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Capsule Reviews (November 2006)

Kind Lady (1935) George B Seitz

It looks like it's been a really bad Christmas for everyone, but struggling artist Basil Rathbone gets the heads up about Aline MacMahon, the highly generous lady whose sidewalk he's been decorating. She takes pity on him and lets him in for a cup of Christmas tea and the chance to warm his bones out of the snow. He seems to be the epitome of decency but is happy to steal a cigarette case from her when she isn't looking, ostensibly to pawn it but really to gain entrance back into her house to return it. He's a complete cad and happily moves in and takes over the place over the kind lady's decency. He also brings his family!

Rathbone is superb. He can play a kind and generous character but has a knack for playing cruel and ruthless types. Here he surpasses himself as someone who, without ever appearing vicious, is exactly the sort of person you never want to meet. Every word that comes out of his mouth has a double edge to it. The alternative title for the film is House of Menace and that's a much more appropriate title than just Kind Lady. Aline MacMahon is superb too. Mary Herries is a thoroughly decent and worthy woman without ever becoming a saint, but Rathbone is such a villainous villain while always remaining real that she has an uphill battle on her hands.

Also in the cast are Dudley Digges, who came to this role from his thoroughly memorable one in Mutiny on the Bounty; Donald Meek, who is always a pleasure; and Barbara Shields, who plays a twisted young dimwit woman very well indeed. She should have done horror films in the sixties!

Follow the Fleet (1936) Mark Sandrich

Anyone who's been following these notes must surely realise that I'm not a fan of musicals. There are a few exceptions to that rule and I'm still trying to quantify exactly why I like some of them when I don't like most of them. One thing I can quantify so far is that I tend to at least enjoy anything featuring Fred Astaire or especially Ginger Rogers, and naturally anything featuring both of them. That doesn't mean I see quality to the degree that many do, but I do enjoy them.

This one features both and it comes in between Top Hat and Shall We Dance and in the same year as Swing Time. The director is Mark Sandrich, who also directed Top Hat and Shall We Dance. He understood what clicked and what didn't and worked accordingly. The music is by Irving Berlin, hardly a minor name in musicals, and it features no less a song than Let's Face the Music and Dance, a song I'm happy to hear in a musical even though the production number it accompanies sucked.

There's also Randolph Scott, Betty Grable, and way down at the very bottom of the credited list, Lucille Ball. Astaire plays Bake Baker, a Navy seaman and when he gets shore leave he goes looking for his former dance partner, Sherry Martin, but of course ends up in the Paradise where she works. Naturally there's a dance competition that they don't know about and so get to show off in style and win without any worries. There's also a subplot about Sherry's sister (Harriet Hilliard from Ozzie and Harriet) who looks like a teacher but gets a serious makeover and turns Randolph Scott's head. He of course heads off to some floozy instead, however cute she looks.

The plot is threadbare of course because it's merely a framework to hang cool dance sequences off, and there are two of those that really shine here: the dance competition and the show rehearsal, both Astaire/Rogers partnerships. They're worth the whole film on their own, but some decent comedy helps too, along with the opportunity to see Randolph Scott not just out of a cowboy outfit but in one that really doesn't seem like it fits at all. It's not up to the others I've seen but it's always good to see Fred and Ginger.

From Headquarters (1933) William Dieterle

I love those old thirties murder mystery B-movies and this one has the double whammy of George Brent and old frog voiced Eugene Pallette. William Dieterle is in charge (with some uncredited work from Michael Curtiz) and he's one of those versatile directors who could handle any sort of genre, as evidenced by those I've already seen: from Jewel Robbery to The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Fashions of 1935 to Juarez to Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet. This one turns out to be something of a lighthearted comedy, with a bunch of two bit crooks laughing up their bookings; banter between the wise ass cops and the wise ass reporters; pestering lawyers looking for clients; and a medical examiner who can't wait for a good murder. I love the line about 'stealing from widows and orphans to build hospitals for orphans and widows). There's also a decent amount of procedural stuff and lab work, only seventy or so years before CSI, with a gunshot tank, stomach analysis, microscopic comparisons, fingerprint analysis, blood typing, ultraviolet scanning as well as plenty of first person perspective camerawork.

Pallette (along with Curtiz and screenwriter Robert N Lee) came to the film from The Kennel Murder Case, probably my favourite thirties murder mystery. He's Sgt Buck Boggs and he's looking for a bank robber, but he soon gets sidelined onto a murder case. Playboy Gordon Bates has been shot through the eye and Boggs has to team up with Lt Jim Stevens, played by George Brent. The two of them don't get on too well and have completely different approaches to the case. There's a lot of good cop/bad cop going on.

George Brent is cool and reserved and Pallette is dynamically antagonistic. Both are huge fun. Margaret Lindsay overacts terribly, but that's not too upsetting. The story itself and the way it was handled are the real stars though. This is going to become a favourite, I'm sure, and it ought to work well as half of a double bill with The Kennel Murder Case. Way ahead of its time.

Picnic with Weissmann (1968) Jan Svankmajer

Because this is a Jan Svankmajer short, it's hardly going to be a run of the mill picnic. Everything runs itself. The gramophone plays itself, the cards play themselves, the chess pieces play themselves, the chairs kick a ball around. And the empty clothes louncing around (presumably Weissmann) eat cherries and spit out the pips without the benefit of any flesh or bone inside them to do the work. There's also a shovel that's digging a deep hole for some reason.

As always Svankmajer demonstrates to us the marvels of stop motion animation without ever doing anything we expect. The only flaw is that it's only eleven minutes long, but I'll forgive him that because it's wonderful to see a Svankmajer film again.

Sisters (1973) Brian De Palma

I'm not sure how Brian De Palma managed to make an unborn foetus look evil but he managed it. It accompanies the credits which for some reason are in fullscreen rather than widescreen, thus missing a lot of information but at least the film is in widescreen. I thought I'd need to get upset with Rob Zombie and TCM Underground for a moment, which I really didn't want to do.

We open with a twisted little TV gameshow called Peeping Toms. Contestants see half of a videoclip where a model pretending to be a blind girl undresses in front of an unwitting participant. They then have to guess whether he spied or not. The model is Danielle Breton, played by a French accented Margot Kidder. This particular potential peeping tom doesn't peep and she invites him back home for the night. In the morning he becomes a murder victim and it seems obvious that Danielle did it, but this becomes gradually less sure.

Kidder is surprisingly excellent, given that I've only really seen her as Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve's Superman before. She's Canadian in real life but not from Quebec, so it's impressive to see her so good as a pouting, drunk or manic French Canadian model. She obviously has serious issues and she makes us believe in them and she covers up the murder nicely. She's up against Jennifer Salt from Soap who plays a newspaper reporter called Grace Collier, a neighbour who sees the murder. Unfortunately for her the column she writes hasn't been too popular with the police who she has slated, so after finding no immediate evidence she has to turn to a private detective played by Charles Durning instead.

Salt is good too, but better than her main part as a driven investigative reporter is the relationship with her mother, probably because actress and De Palma regular Mary Davenport is her mother both in the film and in real life. There's an excellent creepy score by Bernard Herrmann, unsurprising given the material. Brian De Palma is the real star though, as originator of the idea, writer of the screenplay and director of the film. Much of what happens ended up as de Palma trademarks: especially the Hitchcockian influence and the abundant but clever use of split screens.

The Crazies (1973) George A Romero

Five years after Night of the Living Dead and five years before Dawn of the Dead, both of which I've seen a number of times, George A Romero made The Crazies, which I haven't. It follows some of the same ideas (a small bunch of people suddenly faced with a threat they don't understand), but this time round it's a manmade disaster. Evans City is going insane, due to accidental contamination by a military biological weapon leaked by a plane crash that infects the town's water supply. Naturally they 'never thought it could happen' but it did and now they have to find some way to contain the growing insanity. Scarily, the initial response is to get airbone a plane to 'accidentally' drop a large enough device to 'cleanse the infected area'.

The three leads are all really inexperienced. Lane Carroll, W G McMillan and Harold Wayne Jones have made three, nine and three films respectively. Carroll plays Judy, a nurse in the small town of Evans City and McMillan plays her boyfriend David who works for the volunteer fire department. Jones plays one of his colleagues, called Clank. All are solid in the course acting department and help make the film seem thoroughly realistic and believable. Nobody in the entire film comes across as an actor, yet none of them are amateurish enough to blow the story.

The faceless military threat very quickly becomes a parallel to the faceless virus threat. The army are dressed in chemical protection suits with full hoods, don't tell anyone why they're there and are charged with rounding everyone up, even from inside churches. Putting myself into the minds of the characters who suddenly find themselves in this sort of situation, where they get packed into trucks or shot if they run away, I couldn't help but think of what the Jews must have felt being sent to the showers. I also couldn't fail to think of these new laws against terrorism that ensure that the government can lock any of us up without any cause, any trial or any possible contact with the outside world. I'm sure many viewers wondered how many times this has happened that we just haven't heard about yet.

Romero keeps the pace lightning fast with a huge amount of cuts and that helps immensely. The realism is the other key factor, helped along by the speed and the excellent script. Outside of the zombie movies, I came to Romero films in the eighties and found all those that aren't that great: Monkey Shines, Creepshow and Knightriders. Things like The Crazies make me want to find the other films Romero made in the seventies: Hungry Wives, Martin and There's Always Vanilla.

Carefree (1938) Mark Sandrich

Here are a bunch of familiar names: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in a Mark Sandrich musical with songs by Irving Berlin. Supporting them are such favourites as Franklin Pangborn, Jack Carson and Ralph Bellamy (along with an uncredited Hattie McDaniel). What's surprising to me is that the original story (not the screenplay) was co-written by Guy Endore, author of The Werewolf of Paris. Now that's versatility!

Bellamy is the first name we see, playing Stephen Arden, a character about as Ralph Bellamy as any character could be. He's drunkenly trying to find his way into the rather vaguely named Medical Institute because he's having trouble with his fiancee Amanda, naturally played by Ginger Rogers and wants to talk it over with Dr Flagg, naturally played by Fred Astaire. No prizes for guessing the entire rest of the plot. I wonder if there's a single film in his long and distinguished career where he ends up with the girl.

The first dance routine is an Astaire solo and it's possibly the most bizarre one I've ever seen him do. Half of it is tap dancing and the other half of it is golf. The rest of the film continues in a similarly surreal manner, with bizarre food choices in order to induce dreaming; the ensuing dream sequences, which include a slow motion dance on ice (and Fred and Ginger in slow motion for a couple of minutes outdoes any twenty minute ballet sequence Gene Kelly could ever come up with); psychoanalysis based on complete fabrication; a wonderfully mischevious (or dangerous) Ginger Rogers under hypnotic suggestion; and Fred Astaire arguing with Fred Astaire in the mirror. Great stuff.

Never mind Top Hat, I think this is my favourite Fred and Ginger movie. Part of that may be because there's more comedy, more plot and less musical numbers, and what musical numbers there are seem to at least make sense. I even love the way the title credits roll, with unknown fingers writing as if in chalk on a blackboard.

Hi, Nellie! (1934) Mervyn LeRoy

Paul Muni in a comedy? Surely not! He might not look old enough, but he's Brad Bradshaw, managing editor of a busy newspaper. At least he is for a while, as he fails to run a potential big story. The Central Labor Bank has folded because it's half a million short, and lawyer Frank Canfield, who is also the chairman of the board, has mysteriously disappeared. Bradshaw plays it calm because there's no proof and he doesn't believe it anyway, but the publisher busts him down to the lonely hearts column.

This is the Nellie of the title: Nellie Nelson, Heart Throbs. Previously demoted to that role was Gerry Krale, played sassily by Glenda Farrell, who appears like a cross between Ginger Rogers and Mae West. The two also have a history going a long way back, and so she's on Bradshaw's side as he searches for the real truth about Canfield and the missing money so that he can get his old job back.

This was Muni's third film running for Mervyn LeRoy, and given that it's also only his sixth film, they must have got on great trying to recreate the glory of I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. He does a solid job, surprisingly given that it's a comedy but maybe not quite too surprisingly given that there's a lot of real drama in there too. Farrell knew LeRoy well too, having been in Fugitive as well as at least two earlier LeRoy precodes that I've seen, Three on a Match and The Public Enemy. She's also solidly memorable at the tail end of the precode era when women were still allowed to be strong characters. The two of them work wonderfully together and that's one of the chief successes here. The other is that the humour isn't all obvious cheap stuff like the frequent use of the title as a dig to whoever's running Heart Throbs. Much more of it has a lot more depth and so it works on quite a few levels.

