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Capsule Reviews (December 2006)

The Miracle Worker (1962) Arthur Penn

The Miracle Worker has a pretty simple plot and one based on fact. Helen Keller is born deaf, dumb and blind and her rich southern family have no clue how to deal with her, let alone provide her with the skills to communicate. After many special schools that do no good, they finally find the Perkins Institute who send them Annie Sullivan, half blind herself and only a yankee student, who through caring and sheer bloodymindedness finds a way to help Helen talk.

There were two things I realised within ten minutes of the start. Firstly, the two lead stars, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, are highly impressive in their roles as Annie and Helen respectively. They both won Oscars for their work and that doesn't seem surprising at all, given the traditional tastes of the Academy. Secondly, everyone overacts horrendously as if this were some sort of emotional earthquake, which after all is exactly how it was advertised. It's a melodrama for sure.

here it works best is when everyone else has left and it becomes just the teacher and the student. Through sheer inability to cope rather than any form of abuse, Helen's family have half spoiled her and half turned her into a sort of violent animal. Obviously there's a lot more for Annie Sullivan to deal with than just an intellectual challenge. For instance she manages to teach Helen to sit down at the table to eat her food with a spoon, rather than just walking round the table and scrounging whatever she feels like off everyone else's plates, but it's a violent struggle. Helen folds her napkin but the room is wrecked.

It's a highly overblown triumph but it's a triumph nonetheless. There are moments of unbridled emotion here that it would take a hard heart indeed not to leap at. I guarantee there will be tears when Helen Keller finally gets it and realises that things have names and there's such a creature as language.

Hotel Berlin (1945) Peter Godfrey

I really enjoyed this film, which is at heart a revamp of Grand Hotel by the same novelist, Vicki Baum, to fit in the timeframe of the last few days of World War II. The hotel is in Berlin, as you'd expect and it's populated by all manner of Nazis. There are serious ones who refuse to believe the war is going to be lost; serious ones who know the war is already lost and want to get the heck out and unwilling recruits who don't want anything to do with Nazis, let alone be sent to the front.

The cast has a lot to do with it too. The lead is technically Faye Emerson, who got that status by having married the son of President Roosevelt at the end of 1944. She's the hotel prostitute, I mean hostess, who has to reevaluate her life choices given new information. Had she not been the first daughter-in-law the lead would have been Andrea King who was being pushed at the time by Warners and she's excellent as the actress who switches sides at the drop of a hat. Her boyfriend of sorts is Raymond Massey who is a Nazi staff officer. Even though he's a believer, he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler so as to end the already lost war, and so he has 24 hours to commit suicide or the Gestapo will assist him in any way necessary to get the job done.

The main plot thread, if there is one, has to do with a Belsen escapee who is being hunted by the Nazis and is presumed to be in the hotel. He's played solidly but without much flair by Helmut Dantine. I was far more impressed by one of my favourites, Peter Lorre, who plays a Nobel prize winner that Dantine's character knew, both before and in Belsen. Lorre has a far smaller part but he makes much more of it. At the end of the day though it's an ensemble cast working an ensemble script, so it's far from anyone's show. And I think I enjoyed this one just as much as Grand Hotel, and that one won a Best Picture Oscar.

White Christmas (1954) Michael Curtiz

Paramount presents their first ever picture in VistaVision and what better to use all that screen space than a panoramic John Ford western? Well Paramount chose an Irving Berlin musical instead. I wonder why. Anyway it's Christmas Eve in 1944, the day my granddad died for his country in Greece. On this particular 1944 Christmas Eve Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are putting on dance routines and singing numbers like the title track for the troops somewhere else entirely. It's also a goodbye bash for the well respected General Waverly. Kaye saves Crosby's life that night too and gets a wounded arm for his troubles, but of course the war is soon over and the pair of them proceed to team up as a naturally successful double act.

