and Ex-Lady. He's better here, thank goodness, with some memorably lecherous eyes. It always disappoints me to find someone who obviously meant something in their day only to continually wonder why. Playing accordion in the band is no less than Fred Astaire, who is fast becoming my favourite musical star. Never mind Gene Kelly, who I don't get at all, or even someone so loved as Judy Garland, Fred Astaire had everything. Not only could he dance but he could act and he can be hilarious when he wants to be. Wherever there's Fred there's usually Ginger too and she's the singer here. Ginger Rogers could act too and I far prefer her acting to her singing. Throwing a spanner into the works is Dolores del Rio, who because it's 1933 has the lead over all of them. Also because it's 1933 it's a little risque which helps when del Rio is involved, as she was truly captivating. As a young lady says, 'What have these South Americans got below the equator that we haven't?' and she spends much of the film making us wonder.

If you watch carefully you'll also see (and hear) Movita, Clark Gable's love interest in Mutiny on the Bounty, singing half of the carioca number in Rio in her film debut. It's also the debut of Fred and Ginger together and they do make a rather large impression considering that they don't get to do much dancing. Oh, and by the way, there's a plot and a love triangle and so on but who cares? It does make sense which is all that matters.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) Robert Florey

Bela Lugosi in his prime for a change. He looks strange with his unibrow and fuzzy hair, but he's definitely in full power. He plays Dr Mirakle, presenting as a carnival attraction Erik the ape. Far from the usual freakshow host, he's also a mad scientist with delusions of grandeur, kidnapping young ladies to force into bizarre experiments to prove the kinship of men and apes. Even when he had lost his powers through substance abuse and incredible bad judgement, he still dominated the usually terrible films he found himself in. Back in his heyday he was unmatched and I still wonder how film history would have differed had Lugosi taken up the challenge to play Frankenstein's monster back in 1931.

The lead is nominally Sidney Fox, a diminutive young lady who had quite a career in the pre-codes, it seems, with such inviting titles as Strictly Dishonorable, The Bad Sister or School for Girls. The only other of her films I recognise is The Mouthpiece, a Warren William classic. She makes a fetching heroine, even in comic song.

This is 1932 and it's Universal so it looks wonderful, courtesy of the unmatched cinematographer Karl Freund who stamped his presence on every film he touched. The whole shadows and light thing is cliche now but Freund was the man who created and mastered many of these expressionistic angles and light effects. Every film of his I see underlines in my brain how much of a genius he was. Freund is the other real reason to watch this movie, which naturally has very little to do with the original story by Poe. You certainly don't want to watch it for the ape!

Hoodwinked (2005) Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards & Tony Leech

You've heard the story of Little Red Riding Hood? Well this is what really happened, as told in multiple story threads from each of the major characters, all of whom are being held by the cops and are being investigated by Nicky Flippers.

There are a huge amount of cinematic in jokes here. Nicky Flippers is obviously Nick Charles from the Thin Man movies and the wolf is Fletch. There's a great Emperor's New Groove joke with the squirrel, given that the wolf is memorably played by Patrick Warburton who also played Kronk. Granny is very much a Terry Gilliam grany but she's also apparently Vin Diesel from XXX! Of course there's Star Wars and The Matrix and Mission Impossible, because they're everywhere, but there's Lassie and Child's Play and Hope and Glory and even A Circle of Children too (and yes, I had to look that one up). And the multiple storylines are Rashomon or Hero, depending on how old you are.

The upside is definitely the story, which is wonderful, and the voice acting which is top notch. Warburton is especially notable as the wolf, but Anne Hathaway, David Ogden Stiers and even Xzibit are also solid. Andy Dick is instantly recognisable though Jim Belushi isn't. Director Cory Edwards is great as Twitchy the squirrel, though I'm not sure how much digital work had to be done afterwards. I really liked the Three Little Pigs too, of course playing cops.

The downside is the amount of songs. I liked the mountain goat who had to sing everything after being cursed by a witch, probably taken from Billy Connolly's Singing Rebel in Water, but the rest were mostly really annoying. The animation is also not that great but I don't care.

Blade (2006) Peter O'Fallon

I wasn't expecting a lot from this TV movie, pilot to Blade: The Series. After all, how well could they translate some pretty visceral action to television, let alone replace people like Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristoffersen. As it turned out, it's not bad. It's not up to the standards of the movies but it has the potential to turn into something along the lines of quality of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series.

The part of Blade went to Kirk Jones, usually known as Sticky Fingaz of the rap group Onyx. That's not promising, to see the least, but he does a surprisingly good job. The biggest problem is that in trying to lower his voice to sound like Wesley Snipes he sometimes comes across as unintelligible. Then again Blade did most of his talking with his fists and his sword so that's not the hardship it could have been. He has a new tech-savvy sidekick called Shen, played by Nelson Lee, but he didn't get to do too much first time out. More important is the new female sidekick who gets turned into a vampire during this pilot. She's Jill Wagner playing Krista Starr (don't those both sound like they should be Charlie's Angels?) and she has a lot of potential. I was impressed with her. There's also what looks like an uncredited Randy Quaid as a professor who knows about all this vampire jazz. I wonder how much they'll use him over the course of the series.

All in all, quite promising, really, and that's a surprise.

Beetlejuice (1988) Tim Burton

I've seen this one so many times it's hard to come up with fresh insight, but there are a few things that spring to mind:

  1. You've got to love a movie where the heroes get killed within the first five minutes.
  2. Nobody has never been more outrageously fun in a mainstream movie than Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice.
  3. Sylvia Sidney is as awesome as she was fifty years earlier.
  4. There's never been a Baldwin yet cursed with the talent of acting.
  5. Day-O is the best use of a song in a movie ever.
  6. It's always possible to find unintentional paedophile jokes if you look for them.

Also, how the hell did this movie get to be sixteen years old? And how come I've been laughing out loud for all sixteen of those years? I guess that's because it just works. It's one of a very select number of comedies that age like wine and get better and better with every viewing. Think Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Addams Family Values. Are there any more? Not that I can think of right now. Needless to say, Tim Burton's a genius and this is why he's who he is today.

The Milky Way (1936) Leo McCarey

The general opinion is that Chaplin aside, none of the slapstick comedians from the silent era did anything worth mentioning after sound came along. I'm finding that while there's a basis in truth to that, it's far from an accurate statement. In particular Harold Lloyd apparently kept his talent alive throughout the thirties and onwards, even though those films are unjustly ignored today. The reason for this is clear in this instance because Samuel Goldwyn bought all the rights a decade later when he remade the film as The Kid from Brooklyn and destroyed all the prints he could find along with the original negative. Luckily he didn't find all of them.

Lloyd is a mild mannered milkman who helps out his sister and ends up knocking out the middleweight champion of the world, or at least that's how it seems. When the same thing happens for a second time, again in front of reporers, naturally he gets caught up in all sorts of things beyond his control. Adolphe Menjou, playing the sort of boxing promoter you'd expect to put 'Honest' in front of his name signs him up into the fight game and pits him against a bunch of big guys paid to lose. By the time he faces the champ in the ring he believes his press.

There are subplots just as ludicrous as the main one but after a stagy start, Lloyd's energy, Menjou's shadiness and the great wisecracks of Verree Teasdale drive the film home. It's silly but it's done very well indeed and that has to count for a lot. This one had me laughing out loud on occasion and that always means a success in my book. Lloyd may not have thrived in the sound age but he certainly had what it took.

The Cut Ups (1966) Antony Balch

Hardly a mainstream release, this experimental short plays around with the concept of film to a large degree. The action, if you could call it such, comprises of everyday activities like people walking in public, eating at a restaurant, standing outside stores. There's also a good amount dealing with the creation of art, huge expressionistic paintings or smaller abstract work. All of this is presented in frames of half a second or so, cut up as the title implies into a collage of clips.

I'm no expert on avant garde cinema or on William S Burroughs and I haven't read up on this yet, but I can see different threads working together and I can feel the rhythm of the editing. The way we only see tiny clips at a time gives a different perspective on what we see. One thread is perfectly innocent but feels vaguely pornographic. The soundtrack is made up of a few short samples looped together and played back with different pauses in between. It becomes a hallucinatory experience and I think I'm going to be hearing Yes and Thank You and Hello in my sleep for a week.

The Wiz (1978) Sidney Lumet

The Wiz was a huge success on Broadway winning no less than eight Tonys and it became a huge film, directed by Sidney Lumet with a screenplay by Joel Schumacher and starring people like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne and Nipsey Russell. These aren't small names. However when I saw the trailer I was stunned not by how good it looked but by how truly awful it was going to be. Was this going to turn into a two and a quarter hour endurance test?

The Wiz is The Wizard of Oz changed into an African American story and transplanted into urban Manhattan. Diana Ross plays a 34 year old Dorothy and she really doesn't look very good at all, given that she certainly looked rather fine both before and after this. She looks plain, malnourished and, pardon the expression, somewhat retarded. She's also too old for the part to such a degree it's unreal. After all Judy Garland was really too old to play Dorothy in 1939 and she was only seventeen. Diana Ross is double that and looks a lot older still.

I generally hate musicals but I have delved massively into the legacy of black music in the States, so this one was a little promising. I may not grok this gangsta thang but the old stalwart genres of blues, jazz and soul are definitely favourites of mine. I'm not a big fan of The Gloved One but I enjoyed Diana Ross both with the Supremes and solo trying to do Billie Holiday the way she did in Lady Sings the Blues. Unfortunately not a lot of this huge songbook of black music is present here at all, replaced instead by some notably sappy gay white guy musical music and some watered down seventies funk and disco. The closest we get for most of the film is Nipsey Russell's oil song and he can't sing. Happily Evillene's song towards the end is much more like it. It's not great but it's real and Mabel King really can sing. She's like Aretha Franklin playing a troll.

Yes, this is truly awful and I felt embarrassed watching it. Sidney Lumet was a good director but he was the last person on the planet who should have made this. The whole concept is something you'd expect to see on Robot Chicken as a joke. Martin Scorsese knows New York as well and would have been equally disastrous. Woody Allen might have done a better job. Oh yes, it's an endurance test.

What do we have here that's actually worth seeing? The graffiti coming alive was pretty cool, even if it was a little Dawn of the Dead. Michael Jackson still hasn't found his brain, of course, but he was at the height of his powers in 1978 at the age of twenty. He could still sing and he could still move and of course he was still black at that point too. Nipsey Russell is funny as the Tin Man, for a while. The electronic walking props in the Emerald City are also way cool. And yes, I'm dredging. A film needs a lot more than this, even when it's a musical. There's not a lot else.