The only supporting character actors I recognise are Ned Sparks as the most loyal journalist in Bradshaw's corner and Donald Meek as the oldest office boy at the paper. I didn't recognise Kathryn Sergava, who puts on a reasonably decent Garbo impersonation, but I'm sure I will next time round.

Dark Water (2002) Hideo Nakata

It seems a little strange to see a modern Asian horror film appear with a PG-13 rating, but then this is a ghost story rather than an extreme exercise in modern horror effects, even if it's from the people who made the original Ringu. Hitomi Kuroki plays Yoshimi, a newly divorced woman fighting for custody of her young daughter, excellently portrayed by nine year old Rio Kanno. They find a new apartment but even while viewing the property strange things start happening. Not least there's spreading water damage on the ceiling that is dripping into their apartment.

I love the subtlety of this film. Our first hint of a ghost comes when Yoshimi realises that she was holding someone's hand in the lift but it wasn't her daughter's. That's hardly the most obvious telegraph that something's going on but it works all the more for not being obvious. Sometimes we have to pay attention to see what isn't on screen rather than just what is. It's a very quiet film, as befits the PG-13 rating. There's no blood or even real shocks, very few characters (that's one seriously empty apartment block!) and not even a huge amount of dialogue.

Yet the atmosphere is built slowly and surely and Dark Water ends up being one creepy little film. Much of that is due to the superb lead performance by Hitomi Kuroki. She is incredibly believable as a mother on the edge, due to many simultaneous pressures: the ongoing divorce and child custody hearing, the hassle of being a single mother and the fact that nobody seems to want to help look into the problems in her apartment. There are surely a lot of parallels and different readings into what's going on, but the obvious one is the water representing tension.

The water in the apartment isn't all the water there is in the movie. Most of the time it's raining and even when it isn't, there's plenty of water around to show that it's only recently stopped. I presume that was deliberate, given the content of the film. Only in the scenes at the end is there sun, but by then the situation is very different. Definitely worth a look. I went Good on it but I was very close to an Excellent. Maybe another viewing after catching up with more modern J-Horror will move me upwards.

Wild Oranges (1924) King Vidor

A Goldwyn picture by one of the major names of silent cinema, King Vidor, this was adapted from a popular novel of the time. Our leading man is Frank Mayo, who plays a newlywed called John Woolfolk whose wife dies at the very beginning of the film in a runaway carriage accident. So he exiles himself to the sea with only a cook played by the chief of the Keystone Kops, Ford Sterling, for company. Three years later he finds an island off the Georgia coast to which another man (and more importantly his granddaughter Nellie played by Virginia Valli) has exiled himself. This time it was for some sort of vague fear to avoid the Civil War that isn't fully disclosed. Both characters are stunningly nervous and I'm honestly not sure how they could function.

At the same time there's Charles Post as a retarded homicidal maniac called Iscah who has been terrorising Nellie Stope, Valli's character. He does so in intriguingly childish ways like depositing her on a tree stump in the swamp that is surrounded by alligators until she agrees to kiss him on the cheek. While Post was the only one of the five main actors not to be credited (I didn't count Woolfolk's wife who dies less than a minute into the movie), he portrays an interesting character, certainly one that doesn't seem common in silent movies. He's huge for a start and towers over everyone else, but he's also a complete bully. He shouts at everyone but nearly bursts into tears when Woolfolk stands up to him.

There are a bunch of holes here. The yacht isn't big enough to keep one person, let alone two, sane for three years of sailing (even though like the TARDIS it's far bigger inside than out); the remote Georgia island has a seriously huge and well furnished mansion on it, for no explained reason; and while Nellie was apparently born on the island and has thus been almost entirely deprived of company for her entire life, she still grew up able to speak, read and understand the dynamics of human interaction. Of course she also has a tidy haircut and knows how to apply makeup. Not very realistic, but the film succeeds by virtue of being so different. There's also a truly brutal fight at the end. The more I explore silent film the more I find odd little movies like this one and the silent era is richer for them.

As for the cast, I don't know them outside of Ford Sterling, mostly because their work was almost entirely confined to the silent era and presumably is mostly lost. Virginia Valli appeared in 64 silent films but didn't survive the transition to sound. The only one I've heard of is The Pleasure Garden, which was Alfred Hitchcock's debut directorial job. Charles Post only made four sound films, but I'd be interested in seeing his silent movies. I've seen Nigel de Brulier (the grandfather) a few times without recognising him. Even more so, I've seen Frank Mayo a bunch of times it seems, but always in tiny uncredited roles in films like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Yankee Doodle Dandy. To underline that, Mayo has 299 acting credits in IMDb and I believe I've seen 36 of them, yet I still didn't have a clue who he was.

Show Boat (1936) James Whale

I've wanted to watch this for some time, mostly because I know James Whale so well as the director of classic horror films yet this is a musical and a renowned one at that, as well as being his favourite of all the films he directed. I've also wanted to see rather than just hear Paul Robeson sing Ol' Man River. Amazingly, though to be fair I don't know the story at all, Robeson is fourth on the cast list, after Irene Dunne (who I've never been that impressed by), Allan Jones (who I always enjoyed as a foil for the Marx Brothers but not for much else) and Charles Winninger (whose name doesn't ring any bells at all). Surely the real stars though are Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (stage play, screen play and lyrics).

The show boat of the title is literally that: a boat that travels up and down the Mississippi carrying a troupe to put on shows wherever the boat puts in. Winninger is the captain, Dunne is his daughter and Jones is her romantic interest. The latter pair sing to each other in the operatic style they're known for and that leaves me completely dry. Paul Robeson plays Joe, a lazy character (until it matters) who is presumably Queenie's husband, played by a wonderfully sassy Hattie McDaniel. His rendition of Ol' Man River is wonderful, as expected, but the visions that accompany it lapse a little too often into some sort of homoerotic fantasy that seems a little extreme. It doesn't help that the lead character is called Gaylord. This is the sort of thing that stereotypes musicals, I guess.

I was surprised to find I knew a couple of other songs too, including Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, which really highlighted just how much of a contrast there is between Hattie McDaniel and whatever trained white voices lent a hand. 'That's beautiful, Miss Julie', says Queenie after listening to Helen Morgan's version and McDaniel must have been laughing her head off when she said it. I couldn't help but remember whatever divas concert I caught a clip of with wailers like Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Gloria Estefan. They all tried to outwail each other but then Aretha Franklin opened her mouth and showed the whole talentless bunch of them up. It was hilarious to watch and I saw exactly the same thing during this song.

Maybe that was all a joke perpetrated by the makers of the film given that there's so much drama built around the laws in Mississippi that prohibited white people marrying black women, however white the black women seemed. One drop of negro blood and you're a negro, to these people, and it's all completely dumb but that's how it was. Clark Gable and Sidney Poitier wrung a whole film out of the concept, Band of Angels, and this touches on the territory pretty well too. Interestingly, these scenes had to have special permission from the Hays Office to appear, as miscegenation had been banned as a suitable subject for the movies. What we don't know can't hurt us, I suppose. I got mostly bored after the focus shifted from the Mississippi to Chicago and onwards, but the old sentimental in me did feel some heartstrings pulled at the ending at least.

For my mind (and taste), this definitely belongs to Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel. I guess that could have been a hanging offence in 1936 but there it is. Charles Winninger is a joy too, but I could have done without Irene Dunne, Allan Jones and Helen Morgan. So far I've seen nine Hattie McDaniel movies and this is only the second I've rated less than an Excellent. This is my sixth Irene Dunne, one of which won an Oscar no less, and I haven't rated one that high yet.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) Harold Young

I can so easily see Leslie Howard as the effete fop Sir Percy Blakeney, and to be honest I can't even think of anyone better to play the part, but I'm intrigued as to how he's going to manage to play Blakeney's dashing and heroic alter ego the Scarlet Pimpernel. Producer Alexander Korda's first choice was apparently Charles Laughton, and while that seems a bizarre selection at first thought, it actually makes sense when we consider both sides of the role. It's very much a Korda show: the future Sir Alexander (the first film producer to be knighted) is the producer and apparently contributed to the script, and his brother Vincent did the settings. However the director is an American, Harold Young, about which I know nothing at all.

It's 1792 and the Reign of Terror is in full swing. Citizen Robespierre is providing the guillotine with a serious number of heads to remove from their associated bodies. The only man who seems able to save any of the aristocrats from 'being shaved by the national razor' is the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel. As much as most of the story takes place in France with Frenchmen, it's a very English film with a lot of very English accents. I get upset about Americans doing this but now I suppose I have to admit that the English did it too. Some of the disguises are a little creaky too and should have been as easy to see through as any of George Peppard's in The A-Team.

The cast is a solid one, led by Howard and Merle Oberon (the future Mrs Alexander Korda). Howard is actually rather excellent, and I do believe that's the first time I've said that. He's hilarious as Blakeney and surprisingly believable as the Pimpernel. There's also the villainous Raymond Massey, who was far from an international star at this point though he should have been on the strength of this performance as Robespierre's ambassador to England. Ernest Milton is a capable Robespierre though doesn't get a huge amount to do. Nigel Bruce is the Prince of Wales with a truly scary collar and he's as joyfully blustering as you'd expect him to be.

My Wife's Relations (1922) Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton is apparently a struggling artist in 'the foreign section of a big city', made apparent to be somewhere in Poland. He doesn't speak Polish and neither does the large lady played by Kate Price who hauls him up in front of a judge because she believes that he's just broken someone's window. Unfortunately the judge does and he marries them in Polish. Rather than find some means of communication to have the thing annulled, she carts him off home where she shares her house with her father and four large and scary brothers. Chaos ensues.

Well at least chaos is supposed to ensue, I'm sure, and given that this is a Buster Keaton movie that fits in between his excellent Cops and The Blacksmith, it really ought to. Unfortunately it doesn't and it's sad to see the master appear in something this tame. There are a couple of scenes that raise a chuckle, especially towards the end, but that's about it. I'm used to being stunned by Keaton. This is a nonentity of a movie.

The Electric House (1922) Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline

This time out Buster Keaton has been awarded a diploma proving him a Doctor of Botanical and Allied Sciences. Unfortunately a bunch of diplomas get mixed up and so he ends up instead with another one proving him an Electrical Engineer. Naturally he gets hired to provide electricity to a house while the owner is away on holiday. Let's hope Keaton gets up to the sort of antics he completely failed to get up to in My Wife's Relations.

And yes he does, thank goodness. He turns everything into an electrical gadget from the staircase to the library to the swimming pool to the bath, the pool table and anything else that isn't nailed down. It's all highly ingenious but of course things go wrong. The escalator staircase sends the owner flying out of an upstairs window, the train track that serves the food gets moved spilling it all over the mistress of the house and when the real electrical engineer turns up he causes as much havoc as he possibly can in an effort to gain some sort of revenge. And it all happens at a rate of knots! This is one of those films where if you blink you'll miss something. I thought I'd blinked at the end because it comes just as quickly as any other gag in the film.

Vampyros Lesbos (1971) Franco Manera

When working through European exploitation film I saw a few Jess Franco movies, but then the man did make a hell of a lot of them. IMDb lists 187 of them dating back to 1957 and he's still going strong. This one starts off with about as Jess Franco a scene as you could get: a naked woman and a scantily clad one putting on some performance art show to a bizarre psychedelic soundtrack. Given that the last Dennis Price movie I saw was Kind Hearts and Coronets, this is more than a little different. He stars with Susann Korda and Paul Muller, neither of whose names I recognise. Then again, Susann Korda is the same person as Soledad Miranda who I do recognise. Both her and lead Ewa Str�mberg are also in The Devil Came from Akasava and She Killed in Ecstasy, the other two thirds of the Franco triple bill Sundance Channel are treating us to.

The performance art is rather shocking to one member of the audience, Linda, played by Ewa Str�mberg, not because of the sexual content but because she's been dreaming about it lately. We soon see her try to explain this to a psychiatrist, and then we discover that she's going to Anatolia to see Countess Carody about an inheritance. She starts realising just how much of her dream was really premonition, but is already falling under the spell of the supremely confident Soledad Miranda as the Countess, to whom the Draculas have apparently left their estate. She's a vampire, of course.