They progress up from just performers to writers and producers too and end up tied up with the Haynes Sisters, both romantically and professionally. The end up at a hotel in Vermont which turns out to be owned by, you guessed it, General Waverly. He's in financial trouble so of course they help out to save the day. Yes, this has more convenient coincidences than you could comfortably imagine and it's one of those plots where everyone watching knows exactly what's going to happen not just now but five minutes and ten minutes from now. It relies on the fact that it does what it does well enough that we don't care about the lack of surprises. And we can happily ignore the plot holes that are so large you could drive a dump truck through them.

I didn't recognise as many Irving Berlin songs here as I recognised Cole Porter songs in Night and Day, another Michael Curtiz film incidentally, but when I did the same principles applied: I knew the song but didn't care for the version. One I didn't know included the line 'the best things happen when you're dancing'. Well, maybe, but to my mind all the best bits in this film happened when everyone stopped singing and dancing and just acted, even though Vera Ellen is like pure energy on legs. My favourite character was Dean Jagger's General Waverly, and he doesn't sing or dance at all. The plot may be predictable but there's a lot of it and it's a lot more involving than seems to be usual for colour musicals.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) Kinji Fukasaku

This unwieldy title is the first instalment of The Yakuza Papers, a five part Japanese gangster series from director Kinji Fukasaku in the early seventies. It opens in 1946, shortly after the Japanese surrender, and we're in Kure City, Hiroshima. Three things quickly make themselves obvious. Firstly, there are people everywhere, and secondly, a large percentage of this seething mass of humanity seem to be future underbosses, future captains or future somethings in some family or other. Thirdly there's chaos, even inside the prisons. The sudden absence of war has been replaced by uncertainty and opportunity.

It's also notably realistic in its depiction of violence. Made the year between the first Lone Wolf and Cub film, Sword of Vengeance, and The Street Fighter, we have a rape scene, two severed arms and a gangster deliberately escaping from prison by failing a hari kari attempt with a straight razor, all within ten minutes or so. No, this isn't going to be a pretty series but then it really shouldn't be.

The plot is tense and has tense music to match, but there's unexpected humour in and amongst the tension. One gangster cuts his finger off in penance but it gets lost in the chicken hut. Another hides a sword cane down his trouser leg but then proceeds to fall flat on his face because he can't walk. The balance is solid. Also, while much of this aims at graphic realism there's a notable sense of style: Abrupt angle changes, freeze frames, advancing collections of stills. It also makes great use of the widescreen format. Literally, if you watch this in full screen you'll be missing half the film.

Akira (1988) Katsuhiro Otomo

We're in Neo Tokyo in 2019, 33 years after World War III. It looks much like the Tokyo of today, except more so. Everything's huge and covered in neon and street bikers are battling at high speed on the freeways. There are riots going on in protest at government tax reforms but they merely add an extra sense of chaos. Something big is going on. A mysterious boy who looks like an old man has been helped to escape, at the cost of his rescuer's life. We don't know who he is or where he's escaped from but he's obviously not normal: one scream takes out a good proportion of the neighbourhood. When Tetsuo on a speeding motorbike hits him, it's Tetsuo and his bike that goes down not him. And there are serious people after him with serious hardware, people like the military. When the army takes the boy and the injured Tetsuo too, his friends led by Kaneda try to find him.

I haven't seen this film for far too long. It looked awesome in the late eighties when it revolutionised cel based animation and single handedly introduced anime to England as a global art form. It brought anime to my attention, even though I'd been watching Battle of the Planets for years without realising it was anime. Manga Video put it out in England and followed it with a long string of other titles, leading me to put a standing order in at Groove Records to buy everything they produced, along with anything from Kiseki and whatever other companies sprouted up. I never regretted that, even though a few titles sucked.

Akira still looks awesome today, regardless of the advances that have come since. Many of them were due to this film, after all. It's intelligent enough to warrant an entry not just on top 100 film lists for animation but for science fiction and even most daring films. And the music still has me on the verge of tears. I love this soundtrack, done by Shoji Yamashiro with Geinoh Yamashirogumi and listen to it regularly.