The Affairs of Anatol (1921) Cecil B De Mille

I've not been that impressed by Cecil B De Mille so far in my explorations into classic film. I'm really getting into silent cinema and I've discovered a host of new favourites in the process, but De Mille has disappointed. This is my third of his films, after a couple that must have been at least reasonably important as I'd heard of them: the silent epic King of Kings and 1934's Cleopatra. I rated those Good and OK respectively, even though the latter has a couple of my favourites prominently placed: Claudette Colbert as Cleo and Warren William as Caesar. So on to one that I'd not previously heard of� with some gorgeous colour titles.

The Anatol of the title is Wallace Reid, who died of the flu only two years later at the age of 31. He apparently loved the movie business but hated appearing in front of the camera, being much happier as a writer, producer, director, cameraman, anything but an actor. He doesn't impress much here, even though he was the leading man of Jesse Lasky's Famous Players and a bona fide star. Maybe it's because he was best known in daredevil mode as a dangerous driver in fearless auto pictures of the late twenties. Unfortunately he became addicted to morphine after a train crash and through already being an alcoholic he soon faded. I'd be interested to see some of those auto films, like Too Much Speed and Excuse My Dust, because, while he isn't bad, he really doesn't shine here. John Barrymore, who played the part on Broadway, would seem to be a far better choice.

Anatol is a man of honour, dedicated to saving young ladies in distress, but even though he has the best of intentions, of course this gets him into plenty of trouble with his wife. She's played by no less a name than Gloria Swanson, who smoulders wonderfully and looks a lot better than she did in Beyond the Rocks a year later. I know her power from Sunset Boulevard, in which she was stunning, but I've not had the privilege of seeing her in full form as a silent star. Unfortunately she doesn't get enough screen time here to help me.

The other women in the picture get their chance to strut their stuff, and they do plenty of strutting. Wanda Hawley, who I enjoyed so much in Rudolph Valentino's The Young Rajah, is just as great here as a rich man's kept woman. She was another of those stars to disappear entirely with the advent of sound. A decade after this she had reportedly become a San Francisco callgirl. Theodore Roberts, her sugar daddy, is impressive too. Agnes Ayres is a farmgirl who apparently becomes suicidal after being caught spending the church's money on pretty clothes. She was Valentino's co-star in the Sheik and its sequel, which I haven't seen yet. And then there's Bebe Daniels, who I've seen a number of times, in silents and sound films, and she's been excellent in all of them. Here she plays Satan Synne from the Devil's Cloister who is vampish as you'd expect from the name and she lives up to the challenge.

It All Came True (1940) Lewis Seiler

Bogart was always going to be a huge star once the studios worked out what to do with him, and by the time 1939 and 1940 rolled around they were trying all sorts of things to discover what he should be doing. Sometimes they failed dismally. Remember Virginia City and, cough, The Return of Doctor X? Well, the only thing they could come back to safely was the gangster role as he was always fine even when the roles weren't.

Here he's a gangster on the run for murder and he's hiding out in his piano player's mother's boarding house, pretending to be sick to explain staying in his room. Unfortunately for him everyone else in the house is dangerous and not in any way he's used to. Fast talking wisecracking Ann Sheridan worked for him once in Atlantic City and so could easily identify him. Paranoid ZaSu Pitts wants his hot bod. One landlady (Jessie Busley) smothers him in motherly kindness, wondering if he's an orphan, and the other (Una O'Connor) orders him around. It's like good cop/bad cop, with Bogie stuck in the middle. There's also the ever-wonderful Una O'Connor and a bunch of other fun guests who don't get enough screen time. It's certainly no laugh-a-minute comedy, but it has plenty of humour in it and Bogie is in on quite a lot of it with a sharp dry wit.

Una O'Connor has long been a favourite of mine but I'm happy to see ZaSu Pitts with as much power here as she did in Greed over a decade earlier. I really enjoyed Jessie Busley and musician Jeffrey Lynn is fine, as he was in the Four Daughters/Wives/Mothers series. And yes, Bogie looks scary when he smiles.

Team America: World Police (2004) Trey Parker

Before the opening credits roll, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's American puppets have saved Paris from Arab terrorists with a weapon of mass destruction, without even being asked, but take out the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre in the process, and expect to be thanked as heroes. This one scene says more about the state of world affairs today than any political film I've seen. What makes it incredibly clever is that I'm sure that this will be read many different ways by many different people. It's a film that rails against the conservatives, but it's also a film that rails against liberals.

The obvious influence is Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds with a South Park sense of humour, but there's other sources for this too. The Star Wars Cantina scene was hilarious. The new guy in Team America is a Broadway actor with a huge ego and a talent for foreign languages. He has to infiltrate the terrorists to combat Kim Jong Il's plans to get biblical on everyone's asses. Of course, the Film Actor's Guild (or FAG) are totally against the mindless devastation and many stars get to be very upset indeed. Amongst all the satirical comment on Hollywood, the funniest is that with all the lack of emotion of puppets and all the visible strings, this film often seems as well acted and involving as anything else Hollywood has put out in the last decade. 'Matt Damon!' indeed.

And who would ever have thought that a puppet throwing up would be so funny? And the concept of Kim Jong Il having the voice of Eric Cartman is sheer genius.

The Lonedale Operator (1911) D W Griffith

The more I work through the Treasures from American Film Archives box set, the more I enjoy the process of discovery. There are some true gems in there and even those that aren't, such as many of the one or two minutes films from the very early noughties, are still fascinating. The notes are every bit as fascinating as the films because they provide not just explanation but grounding.

One fact these notes threw my way was that D W Griffith's films, by quirk of circumstance, are almost entirely available today. That stunned me, knowing as I do that the vast majority of silent films are long gone. He is very much an exception to the rule but I'm happy that at least director's work has survived mostly intact. I'm also happy that I'm getting to see some of these films because he is seen as the first real American director from an artistic standpoint. The Lonedale Operator helps me to see why.

It's a pretty simple story. A telegraph operator is feeling ill so leaves his fifteen year old daughter in charge while he's away. Naturally this is at just the time when a payroll arrives and a couple of thieves decide that they want it bad. So there's the plot, which is nothing much looking back from the perspective of today. However, the seventeen minutes it takes to unfold are tense and involving. Blanche Sweet is a believable yet photogenic heroine and Griffith backs her up with a growing tension and a masterful editing hand. That the score, as with most of the new scores in this box set, is highly appropriate helps immensely, but it's hard to miss the power of this film from 1911. It's also notable that it was written by Mack Sennett who would soon be directing his own movies, often similar to this but with slapstick added in liberal doses.

The Flag (1927) Arthur Maude

I'm always surprised to see silent films in colour but of all of them this is probably the most logical to have that extra money thrown at it. Subtitled, ' A story inspired by the tradition of Betty Ross', it's a short fictionalisation of the making of the red, white and blue, the American Stars and Stripes. The British are coming and the powers that be can only argue about what flag they should meet them under. General Washington proclaims that they'll have a new flag entirely and Betsy Ross, niece of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, gets the job to design and make it.

Washington is played by Francis X Bushman, who I was surprised to see as I know he had fallen foul of MGM's final word, Louis B Mayer, unfairly it may be said, and his career came to a very effective conclusion. I guess it was afer this because he has the lead here and appears distinguished enough for it to work. At this point he was the King of Hollywood, way before Clark Gable ever got given the title. Betsy Ross is played by Enid Bennett who has certainly appeared in a massive number of great silent movies, though a number were directed by her husband Fred Niblo: The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, Blood and Sand, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, The Temptress... the list goes on. However by 1932 she'd retired entirely. I remember her from The Red Lily (another Niblo), opposite Ramon Novarro, but wasn't that impressed with either her or the film. Here she's much better, but of course doesn't have much time to show us what she can do. The film is only twenty minutes long and there's an entirely separate subplot with a couple of young lovers, one of whom is pregnant (in a 1927 film, wow!) and the other is off soldiering for the other side.

The only real complaint I have is that the flag looks way too pristine and awesome for something made out of an old petticoat!

The Wind (1928) Victor Seastrom

Lillian Gish, who was the driving force behind the entire movie, is a young lady travelling west from Virginia to live at her cousin's beautiful ranch in Sweet Water. At least that's what she thinks. She arrives on a train in a scene strongly reminiscent of the beginning of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, and that didn't arrive anywhere pleasant either. In East Texas (in reality the incredibly hot and uncomfortable Mojave Desert in California), the wind never stops and the sand gets everywhere. The wind of course becomes one of the leading characters in the film.

Lillian Gish, who I've discovered is certainly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of screen actresses, depicts the fish out of water incredibly. It can't have hurt that she was seriously uncomfortable herself during filming in the 120 degree heat. One scene in particular highlights the difference between what she expects and what she gets: imagine a genteel Virginia lady suddenly finding herself in the back end of beyond, trying to iron her gorgeous dress while her cousin's wife is gutting a cow in the same room. Gish's face covers every necessary emotion: disgust, disappointment, shock, surprise and above all, the attempt to hide it all for the sake of politeness.

Lars Hanson looks the part amazingly given that he was about as far from a Texan ranch hand as anyone could really be. I've seen him in a few films now and have always been impressed with him. Parts of his role are as close to comedy as I've seen him play, though this is far from a comedy film, as he makes a great double act here with William Orlamond as a character colourfully named Sourdough. When being more serious, he does an excellent job of seeming stoic in the face of bad expectation. Director Victor Seastrom, like Hanson a Swede, also must have had almost no experience whatsoever with all of this but he really made me believe that he knew his subject.

The Hollywood ending is overblown and melodramatic and a little jarring as it really doesn't fit. It's not bad, certainly not as bad as it could have been, but then again this is the 79 minute Thames television print, not the 95 minute European version that apparently contains the original far starker and more appropriate ending. Maybe one day there'll be a DVD release containing both.

Dune (1984) David Lynch

Being a science fiction buff, I've long been aware of the bitter feud between science fiction fans (don't call it sci-fi if you're talking about literature). Half the fans hate this film with a passion, seeing it as little more than heresy. The other half rave about it and generally be what you might expect stereotypical sci-fi fans to be. The truth is that filming such a book was nigh on impossible and Lynch, hardly a director to follow the mainstream, did a pretty solid job, while leaving out enough that anyone looking for issues with it would find them. Personally I'm very happy to be able to see this film, which source novelist Frank Herbert himself appreciated, while mourning quietly that the original version planned by Alejandro Jodorowsky and H R Giger.