In fact this is effectively a soft core porn version of the original Dracula for much of the film. The Countess is the Count, needless to say; Dennis Price, completely unrecognisable from his far younger self, is Van Helsing; Linda is perhaps both Harker and Mina; and Renfield could be both Agra, a young lady locked up for observation, and her nutjob vampire husband Memmet. However the film is called Vampyros Lesbos for a reason: there's serious amounts of nudity, thankfully of rather beautiful young ladies, even though they're wearing far too much makeup because this is 1971. There's much more than just nudity though. There are some scenes of sheer poetry, such as the Countess in cruciform on water with blood flowing away beneath her. And there's very little violence for a vampire movie, especially one from exploitatoin king Jess Franco.

I don't know what drugs Franco was doing in 1971 but there are a serious number of shots in this film of animals that have absolutely nothing to do with anything else: dogs in the water, scorpions on the beach, lizards on glass. I'm not sure what significance any of that has in the slightest, but somehow I feel that Franco meant for there to be some. Others are just cool shots that Franco obviously took when the opportunity arose and couldn't resist throwing into his film, such as muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in Turkey. Again it has nothing to do with anything except it's cool.

Ewa Strömberg is beautiful but Soledad Miranda is both beautiful of full of presence. It's shocking to realise that by the time this film was released she had died in a car accident. Dennis Price is solid but still shockingly different: he looks more like a bloated Jimmy Stewart than anything and would be dead within three years himself from cirrhosis of the liver. Maybe all the deaths that make this an inevitable finale to their work help to turn thi sinto something more than it probably ought to be. It's not incredibly coherent but it's a memorable psychedelic gem.

Across the Wide Missouri (1951) William A Wellman

Here's Clark Gable as a mountain man, a trapper who fathers an Indian son, but he's far from the only name here. There's an old and almost unrecognisable Adolphe Menjou as a French trapper, Alan Napier as a Scots captain in full highland dress and John Hodiak as another Scotsman who has gone native. Yes, this is a colourful bunch of characters but we meet most of them and still more at a regular meeting of the trappers that takes place once a year. It continues on in the same colourful vein, not just with Gable singing Skip to My Lou while accompanying himself on a Jew's harp, but with a strange trade war between Hodiak and Gable over an Indian princess played by María Elena Marqués, a Mexican star new to American film, that involves providing an Indian chief played by J Carrol Naish with a suit of armour. Everyone seems to be having far too much fun and I thought this was a serious western!

Anyway, the annual meeting ends with only a third of the film gone and so Gable and his new lovely Indian bride can head off out into the mountains to tangle with a Blackfoot war chief called Iron Shirt played by the young and impressive stud Ricardo Montalban, a far cry from Khan here! There's not a huge amount of plot here, just a gradual transition to the realisation that Indians are people too with history and tradition not entirely unlike his own. The lack of plot is the chief flaw here, but there's a serious lack of Indians too, not in the film but in the cast. Most of them are played by Latinos or regular white Hollywood actors like J Carrol Naish. They do at least speak something that sounds remotely like authentic Indian languages, leading to a lot of translation conversations. That's another reason that there's no plot. Most of it has to take place twice, once in the initial language and then in translation, and the film is less than eighty minutes long. And I'm still not sure what the wide Missouri has to do with anything.

Gable and Marqués are fun and the entire supporting cast are fun too, but this is really Adolphe Menjou's show. While I know Menjou mostly from the thirties, I have seen him later than this. However he's thoroughly enjoying himself as Pierre, the French trapper with a beret and a white beard who acts as Gable's chief translator with the Blackfeet. He's a joy, pure and simple.

The Good Earth (1937) Sidney Franklin

Hopefully the film that records a dedication to MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg is going to be a good one. He died young and this was 'his last great achievement'. It's in the top 100 of the thirties so it bodes well. It's directed by Sidney Franklin (with uncredited work by Victor Fleming and Gustav Machat�), all the regular MGM names are on the credits along with the great Karl Freund as cinematographer. What's most notable right off the bat is that they actually decided to cast a bunch of oriental actors in oriental parts, which is rather surprising for 1935, though of course Keye Luke had to be one of them. Then again the lead oriental part went to Paul Muni, born in a town that was in Austria-Hungary at the time and the Ukraine now. At least he was one of the more notable chameleons of the thirties.

He plays a kindly though poor farmer called Wang Lung and the film starts on his wedding day. He hasn't seen his bride O-Lan before and he only gets his first look when he picks her up, a freed slave, from the great house of her masters. She's played by Luise Rainer, who won her second consecutive Oscar for this film (the first was for The Great Ziegfeld a year earlier when Paul Muni won for The Story of Louis Pasteur). She's hardly oriental either, having been born in German, but she looks even more the part than Muni (even though she still sounds German). I was surprised to see that her two Oscars came from her total of only thirteen movies. Wang Lung's father and uncle are played by Americans, Charley Grapewin and Walter Connolly. But this is thirties Hollywood so it's understandable. That much of the rest of the cast is oriental is applaudable.

The message is that it's a hard life but a good one, and we skip through the years to see it. After the wedding scenes, we have the birth of their first born son during a storm in which O-Lan helps to bring in the harvest before it's ruined; the presentation of that son to the great house and the buying of a new field; then when they have three children and five fields, famine strikes and Wong Lung refuses to sell his fields, knowing that the famine will end and they must merely survive it; their ride south by train to escape the famine; begging in the city to survive; revolution and the means to return home; living with those means back in the north to the degree that their eldest son can go to university to study agriculture; a second wife and the troubles that she brings; the coming of a plague of locusts; and the realisation that comes after it... and all of it is tied to the land.

The film is done very well indeed in every respect, to the degree that it's hard to single much out for praise. The one truly memorable scene has to be the locust attack which is spectacular and awesome, and fits right in with the epic scale of the movie. Those involved had the the good sense to let the spectacle do its thing. And I guess

Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) Leo McCarey

This one started off promising with a 'Timetable by A Hitler' and a revolving swastika on a clock face. Then we get a Ginger Rogers so made up and accented that she looks like (and even sounds like) Jane Fonda. She's Katherine Butt-Smith (pronounced Butte) and she's about to get married to an Austrian Baron played by Walter Slezak. Cary Grant works for the American Embassy and doesn't care how it's pronounced, being far more concerned about the marriage given the current state of world affairs. At least that what he pretends to be, he's actually a journalist trying to find out just how close to Hitler Baron Von Luber really is.

Unfortunately it doesn't go anywhere at all from there. Hitler carries on undaunted while the Baron and the Baroness travel on honeymoon through the countries he carries on undaunted through. Ginger Rogers tries her best here but the character is just so dumb and puts on so many airs that it's impossible to feel any sympathy for her. She's so unlikeable that even when she started helping Jews out of Poland I couldn't help but feel there was some sort of hidden agenda. She's also completely inconsistent: she can quote Shakespeare and Browning but doesn't know what vodka is. Cary Grant floats alongside but doesn't seem to do much other than play the saxophone or be mildly sarcastic or get indignant.

The message of the movie could be summed up by 'Nazis are bad'. Given that this came out in 1942 that's more than a little redundant. It also seems that the leads get most upset when they realise that Hitler has to authorise couples to have children. Never mind invading half Europe or performing genocide, having children was up to God before and this Hitler fellow must be getting a little too big for his boots now. This got embarrassing very quickly and kept on going. If this is all we could throw at Hitler how the hell did we win?

Men of Boys Town (1941) Norman Taurog

I hadn't heard of a sequel to Boys Town, but all the major names return, from the director to the stars to a bunch of the supporting actors. This is a good thing, because it would be very difficult indeed to put anyone else in some of these shoes: Spencer Tracy's or Mickey Rooney's for instance, or even Bobs Watson's. Never mind other actors at the time, I don't think there's anyone since who has been able to play a sympathetic priest the way Spencer Tracy could and did, frequently.

He's Father Flanagan, the man in charge of Boys Town, and he's off talking to the defendant in a murder case. Ted Martley, played by Berlin singer Terri Nunn's father Larry, is still a kid but there's not a lot of doubt that he did it, and he is quickly found guilty of second degree murder. There are mitigating circumstances, given that the reformatory guard he killed broke Ted's back first, but as he won't admit that to anyone other than Flanagan nothing much can be done about it. He does get remanded into Flanagan's custody though and the Father sets Whitey, once again played by Mickey Rooney, to the task of restoring his faith in human nature.

This one's completely hokey and stretches the boundaries of coincidence more than a little too far, but it's impossible not to enjoy much of it. The slow motion wrestling match especially is a hoot, but there are plenty of other scenes too. Even the hokey scenes are touching, possibly because they've been hammered home so hard that it's impossible to avoid them. This is Heartstring Pulling 101. There is one new name that I haven't seen before. Ten year old Darryl Hickman is a joy and he steals every scene out from under Mickey Rooney, which isn't an easy task. He's the brother of Dwayne Hickman who played Dobie Gillis on TV and I'll see him again soon in The Grapes of Wrath. He's about the only real pleasure here because the rest is cringeworthy, however well it's done.

Directed by John Ford (2006) Peter Bogdanovich

John Ford made a huge amount of movies and a good proportion of them were serious classics. He won four Oscars, an achievement that nobody else has even matched let alone beaten. He was the subject of a rather quotable quote by Orson Welles, hardly a minor name to be complemented by. When asked about his influences he replied 'the masters, and by that I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.'

He was also honoured by an AFI feature length documentary by up and coming name Peter Bogdanovich in 1971, after The Last Picture Show but before What's Up Doc? and Paper Moon. It was narrated by Welles and featured interviews by most of the important names: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and John Ford himself. Now Bogdanovich has expanded the film for TCM by including interview footage with modern directors heavily influenced by Ford's legacy, such as Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Walter Hill.

I didn't know too much about John Ford before watching this, though I've seen a number of his movies. I've formed certain opinions but am well aware that I need to see a much larger representation of his work to truly appreciate them. Now I know a lot of what I should be looking for.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) Sergio Leone

Even before the film starts this is a treat. For a start there's Ennio Morricone's iconic theme with its shouts and whistles which has become one of the most recognisable and copied in cinema. Each credit comes up suddenly to the accompaniment of gunfire and there's also something of the James Bond credits in this silhouetted violence.

And then there's Clint Eastwood, a young Clint of course, with his hat and patterned poncho. Wherever he is he's obviously only just arrived and he stands there sipping water from the well and watching the hidden life of the town framed in doorways or bursting out of them to the accompaniment of cruelty and gunfire. Within five minutes Sergio Leone has set the scene wonderfully. Quite apart from the depth of what he shows by not showing us things, he shows us plenty more. When he's finished at the well, Eastwood rides into town beneath a hangman's noose and there's another rider heading directly towards him. It looks like a classic showdown, with all the townsfolk running quickly indoors, but the other rider passes him with eyes shut so that we see the sign on his back that reads 'Adios Amigo'.

What Leone did here was to take an existing film, a recent one at that, 1961's Yojimbo, and use it to create an entirely new genre. Yojimbo was directed by Akira Kurosawa and starred Toshiro Mifune. It's an awesome film itself which deserves its solid spot on the IMDb Top 250 and A Fistful of Dollars has pretty much exactly the same plot. The man with no name (for a long time, at least) comes into a town, plays both sides against the other, and ends up on top. Even down to the supporting cast, the similarities are vivid.

Yet Leone turned it into his own film. One scene in particular highlights this. When Eastwood walks past the undertaker, tells him to get three coffins ready and continues on to the bad guys, all on his own, and asks them all to apologise to his mule, we're seeing history in the making. The sheer power of this film created the spaghetti western which continued on for a long, long while. All the iconic components are there: the guts, the humour, the soundtrack, the violence, the confrontation and then the perfect release in the line 'My mistake, four coffins'.

There's much more though. One thing I love about this film is that it takes the gorgeous Fordian landscapes (and yes, I'm constantly watching where Leone puts the horizon), but fills them with realistic shabby individuals. When comparing Star Wars with its prequels, I can't help but notice the difference between the realistically dirty landspeeders and towns and props in the original but the gleaming CGI of the prequels. I know which I prefer, and Leone made an art out of this. The entire film looks and feels coarse and real.