American Madness (1932) Frank Capra

This is my earliest Capra so far, even though it's his 22nd film, so early that he's credited as Frank R Capra. It comes immediately before The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which currently begins a streak of classics in my book: namely the next six I've seen.

We're getting deep into the depression, and Walter Huston is a bank president called Thomas Dickson. He's obviously a hands on sort of president and he works by rules of thumb, exactly the sort of common man type you'd expect in a Capra movie. He isn't particularly interested in making huge amounts of money, he's more interested in the bank and doing his part for the economy. He does so by lending to people who more literal minded people would see as bad risks, but who he sees as good risks from hunches and character assessments.

It's a good one, though it doesn't match the classics still to come. There are a lot of future Capra touches, little ones and big ones, all of which tell us plenty about the common man, good or bad, but they're not as fleshed out here as they are later. Huston's entire character is pure Capra, but there's plenty of backup for him too. Pat O'Brien is an ex-con who Dickson has hired on faith, but when another employee helps a bank robbery he's the obvious suspect. Unfortunately he can't give his alibi for personal reasons. He does a good job too, and so does Robert Emmett O'Connor as the police inspector who comes in to investigate the robbery. It's Capra's show though, an early example of goodness begetting goodness and like one line mentions, it does do the heart good.

Sweet and Lowdown (1999) Woody Allen

A fictional biopic from writer/director Woody Allen, this is therefore about as accurate as standard Hollywood biopics like Night and Day or Yankee Doodle Dandy.

It's partly documentary and partly dramatisation and it follows Emmet Ray, a jazz guitarist who pimps out a couple of prostitutes on the side. Second only to Django Reinhardt in his own mind (which may well match his reputation), nonetheless he's usually either drunk, late or completely absent from performances. He's also a little strange. His hobbies include watching trains and shooting rats at the dump, and he has absolutely no clue how to deal with women. His very inappropriateness is hilarious.

He ends up with a mute girlfriend/companion called Hattie and their relationship somewhat mirrors the central one in La Strada, with Emmet Ray as Zampan� and Hattie as Gelsomina. Samantha Morton was Oscar nominated for her work as Hattie, which is impressive given that she isn't the focus of the film, only appears in half of it and doesn't speak a word. Then again, Giuletta Masina's performance as Gelsomina is one of my favourites of all time, and while she wasn't mute she wasn't far off.

Sean Penn is surprisingly excellent as Emmet Ray, given that this has plenty of comedy to it, and he was also nominated for an Oscar. He also does a good job of miming the music, which he doesn't really play. It's really a man named Howard Alden who also trained Penn to mime properly. Elsewhere in the cast, which is not as star-studded as Woody Allen films tend to be, are Uma Thurman as the woman Emmet marries, Anthony LaPaglia as the gangster she disappears off with, Gretchen Mol and even cult director John Waters in an acting role as one of Emmet's fed up managers.

Riders of Destiny (1933) Robert N Bradbury

Here's a really early John Wayne courtesy of a cheap 20 film box set. Most of them are from Wayne's B-movie western period, dating between 1933 and 1937 and this is the first one. Of all things he's playing a singing cowboy, Singing Sandy Saunders, though it's obviously not his voice, probably thank goodness. He's an undercover government agent who visits a small town at the request of the townsfolk who are being extorted out of their properties by a bad man exploiting the fact that he has all the water.

What really surprised me is how tolerable the film is. I was expecting a really tedious formula thing and while it's hardly a groundbreaking story and none of the cast are great, it's consistently solid.

Wizards (1977) Ralph Bakshi

In a long introduction that throws stills and basic animation onto live special effects backgrounds, we're told of a war between two twin fairies, ten million years after the apocalypse that wiped out our world. In that time the little people have gradually returned to the world and lived in peace, until these twins at least. One thoroughly good and one thoroughly evil: Avatar the good and Blackwolf the bad. What's dubious about it is the message: technology is bad, magic is good.