The cast is incredible: being a David Lynch film there's Kyle MacLachlan, of course, but also Dean Stockwell, Patrick Stewart (three years before Star Trek), Freddie Jones, Jose Ferrer, Virginia Madsen, an arrogant Sting, Max von Sydow, Sean Young, a bearded Jurgen Prochnow, Sian Phillips, the always intense Brad Dourif with some scary eyebrows, a scarred yet stunning Kenneth McMillan, Linda Hunt, even a nine year old Alicia Witt. All are superb, even though some have very little screen time.

As to the story, there was no way anyone could compress the intracacies of the novel into a viable running time, but I could easily follow what went on. Herbert's story is alien enough to be viable for a time eight thousand years into the future yet recognisable enough to be real. The political manoeuvering, betrayals and feuds all make total sense. The process of becoming is also entirely understandable. Those who bitch about how nonsensical it all is just aren't paying attention. In fact it made more sense to me than some other David Lynch films.

The only real problem is that it's only two hours and twenty minutes long. It just wasn't ever going to be enough. Maybe the three hour ten minute special edition is better.

Mystery Men (1999) Kinka Usher

It would be so easy to laugh at how stupid this film is, because it's really as stupid as it's stunningly inept superheroes, but that would be missing the point. It deconstructs the whole superhero myth, especially as portrayed in the movies, and makes some very astute points that just happen to end up completely hilarious.

There is one real superhero in Champion City and he's called Captain Amazing. Unfortunately he's mostly interested in publicity, commercials and endorsements, and anyway there are no supervillains left to fight. To give himself, something to do he frees Casanova Frankenstein from an insane asylum. Unfortunately he gets outwitted and so gets captured. Luckily, out of the limelight there are a bunch of rather less powerful superheroes with highly dubious identities and bizarre equipment: there's the Blue Rajah, the Shoveller and Mr Furious. And they are all that's left to save the day.

In such a role, someone like Ben Stiller who has all the acting talent of my left nut actually becomes perfect. We see him bickering with his fellow inept supervillains, get hounded at work by old women, get beaten up on a regular basis, come up with really bad one liners and chat up lines. Somehow it's far more fun to watch a superhero that isn't a superhero than an actual superhero, especially when they are played by people like these. Casanova Frankenstein is played by no less a serious actor than Geoffrey Rush, and there's William H Macy, Greg Kinnear, Tom Waits trying to be Ned Beatty, Eddie Izzard, Louise Lasser, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens... all of whom have great fun with the material.

This is the film that the superheroes don't want you to watch.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) Seijin Suzuki

This is an interesting one. I've seen plenty of chambara from the late sixties, or Japanese swordplay movies: Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Zatoichi the blind swordsman and others. However there was another trend at the time in Japan for gangster movies and I've not seen any of them. Seijin Suzuki, who made Tokyo Drifter, was apparently a major influence on Quentin Tarantino and that's obvious from the start: lots of suited gangsters wearing sunglasses in the dark. While there is a plot that is well thought out and constructed, it's all about style which fits the Tarantino influence. There are some sets that are deliberately highly unrealistic, for instance, instead being stagebound swathes of colour, but they work on a stylistic and symbolic basis. Colour is very important in this film.

The lead is Tetsuya Watari, but I could see a young Chow Yun Fat in the role. I know Japanese gangsters from the heroic bloodshed films of the eighties and Chow was the epitome of the genre. He could so easily have played an updated version of the Tokyo Drifter. The story is a strange one that probably makes more sense to the Japanese mind: Tetsu is a yakuza who is going straight because his boss is doing so. Unfortunately their rival gang doesn't want this to happen and through some astute manoeuvering, sparks off a few deaths. Tetsu chooses to head out on his own rather than cause trouble for his boss but of course the chaos follows him.

I can see Seijin Suzuki's influence already in Reservoir Dogs, but the Kill Bill films are on the agenda soon and it'll be interesting to see how much there is in there too, apparently the Tarantinos with the most obvious collection of influences.

Bad Taste (1987) Peter Jackson

My faovurite film of all time, what can I say? This is a completely amateur film, though done by a actor/writer/producer/director who would go on to make three of the top eleven highest grossing films of all time. Peter Jackson made this over three years with no money and a bunch of mates. The quality of acting is truly atrocious and none of it matters at all, because the innovation, inventiveness and the sheer imagination rules all. Nobody has outdone this in nearly twenty further years. And the thing is hilarious too.

The story is unique. Aliens have come down to Earth to package up a New Zealand township into cardboard boxes to carry off back into space and make hamburgers out of. Human flesh is the new taste sensation sweeping the galaxy. And who can save the day? The boys... a bunch of paramilitary nutjobs.

I love everything about this movie, and Peter Jackson counts for most of it. I love the way he lopes along next to a car when his hand is stuck in the window. I love the way he falls ineptly over a wire fence. I love the way he slits his own throat. I love the way he stuffs brain back inside his head. I love the way he rocks his car with the Sgt Pepper cutout. I love the dialogue, the script, the effects, everything.

Knock on Any Door (1949) Nicholas Ray

Here's a milestone: the first picture made by Humphrey Bogart's own production company, Santana Productions, named for his yacht. Given that regardless of their response, the films Jimmy Cagney made outside the studio system were among his best, I had hopes for Santana Productions. After all, Bogie had already proved that he could take risks and play against type. On top of that, this is a Nicholas Ray movie, and while I haven't seen as many of his as I'd like, I'm starting to appreciate why he's known as such a classic rebel director. He's up there with people like Sam Fuller and Sam Peckinpah as someone who makes his own thing however much it's not what the studios or the public wanted.

He plays a lawyer, who had worked his way up from the streets, and he finds himself defending Nick Romano, played by a debuting John Derek. He's really trying to be James Dean six years before James Dean came along, even down to the 'live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse' line. This is 1949 and it's before even Brando. He has a bad police record and he's accused of being a cop killer, putting him in a really tough spot. It's up to Bogie to clear his name, but Bogie knows him from way back and knows why he's the way he is.

It's not the best Nicholas Ray I've seen and it's certainly not the best Bogart, but it has plenty to admire. The story doesn't go where we'd expect it to and the good guys and bad guys aren't clearly defined. There's a lot of social comment that makes a lot of sense and it really stands up as a precursor to what was to come in the next decade. Bogart going against the grain may well have influenced Nicholas Ray and the others who created The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause and on into the counterculture of the sixties.

Spite Marriage (1929) Edward Sedgwick

The last silent Buster Keaton, this one has him with Dorothy Sebastian, Leila Hyams and Edward Earle, whoever he is. I'm still watching for the point at which Keaton's antics warranted the wanton destruction of his talent by the studios and I haven't found it yet. It certainly isn't here. There's an hour and a quarter of Keaton searching ineptly for a woman, only to get married to the one he really wants only because she wants to get back at the man she really wants. During this he's totally in control of the movie and the scenes in which he doesn't feature are notable for his absence. It's certainly not his best, but Keaton even not at his best is well worth watching.

Not all of the film makes as much sense as it could, but there are some standout routines: the entire scene on stage for one. The other showcases what Dorothy Sebastian can do. I wasn't surprised to be impressed by Keaton as I've been impressed by him many times before, but Sebastian was new to me and the scene where Keaton flounders around with her drunk is probably the best in the movie. I'll definitely be watching out for more of her work.

Incidentally, I couldn't help but notice the names bandied about during the theatre scene: Drew, Lionel, etc. I've been reading up on the Barrymores (who tie into the Drews) and I'm quickly realising that they constituted a good proportion of the theatrical successes of the early century. There's even a boat called Ethel later on, so I can't believe these are all accidents.

In the end this is a high good for me and very close to a low excellent, and that means that I prefer it to both his previous films, The Cameraman and Steamboat Bill, Jr, both of which are held in far higher esteem than this one. It doesn't make as much sense but it's certainly more fun.

Angel on My Shoulder (1949) Archie Mayo

Eddie Kagle is a gangster who's just finished a four year stretch. As you can imagine Paul Muni, who was the original Scarface after all, is a real tough guy. Unfortunately his right hand guy takes him out with his own gun and he finds himself in Hell choking on brimstone. His one break comes just as the standard plot for people in the other place get it: a last chance back on Earth. The devil, played by Claude Rains, is a little upset that a judge is letting off a few too many criminals from death sentences and so causing a glut in the numbers of immigrants to Hell. So he sends Kagle into his body to reverse the effect.

I'm a huge fan of Claude Rains and I've seen a lot of his films, but this one is something new on me. He plays a tired and depressed ruler of darkness for a while but there's also a noted touch of evil. He underplays his freaky assistant but overplays anything else I've seen him do. There are points where he really nails the grinning deviousness you'd expect from Old Nick and he's a delight. I still haven't made my mind up about Paul Muni though. He's obviously a great actor and he has some great roles behind him, but on other occasions he overacts something rotten. Here I think he finds the balance well between tough but dumb gangster and tough but dumb gangster inside the body of a good-natured judge. Also in the mix are a bunch of people I've never heard of plus Anne Baxter as the judge's secretary and fiancee.

The Red Shoes (1948) Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Powell and Pressburger are almost the epitome of the sort of stuffy old filmmakers that the older generations watch. How can they be relevant to the modern generations and why should we care? I can't help but think that every time I see their names yet I haven't yet rated any of their films with anything less than a maximum rating. They must be doing something right. Not to mention, of course, that Michael Powell solo made Peeping Tom, which had guts as well as talent.

The story at the heart of this story is loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, though it is presented in a very English way of course. Moira Shearer plays Victoria Page, a dancer who has both soul and talent, and she is taken under the wing of the great Lermontov, played haughtily and testily by Anton Walbrook (who looks like a cross between Errol Flynn and Kevin Kline, says my lass). In between them comes the lively and impulsive Marius Goring as a young composer called Julian Craster, upset that his professor has stolen much of his work. Lermontov hires both of them and naturally they fall in love, causing no end of chaos to the great man's plans.

What strikes most is the pacing of the film. It's about music and dance and is naturally very carefully paced. Parts build slowly and carefully, others are frantic and insane. I don't have enough musical training to be able to analyse the film as if it were a symphony but I'd lay odds that it has a lot of similarities. I'm sure that the characters could be translated into melodies and the sweeps of storyline into themes. I also loved the way the camera moves, often working as segues from one scene to the next by combining two completely separate scenes together. The settings and framings of scenes are unapologetically artistic yet never seem contrived, even when travelling around Europe, the costumes are stunning even to eyes like mine that don't necessarily appreciate the art of costumery and the colours are striking even in the faded print I saw. I'm not surprised that the people who created Technicolor rated this the greatest example of three strip Technicolor anywhere in the history of film.