A Place in the Sun (1951) George Stevens

I grew up during the time when the bloated Liz Taylor was such a horrendous thing to me. She looked awful, she had been married a zillion times, she kept saying completely stupid things in the company of other horrendous things like Michael Jackson, so it becomes very difficult for me to forget all that when watching the gorgeous vision that she was in her prime. She stars here with Montgomery Clift, who died young and so didn't have the opportunity to taint his legacy for future generations like mine. He was really the first method actor in the business nudging out Brando for the accolade and he was a rebel on screen before Brando or James Dean or any of them. Every time I've seen him so far has been hugely impressive, even up against such heavyweight stars as Clark Gable in The Misfits, Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity or John Wayne in Red River.

Here he's a nervous but ambitious young man called George Eastman whose rich uncle runs a huge company. This uncle lets him know that he'll find a job for him in the mills and he promptly travels west to take him up on his offer. He's willing to work and seems capable if inexperienced, and even though there's a company rule to avoid fraternising with co-workers, he ends up with shop floor girl Alice Tripp played by Shelley Winters. It's immediately obvious that he doesn't move in the same circles in the rest of the family though, and one character he doesn't move in the same circles as is a society girl called Angela Vickers played by Elizabeth Taylor. She's radiant even when she isn't in soft focus close up and of course he falls for her as well. She falls for him in return and plans start to formulate but by that time Tripp is pregnant.

Clift and Taylor are outstanding. This is masterclass stuff. Winters is unassuming, nervous and lacking in confidence. Compared to Clift and Taylor it's hard to even notice her but she's really doing a stunning job herself. Late in the film there's also Raymond Burr as a prosecuting DA and he's as good as you'd expect from someone who would make Ironside and Perry Mason famous. In fact nobody really lets the side down at all, but somehow this didn't engage me. I could appreciate it but so much of it left me completely dry. The performances made me want to find sympathy but it just wasn't there. That's not the fault of Clift, Taylor, Winters, Burr or even director George Stevens. I think it's where the story starts and where the story goes and that it doesn't go anywhere I wanted to follow it. Obviously a lot of people have a different view as this won six Oscars and is on two of the AFI Top 100 lists. I wonder why.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937) James P Hogan

The intrepid Bulldog Drummond is back and this time played by a young Ray Milland. As always he's doing things hs own way, beginning with a highly inadvisable landing in fog so he can visit his friend Algy in the hospital where he's soon to become a father. Unfortunately the next thing he does is to lose his car to a young lady pretending to be in a faint while he investigates a nearby corpse. He soon gets it back complete with dainty perfumed handkerchief and bag with initials, so there's plenty to look into.

Yes, things happen quickly here but Drummond is on the case with a sense of humour, drive and enthusiasm that is infectious. Given that we only have a whisker over an hour, it's a good job. The whole thing is handled with very British manners, of course, so the villains are very polite and there are a lot of black eyes up for grabs. Also Drummond knows what he has to do and gets on with it, even though he's been ordered off the case a number of times by his superior and even arrested at one point! This is one of the most shameless displays of insurbordinance I think I've ever seen, yet of course it all works out in the end.

It's all complete nonsense, tripe I believe is the word, but it's handled with so much fun that it's impossible not to be whirled along for the ride. Reginald Denny is as annoying as ever as Algy, E E Clive is as efficient as ever as the butler but Drummond is more fun than ever as Captain Drummond. This is also the film where we are introduced to Heather Angel (the actress) and Phyllis Clavering (the character). Both would return frequently and maybe one day they even manage to get married.

What struck me most here is that I gave this the same rating as A Place in the Sun but for precisely the opposite reason. Even though the story here is complete tripe it's a joy to ride along with it. The actors (especially Milland) are enjoying every second and their enthusiasm rubs off on us so that we forgive the low budget and all the many problems with the film. In comparison A Place in the Sun is beautifully put together. It's shot well and acted superbly and yet I kept wondering when it was going to be over. There was no life in it and it failed miserably in its attempts to draw me into what it wanted to tell.

Without Love (1945) Harold S Bucquet

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn always sparked on screen. How are they going to do in a film called Without Love? Tracy is a scientist working on an oxygen mask for the war department who finds himself in Washington without a place to stay. All the hotels are fully booked and so he stays with a drunk who he allows into his taxi, at the drunk's cousin's place which is otherwise empty. When she turns up in the morning and proves to be Katharine Hepburn, he ends up being hired as the caretaker of the place until it can be sold. They soon discover that the share one thing in common, but for the opposite reasons. Neither of them want anything more to do with love: Tracy because he had the worst of it, Hepburn because she had the best. Naturally they end up getting married, but on every basis other than love. Naturally that doesn't work out quite as expected.

The script is subtle and astute, and there are a few hilarious comments that may have sneaked by the Production Code overlords unawares. There's a lot of dialogue, some of which rockets along at rapid speed, and it's wonderfully put over by both Hepburn and Tracy, even when it doesn't sound as if it ought to work. Hepburn in particular has some long monologues and makes the most of them. While it's not a patch on Holiday or The African Queen, this may be one of my favourite of her roles. Unfortunately there's not a lot here outside of the Hepburn/Tracy magic, Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn are completely underused and the base concept seems to have been forgotten about until the end, which comes way too quickly.

Parnell (1937) John M Stahl

When I started working through Clark Gable's movies, I soon discovered that someone had decided that he would be an appropriate choice to play an Irishman. I didn't understand it then but knew I'd come up against the film sooner or later to see how good or more likely how bad a choice he was. Now it's playing and I see that it isn't just Gable and Myrna Loy, it's also Edna May Oliver, Edmund Gwenn, Donald Crisp, Billie Burke, Donald Meek, Montagu Love, George Zucco... half the great supporting character actors on the MGM lot. Surely with this cast the film can't be all bad!

We start in 1880 with Parnell leaving America that he has visited for two months to talk with the Irish Americans who press him to fight for home rule for his country. He leaves New York with crowds waving him off and he arrives back in Ireland with crowds welcoming him home. Of course the worshipping can't last, as soon he has to face the grim reality of being arrested for 'seditious utterances'. It's pretty obvious from the first ten minutes that Parnell, admittedly a great statesmen, is really Jesus Christ and Father Christmas all rolled into one, out to save every Irish man, woman and child from the evil English. He also only has to speak in a quiet voice and everyone in a rowdy crowd on the other side of a river can hear him fine. He's a magician too, it seems.

Anyway, Gable isn't bad though he doesn't even pretend to be Irish and to be honest, the script only bears a vague similarity to the life of Parnell. Only Berton Churchill as the O'Gorman Mahon has a remotely Irish accent. Everyone else carries on regardless with their own voices: Myrna Loy as Kitty O'Shea, the trustworthy wife of an untrustworthy newly elected Irish MP who becomes his mistress; Edna May Oliver as her aunt and Billie Burke as her busybody sister. Gable tried his best to be statesmanlike and manages at least a little, but the romance is more than a little tiresome. Only the fact that it's Gable and Loy lifts it above complete nothingness. I most enjoyed watching Billie Burke and Edna May Oliver annoy each other.

This film appears in a book called The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, written by the people who went on to found the Golden Turkey Awards. However, while it certainly isn't a good film, it's far from being that bad. It may have been the biggest flop of Gable's career but it's not his worst film. It's not even the worst film of many of the cast, the following, for instance, being worse: Strange Interlude (Clark Gable), Arrowsmith and The Naughty Flirt (both Myrna Loy) or The Mysterious Island (Montagu Love). This is simply too capable a film, however bad it is, to be categorised as that awful.

How the West Was Won (1962) John Ford, George Marshall & Henry Hathaway

Carroll Baker, Lee J Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark. Do I need to review it or will that list do the trick? If not, add the supporting cast who don't get to have their names individually on the screen: Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, Raymond Massey, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Morgan, Thelma Ritter, Russ Tamblyn all get to be relegated to the secondary screens. Then there's Spencer Tracy doing the narration. Was there anyone in Hollywood at the time who wasn't in this movie? Lee van Cleef and Harry Dean Stanton are in there too but didn't even warrant a secondary credit.

The story is the story of the travels west from the Erie Canal through the Civil War to the modern day. We start with Karl Malden's family, the Prescotts, who swapped their farmland of rocks for life in the uncharted west. He's married to Agnes Moorehead and Carroll Baker's their daughter who has a little romance in her heart. She sets store by the first mountain man she meets, James Stewart. Of course he disappears off quickly but gets waylaid by river pirates led by Walter Brennan, so meets back up with the Prescotts again. Then they take the wrong fork in the river and lose half the family so Jimmy has to realise fate is doing its thang.

Some time later the other Prescott daughter, Debbie Reynolds, is writing and appearing in musicals being put on in St Louis when gold fever hits and she's named in a will that leaves her a California gold mine. She hooks up with Thelma Ritter to head west by wagon train but of course no end of ne'erdowells are hanging around, primarily Gregory Peck. Of course when she finally gets to California there's no gold to be found.

Then the Civil War comes and Baker lets her son George Peppard head off to fight even though Jimmy went as soon as it started. This is the John Ford section and while Henry Hathaway who shot the earlier sections did a great job with the countryside, it's obvious that Ford has taken over because of the way people get framed by buildings. Then it's Shiloh and a huge amount of death. Ford gives us some interesting perspectives: he has Peppard and a confederate soldier he runs into talk about deserting only to find unexpected action while eavesdropping on a conversation between Generals Sherman and Ulysses S Grant.

Finally it's the Pony Express and the railroad heading west with Richard Widmark running the show, a rough and ready Henry Fonda shooting buffalo and Peppard becoming the intermediary between the Union Pacific and the Arapaho Indians. And amazingly enough it looks the Indians were played by Indians.

It's an epic film in every way: the cast is huge, the timespan is wide, the running time is long and the whole thing is shot in Cinerama which means it's so wide there are two lines up the screen with each third having a subtly different contrast. However it's not quite so long when we can fast forward through the introduction, the intermission, the entr'acte, the exit music and all the other spots where we could head off to the theatre bathroom.

It's also a pretty solid movie, as much as it's about eight movies in one. It doesn't really flag until the George Marshall section which doesn't really go anywhere and then the final section where the old Debbie Reynolds heads east a hop to Gold City, Arizona to manage a ranch with a badly moustachioed Peppard and his wife Carolyn Jones who looks terrible. There's a truly awful real projection shot in Monument Valley and some vaguely defined trouble between Peppard and Eli Wallach. It all seems just a little amateurish and lacking when compared to the first two thirds of the film. There's even a battle on a train that goes round the same corner more than once. Definitely not up to the same standard.

The Devil Came from Akasava (1971) Jess Frank

It's 1971 but Jess Franco is still in the late sixties judging from the soundtrack which is very groovy baby with sitars and psychedelia a go go. There is a plot in here somewhere, but it has more holes in it than can comfortably be imagined. In Akasava along the River of Death, there is a legend about stones that turn any metal into gold. A man working for Professor Forrester finds one, but he is soon killed from its radioactive power. Knowing Alex Cox's taste in movies, I'm sure he must have seen this before making Repo Man.

Anyway, Professor Forrester disappears into the Akasava jungle and, 6,000 miles away, an unknown man is killed in his London office. The beautiful Soledad Miranda (once again using the pseudonym of Susann Korda) is some sort of secret agent working with Scotland Yard and given that this is a Jess Franco movie, she uses things like prostitution and exotic dancing as cover. She heads back to Akasava to investigate.

Most of the cast are the same as that of Vampyros Lesbos, which this was shot back to back with. However everything looks far better in that film except possibly the outfits which are quite stunning here. Soledad Miranda's exotic dancing is more outre and fun in Vampyros Lesbos; Ewa Str�mberg has a terrible hairstyle here and for some bizarre reason stays dressed for most of the film, even though she screws around on her husband; even Jess Franco himself doesn't get to wander down into cellars and bite young ladies' throats.

The plot is apparently based on an Edgar Wallace story but it makes so little sense that it must have been seriously messed with. There are so many conversations here where almost every line takes us into completely new territory and makes less and less sense as time goes by. There's a jungle soundtrack that appears completely out of place. It even seems that shooting someone in the head from point blank range only leaves a tiny little hole and no blood. Maybe the preponderence of red in the d�cor of the various sets makes up for it.

Compared to Vampyros Lesbos, this has far more plot, far less style, far less consistency and far more complete incoherence.