What's great about it is the mix of different forms of animation, something Bakshi was known for. This one is new to me but I've seen Bakshi's Lord of the Rings a few times. It doesn't bear comparison with Peter Jackson's awesome trilogy but it's still well worth watching on its own merits and those merits are the same here. Some of Wizards is complete kids stuff, and looks very much like something out of the Smurfs, but others are far from it, though they don't approach the sort of thing hentai does, of course. Then again there's all the Nazi stuff going on, with Triumph of the Will playing on Blackwolf's projector, and that's pretty cool.

I lost count of the different techniques here because there are so many of them, and that's what makes it great for me. None of them individually are any great technical achievement but the way Bakshi puts it all together is highly innovative. The plot is fun and makes comments that have a point but it really isn't deep and there are plot holes a go go.

Sagebrush Trail (1933) Armand Schaefer

John Wayne appears to be a bad guy for a while in this one. He's an escaped murderer on the run from the police and the sheriff catches up with him hiding on a train. They chase him and believe they've killed him in a river but he gets away, of course, and ends up with a bad guy who introduces him to his bad guy gang. However in the best traditions of ridiculous coincidences, Wayne is apparently innocent of murder, the real murderer is his new friend and they both fall for the same girl when robbing (or not) a store.

The first early John Wayne western from this early John Wayne western box set I'm working through was surprisingly good. Riders of Destiny was no great classic but it was perfectly decent. This one, however, is much more of the sort of cliched, poorly acted and thoroughly convenient film I was expecting. There are pauses everywhere as if it was a rehearsal. Highly avoidable.

The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) Robert Fuest

Possibly the most truly Vincent Price of all Vincent Price movies, this American International picture is a personal favourite and a cult classic. Price plays Dr Anton Phibes, seriously disfigured in a car accident, who blames nine doctors for the death of his young and beautiful wife. He lives in an art deco mansion, plays the organ, has a clockwork musical band and speaks through a tube in his throat. With the help of a mysterious and silent young lady assistant Vulnavia who plays the violin, he takes his revenge by killing the nine doctors according to the plagues of ancient Egypt.

Price is wonderful, as always, but especially so here in a very strange role calculated to fit what had come to be known as his style. Joseph Cotten's in there too but it's hard to remember that beyond Price and the awesome sets by Brian Eatwell. Only Peter Jeffrey as the investigating Inspector Trout has any chance of competing. The style is frankly unrealistic in the extreme, though the humour is wonderfully and darkly realistic, but it doesn't matter because it's just so cool. It's one of the most cool films I've ever seen and multiple viewings don't change that in the slightest.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) Werner Herzog

In the first of Werner Herzog's films starring the unmatchable and far from sane Klaus Kinski, Aguirre, the Wrath of God follows Kinski as Don Lope de Aguirre on a mission to find the fabled golden city of El Dorado in 1560. It's a stunning achievement on many fronts, not least the circumstances that lie behind the film. This is the one where Herzog allegedly pulled a gun on Kinski to keep him filming. And they went on to make five films together! I've seen two of the five and this one still haunts me with its power.

Herzog filmed on location, which could be a form of insanity in itself, given that we see the precarious mountain passes that his cast navigate in costume, carrying cannon and women in sedan chairs, the roiling rivers of mud and of course the thick jungle. All around is mist and water vapour, which is presumably natural but still heightens the effect massively, along with the real sounds of the jungle and a superb soundtrack by Popol Vuh. Everyone looks more and more out of place as time goes on, except Kinski who is so animalistic in his intensity that he seems entirely natural in this environment.