Most temperamental of the actors is ballet trainer Leonide Massine playing Ljubov, so naturally he is most obvious, but there's a lot of characters here that will stick in the mind. Lermontov especially has a huge amount of depth that only grows throughout, but none of the leads are lacking in substance and each of the actors involved is more than up to their respective tasks. Massine's subtle facial movements and Walbrook's talent for acting without moving really speak volumes.

And the Red Shoes ballet at the centre of this film is a truly captivating marvel and Moira Shearer, being second to Margot Fonteyn at Sadler's Wells, shines indeed.

American Graffiti (1973) George Lucas

Here's one of those large gaps in my film knowledge, though to be honest that's understandable given that I'm English and therefore don't really understand half of what goes on. Where I grew up, there weren't any drive-in movies or muscle cars or high school hops or Wolfman Jack or drag racing in the streets or diners where girls deliver the food on roller skates. This is a very American cultural heritage. But still, this is a George Lucas film, directed before Star Wars. It's produced by Francis Ford Coppola. People like Harrison Ford only get co-starring credits because nobody had a clue who they were in 1973. Higher up the list are people like Richard Dreyfuss who are so young that it took me a while to even recognise who they were. There are people I know like Ron Howard (as Ronny Howard for some bizarre reason) and Wolfman Jack, but there's also a bunch of other people like Mackenzie Phillips or Candy Clark that I know nothing at all about even though my wife knows them well.

What I found was what may just be the progenitor of all those films that cram in every possible song they can to sell lots of soundtracks, cough, define the moment in time. It annoyed the hell out of me in Forrest Gump and The Big Chill and this one may just be the worst offender of them all. Except� it all works. Maybe that's why the rest of them copied it, but they became soundtrack commercials rather than slices of time. I'm really surprised that I enjoyed this soundtrack, not because of the music itself which is awesome, but because there's just so much of it.

What also surprised me is that I really enjoyed it. It drew me in and I enjoyed all the threads of the plot. I couldn't relate to almost anyone's story but I enjoyed watching them. At the end of the day if I was American I may even have reached up to a classic. Even being non-American I can see that it's excellent. If I'd lived it too instead of just watching it I'd probably see a lot more.

Sidewalks of New York (1931) Jules White & Zion Myers

Apparently Buster Keaton's most successful film, much to his disappointment as it's far from the silent era classics he was known for. He plays a millionaire landlord who tries to help out a bunch of street kids to impress their leader's sister who he falls for. There's humour here of course, and at breakneck speed too, but somehow it doesn't seem to fit his style. He even gets a sidekick, played by Cliff Edwards who would become famous much later as the voice of Jiminy Cricket. I've seen him a few times without realising who he was, but it's pretty obvious here.

Nearly twenty films into Keaton's back catalogue, I've quickly discovered that when he's allowed do do his thing he's nigh on unbeatable. My problem with some of his films, including some of the famous and well loved ones such as The Navigator or Steamboat Bill, Jr, is that he doesn't get to do his thing often enough. Also the comparisons to what his chief competitor (from a modern standpoint, at least) are shocking. This is 1931 and while Keaton's messing around in a boxing ring for laughs, Charlie Chaplin was making City Lights. On that front there's absolutely no comparison. This fits more with Free and Easy as a film with a few awesome sequences and not a lot else. And that's sad. Keaton was worth far more than this.

The Show-Off (1934) Charles Reisner

The first thing that I noticed about The Show-Off is that anybody who is drunk in an MGM movie sounds like Frank McHugh, and half the time they even look like him too. The second thing that came immediately to mind may be unfair as I'd read about it before watching. This was the first movie that Spencer Tracy made for MGM and he only got the part because the intended star, Lee Tracy (no relation), had just done the most disastrous thing any Hollywood actor ever did: get drunk in Mexico and pee on a passing military parade from his balcony. If there's a quicker way to kill a career I don't know of it and he was lucky to get out of the country alive.

Now I've seen a few Lee Tracy movies and I've loved every performance I've seen. He may not have been as versatile as Warren William but he was just as good a con man and every fast talking newspaper reporter I ever see in film will get compared to Lee Tracy in my brain. J Aubrey Piper, the character that Spencer Tracy plays in The Show-Off is the fast talking braggart that you'd expect from the title, and it's very easy indeed to see Lee in the role. Spencer does a very good job too though, far more than the material really should allow, and it was certainly enough to land hm a long term MGM contract. While he was never believable as a bad guy, he can walk the rough edges well and while Piper causes no end of chaos he does have good intentions. It's that part of it that shines through wonderfully even though it's wrapped up far too neatly in the end.

Outside of Spencer Tracy, there's Madge Evans as his wife and Clara Blandick as his mother-in-law. I've only seen the Wizard of Oz once since I was about eight so I didn't recognise her as Auntie Em but as soon as my wife pointed it out it was obvious. She gets a lot of screen time here as a grumpy old woman and she makes the most of it. Apparently she played this sort of role a lot.

Hitler's Children (1943) Edward Dmytryk

This one promised to be interesting: all American girl Bonita Granville as a child of the Third Reich! Well she's actually playing an American girl living in Germany who is pronounced German by the Reich and so gets caught up in far more than she ever wanted. Yes, this is 1943 and it's a propaganda film by the Americans, however much I side with their viewpoint.

Kent Smith, from Cat People and This Land is Mine, is a openminded American teacher at an American colony school in German while Erford Gage is an enthusiastic Nazi instructor in the school next door. The approaches really can't coexist happily for long, even though American-born German and devout Nazi Tim Holt falls for German-born American girl Granville. It's only a quirk of circumstance that has her playing Beethoven's Ode to Joy while he gazes on with doe eyes, seeing that it became much later the European national anthem of sorts.

Neither Holt nor Granville can pass for kids, which they try for quite a while. OK they're more believable than Mary Pickford playing young girls at the age of thirtywhatever, but they're still not particularly believable as kids. Five years (and many westerns) later Holt was accompanying Bogart and Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Granville was retired. Anyway, we soon jump ten years or so and Holt is a rising Nazi star and Granville is a teacher who gets caught up in the system because of her German birth.

The most obvious success is the propaganda angle. Hollywood had been held back for almost ten years under the production code but with World War II in progress, filmmakers were freed from all restraint whenever they got to had a go at the Nazis. They don't hold back at all here and it's refreshing to see, even from the perspective of sixty years. Some of the names you'd expect to see are here, such as Hans Conreid and a superb Otto Kruger. There's also a touching cameo by an aging H B Warner as a bishop, proving that he could be much more than just a silent star. He doesn't get much screen time but he certainly makes the most of it.

What's really interesting to me is that this film, made so obviously as part of the fight for freedom against Nazi oppression, was massively successful. Made for $204,000, it pulled in $3.3m at the box office, leading to a $5,000 bonus for director Edward Dmytryk. Five years later he was convicted as one of the Hollywood Ten during the anti-Communist McCarthy era. So much for free speech and freedom of expression.

Born to Kill (1947) Robert Wise

It's Reno, the biggest little city in the world, and we come in just after Claire Trevor has got divorced. She meets Lawrence Tierney at the cinema and then on the train back to San Francisco later the same night. In between Tierney has killed a couple and Trevor discovered the bodies. There's a lot of good acting in this film and Robert Wise proved his consistent skill to me a long while ago. I'm still impressed here that he manages to let so many of his actors strut their stuff without ever taking the focus off the leads.

These leads are stunning. Tierney always had a dangerous streak to him and it could only ever grow with knowledge of who he was offscreen. He knew what he wanted and he took it and that means that he's hard to disbelieve when he plays someone who follows the same rules. His foil Claire Trevor became a legitimate star, to the degree of winning an Oscar that was well merited, but it could easily have been merited here too. She hates everything Tierney stands for but she's thrilled to be part of it and hates that she's thrilled. It's always hard to play two sides of a coin at the same time but Trevor is more than up to it. The sparks between the two of them are just wonderful and they grow and grow throughout the film.

There are others making themselves very much known in this intelligent screenplay which doesn't play anyone for a fool, not the cast or the audience. That's so refreshing. Each of these supporting actors gets to play someone with three dimensions who has intelligence but doesn't necessarily use it in the same direction. Walter Slezak makes a superb yet highly unscrupulous detective: he can do his job and do it very well indeed but he'd be happy not to if the price was right. Elisha Cook, Jr is Tierney's accomplice and he plays a far more restrained and intelligent character than usual. Audrey Long is Trevor's rich half-sister who Tierney marries and she's the picture of innocence who flounders at points to understand the others. Esther Howard steals a lot of scenes as the lush of a landlady of the victims who hires Slezak. She knows how to use a hatpin too!

At the end of the day this is one of the most intelligent films noir that I've seen, right up there behind perhaps only The Big Sleep. It's a real peach. It's only flaw is that it's a little bombastic at points, but even those parts are believable.

Hot Rods to Hell (1967) John Brahm

Here's Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain, the stars of the family friendly State Fair, playing in a teen cult fad movie over twenty years later. Andrews is trying to get home to his family for Christmas but ends up in a car accident with a drunk driver. To get away from the memories his family talk him into running a motel in a different town, but the road to it is populated only by them and a couple of hot rods full of juvenile delinquents. Naturally they tussle and so the road war is on.

This is certainly not the highlight of the career of anyone involved, but it's surprisingly far from awful. In fact it looks like one of the guilty pleasures of the era. Dana Andrews does a pretty solid job and Jeanne Crain is surprisingly gorgeous for a 42 year old woman. The leader of the punks is Paul Bertoya in his film debut and he's desperately trying to be a sixties counterculture version of Leo Gorcey from the East Side Kids. I was surprised to discover that I've now seen Andrews and Crain's daughter Laurie Mock in two of her five films with a third on the DVR right now. As she looks so much like Jennifer Love Hewitt even down to head movements, just without the stupid fake eyelashes, I wonder if they're related. Mimsy Farmer is the most out there of the juveniles and she's memorable in her third movie. She made a bunch of these types, including The Wild Racers for Roger Corman, then headed off to Europe where she married scriptwriter Vincenzo Cerami and starred in a bunch of Italian movies, including some for horror icons Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato. Both these girls returned in Riot on Sunset Strip that I may just have to look out for to see if that'll be another guilty pleasure of the era.