She Killed in Ecstasy (1971) Frank Hollmann

And to complete the trio of Jess Franco films with almost exactly the same cast (and soundtrack), here's She Killed in Ecstasy. This one shows us more style in the first scene than the last film had entirely, with Soledad Miranda (as Susann Korda again) running down a long stone staircase with her purple cape billowing out behind her. This time she's married to Fred Williams and he's a doctor doing research with human embryos. Or at least he is once we hit the flashbacks because he's dead when we start the film. His research is seen by the investigating council as inhuman and even criminal, so when they insist that he cease his experiments and unknown people destroy his laboratory and attack his wife, he takes his own life. Needless to say, she gets her revenge on the council members which she does roughly as you'd expect from the title.

Compared to the last two Francos that I've seen, all of which were filmed back to back, this one has by far the most straightforward and consistent plot. Soledad Miranda gets much more of a role than in The Devil Came from Akasava and she has the presence to get away with it. The plot has much in common with something like Deadly Weapons, but where Chesty Morgan has only two very obvious assets, Miranda has talent oozing out of her pores. She has fun with her victims, who of course have far less moral ground than they ought to have. As a good example, her first victim believes she's a prostitute, takes her back to his hotel room and gets her to abuse him.

Kelly's Heroes (1970) Brian G Hutton

Here's one of those films that I got to see as a kid by virtue of their being played on the only TV in the house. It's a long while since I've seen it though. The names are major ones: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O'Connor and Donald Sutherland for a start, though I didn't know the two US television regulars as a kid (or the other such, like the stoolie from The Rockford Files and the Captain from The Love Boat). In fact I got to know most of these actors from films like this: I got to know Clint Eastwood well from the family TV and the same goes for Sutherland and Savalas. My dad watched all a lot of these bigger budget old war films and so I got to see them too.

This really isn't a war film even though it's set during World War II and begins with Eastwood (playing the Kelly of the title) kidnapping a Nazi colonel so Savalas can find out about the hotels and brothels in Nancy. It's really a caper movie as Kelly discovers the colonel's plan to move $16m of gold bullion into France and decides to take it for himself. After the discovery, he does everything the caper movie demands: rounds up his crew, acquires his supplies and plans the attack. The thing that makes this caper special is that the gold is in a bank behind enemy lines, so it's hardly an easy mission while at the same time being perfect cover.

Eastwood is quietly tough, Savalas is as loud a sergeant as you'd expect and Sutherland is some sort of a hippie who seems stoned half the time. All find themselves more than happy to become Kelly's heroes, as do a few others. It makes this a really fun movie. Savalas, Sutherland, Harry Dean Stanton and especially Carroll O'Connor are hilarious, as are the situations they find themselves in, all aided by the excellent and spot on script. They lose their trucks because the Americans bomb them (after all, they're not supposed to be there), the one bridge that's left for them to cross gets blown up too and they find themselves in the middle of a minefield. I loved the spaghetti western standoff between Eastwood, Sutherland and Savalas on one side and a Tiger tank on the other.

What also helps this one to stand out is that, as much as it's much more of a caper movie than a war film, it has more destruction than any other film I can think of. The opening barrage is powerful and believable enough, but there are quite a few more coming later that are devastating, literally. Oddball and his three Shermans wipe out everything they see: Germans, trucks, buildings, everything. I've seen major city firework displays that couldn't match some of these barrages.

Of course I'm watching from a perspective much different from that of the time. The cynical nature matches that of M*A*S*H, released in the same year, and other films that were reflecting cynicism about the Vietnam War. I also wouldn't have had a clue about the serious amount of historical accuracy had I not read that it was thoroughly followed down to extremely minor details.

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) Barry Levinson

It's Saigon in 1965 and the Army broadcaster on AFRS radio is awful. Not only is he boring but he's even bad at being boring. A general realises this and so calls in Adrian Cronauer from Crete to liven things up. He's played by an actor who wasn't a huge movie name at the time but seems to us to be the one and only choice for the role: Robin Williams. He's a riot, as can be expected, and his listeners love him, but he causes more than a little friction with a lieutenant who thinks he's funny but has absolutely no sense of humour and a sergeant major who doesn't like anybody. They don't like his irreverent humour, they don't like the modern records he plays and they certainly don't like him editing himself into an interview with Richard Nixon. Luckily the general is on his side.

There's also Forest Whitaker as Cronauer's virginal assistant Private Garlick, the twins from The Terminator as news censors and Cu Ba Nguyen as a truly twisted bar owner in a green suit called Jimmy Wah. Bruno Kirby is hilarious not being funny. His lieutenant is completely unrelated to reality in every way whatsoever and yet seems entirely believable. However the film isn't all laughs for sure. Cronauer is trying to date a Vietnamese girl called Trinh, played superbly by Chintara Sukapatana, especially given that she doesn't have much command of the English language. He has to go through her brother Tuan and half her family to get to her, but when Jimmy Wah's bar is blown up it's Tuan that gets him out of it before it blows. Obviously the war is closer than it's supposed to be, and the jokes about it being hard to recognise the enemy are a little closer to the truth than expected.

There's also a lot of sentiment without ever being made overt. There's a great comedy sequence in the middle of a road where Cronauer is trying to not go back on the air but Garlick introduces him to the surrounding army trucks. He can't help but get into the spirit of things and rediscovers the reason for his being on the air in the first place. It's a powerful scene all the more powerful for the fact that it doesn't look set up in the slightest. It's Robin Williams doing improvisation and acting his way out of it. No wonder it made him a star.

Now Adrian Cronauer was a real DJ in Vietnam and he reports that the film is about 45% accurate. Robin Williams's version gets away with far more than he could have done in reality and made him seem anti-war when he was really anti-stupidity. In fact the real Cronaeuer wasn't even a comedian, making this about the least accurate biopic in existence. Suddenly Yankee Doodle Dandy seems realistic.

The Iron Giant (1999) Brad Bird

In 1957 Sputnik isn't the only thing in the sky. There's also what seems to be a meteor that crashes into the sea off Maine. However it isn't a meteor at all, it's the iron giant of the title, a fifty foot tall metal eating robot that ends up being discovered by a young kid called Hogarth Hughes. As young Hogarth keeps bringing little critters home with him to his mother's horror, she doesn't believe him in the slightest when he tells her about this one that ate their TV antenna. The government do, of course, because they're monitoring a little more closely than she is.

To say that this has an obviously far smaller budget than the other Brad Bird animation I've seen, The Incredibles, is to really underestimate things. However while there's obviously little money behind the film, it doesn't matter in the slightest. This has all the story it needs and to be honest the more simplistic drawings and the faded colouring evokes the period just as wonderfully as the atomic propaganda films being shown in Hogarth's classroom and the Cosmo Nuts cereal he eats for breakfast. There's also one line that is at once the most innocent kid's remark and the most intuitive, insightful comment that could be thrown out unawares. Hogarth says 'You just can't go there yet. People aren't ready for you,' and sums up the entire era.

Definitely the best non-Pixar animation I've seen produced in the States.

The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) Joel Schumacher

It was pretty obvious from the first five minutes that this was going to be a commentary on consumer culture. Lily Tomlin is a housewife and mother called Pat Kramer who lives in Tasty Meadows and every one of her neighbours appears to be a TV commercial. There's also Lily Tomlin, in a second role, seems to be set on selling her things. Even her husband Charles Grodin, in the tradition of all those sixties sitcoms, is some sort of advertising executive working for Ned Beatty. In fact most of the dialogue sounds like it should accompany a jingle and pretty soon it does.

Naturally, as you'd expect from the title, and the fact that this is apparently based on the same science fiction novel that gave us the far more serious The Incredible Shrinking Man, Pat is shrinking. The scientists, led by Henry Gibson, decide that the cause is a combination of a huge amount of everyday products, but they still can't come up with an antidote. All people can come up with is ways to turn her into a product.

It's a funny film but most of it is pretty obvious. There are some moments of astute subtlety though. When Pat is on a national talk show she starts commenting about how nobody wanted to hear from her when she was her normal height, but of course they break for a commercial. Unfortunately all the subtlety (not that there's a huge amount) disappears by about two thirds of the way in, at which point what has skirted nonsense throughout becomes complete unadulterated nonsense. Make up artist Rick Baker in a gorilla suit is a laugh but suddenly we're at the level of the Keystone Kops. Fun but completely inconsequential.

Torchy Blane in Panama (1938) William Clemens

This time out it's Lola Lane playing Torchy and she's a different sort of character to usual. She's faster talking and more athletic and she doesn't even get the scoop on this one first. Some sort of fraternal organisation called Leopards are marching through New York and the local chapter, full of policemen, notices a bank robbery in progress. The robber gets away and leaves a bank teller dead. It's Torchy that works out the LA connection and the Panama connection and so McBride, the dumb cop Gahagan and a completely different reporter catch the boat back to LA. For some reason detective Steve McBride, Torchy's love interest, is upset with her and so she has to parachute onto the boat to investigate.

It's a fun movie but there's really not a lot of substance. There's not much detecting, especially as we discover who the killer is pretty early on, most of the lead characters have very little to do and the comedy isn't even that refreshing. It's really little but a vehicle for Lola Lane, one of the Lane sisters that included Priscilla, Rosemary and Leota. She's also the one who married people like Roland West and Lew Ayres. She's also about the only reason to watch this one.

Mr Hulot's Holiday (1953) Jacques Tati

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot is a French film made by director and star Jacques Tati, who obviously grew up watching the silent comedies of the great slapstick comedians. Even though this was made in 1953 it feels like a silent movie. There's very little dialogue and even when there is speech it's used more as a sound effect. Tati does make great use of sound, both in how he uses it for narrative purposes and in his choice of sound effects. I don't think I'm ever going to forget the sound of the swinging door in the hotel!

As you'd expect from the title, Mr Hulot is on holiday. He heads off to the seaside, driving a car so dilapidated that it only just manages to arrive. He means well but manages to create complete chaos wherever he goes, often by merely being present and he's always blissfully unaware of anything.

This is a very gentle humour, something that has nothing to do with the amount of speech. It's possibly the most leisurely films I've ever seen, though of course Hulot manages to affect that too. It ought to be one of the most boring films ever given the pacing and the peacefulness of the humour, but it isn't. It's a quiet riot. There are only a couple of laugh out loud moments but I had a grin on my face for almost the entire movie. The subtlety of the humour is notable. I watched probably two thirds of this before being interrupted, but came back to watch afresh a week or so later. Even across that short distance in time I found that I'd missed a huge amount.

Tati is obviously a master of what he does and I can now relish finding his other films in the future. It's blatantly obvious that Mr Bean stole his entire routine but the comparison is unfair because the actual tone of the humour is completely different. However the gorgeous young lady who gets second credit didn't appear in another film. Her name is Nathalie Pascaud and I wonder what she did instead, other than pioneer the bagels on each ear hairstyle almost a quarter of a century before Princess Leia.

Wallace and Gromit's Cracking Contraptions (2002) Loyd Price & Christopher Sadler

As I still haven't managed to catch the original three award winning Wallace and Gromit shorts by animator Nick Park, I'm not sure how well this collection of ten shorts compares. They're tiny little things, two minutes each and mostly they're less stories than just cool (or not) inventions with associated side effects.

I found them varying in quality and in laughs but enjoyed all of them. The bully proof vest, snoozatron and soccamatic are probably my favourites, but there's quality in each, time permitting. The real challenge is to get enough into the running time to make them worthwhile. The worst of them just didn't manage to add in any real gags. Watch Buster Keaton's The Electric House for a few of these with way more gags thrown into the running time.

Chasing Amy (1997) Kevin Smith

I've never really counted myself as a Kevin Smith fan or a Jay and Silent Bob fan or a View Askewniverse fan or whatever these people call themselves. I found humour and some astute comment in Dogma though it tried too hard to offend, Clerks was especially good for the fact that it was a true independent movie, but Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back left me so cold I didn't even finish it. This one came as something of a surprise. Sure, it's full of completely frank discussions about the sort of things people don't usually have completely frank discussions about, but it has a point. A real point. And Kevin Smith does make the most of it.

The story follows three lead characters: Holden and Banky who are comic book artists who grew up together and Alyssa is a beautiful young lady who comes in between them. The weirdness is that Holden is straight but he still falls for Alyssa, who is a lesbian. There's a huge amount of depth in there too but it all builds around that solid base. It surprised me with its honesty. Smith really didn't hold the truth back even when it became uncomfortable, politically correct or politically incorrect. It's refreshing to see such honesty applied to relationships, homosexuality and other such matters and I hope it comes to mean something to the sort of people who are likely to come to Kevin Smith movies.

One of the things that impressed me here was how much of an independent feel it had. Partly that's because of the material and the degree to which it was followed. I certainly wouldn't expect to see that in a Hollywood production. Partly though it's the actors who populate his films. Say what you want about people like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and it'll probably be true. Neither are great actors but they're not awful either and they bring a low budget realism to a film like this that would be hard to do with more skilled performers. It takes a level of acting talent to appear like you're not acting, but it takes even more to appear like someone who couldn't act, and that's what real people are. People who can't act.

The Mating Call (1928) James Cruze

Among all the names I mostly don't know here is one that most of us do: producer Howard Hughes. The rest are people who were names when the film was made but have faded from memory today. The director is James Cruze, one of the highest paid directors in the silent business, the star is Thomas Meighan who couldn't survive the transition into sound, the leading ladies are Evelyn Brent and Renee Adoree, who died only five years later but remains well known for The Big Parade. I've seen her instead in films like Back to God's Country and Buster Keaton's Day Dreams.

Meighan, who looks a little like a less handsome Gary Cooper, plays a soldier called Leslie Hatten who marries Rose the village belle and promptly leaves for war. He's madly in love with her but when he gets home he finds that his marriage had been annulled by her parents and she went on to marry a womanising member of The Order instead (this has similarities to the Klan but doesn't seem to be based on racism and is only ever called The Order). What seems strangest to the classic film buff is that she is very aware of her husband's womanising and very happy to do whatever and whoever she wants as well, including her former 'husband'. As Hatten is a good guy he throws her out but she resists in every way possible and he has to resort to marrying an immigrant coming through Ellis Island to keep out of her clutches.

It's all very notably non-production code and refreshing for that fact. Rose Henderson is a very real woman of the sort you didn't see in the movies for decades once the code had kicked in. She resembles an early version of what Norma Shearer would do so well in the real pre-code era, both in looks and attitudes. Renee Adoree, playing Hatten's immigrant wife, gets a nude swimming scene. The full frontal nudity is admittedly brief but it's there, five years before Hedy Lamarr's similar exploits in Ecstasy and six before those of Maureen O'Sullivan's stunt double in Tarzan and His Mate.

The Lost Patrol (1934) John Ford

Shot in the horrific heat of the desert around Yuma in Arizona, which must have made an impact on the realism of the story, this is a First World War picture with a difference. We're in Mesopotamia in 1917 where British troops are having no end of trouble fighting an Arabian enemy that they can't see. The opening is pure John Ford: a rider on a horse against a bare landscape is picked off by an unseen gunman. Then we close in to see the results of his death. What we don't see but soon discover is that the man killed was an officer who happened to have kept his patrol's orders in his head. As he hadn't passed them on to anyone, the title becomes self apparent. However further meanings to the word lost come into play after they find an oasis and settle in for the night. In the morning the horses are gone, the sentry is dead and they later find that they're surrounded by an invisible enemy.

The cast are solid. Credited on the title card are Victor McLaglen, Boris Karloff, Wallace Ford and Reginald Denny. Alan Hale's further down the cast list. Merian C Cooper, of King Kong fame, is the executive producer. McLaglen reprises his brother's role in the British silent original and his voice is very different from what I'm used to. Karloff is a deeply religious man who has issues from moment one and of course he could play that sort of role in his sleep. He's put upon because the rest of the patrol don't subscribe to the depth of religion he does; he's nervous and panicky, though of course he has good reason; and he reacts to everything everyone else does. He's great to watch even though he does start chewing the scenery somewhat when he goes even more nuts than he was to start with. Denny is the carefree type, content to carry on regardless.

There's a lot of depth in the character definition, though the film is pretty short at 66 minutes (six short of its full running length). It did seem a little rough around the edges, but it was still enough to warrant a few further versions. There's a lot of similarity to the Bogart movie Sahara and apparently there are other remakes too, such as Bad Lands and Bataan.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) Joel Coen

The story is the Odyssey, but the locale is the depression era Southern states and the lead characters have escaped from a chain gang. The translation is a daring one but it's possibly the greatest success in the Coen Brother's collection of successes. It simply doesn't matter what level you choose to watch the film at, it works a treat.

Watch it for the classical allusions and you'll find it an audacious success. Watch it for the history and you'll find plenty: not just real names like Pappy O'Daniel, Tommy Johnson or Baby Face Nelson, but also the strange reality that imbues the situations the leads find themselves in. Watch it for the acting and you'll be impressed by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson. George Clooney as the erudite Ulysses Everett McGill and this was the first time I'd been impressed by him. Watch it for the Coen Brothers directorial style and you won't be disappointed. This film looks gorgeous, pure and simple, partly due to the computer aided colour changing that the brothers put it through.

Above all, if you watch it for the music you'll discover a true gem. It's no surprise that the soundtrack spawned an industry of its own, selling more than five million copies, leading to further CDs, tours and a whole bunch of awards. It is a peach, courtesy of T-Bone Burnett, and is populated by exactly the people it should have been populated by: from Alan Lomax recordings to artists like the Cox Family, the Whites, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley. I'd come to know some of these before seeing this film but this introduced me to a few more and I've delved a lot further since.

In Which We Serve (1942) Noel Coward & David Lean

'This is the story of a ship', the narrator tells us at the beginning of the film. However while no less a name than David Lean is attached to it as co-director (and in fact did most of the actual directing), this story obviously belongs to the other co-director, Noel Coward. He also wrote and produced the film, as well as taking the lead role, and even composed the musical score. It's dedicated to the Royal Navy but carries far more than mere propaganda in its message. There are some serious names, of the stature of John Mills, Bernard Miles and Celia Johnson. There's even Sir Richard Attenborough in a short appearance under a false name.

The film has an intriguing structure. We start with the beginning and the end and then fill in everything else through flashbacks. We watch the HMS Torrin being built and then sunk in battle against the Germans, then look back to family life before the war and the taking on, commissioning and early life of the ship. Soon we hear war declared and see the crew head out to fight it. Coward is the Captain, Miles is the Chief Petty Officer and Mills is a Cagney-esque Ordinary Seaman. All of them have the traditional English stiff upper lip, doing their duty and putting personal feelings second. That very thinking is inherent in the actors of the film who act with true subtlety. Possibly the best is Celia Johnson in her film debut as Coward's wife. She has one particular speech that is both touching and impressive, given that she did the whole thing in one take.

Though the setting is before my time, I can understand the many comments that talk about the ship's crew as being a microcosm of English society at the time. It was all about knowing your place, something that hadn't entirely gone away by the time I came along thirty years later. I never did buy into all that class nonsense but I can more than appreciate the sheer guts it took to do what was needed, and be thankful to those who had those guts.

As a good comparison, there were plenty without any guts over the pond in the States. The Hays Office attempted to delete certain horrendously offensive words, like 'God', 'hell' and 'bastard' from the American release, though uproar back in England got most of them reinstated. The Academy gave a special award to the film, presumably because of qualification issues, but didn't nominate it for honour until 1943. There really is no comparison between this and the 1942 winner Mrs Miniver. In a fair fight this one would win hands down and the New York Film Critics Circle did indeed grant it Best Film.

Loves of a Blonde (1965) Milos Forman

Before Milos Forman came to the States and made major American movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, he made films in his native Czechoslovakia like this one. We're in the little town of Zruc where the girls outnumber the boys by a serious margin and so the military reservists are invited to help redress the balance. Andula, played by a very believable Hanu Brejchovou doesn't want anything to do with them and ends up instead with a young pianist from Prague. He persuades her into sleeping with him but doesn't expect her to take him up on the offer to come and see him back home. Of course he's away at another gig and his parents bicker over what to do with her.

I have no idea whatsoever what small town Czech life was like in the sixties, but this rings true. There's a lot of emptiness, as if most people don't have any real aim in life, but there's a lot of humanity too. It's simply shot, in black and white and without glitz. I don't know if these actors were known names at the time but I get the impression that they probably weren't. All of them though are thoroughly believable.

Night and Day (1946) Michael Curtiz

Here's another biopic from the man who brought us Yankee Doodle Dandy, a thoroughly enjoyable biopic that led its subject matter George M Cohan to comment, 'Great film. Who's it about?' This one seems to be a solid companion piece: it's jolly, it looks great and it apparently bears no resemblance to reality whatsoever.

I didn't know much about the life of Cole Porter, so I read up a little on Wikipedia and quickly realised that it would be difficult to find anything accurate here. Porter didn't look remotely like Cary Grant, he went to Harvard after Yale, those hit numbers like Let's Fall in Love and You Do Something to Me didn't appear in See America First and in fact not until a decade later in different productions, he never went to war, his wife Linda was eight years his senior (here Alexis Smith is seventeen years younger than Cary Grant).

What the film is really trying to do is show off a greatest hits package surrounded by a bit of acting to give a little credence to the show, and on that front it's a success. On any biographical front it's a complete failure. Cary Grant is OK in the lead but I was more impressed by Monty Woolley and Jane Wyman, who unfortunately don't appear as much as they could. Even notably being far from a musical buff I knew most of the songs, but many of them are soulless renditions that remove all their heart. One listen to Bette Midler's Miss Otis Regrets, Blossom Dearie's Just One of Those Things or almost anyone else's I Get No Kick from Champagne and you'll be cringing at these versions.

The Sadist (1963) James Landis

Undoubtedly B-movie material, this one grabs right off the bat with an introductory narrative accompanying a pair of sadistic eyes that watch us while we read the credits. 'I have been hurt by others. I will hurt them,' it says and we'll soon find out just how he'll do it. We open with two men and a woman heading out to some baseball game in California, but their car isn't up to the task. Luckily they manage to get it as far as a salvage yard but unluckily all they discover there is star Arch Hall Jr and his cousin who have been on a killing rampage ever since Arizona. Hall Jr is truly deranged and comes off like something approaching the missing link. His girlfriend is just dumb, but they make a dangerous couple, long before Badlands or Natural Born Killers.

It's actually a pretty taut film, with excellent cinematography courtesy of William Zsigmond who would go on to make a serious name for himself, winning an Oscar no less only fifteen years later. The $33k budget is obvious, there are only four characters for most of the movie and only eight throughout, and there are only two real sets, but the tension is kept alive and it's pretty scary! It also brought surprises, ending well but not how I was suspecting. I really wasn't expecting an Arch Hall Jr film to be anywhere near this good, and to be honest he's by far the worst thing about it, chewing up every bit of scenery he can find in an attempt to be the most cartoony thrill killer on celluloid, but the rest makes up for it, for sure!

Going Highbrow (1935) Robert Florey

I couldn't resist this one: three of my favourite supporting actors playing the leads in a thirties comedy. There's Guy Kibbee, ZaSu Pitts and Edward Everett Horton. Kibbee and Pitts are a married couple, the Upshaws, living at the Waldorf. Matt is a millionaire who doesn't care for the high life, but Cora is aiming for social standing. Horton is a conman trying to get at their money and he quickly fashions a plan to obtain it by sponsoring a way into high society for them. To do so they have to obtain a daughter (which they don't have) and Kibbee knows exactly how to acquire one: the waitress across the road from the Waldorf.

The plot doesn't really make as much sense as that because it heads off in all sorts of directions that it shouldn't, but all three of the leads, along with the supporting cast, make it a very enjoyable ride. Pitts and Kibbee are wonderful but they keeps disappearing from the film. Horton gets lots of screen time and makes the most of his ridiculous dialogue. Also notable are June Martel as the 'daughter' and Ross Alexander as Horton's musical sidekick who falls for her. He was young but committed suicide only two years later on the anniversary of his second wife's suicide. Both shot themselves in the head.

Harold and Maude (1971) Hal Ashby

Beyond the basic premise, this one appears very strange from moment one. Harold, as a young boy, is completely obsessed by death. He stages elaborate fake suicides and his well to do mother is obviously very used to them. She's got to the point of ignoring him, which does seem a little bizarre when he's lying face down in the pool or he's hanged himself in the front room. He buys a hearse and attends funerals for fun. Only when he meets the very strange but lively Maude, who is almost eighty years old, at a couple of these funerals does he start to discover something about life.