Speak Easily (1932) Edward Sedgwick

There are a lot of names I recognise here beyond stars Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante. Director Edward Sedgwick had been paired with Keaton often and all four of his films that I've seen are Buster Keaton features, though he also contributed to Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera. Thelma Todd (Hot Toddy) is far more famous now for her controversial suicide (almost certainly murder) three years later than for her acting but she made a lot of films including a few with the Marx Brothers. Hedda Hopper of course was famous for her gossip, though that wouldn't start for another four years. Sidney Toler became yet another non-Oriental Charlie Chan for a whole slew of movies. Edward Brophy is one of my favourite Warner Brothers support players and this will be my twentieth of his films, including three with Keaton. The other leading lady is Ruth Selwyn who wasn't famous as an actress at all but who had wonderful connections. Her brother was Fred Wilcox who directed Forbidden Planet, her sister was married to Nicholas Schenk, president of Loew's, Inc who owned MGM and her husband was film director Edgar Selwyn.

But what of the film itself? After all I'm learning that while Buster Keaton's considerable talents never went away, he was provided with less and less opportunity to show those talents. He continued to make films throughout his life, all the way up to his cameo as a forgotten star in Sunset Boulevard and his partnering with Charlie Chaplin in Limelight, but he had less and less control over them so that the quality notably declined. At least that's what I'm told and what I'm starting to see. This is the eighteenth of his films I've seen that were made from the silent era up to here in 1932 and three more from 1950 on but absolutely none of the over forty films he made in between. That doesn't bode well.

Well, as can be expected Keaton is superb but it doesn't really matter. He plays his role wonderfully but his role sucks. He's a professor who has almost entirely missed out on life so his assistant fakes an inheritance letter to him suggesting that he's inherited a huge amount of money. Naturally out he goes into the world only to find all sorts of chaos including a Broadway show. The cast are great but the material is not, and while sometimes it's funny other times it's just plain embarrassing.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) Gore Verbinski

This was far better than any setup movie had any right to be, and of course that's exactly what it was: a setup for part three, filmed at the same time and currently finishing off production. As this is still really popular a week after its initial record breaking opening weekend, I got to lie down on the floor in front of the front row of seats in order to get a decent view. Until then I couldn't see Jack, and of course Jack is the primary reason to see this film. Once again Johnny Depp owns the movie with his great portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. He returns, along with all the other chief cast members and also people like Stellan Skarsgard as Bootstrap Bill (Will Turner's father) and Bill Nighy as a memorable Davy Jones. None of them disappoint.

Best of all though were the effects. The kraken was superb, the storms and the stunts and the minor little touches were all superb, and Davy Jones's crew that populate the Flying Dutchman were awesome. Whoever created the half-sea creature, half-human effects for these crew members has got to be looking really really good for an Oscar next year. I was also really impressed by the sound, but maybe that's because I hardly ever venture into a cinema, let alone a decent cinema nowadays. I realise that as long as I'm not crammed up against the screen like today the experience should be really excellent. I just don't want to see most of the films shown today.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) Sam Wood

No, not the porn film, this is a Jean Arthur comedy from 1941 and I've become something of a Jean Arthur fan lately. I have six of her films behind me now (before this one) and I gave five of them a classic rating. It starts off with a memorable title sequence, then an apology to the richest men in the world just in case they might be offended by the story. I like it already!

There are a bunch of wimpy executives all towing the line for Charles Coburn playing JP Merrick, massively rich businessman. None of them really have a clue about anything, let alone what's going on at a department store he owns outside which he was burned in effigy. So Coburn goes undercover himself to find out what's behind it all and ends up entangled in the lives of some of his employees.

There's a lot of people I recognise here: S Z Sakall before Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, in a much bigger role than I'm used to seeing him in; Edward Gwenn and William Dumarest the same year that they appeared in The Lady Eve; Spring Byington the same year she made Meet John Doe; Montagu Love from a whole slew of films, Robert Cummings from Dial M for Murder. And yes, that's a lot of Frank Capra regulars, huh? Well it makes sense for a film like this.

Most of the film was a joy, but I was really disappointed with the ending. There were so many little details I wanted to see that just weren't there. I wanted to see that department head fired for one!

Bumping into Broadway (1919) Hal Roach

The first film Harold Lloyd made with his famous glasses, this has him pairing with Bebe Daniels. Hal Roach is the producer and there's even Freddie Newmeyer credited as a voice. Surely that's director Fred Newmeyer but I'm not sure where the voice came in on a silent feature? I know Daniels as Dorothy in the 1910 version of the Wizard of Oz and as the dame in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, but she knew Harold Lloyd well having paired with him many times in his Lonesome Luke shorts. He's a poor playwright and she's a poor dancer, struggling on Broadway. Most of the film takes place in a speakeasy and Lloyd's brand of physical comedy is obviously in full force as he gets chased by many many cops indeed. Very nicely done.

An Eastern Westerner (1920) Hal Roach

The first film Lloyd made after he lost the thumb and first finger of his right hand in a publicity stunt gone wrong. He starts out the socialite son of a rich father but gets quickly sent west to his uncle's farm where naturally he gets into all sorts of trouble. He also meets Mildred Davis, a poor waif, who would in a few years become the long term Mrs Harold Lloyd. This time round the big chase isn't an attempt to get away from the cops, it's trying to get away from a bunch of hooded thugs who look like Klansmen! Very strange.

Sinner's Holiday (1930) John G Adolfi

Debut films are supposed to suck, right? Well here's James Cagney, 31 years young, and fifth on the bill. Luckily he already knew the part well because he had played it on Broadway for the entire three week production. It flopped but through no fault of his or of Joan Blondell. Al Jolson sold the rights cheap to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that these two reprise their roles. Now it's not the greatest film in the world but it's bright and breezy and translates well. Cagney especially is just as assured and comfortable on film, if not more so, than most of the other actors in the film, including those credited above him like Grant Withers and Warren Hymer. It's really not surprising that it didn't take long for Cagney's star to rise and to stay just where it should have been for many many years to come.

We're back at Coney Island or at least something like it (it's only ever mentioned as This Amusement Park) but we don't see much of the customers. It's all about the people who run the place and the good and bad that goes on there. Naturally there's a murder and the cops have the wrong guy pegged for the killer, but the setup is well done indeed. I wasn't that impressed with Withers or Hymer, both of whom overact, but Evalyn Knapp was pretty good (and pretty too) and I've never previously heard of her. After checking up it seems that I've seen her a couple of times before, and recently too, but never in anything that gave her more than a low credit or a single line. Purnell Pratt is a decent cop and Lucille La Verne is great as Cagney's crotchety and hard as nails old ma. I hadn't heard of her either but her last role was a rather memorable one: as the Queen in Disney's Snow White! I've also seen her recently in the Gish sisters' Orphans of the Storm and she'll bear looking further into. It's still Cagney's show though, and in film number one at that.

Don Juan (1926) Alan Crosland

The Jazz Singer is well known as the first to include sound, in the sense of speech. However a year earlier Don Juan was first to synchronise sound to film. It used the brand new Vitaphone process which played music on a large record player to the events on screen, making it a double whammy for Alan Crosland who a year later also directed The Jazz Singer. It's also notable for being the film in which John Barrymore, no small lover himself, got to kiss someone on an average of every 53 seconds. It really doesn't seem like it though. What makes this feat more impressive is that he doesn't even appear as Don Juan for the first half hour and then waits a while through some gothic horror type material before launching into serious loverboy mode leaping off balconies and such.

It may well just be the serious passage of time since 1926 but Barrymore looks faintly ridiculous as Don Juan. Maybe it's the trousers which show a little more than they should. Then again they're better than the similar pair worn by the young Don Juan which are highly dubious indeed. Even more dubious are some of his means of winning across women which are sometimes a little too vehement. The women though look gorgeous, in the moonfaced manner of silent heroines, and there are naturally a large amount of them. Leading lady Mary Astor looks roughly like you'd expect Mary Astor to, but with the added accompaniment of a mane of curly hair. Estelle Taylor is wonderful as Lucrezia Borgia, mastering the curious effect of looking gorgeous half the time and scary the other half. I've only seen her once before as the prostitute Dixie Lee in 1931's unworthy Oscar winner, Cimarron but she shone there too. I'll have to look out for more of her work, though most of it was in the silent era and probably difficult or even impossible to locate. She was an interesting character, it seems, having married heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and been the last person to see Lupe Velez alive before her notorious suicide. Lucrezia's lady in waiting is no less a future star than Myrna Loy, who was precisely nobody in 1926. She has a surprising presence for someone who only a year earlier was just an extra in the crowd at a chariot race in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

There are male names that I recognise too. Warner Oland plays Cesar Borgia well enough but the Swedish actor was far more effective in later years playing oriental characters like Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. Montagu Love I've seen in a large amount of films but this may be the earliest of them and he's a notably lecherous character here. There's even an uncredited Gustav von Seyffertitz as a poisonous magician.

There's quality here for sure but it doesn't translate well to the modern day. Don Juan obviously a lech but there's not a heck of a lot of romance going on in either sense of the word until the swordfight at the end. Without that, what's left? An exotic curiosity really with some truly scary costumes that probably only warrants an OK, but I'm almost tempted to go up to good for Estelle Taylor, Myrna Loy and some gothic horror touches. Almost.

Foreign Correspondent (1940) Alfred Hitchcock

Not many Hitchcocks have evaded me over the last couple of years but this is probably the most important of his American films that I'm missing. It was Hitch's second film in the States and it was nominated for six Oscars. However it was also seriously overshadowed by his first, Rebecca, which won for Best Picture and caught up all the glory. It's funny , really funny, and that's rather notable for a Hitchcock film as it was hardly one of the key focuses of his work. But it's not really a comedy: it's a thriller that's astutely funny and of course that isn't surprising in the slightest. Hitch had fun with this one, it's obvious, and it's great fun for us too to see the tricks he had up his sleeve, which of course display complete mastery. There's one famous scene of murder in public that is just stunning. A hitman disguised as a photographer skilfully shoots a diplomat who may or may not actually be the diplomat in question, then escapes in the rain underneath a sea of umbrellas. As to the rest, it isn't far behind and he kept me guessing all the way.