I love the fake suicides and Bud Cort's knowing grin when they come off exactly as he wanted them to is a joy. When his mother arranges some sort of computer date, he's busy appearing to immolate himself in the garden while the ladies talk inside. When the young lady sees him appear to go up in flame she naturally freaks and runs away, but of course he's right there, grinning subtly. Ruth Gordon is also awesome, completely believable as a lovable fruitcake of an old lady. She has so much fun it's unreal, even though much of it is completely illegal, immoral or just plain bizarre.

I've heard that this film has been described as the most popular cult film ever, and it's easy to see why.

49th Parallel (1941) Michael Powell

A few days ago I got to see In Which We Serve, which marked David Lean's first time in the director's chair. He was brought in by Noel Coward because he was apparently the best editor in the country. Here, a year earlier is a great example of the work he did before he became one of the greatest directors England ever offered the world. He's far from the only major name here though: it's a Powell/Pressburger collaboration, for a start, with Pressburger credited for the script and Powell for production and direction. The first three stars listed before the title card are Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier and Raymond Massey, hardly minor names, and each agreed to appear for half their usual fee in order to aid the war effort. Last but not least there's the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams which is astounding.

The story has a German U-boat popping up in the Gulf of Labrador to sink a Canadian tanker. They end up getting being sunk in Hudson Bay, leaving only a token crew on land who were on their way to capture a Hudson Bay Trading Post. Their only chance of survival, with their boat sunk, is to head south, across the 49th parallel of the title ('the only undefended frontier in the world'), into the United States, who when the film was made were still neutral. While it doesn't play like one, this is really a propaganda film that aimed to bring America into the war. As it happened the Japanese did a better job of that later on the same year, but this was a solid effort on its own.

Of the stars we meet Olivier first, as a Canadian trapper, and he has a pretty solid French Canadian accent. In fact the accents are solid throughout, mostly through the cast having been assembled from many nationalities. Only the Germans aren't as authentic as could be hoped, but then I'm sure there were difficulties there in 1941! What's most impressive here is that it's the subtlest propaganda film I've ever seen.

The Germans, while obviously the bad guys, are not all enthusiastic Nazis. One, who still automatically stands to salute the Fuhrer, defects to the Hutterite community they find themselves staying with. He explains how everyday people who have no great love for Nazism got caught up in the insanity, thus answering many of the questions posed early on by Olivier's trapper. Similarly the Canadians, while obviously the good guys, aren't squeaky clean. Many don't want anything to do with the war, for their own personal and sometimes selfish reasons, but find themselves caught up in it.

And then my recording screwed up as my DVR is on the fritz, no pun intended. I hope I get another chance to watch the last three quarters of an hour sometime. After all, I haven't got to see either Leslie Howard or Raymond Massey yet. I'll suffice to say that Olivier was excellent, even though it took a while to get used to him as a French Canadian, and Anton Walbrook was superb as the leader of the Hutterite community.

The Three Musketeers (1948) George Sidney

I'm always up for a bit of swashbuckling action and The Three Musketeers is always full of swashbuckling action, no matter who stars. This has a most bizarre choice for d'Artagnan: Gene Kelly, thankfully neither singing or dancing. However, as much as I am far from being a Gene Kelly fan, I enjoyed his work here, probably because he wasn't singing or dancing. He has both the energy and the spirit of Douglas Fairbanks and proves himself a pretty damn fine swordsman too.

The story isn't much massacred, though serious amounts of time are devoted to chases and fights. In 1625 d'Artagnan heads into Paris to become a musketeer and meets up with the King's greatest three swordsman: Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young) and Aramis (Robert Coote). He proves himself to them, discovers the designs that Cardinal Richelieu has on the King, and becomes enamoured of his landlord's daughter (June Allyson). The rest of the characters are just as well cast: Frank Morgan as King Louis XIII, Vincent Price as Richelieu and Angela Lansbury as Queen Anne in particular. Surrounding them all is the mysterious Lady de Winter, played by Lana Turner, even though she apparently refused the part being a secondary role.

To my surprise, it's Gene Kelly that steals the show, even over favourites of mine like Morgan and Price. Now what else did he do that didn't involve singing and dancing?

Bedside (1934) Robert Florey

Of all the roles that Warren William could play in his sleep, this one seems a little strange at first. He's Bob Brown, an X-ray technician, with a natural line for the ladies. When we first meet him he's late for work recovering a quart of bootleg gin the night before, he's completely out of funds and having to barter with Louise Beavers who brings his laundry because he can't pay for it. Of course the women are still ape for him. His gorgeous blonde assistant forces him to borrow $1,500 from her to finish his last year in college and thus be able to start out on his own. Needless to say, he loses it all gambling on the train but writes back talking about all the studying he isn't doing. He finally works out how to practice medicine by means of using a morphine-addicted doctor's name and diploma. With Allen Jenkins as his PR man he can't fail!

Oh my, these old Warren Williams are guilty pleasures. I still don't understand how he can play such a deplorable character whilst appearing so appealing, but that's what made him such a huge star in the precode era and that's why he faded from stardom once that era was over. This film is a real guilty experience, like watching a train wreck about to happen. We can't help but feel for William's character, as loathsome as he actually is, and we keep watching to see him run out of luck and fail dismally. Leading lady Jean Muir is excellent as the assistant who starts out so starry eyed but ends up completely disheartened. The ending of the film is of course completely unrelated to reality in any way whatsoever but it still somehow fits with all our worst feelings.

Fort Apache (1948) John Ford

John Ford and Merian C Cooper present... well, I knew this was a John Ford/John Wayne movie but that Merian C Cooper got everywhere it seems. I knew him for King Kong, of course, and then for the associated material around it, but I keep seeing his name where I least expect it. There's plenty here I did expect, of course: other than the presence of the Duke and Arizona's Monument Valley, there are other regular Ford faces like Henry Fonda and Ward Bond. The surprising ones are people like Shirley Temple (now nineteen years old and all grown up) and John Agar who is credited after the word 'introducing'.

Henry Fonda is Lt Col Owen Thursday who has been assigned to Fort Apache, somewhere in the Arizona territory, to be its new commanding officer. He's travelling with his daughter, Shirley Temple, playing a character with the unlikely name of Philadelphia. Thursday is stiff and rather unhappy that he's been sent to such a backwater. His daughter, however, seems elated at the new experience and eager to discover how everything works. John Wayne is Captain York, the previous commander of the fort. He has far less of a part than I expected but he gets some seriously good scenes.

After watching Peter Bogdanovich's excellent documentary on John Ford, I'm going to be watching out for a few things in particular every time I see a Ford movie: especially where the horizon is and what sort of rituals are performed. There are rituals everywhere here: formal dances to celebrate Washington's birthday, ceremonies to raise the stars and stripes, formal introductions, military rules and regulations. It's impossible to miss them. What else I noticed was the ending, which is highly reminiscent of the ending of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. For all the obvious patriotism and flagwaving of both John Ford and John Wayne, they both carried a lot of honesty.

The story is easy to understand when you see Owen Thursday as George Custer. This isn't a direct representation at all but it carries the spirit. Upset at his apparent exile into the wilderness, Thursday grabs at the first potential glory he could seize, namely the forced return to the reservation of the Native American chief Cochise. Against the solid advice of Capt York, who knew exactly what he was talking about, he leads his troops into a massacre at the hands of the Indians.

Beyond the blatant stupidity of Thursday, this is much more about taking a more sympathetic view of the Indians and Fort Apache was one of the first, if not the first, film to take such a stance. Cochise is a good man who is merely looking out for his people, who are being abused at the hands of 'government representatives' eager only to sell them guns and bad whisky. He comes for peace at the request of York but is betrayed by Thursday who engineers the massacre.

Playing backup are a number of actors of interest, most of whom are hardly used at all. Shirley Temple does a great job, but after being all over the screen early on fades into the background pretty quickly. Guy Kibbee is the fort's doctor who only gets a few lines and very little to do. There's even Movita, the exotic lady who starred opposite Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty. Here though she's just a Spanish speaking cook.

Gaslight (1940) Thorold Dickinson

Welcome to the world of Hollywood. When MGM wanted to make their own version of the successful Gaslight, they didn't just buy the rights to make an American version, they also bought the English version in order to destroy it, thus no comparison could be made. What a shame! Luckily for us in the 21st century things like this are being unearthed for us to see. The American version was a good one, made by George Cukor, and featuring an Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman and other major names: Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty and Angela Lansbury. I saw this a couple of years ago and gave it an Excellent rating. Even in the early minutes it's obvious that this one is a far tenser movie that doesn't hold back at all.

The opening scenes are of a murder, of a Alice Barlow, and the following search of the property for what presumably are the Barlow rubies. Twenty years later her nephew arrives under a false name with a nervous wife in tow. Anton Walbrook is wonderfully sinister as Paul Mallen and noted stage actress Diana Wynyard is possibly even better as his wife Bella, apparently on the edge of sanity, moving things that she doesn't remember moving and watching the gaslight flicker without reason.

The tension here is palpable, far more so than in the Hollywood version. This one isn't perfect by any means but I'd go so far as to say that it's the better of the two, well worthy of being a Hitchcock. It feels far more real, far more taut and far better realised than the more star studded remake, partly because of the acting, partly because of the setting and partly because of the way the suspense is handled. The acting works to my mind better because I'm not looking at stars. I know Anton Walbrook from a number of films but he's always seemed more of an actor than a star to me. I'm not familiar with Diana Wynyard or Frank Pettingell, who especially doesn't seem like a Hollywood star by age, size or looks, and that helps the believability. As much as I enjoy Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, the 1944 version always seemed like stars I knew acting out their parts, and so the danger was gone. The setting is more consistent, in that the two leads are married by the time they first appear whereas in the remake we get to see all sorts of things before that that really don't add anything at all. Finally the suspense is handled better because it's more even: we find out the reasons behind everything more slowly and more consistently, and the police (in the form of one retired policemen) are involved far earlier though without any solid evidence for some time. All in all an excellent film that led to an excellent, if not as good, remake.

The Four Feathers (1939) Zoltan Korda

1885 and the dervishes are having a go at General Gordon, successfully too as Khartoum falls at the beginning of the picture. Ten years later Harry Faversham, last in a long line of soldiers, resigns his commission on the eve of being sent to have a go back at them. Naturally he's seen as a rank coward but he has other ideas. His former comrades (and his fiancee) send him four feathers to hammer the point home. Once he's reflected on his position he decides to travel to Egypt, disguise himself as an Arab and do what he can to rectify the situation.

This is a 1939 film so it's surprising to see it in Technicolor, but it's a Korda production that shot much of its running time on location in the Sudan, so it's hardly surprising. And a Korda production it really is: there's Alexander as producer, Zoltan as director and Vincent as set designer. It's also a very British film, all about duty and tradition. C Aubrey Smith, always the epitome of Englishness, has a great scene that highlights a huge amount of restraint: he comes home to his daughter, who is also Faversham's fiancee, and discovers Faversham there on the very day his regiment has left without him. Rather than rage and rant or resort to physical violence like an American, he quietly seethes and, when addressed, opens the window to figuratively let in some fresh air and then leaves the room. His contempt was made all the more plain for the subtletly.

The lead is John Clements, who looks somewhat like a young Alec Guinness with maybe a hint of Patrick MacGoohan. He does a pretty good job of disguising himself as not just an Arab, but a branded one who has no tongue. There's also the future Sir Ralph Richardson, no less than 42 years before he played God so memorably in Time Bandits. He gets some great scenes during which he is struck blind by the sun.

One of the things that impressed me most was that the colour was handled superbly. Because Technicolor was expensive and thus rarely used in the thirties, it always felt like filmmakers overdid it. Watch The Adventures of Robin Hood, for instance, and be stunned by the bright colours! Here there's huge use of black and white and when colours appear, they're realistically depicted, slightly faded, slightly worn but very real. Even if the film stock has faded, as it is like to do, to help give this impression it's still very refreshing to see.

Outrage (1950) Ida Lupino

've been really enjoying the directorial work of Ida Lupino, even more than her acting which was hardly poor. The fact that she was the only female director in Hollywood for decades helped her put a different slant on her films and it shows especially here. Our heroine is Ann Walton who is a decent young lady on top of the world. She's just got engaged to Jim Owens who she loves very much and she has a good job at the Bradshaw Mill Co. However all that gets brutally shattered when she is raped on the way home after working late. From then on life changes immensely and she runs away to avoid it all. Only when she meets Rev Bruce Ferguson does she find some way to rediscover what life is about.