I know a lot of the cast though not always well. I'm not sure I've enjoyed Joel McCrea this much before, even in major films like Ride the High Country, Sullivan's Travels or The Palm Beach Story. Maybe he's always seemed a little over-serious to me and the comic touch works wonderfully. The leading lady is Laraine Day who I only know a couple of years later in another solid thriller, Fingers at the Window with Lew Ayres and Basil Rathbone. Beyond them though, there's Herbert Marshall from the original version of The Fly, Edmund Gwenn who most people know from Miracle on 34th Street but I know from things like The Trouble with Harry and The Devil and Miss Jones, Harry Davenport who was so great in The Bride Came COD. George Sanders I know well of course and he had also appeared in Rebecca for Hitch the same year. Ian Wolfe I know even better, though I'm surprised at how many films I've actually seen him in: from Mad Love in 1935 to Dick Tracy in 1990 via many memorable bit parts in between.

Outside of the cast, I found it notable that the whole concept of everyman Joel McCrea getting caught up in matters way way beyond his control reminded me very much of the similar concept of everyman Cary Grant getting caught up in matters way way beyond his control in North By Northwest. I had major problems with the way that Grant's character seemed to turn into James Bond overnight, but I found McCrea's character far more believable. He really does come across as someone who is bright without being a genius who half perseveres and half flounders around only just ahead or behind the real story. It works.

For Heaven's Sake (1926) Sam Taylor

This time out Harold Lloyd is an unflappable rich man, which doesn't fit too well with his standard persona but which works wonderfully. The early scenes are perfect. His chauffeur swerves to avoid what he thinks is a cat and runs instead directly into a truck. Lloyd merely tells him that's all for today and walks off to buy a new car. That gets destroyed within a few minutes by a police chase, a gunfight and eventually by being hit by a train, but still unflappable, Lloyd just wanders off. He's hilarious and in a totally different way to usual.

Of course things don't go as expected. He accidentally finances a mission but falls in love with the daughter of the proprietor and you can imagine how things go from there. Best of all the many decent scenes in this film is the one where Harold is trying to get a bunch of hoodlums to follow him, but they keep following someone else. It's the complete opposite of the classic slapstick comedy chase (which happens later on in the film) and it's hilarious.

A Snake of June (2002) Shinya Tsukamoto

Violence, Rape, Adult Language, Nudity, Adult Content, Strong Sexual Content... sounds like just the sort of thing coming out of Japan these days. And this one's from the mind of Shinya Tsukamoto, the man behind the Tetsuo films which were both truly bizarre. It's also black and white, though tinged with blue. Definitely a cult sort of thing, but then many modern Japanese films are.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) Sam Peckinpah

In 1909 a bunch of old men in huge beards are getting shot and in 1886 a bunch of gunfighters are using chickens as target practice. Yep, this is a Sam Peckinpah movie and it's apparently his favourite of all the many he made. I'm happy to see this film at last and I'm really happy to see it in widescreen in what must be pretty close to the director's original cut that was massacred on original release by MGM. Now I saw a version of this legend recently and was mightly disappointed. In fact The Outlaw ended up as a comedy even though that was the furthest thing from the minds of anyone involved. This felt authentic in the initial scenes before the opening credits ran.

The cast is incredible: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan; Jason Robards, Richard Jaeckel and Harry Dean Stanton; along with almost every single legendary western supporting actor in the business, from Chill Wills and Slim Pickens to LQ Jones and Jack Elam to Katy Jurado. If you've seen westerns, you've seen these guys. And Peckinpah didn't just see westerns, he lived westerns. And that way he knew how to put in those little touches that make it real. I'm talking about the kids, who are eveywhere. They play on nooses, sit on corpses, throw stones and sheriffs. I also saw a lot of flies, a lot of sand, a lot of wind, a lot of blood, a lot of space and a lot of silence. I've seen far too many westerns that don't have a lot of any of those things.

Coburn looks great in black and he's the law but he's no hero. Kristofferson looks like a Bridges and helps a lot of people but he's no hero either. Dylan looks like a cross between Adam Sandler and Richard Dreyfuss but like the rest, he's no heroes and no villain. They're all real people who are something of both who are telling a real story, and that's how it should be. There are also some great endings, though not necessarily how we'd expect. Jack Elam dies in a duel where neither party follow the rules and Slim Pickens finds his river in a wonderfully poetic way, all accompanied by Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door and those famous words make sense all of a sudden. And the whole thing feels like a timeless poem. I can see myself watching this again and again.

Winner Take All (1932) Roy Del Ruth

Cagney is a boxer this time out who has fought a little too often and needs a break. So the fans throw coins into the ring to pay for his trip out to the country to the Rosario Ranch and Hot Springs resort in New Mexico. Naturally he meets up with a girl and ends up getting back into the fight game to help her out.

The leading lady is. Cagney's as fun as he always was, especially when he's pretending to be posh, but it's Virginia Bruce who shines most here. Cagney isn't really that nice a guy but he's too much of a idiot for his bad side to get in the way. Bruce though is a truly despicable blonde acid queen who twists him around her little finger. The real leading lady is Marian Nixon who was better in the pre-code Barthelmess called The Lash where she had more of a part. I've become a huge Guy Kibbee fan and he gets more of a substantial role than usual here. He even gets to pop Cagney one and I'm sure I wasn't the only one cheering this time round!

This one has a notably pre-code mentality, one that wouldn't have cut it after the code for sure, but in this instance it's not that great.

Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (1945) Sergei Eisenstein

In my quest to at least begin to catch up with the work of the great directors of the world, Sergei Eisenstein is probably the biggest name I've not yet seen at all, so this is a pretty important moment for me. I haven't seen Battleship Potemkin or Alexander Nevsky yet, but this is still a highly renowned project from the greatest of all Russian directors so it's hardly a bad place to begin.

Ivan was the first Tsar of All the Russias and he's played here by Nikolai Cherkasov with an incredibly powerful presence. The film is striking from the outset with fast billowing clouds accompanying the opening credits. Then we see Ivan's coronation amidst a stunning array of outlandish costumes. These vastly different small groups of nobles, all thoroughly unique both in costume and features, reminded me of the football scene in Flash Gordon. So much character, so much diversity and all accompanied by some superb Russian choral music. After all, when you have Sergei Prokofiev to compose your score you're likely to get something powerful!

This was a strange film to watch. At heart it's a silent feature with speeches. Many scenes are entirely silent and the stylistic overacting is highly reminiscent of the silent style where actions took the place of words. What sound there is here accompanies the music even more than the visuals. Many of the dialogues are more like litany than speeches. The sets and movements are highly stylistic. I can see a lot of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc in the closeups and bare sets and many of the German expressionistic films in the shadows and motion and architecture.

What made it strangest though was the fact that almost all of it had to do with waiting. After the initial coronation, we have long wedding scenes where we wait for the boyars to mount their inevitable attack but when it comes it's repressed with a single speech. There's the preparation and long wait for a large military action to start but the starting and winning is combined into one short scene. There's the long wait for the Tsar to but it takes a mere moment for him to be up and about. There's the long wait for Ivan to take on the boyars properly and for the people to take his side. Everything is waiting. I found that it was easy to pay little attention to the actual story and just revel in the visuals which were astounding.

Other Men's Women (1931) William A Wellman

Three films into the career of one James Francis Cagney and he already owns the film, regardless of his fourth place billing below people like Grant Withers and Regis Toomey. The other name above his is Mary Astor so that one's almost excusable. It's also another Joan Blondell film for Cagney to appear in and she was always a solid supporting actress. I checked up this time around and it seems that they made seven films together, more than he made with any other actress, and this is the last one for me to catch.

The story has something to do with a bunch of rail workers who have women in every town. Withers goes home with his best mate Toomey and ends up falling for his wife Mary Astor, overnight it seems even though it takes five or six months. No, the time didn't make a lot of sense to me. Didn't they have to work during the summer? It didn't seem like it.

A few things sprung to mind. The line, 'Have a little chew on me?' got very annoying very quickly. Cagney is the only person not overacting, not that he gets much chance to do anything else, and even Mary Astor gets in on the melodramatic stuff. There's a great heroic act that I don't understand at all. And the only thing that's really interesting here is the use of what sound like real railroading songs. Not a lot to recommend, I guess.

Queen Kelly (1929) Erich Von Stroheim

Probably the greatest complete disaster of a movie ever attempted, not as cinematic art but as cinematic excess and ultimate failure. Erich Von Stroheim was a seriously great artist, as can be seen by seeing any of his work: even in its seriously massacred version Greed is a masterpiece and his acting is always worth watching. However he was the worst example of individual excess and lack of compromise cinema has ever known. People like Carl Theodor Dreyer or Stanley Kubrick made films their own way and if they couldn't make them their own way they didn't make them at all. That's why it took them both forty years to make thirteen movies.

Von Stroheim however ignored everyone who said he couldn't do things and did them anyway. Greed was going to be ten hours long until the studio stepped in! The result of course was that he kept getting fired from directorial positions until making a film was almost impossible. By the time Queen Kelly came along he only got the job because people as important as Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy were willing to finance such an artist. Unfortunately only a third of the way into the movie even such a fan as Swanson had got fed up to the teeth and fired him. The expected five hour movie ended up only a third complete and Swanson had to pony up more money at a later date to convert that into something releasable. Even then it only saw the light of day in Europe because Von Stroheim blocked an American release. Finally twenty minutes more footage was discovered much later and was added back in for a restored version released in 1985, well after Von Stroheim's death. By this time Queen Kelly had become nothing but a legendary cautionary tale and an interesting side note to Sunset Boulevard, as Swanson's character plays footage of it for her new pet, apparently at her butler Von Stroheim's request.

What's left is slow but powerful, as you'd expect from a Von Stroheim picture. There are points where it stretches credulity though, notably in the casting of Gloria Swanson as a convent girl. She was 32 at the time and looked it! Mary Pickford might have got away with it but even that's unlikely. She's also plastered with make up which really couldn't have been the case if they were looking for any of that Von Stroheim realism. Swanson gets kidnapped by the mad Queen's consort, played by Walter Byron. They love each other even though they've only seen each other once, on the Kambach road where Swanson threw her underwear at him. Romance ain't dead, huh? The queen is Seena Owen who looks like she's trying to be Jean Harlow, though Harlow wasn't known at this point. She's insane and does things like walk entirely naked out onto balconies past guards, even though the flesh coloured coverings she wears have wrinkles.

Swanson is solid, even though she should never have been put into the role in the first place. Walter Byron is perfectly adequate as the male lead and Tully Marshall is awesome as the lecherous old man on crutches who ends up marrying Swanson in a brothel. In the end, this was fascinating viewing if vastly problematic.

The Naked Kiss (1964) Samuel Fuller

Sam Fuller is someone that I heard about a long while ago as someone highly respected by people who I highly respect, but didn't know too much about him. Now I'm managing to see some of his work and I'm realising that he's one of the really great men to helm a film. He never held back and he made some of the most honest films I've ever seen made.

This one really starts how it means to go on: with a powerful female prostitute in a wig beating the crap out of the sort of man who would normally be the lead in a 1964 film, but being honest enough to only take what's owed her and not rob him blind. Constance Towers plays Kelly the prostitute who wants out of her current life so she heads out from the big city into small town America. A couple of years later she's in Grantville to sell champagne and whatever else people are buying, but she finds that she likes the place. Griff, the local police captain is client number one and he's happy to recommend her to a place across the river which happens to be in another state. She likes the place though and decides to stay and that causes more than a little conflict when she clashes with Griff and the town's rich benefactor falls for her.

Fuller covered things here that nobody covered in films in 1964: prostitution and paedophilia especially. He in many ways condemned his own audience, which is hardly a logical move for a filmmaker who wants to carry on making films. And while a lot of it is tame compared to what we'd even see on TV nowadays, it still carries a solid punch in a number of scenes. It must have been a real kick in the gut in 1964.

Be Here to Love Me (2004) Margaret Brown

Being a huge Townes van Zandt fan it was highly unlikely that I wasn't going to appreciate this film which attempts to tell much of his life story. What I wasn't expecting was such an honest look at a seriously troubled man. It never felt exploitative even though a couple of more recent family members seemed to be saying a little too much of what they wanted us to hear rather than just telling the truth.

I was impressed by Margaret Brown's honesty otherwise as she has an obvious affection for Townes's music but felt no need to pretend that he was something that he wasn't. He was, as Steve Earle famously put it, 'the greatest songwriter in the world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that', and I'm amazed that Brown didn't put that quote in the film. Restraint, I guess, in a film that didn't have a lot of it. There's a huge quantity of Townes's songs, of course, including some that hadn't heard, but it's the background that makes this film. That and the way that Brown throws a slew of sometimes contradictory material up there on the screen for us to sift through and work out who we trust.

Definitely one for me to watch again and again as the years drift by. Townes's work is timeless and this will run along nicely as a grounding for what he wrote and sang.

The Better 'Ole (1926) Charles Reisner

It's wartime and the English are getting ready for a serious push by the Germans. Syd Chaplin is Private William Busby, a thirty year veteran known as Old Bill who ends up in a foxhole with only his moustache, his gun and his pipe for company. Oh, and Little Alf, his worst worry. The joke of the title comes when Alf complains about their situation and Bill tells him to find a better 'ole. This comes from a World War I cartoon and seems like a pretty weak basis for an entire feature length film.

Luckily there's much better here, including some truly funny and admirable scenes. One in particular has Bill clear a stage by throwing a whole slew of chairs onto his back and carrying off the piano in his remaining hand. Unfortunately there are a bunch more scenes that, while never being truly awful, just don't raise many laughs. Star Syd Chaplin is obviously a trained vaudevillian and very good at what he does, but what he does here just isn't funny often enough to make the film than just OK. Needless to say I'm far more impressed by Chaplin's half-brother Charlie, but I think I might just have to find some more Syd.

The Blue Gardenia (1953) Fritz Lang

It's been far too long since I've seen any Fritz Lang. I've been knocked out by enough of his work to really want to discover more of it. M is one of my favourites and of course there's Metropolis and Hangmen Also Die! and The Big Heat and The Testament of Dr Mabuse and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and that's just the classics. There's plenty other excellent films of his out there too and I'm sure there's still more that I haven't discovered yet. Coming in between Clash By Night and The Big Heat this one should be one of them, right?

On the face of it this one has lots by people I've heard of but don't really recognise yet like leads Anne Baxter, Richard Conte and Ann Sothern. After the credits there are people I do recognise, like Raymond Burr, George Reeves and Nat King Cole as himself, but there's less of them of course. Anne Baxter is half Cameron Diaz and half Ellen Barkin with maybe a dash of Shirley Maclaine and that's certainly no bad thing. Now I'm not just going to be watching All About Eve for Bette Davis and George Sanders. Raymond Burr is a complete lech, which is a new string to his bow to me. I know him as the pillar of virtue and the murderous David Selznick lookalike but he's good as a lech. Nat King Cole sounds good singing the title song even though his fingers are playing something else entirely in the mirror.

This isn't one of Fritz Lang's greats, that's for sure, but he does a good job with the suspense at least. He makes us expect a lot of things that aren't quite what they seem and he does it effortlessly. The old magic was definitely still there, it just didn't have as much as we could have hoped to work with.

Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (1958) Sergei Eisenstein

It's 1564 and it's time for part two of Ivan the Terrible, Sergei Eisenstein's planned trilogy on the life of the great tsar. At the end of part one, Ivan withdrew to the town of Alexandrov and constructed his bodyguard, the Oprichniks. The film looks very similar in style to its predecessor with wonderful closeups of wonderfully distinct faces full of character and expression, and those actors who return look like they've hardly aged. None of this is surprising given that it was made immediately after the first, merely delayed from release for over a decade as Stalin saw it as a veiled attack on his mode of government.

If possible, part two is even more stylised than part one, making what we see less acting and more choreography. Admittedly the dance is a great one and the steps grand, but it does take some adjusting to especially when Eisenstein goes all the way and inserts what can only be described as a musical number sung by Ivan's scheming aunt Euphrosyne. Like in part one, she is played by Serafima Birman and she still looks like Terry Jones in a nun's habit. Her simple minded son Vladimir acquired stubble though and now looks more and more like Ashton Kutchner. Of course the key difference is that Pavel Kadochnikov is deliberately trying to act simple.

There's another major musical number a little later on including some cossack dancing and lots of leaping around. It does nothing for me but for some bizarre reason Eisenstein shot it in colour, though admittedly almost all the colours are red. Even out of colour Nikolai Cherkasov steals the show again though as the title character. Not having seen any of these actors in anything else, I have no clue what he normally looks like but I get the impression that he truly immersed himself in the part and for the hour and a half it takes for this short film to run he becomes Ivan the Terrible. More than anything else the lack of the planned conclusion to the trilogy robs us of the conclusion to Cherkasov's take on the character. He is a serious presence on the screen and I'd loved to have seen him inroles like Emperor Ming or Dr Fu Manchu, even Rasputin the Mad Monk. I wonder what else he's done.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) William Keighley

You know, I think I prefer Edward G Robinson to James Cagney. Both of them made some classic pictures, both of them were always great even when the films they were in weren't and the pair of them were never surpassed as tough guys. Here Robinson is a good guy, a tough cop who's been held back for far too long, but in a great irony he gets fired by the new tough commissioner just when he's needed. The rackets are huge, wide reaching and hard to break. What is someone with the attitude of an Eddie G going to do in this sort of situation?

Robinson is awesome, as he's never failed to be, and in fact finds it easier to be the good tough guy than the bad tough guy. Joan Blondell is nominally the lead and she's a club owner branching out with the help of Louise Beavers, who I firmly believe would have made it to the very top if her skin had been a different colour. Barton MacLane is solid as the leader of the local rackets and Joseph King is just as solid as the new commissioner, even though neither are really great. Frank McHugh has made me laugh so often it's got to the point that I laugh when he walks on screen. There's also Humphrey Bogart in yet another of his supporting gangster roles which always end up disappointing because while the Warner Brothers didn't know it at the time, we know now just what he could have been doing all along. At least he can look great in a trenchcoat, at least.

Chain Lightning (1950) Stuart Heisler

It's Mr Bogart again and this time he's an aging pilot whose glory days were behind him in World War II flying bombers over Europe. He left a girl behind too: the night before he left England he wanted to marry her but they couldn't find the permission. Yet after leaving he found he couldn't even write. Now he's back with the USAF testing jets and she's the boss's secretary.

There's a lot of problems here but the film still ends up somewhat likeable. Bogart does fine, as would be expected, but he's hardly stretched by this material. The rest of the cast don't get to do much either, except maybe leading lady Eleanor Parker who obviously has a thing for older men, given that the last time I saw her was opposite Clark Gable six years on from here. She was 28 to Bogart's 50 plus. That's only two years younger than Bogie's baby wife Lauren Bacall. In 1956 she was 34 to Gable's 49. And yes, it's still amazing that Bogie was older than Gable. Even Raymond Massey doesn't get much of a role, outstripped by a bunch of planes. Richard Whorf is the best of the bunch but he only gets a few really good scenes.

What ends up most annoying is the way the in-plane camera tilts to pretend that it's going up or down. I realise that it's 1950 and special effects were hardly the focus of mainstream films (oh for that sort of situation today) but these were really cheap. There are points where this looks like a Buck Rogers serial and Bogie knows to too, even describing his suit as a 'Buck Rogers monkey suit'. The key flight at the end had its moments but there should have been so more.

The Incredibles (2004) Brad Bird

And I was so looking forward to writing a review for the IMDb Project of The Incredibles where I could talk about how the film is really an exploration of Randian objectivism. But hey, this may be Top 250 now but it wasn't when I grabbed my list. So I just get to talk about it here.

The Incredibles are a superhero family, but superheroes have become illegal. Mr Incredible saves someone trying to kill himself by jumping off a huge building only to get sued by the jumper. The lawsuits quickly multiply and the superheroes get relocated into private lives where they must hide their real talents. Now Mr Incredible is an insurance agent working for someone who looks like Stephen King, but there's hope. Someone wants his help, help that only Mr Incredible can give...

It's a major message. Even though I know nothing much about objectivism, I can see that the film is based around the concept that everyone should be average and it's not fair to everyone else for special people to be better than them. Other than one short bit at the end, this is entirely consistent and it rings true in the modern world. After all it's just not fair that some people are so much talented than others, right?

I could see a lot of Alan Moore's groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen in here and can't help but wonder how that could ever get translated into film. Terry Gilliam planned it some time ago and knew it wouldn't be an easy job but Sin City has finally proved it possible at least. I wonder how much though will seem derivative now that films like The Incredibles have appropriated some of the same territory.

All that said, this may well be my favourite Pixar film beyond the original Luxo, Jr. And that's really saying something because Pixar haven't made a bad one yet.

Convict 13 (1920) Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline

I've been really impressed by a lot of Buster Keaton scenes but the films they're in don't always hold up. I had problems with Steamboat Bill Jr and The Cameraman as complete films and they're highly regarded as some of his best work. I think there are points of sheer genius in them but the films themselves don't hold up to that standard. In comparison Convict 13 doesn't let up for a second. It's far more unrefined than the later films I mentioned but it's all out mayhem as only the best of the silent slapstick stars could dish out.