Mala Powers has the sort of young Judy Garland good looks to pull this role off and Ida Lupino certainly had the directorial skill and the woman's perspective to make it work. For a start, she opens with a dramatic high up film noir shot that could easily have been in an Orson Welles movie, and then builds the tension wonderfully. She understood that in 1950, rape wasn't just a crime, it was a stigma and as much a mental attack as a physical one.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) John Ford

A year after Fort Apache, a few of the same people returned for the second part in John Ford's unrelated 'cavalry trilogy'. Chief among them is John Wayne, with a role that he felt was far better than his Oscar nominated performance the same year in The Sands of Iwo Jima. He's a lot older than his character in Fort Apache, this time nigh on retirement. However he still has to head out to fight an imminent mass Indian uprising, and he's encumbered by a number of women that he has been forced to escort. Backing him up are other names returning from Fort Apache: John Agar and Victor McLaglen in particular.

The young and opinionated Olivia Dandridge, played by Joanne Dru, is the one wearing a yellow ribbon. In the cavalry this means that she has a beau, but she won't tell for sure who it is. Both John Agar and Harry Carey Jr are solid possibles and both play lieutenants, Cohill and Penlell respectively. Victor McLaglen steals the show to my mind as the fighting Irish sergeant, but he's only following in a long tradition of fighting Irish sergeants.

I got the impression that the film was about fate. Wayne's character, Captain Brittles, is about to retire but he doesn't want to and of course that's a battle he can't win; they ride out and back again because what they were riding out for isn't there any more; and when Brittles goes to talk peace with Chief Pony That Walks, both of them end up resigned to war because they're too old to make any difference. Then again Wayne gets to buck fate quite a bit here, so maybe I'm on the wrong track.

I may well be on the wrong track for a lot of it as I got interrupted more times during the course of this movie than could comfortably be imagined. Maybe that's why I don't see it being anywhere near as good as Fort Apache. I thought the last third was great but the first two thirds didn't really do much. With some continuity I might think a lot more of it.

Fellini's Casanova (1949) Federico Fellini

There's some sort of festival going on as we begin Fellini's Casanova. We're in Venice, fireworks are exploding across the dark sky as a backdrop to ancient buildings and statues and a riot of colour and sound. People are dressed in gaudy colours, many with masks, and they raise a huge head from the water in some sort of ritual. It's a gorgeous opening to any film, but this one doesn't forget about that beauty as we move to a villa decorated with sumptuous erotica for a romantic rendezvous between Casanova and a cherubic nun to the accompaniment of a mechanised toy and before the hidden eyes of the nun's lover. Yes, this is Fellini and his wonderful sense of the absurd and he does a marvellous job of transporting us into a different world.

Playing Casanova is Donald Sutherland with a severe receding hairline and a set of outlandish costumes, and he flits from one encounter to another without any control over most of it. He's dubbed, of course, as this is in Italian, by Gigi Proietti, but his posturing is his own and he appears entirely unlike the Donald Sutherland I've seen elsewhere. I don't recognise anyone else at all, though there are people in here like Chesty Morgan and the tallest woman in the world, Sandra Elaine Allen. Leda Lojodice is incredible as the mechanical doll. As for much of the time I forgot that it was Sutherland in the lead, it effectively became a film populated with unknown talents, as befits a dream.

And even more so than Satyricon, this is far more of a dream than a story and it's nigh on impossible to turn your eyes away from it. There's very little nudity and the sex is so completely ludicrous that half the time it really can't even be called sex! As far as I could tell most of it took place without the removal of many clothes. Yet this isn't about such things. It's a surreal journey through the excesses of privileged life in 18th century Europe and what's most amazing about the story is that all this complete nonsense is probably far more historically accurate than we might expect.

Casanova was a Renaissance man with diverse talents but he really was imprisoned by the Inquisition, escaped and travelled throughout Europe, seducing women and being thrown out of almost everywhere he went. He dabbled in magic and other forbidden pursuits, yet was frequently bored and moved onto new experiences. He often became rich but lost it all every time. He even fought a number of duels. Whether he really sought out women of all flavours, including giants, hunchbacks and mechanical dolls, I honestly can't say, but it is at least believable! Whether it be Casanova's exploits or those of those around him, all the opulent chaos and debauchery Fellini shows us here doesn't look much different from what the Romans got up to, proving that we don't really change as people regardless of how civilised we may appear.

Depravity or no depravity, the film is a sheer delight to look at, whatever else it is. The dinners at the Marquise d'Urfe's or the hunchback du Bois are truly surreal. The costumes are as bizarre as they are varied, the conversation incredible and Fellini captures both the whole and the components marvellously. I'm not surprised that it won an Oscar for costumes. I'm surprised it didn't win another for production design. There are so many wonderful sets, props and costumes to choose from, none of which are anything less than stunning. It's an incredible achievement and I'm sure a highly memorable one too.

Wild Guitar (1962) Ray Dennis Steckler

Rob Zombie is really starting to find a real niche with his TCM Underground slot for cult films. He started out with filmmakers like Ed Wood, Russ Meyer and George A Romero, whose films are thoroughly enjoyable to see again but are still somewhat predictable for a slot like this. Even the Tod Browning double feature was somewhat expected, including one of my favourite films of all time. I'm not complaining about any of these choices: they're the essentials of the cult film world, but I've seen almost all of them. The Arch Hall Jr double bill though was a little more inventive, and I've really enjoyed the pair of them. The Sadist was an unexpected gem and Wild Guitar is a guilty pleasure if ever I've seen one. Zombie even presents it with a Teenage Theater introduction from the Queen of Teen, Mamie van Doren, which is a real eye opener.

Arch Hall Jr is a wide eyed guitar player called Bud Eagle, without the unibrow he had for The Sadist. He's come from Spearfish, South Dakota to the land of opportunity, California, hoping to make it big. He meets up with dancer Vickie Wills and lucks into a TV spot which turns out to be a success. Unfortunately he soon ends up working for crooked manager Mike McCauley, played by his real life father, Arch Hall Sr, who naturally takes him for a ride. McCauley's stooge Steak is played by cult film icon Ray Dennis Steckler who made his directorial debut with this movie, before going on to other career highlights like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?, The Thrill Killers and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and on to soft (or not) porn entries like The Horny Vampire, Sexual Satanic Awareness and Debbie Does Las Vegas.

Wild Guitar is a riot. It happily works through all the cons and tricks that a sleazy promoter would work through (and the supposedly not so sleazy ones too). We get a few sixties pop performances by Arch Hall Jr, a kidnapping by a trio of dumb Italians that starts real but ends fake, some vaguely exotic dancing, a murder, a bunch of bizarre subterfuge, a whole slew of strange and jerky camerwork and even a teen romance to keep things hip. Great fun!

La Haine (1995) Mathieu Kassovitz

La Haine was impressive even before the credits had finished rolling. There's a brief narration that garners more meaning as the film runs on, some clever imagery and then reggae music to server as background to black and white footage of riots. The news tells us that a local teen, Abdel Ichaha, is in hospital after being allegedly beaten by police. We see Vinz, apparently a Jewish skinhead, practice his Taxi Driver lines in front of the mirror. He's from the same neighbourhood as Abdel and he finds a police gun, lost in the rioting. He swears that if Abdel dies, he'll take out a policeman in revenge.

What's most interesting here is that the film is titled Hate and deals with exactly that, but it's not directed as we'd expect. The young men here are white, black, Arab; Jewish, Christian, Muslim; even honest or not. Nobody seems to care about things like colour and creed. The commonality is that they're all young men stuck in the projects and that seems to be all that matters. The hate is between a disaffected (I wouldn't say deprived) youth and the supposedly civilised authorities: police, television reporters and parents. The racism comes in then and works both ways.

The young men don't hurl racial epithets at each other (except the skinheads towards the end but they're a notable exception), but they have no hesitation doing so at cops, shopkeepers or bouncers. Similarly the bad cops have no hesitation racially abusing the kids when they're under the power. There's a gripping yet terrible scene here where a couple of veteran cops racially taunt and physically two of the leading characters as a lesson to a rookie.

These three main characters have a lot of depth, as does the film, and there's an additional nod to reality in that each play a character with their own name. Vincent Cassel is Vinz, a white Jewish skinhead who is changed by possession of the gun, becoming more and more arrogant and focused on killing a cop. Hubert Kound� is Hubert, a decent black boxer, which has been mostly destroyed during the rioting. He dreams of leaving the projects but realises it's not likely, and so gets drawn into the downward spiral. Sa�d Taghmaoui is Sa�d, a loudmouth Arab who is a lit fuse half the time and the only thing keeping the other two apart the other half. The character development is superb and I've read often that this is the most realistic film about life in the French slums. That's scary.

There are a lot of American cultural references here but not all of them are really there. One character is named Asterix after the Goscinny and Uderzo cartoon character, but in the subtitles he's renamed to Snoopy, something that means that the whole conversation has to change too. Bizarre. At least other changes are a little more understandable, if strange, such as a repeated racial epithet being changed from 'mwaka' to 'Uncle Tom'. That confused me for a while!

And yes, the ending is stunning and really not expected in the slightest.

Master of the House (1925) Carl Theodor Dreyer

Ida (Mary in the subtitles) Frandsen is about as conscientious a wife as could comfortably be imagined. She goes about her tasks with a maximum of effort and a minimum of complaint. Early on the film explains that this has spoilt her husband Viktor (John) into taking it all for granted, but this is a horrendous understatement. He's really a selfish and self-centred pain in the ass, to a serious degree. He finds fault constantly and whines like a little girl at the smallest things. Luckily his old wetnurse is on hand to fix things. She fetches his mother-in-law and reminds him of a thrashing she gave him when he was a schoolboy.

It really is that black and white, if you'll excuse the pun. Ida's an angel and Viktor has absolutely nothing going for him at all. However it's still refreshing when he gets his comeuppance. The only catch to these characters is that they just aren't that interesting. One's saintly, one's selfish, that's about it. Both Johannes Meyer and Astrid Holm are fine in their roles but it's Mathilde Nielsen playing the wetnurse who steals the entire show for me. She's the one who devises the plan to deal with him and she's the one that puts it into operation and stick with it. She's a joy to watch and her very lack of movement when telling him only as much as he needs to know at any point is superbly done. She's animated at points but mostly it's a lesson in restraint. She can distil emotion just by looking at you!

The only other strange thing for me is that this is supposed to be a comedy, but it really plays out like a drama. I can happily laugh at Viktor's eating of crow but that's not really comedy. I've been disappointed with Carl Theodor Dreyer after being knocked out by The Passion of Joan of Arc. This one restores my faith in him somewhat. It's a subtle gem but it's still a gem.

Ordet (1955) Carl Theodor Dreyer

And from one Dreyer to another, but from a silent film to one of the last he made. Even early on, this seems to have all the Dreyer trademarks I've been seeing: it's slow but sure with a serious attention to detail, the visuals are bleak yet beautiful and the themes are deep and meaningful.

Ordet means 'The Word' so you can expect a lot of discussion about religion, and what is really interesting is that the film is based around an unusual clash between Christianity and Christianity! The Borgen farm is led by Morten Borgen, an elderly man who is devout in his faith, and unfortunately plagued to his thinking by having his eldest son Mikkel without faith and his second son Johannes (inevitably and annoyingly translated in the subtitles to John) with an abundance of faith but also insane to the point of believing that he's Jesus Christ. When his youngest son Anders asks for permission to marry Peter the tailor's daughter he denies it because the tailor's family are not Christians. However when Anders asks Peter the Tailor he gets the same response, a denial because the Borgens are not Christians!

What makes this fascinating to watch is that both men are devout, sincere and good men and they agree on almost everything, including the manner of their disagreement. Both want their children to marry within their own faith, which is apparently the same one but with subtle differences that we're not given detailed knowledge of. Thus this becomes less an investigation of religion and more a treatment of intransigence in men. The religion itself doesn't really matter and the details don't matter, it's the faith that's crucial, and in this devout group of believers, nobody really believed.

What impressed me most here was the depth of character that everyone in the film possessed. Though the script is slow and subtle, it provides unparalleled insight into all the characters. We don't just know what they think but also why. They are also all very real, with no obvious 'good' or 'bad' tags. In fact there are no villains at all: everyone is good but nobody is perfect. That's so refreshing, and so is the skill by which all of these actors play their parts.

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