Buster Keaton is playing golf with his girlfriend and getting his ass handed to him when he knocks himself out with a golf ball that bounces off a tree. A nearby escaped convict swaps his striped outfit for Buster's and so it's Buster that gets hauled off to jail. There he rediscovers his girlfriend who is the warden's daughter but his death sentence still stands and today's the day for Convict 13 to be hanged. He gets out of that one and manages to acquire a guard's outfit just in time to get caught up in a jailhouse riot with one especially huge prisoner taking out all and sundry.

That's a very quick and undetailed synopsis because there's really a massive amount going on here. I'm still dumbfounded at how Keaton does some of his acrobatics and the fight scenes rank up with the best. I wonder how many of those hits were real! I know that his career declined but it's not really supposed to have started that decline around 1929 or 1930. My personal ratings suggest that as a general rule they started going downhill after his masterpiece Sherlock Jr in 1924.

All Through the Night (1942) Vincent Sherman

This is one of the most talent studded casts I've ever seen. Humphrey Bogart is back working in the rackets, but this is 1942 so he's in charge and he's a good guy too, a gambler and promoter helping out the neighbourhood. He eats at Louie's, where the waiter is Phil Silvers, and eats cheesecake only from Miller's Bakery, which is run by Ludwig Stossel who is working with Peter Lorre to pass information to the Nazis. Unfortunately for him he doesn't want anything to do with it any more and so that's the end of Miller. Bogie takes it personally and uses his gambling colleagues to investigate.

There's Conrad Veidt, Dame Judith Anderson and a leading lady who don't know by the name of Kaaren Verne who looks like a thinner version of Ingrid Bergman. There are also many Warner Brothers regulars that are becoming screen friends of mine because I'm seeing them so often: Frank McHugh, Edward Brophy, Barton MacLane, William Dumarest and Jackie Gleason. There's even Hattie McDaniel's brother Sam and I hadn't realised how many films I've seen him in. He almost always plays porters, butlers, waiters, bartenders, drivers, that sort of thing. Here he's Bogie's valet.

It's great to see Bogie as a good guy bad guy and playing for laughs too. While he didn't really make any comedies that I've seen so far, outside of things like Swing Your Lady which I'm sure he disowned the moment it wrapped, but he did play a couple of characters who were comedic and they were always so much fun. This one is definitely played for laughs but it doesn't want them at the expense of the plot which is cleverly written as far as the big picture, the little details and the dialogue.

What this ends up as is the natural segue between the gangster pictures of the thirties and both the new trends of the forties: the more sophisticated films noir and the spy dramas that came in during wartime. Three of them return later the same year for Casablanca, of course, and really make their point clear. They really have a go at Hitler ('Schickelgruber, the house painter') whose picture gets an axe in the face. The message is clear: don't mess with American gangsters or they'll kick you right in the swastika.

Not the best made film of all time (but far from the worse), but it might just be one of the most fun. I'll certainly be watching this again next time it's on TCM.

Tales from the Hood (1995) Rusty Cundieff

A horror film anthology with a black theme. Clarence Williams III, who I don't recognise but my wife knows as Linc from the original Mod Squad, plays a freaky undertaker who tells stories to three black kids who go searching for dope. None of them can act but they can all swear a whole bunch. The stories they hear are interesting if not particularly surprising. And all the white guys are bad guys, naturally. Some of the black guys are too but they get to be good too. White guys don't.

The first has a bunch of dirty white cops taking out a black activist, thus leading rookie black cop Anthony Griffith (who looks like a young Poitier) into drunkenness and revenge. The cops include a freaky Wings Hauser and the always sleazy Michael Massee. I think I first saw him in Seven and The Crow, but he did a great episode of Criminal Minds playing a convicted killer on death row.

The second has little Walter plagued by a monster in his closet but his teacher gets to help him destroy it. The third has racist politician and former Klansman Corbin Bernson running for governor. He's living in a house owned by a former plantation owner who massacred his slaves, so the locals aren't happy about it, but a voodoo woman moved their souls into dolls. The final one works a Clockwork Orange type behavioural therapy on rather noticeably well endowed black street thug Lamont Bentley who has to face the people he killed.

Much of it is derivative and unoriginal and the ending was so telegraphed it's unreal, but there's some good stuff in there. I'm also sure the solid definition of blacks as good and whites as bad went down really well with its likely black audience. Corbin Bernson ranting about niglets must have had them laughing their heads off.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) Robert Rodriguez

This is an old favourite of mine. It may even be my favourite Tarantino effort, even though he only co-wrote and featured in it. The director is Robert Rodriguez, of Desperado and Sin City fame, and he does an awesome job with this one too. Tarantino's mark is all over it though, as far as the dialogue, the choice of actors and the influences it wears openly in the little details like Precinct 13 t-shirts. It's also by far the best acting performance I've seen Tarantino give, as it's pretty well known that regardless of his other talents, he is no actor. Here he plays a nutjob sexual deviant and he's very believable as a nutjob sexual deviant.

The acting is great all around but it's the choices of actors that make it really special. George Clooney hadn't really proved anything in film at this point but he proves his worth by making Tarantino's dialogue shine. Harvey Keitel is a regular in Tarantino movies but here he's a mild mannered priest with belief issues and he's just awesome. Also far from her usual role, Juliette Lewis plays his daughter who has mild manners of her own. There's also the usual roster of cult figures too: Cheech Marin in a triple role, special effects wizard Tom Savini, cult icon John Saxon, blaxploitation legend Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson and Rodriguez regular and real life tough guy Danny Trejo. There's also a rather notable performance by the lovely Salma Hayek as a character called Santanico Pandemonium, along with a number of other highly delectable and scantily clad ladies.

As far as the script goes, it's two films in one. It's a crime film for the first half and something very difficult for the second half. I won't tell you what it is because that'll spoil the fun if you haven't seen it yet. Needless to say, do so. Soon.

From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (2000) P J Pesce

I haven't seen the second From Dusk Till Dawn movie but that was a sequel, but this is a prequel so I don't think it's going to make a lot of difference if I'm missing the second. It starts off with far too many slow motion shots and no snappy Tarantino dialogue, but the concept is interesting.

Ambrose Bierce, real life author of note, disappeared in Mexico in 1913 on a mission to help out Pancho Villa. The Hangman's Daughter suggests that he got caught up in all sorts of chaos beyond what was suggested at the time, but which is rather fitting given his influence on the horror genre in the twentieth century. He is one of various characters who end up at La Tetilla del Diablo (the Titty Twister seems to have been originally called The Devil's Nipple) for a rerun of the second half of the first film. There's also a Mexican bandit who escapes the noose at the beginning of the movie with the aid of a young lady who wants to be an outlaw. She turns up too but he's tried to kill her in the meantime. There's also the delectable title character who he loves and her father, the hangman. Bierce himself arrived with a missionary couple.

Just as the first film was a crime drama that becomes a vampire movie, so this is a western that becomes a vampire movie. The western part is interesting and even original but the vampire part is clumsy and highly derivative, not just of its predecessor but of many other films. The effects are also pretty poor, especially when compared to the first From Dusk Till Dawn.

The best things about it are the actors. Marco Leonardi is pretty good as the bandit and Michael Parks is fun as Bierce. Ara Celi can't quite replace Salma Hayek but she smoulders nicely. Danny Trejo returns again (he was also in the sequel) and there's Sonia Braga as the leading lady vampire and even Orlando Jones as a brush salesman. The name I'll most remember though is Jordana Spiro who plays the wannabe outlaw. Her part goes nowhere in the end but is solid throughout the first half of the film and she came across to me as refreshingly different, both in her role and her portrayal of it.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) Penelope Spheeris

How I managed to miss this one being a huge metal fan in the eighties I really don't know. I knew about it, of course, but I've somehow never managed to see either it or Part I, which focused on earlier hardcore punk. This one has become such a legend over the last twenty years that it's now on the Entertainment Weekly list of their top 50 cult films. Then again eighties metal has become a cult of its own nowadays.

For my part I discovered thrash at the same time as metal and rock 'n' roll and every other flavour of the mix and devoured all of it. That meant that I saw the jeans and t-shirts, no stage sets, no videos take on things (as depicted by Megadeth in this film) as coexistent

with the glitz and make up and hairspray take (as depicted by everyone else). I could laugh at Poison and Faster Pussycat as much as I could listen to them. I didn't have to take the excess seriously.

Here Penelope Spheeris does a lot of setting up her interview subjects to make them look so much like morons that we can carry on laughing at them for years, and yet in and amongst there's some incisive intelligent comments. Maybe that sums up eighties metal better than anything else. On the one side there are people like Alice Cooper and Lemmy who survived the previous age and lived to tell the tale who offer up nuggets of wisdom that ring very true indeed, and on the other side there are people like Odin honestly believing that their talent puts them way beyond people like The Doors and, of course, Chris Holmes from WASP.

His is the most notorious moment in the film and deservedly so. He literally pours vodka down his throat while lounging in a swimming pool and avoiding half of Penelope Spheeris's questions. His mother is close by and obviously hates every moment of it and every word that comes out of his mouth. Her son has become a wealthy and lauded rock star but at what cost?

Young Guns (1988) Christopher Cain

Somehow I never managed to see the Young Guns films either back in the eighties. Maybe they were a little close to the nineties for me to be interested in mainstream films but it's certainly about time I saw them. OK, this is an ex-rental video in fullscreen NTFS format that has probably seen much better days, but it works.

Terence Stamp is an Englishman out west, just like me, but his west was still wild. He's battling with no lesser legend than Jack Palance, more than a few years on from Shane. Backing them up (literally, as they work as regulators for Stamp) are a whole slew of actors making names for themselves. There's Emilio Estevez, his brother Charlie Sheen, Lou Diamond Phillips, Kiefer Sutherland, Dermot Mulroney and some other guy. Elsewhere there's Brian Keith, Terry McQuinn from The Stepfather and even Patrick Wayne, son of the biggest film western legend of them all, the Duke himself. Here he plays a young Pat Garrett to Estevez's young Billy the Kid.

But enough of the cast whose names speak for themselves. What about the story? Well I felt it was a little clumsy and it didn't capture as much of the west as it obviously hoped for, but I'm not sure how much of that is the quality of the tape and its lack of widescreen. But Estevez can't handle his guns for a good chunk of the movie, Sheen's accent sucks and this is all way too 1980s rather than 1880s. Then again, there's a really cool scene where Billy comes face to face with his exaggerated legend. Unfortunately there's not much else.


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