Watching the story unfold, according to the diary of the accompanying monk, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, we see a story of madness in many forms. In the story itself we see Don Lope de Aguirre, who isn't entirely stable to begin with, descend into glorious madness. Beyond the script and what we see on the screen, the film is glorious madness itself and we can only wonder at what was going on in Herzog's brain when he decided to make this story, cast and keep Kinski and film on location. Luckily for us, he did of course. Most notably, while the story is insanity, it's one of the most believable stories I've ever seen filmed. I can totally believe that the real conquistadores were this clueless: thousands of miles from home on an alien continent, fuelled by greed for gold and lust for power and arrogantly trying to bring the word of Jesus to heathens of a completely different culture, they were almost entirely unprepared for what they found.

This is a beautiful film, not just in its depiction of a beautiful landscape but in the beauty of stark truth.

The Lucky Texan (1934) Robert N Bradbury

This early John Wayne has about as shallow as a storyline as a western could get. It's all surface with not a drop of depth, yet it never gets tired or boring. Wayne is Jerry Mason who with his oldtimer buddy Jake Benson start up a blacksmith's shop then accidentally discover gold in a creek and start coining it in. They're good guys, you see, and they have the oldtimer's ditz of a granddaughter to make three good guys. No western can do without bad guys though, so there's the sheriff's son to kill someone and blame it on Jake and a couple of land grabbers who want to steal their claim and Jake's ranch. It all works out in the end, of course, but not really with much help from acting.

Wayne is perfectly adequate but all those critics who told John Ford not to hire him for 1939's Stagecoach were right: he couldn't act before then, at least certainly not back in 1933 and 1934. He's far better than leading lady Barbara Sheldon but it's George 'Gabby' Hayes who steals the show as Jake Benson. He's a riot and it's hard to notice anyone else when he's on screen. There's also legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt who seems to be in all these old John Wayne movies for Lone Star Productions. I'm also recognising sets and landscapes, even though I'm only on number three out of seventeen. Definitely cheap productions, these!

The Glenn Miller Story (1953) Anthony Mann

Before he was a legendary bandleader, Glenn Miller apparently worked menial jobs continually to get his trombone out of hock, married a girl who he didn't talk to for two years at a time and leave a decent band to wander around New York City so he could find his sound. In the end he only got a band together because his wife steals money out of his wallet to put in the bank in the Glenn Miller Band account. It's a 1953 film made by Hollywood so what are the odds that any of this is true? Then again it's an Anthony Mann movie, the first one that he made with Stewart that wasn't a western. They'd already made The Naked Spur and Winchester '73 together.

The Glenn Miller Story was always going to be special because of the real musicians who guest in it. Seeing Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa and the rest up on the stage together is magic. James Stewart is excellent as Glenn Miller and June Allyson is on top form as his wife Helen, but they have a real script backing them up. As we watch Miller search for his sound, we learn more about music than we do in the entire running time of Night and Day. The support are uniformly solid, especially Henry Morgan as Miller's pianist and Sig Ruman as the pawnshop owner who got to know him so well early on. The music is superb, as played by real musicians (Jimmy Stewart mimes as well as he did on the harmonica in Pot o' Gold). Best of all though, there's depth and heart and it feels right, not like a fake Hollywood biopic. How accurate it really is I don't know. It certainly isn't entirely accurate, but I'm sure it's a closer to it than Night and Day or Yankee Doodle Dandy!

West of the Divide (1934) Robert N Bradbury

These Lone Star productions all seem to be copyrighted 1933, even though IMDb has some listed as 1934. Maybe they made them all together and released them gradually. With each further film I progress through this box set It's patently obvious that we're dealing with most of the same actors, usually the same director and the same sets. All the good guys seem to live at the same ranch and that's not the only building I recognise. I'm even getting to recognise John Wayne's white horse!

This one is another by the numbers western that is at least consistent enough to work as a time passer. The acting is cardboard and the script is predictable in the extreme. This time round Wayne is a young man who was nearly killed as a child in an attack that did kill his father. Now he's back and when a wanted who looks like him dies right in front of him, he takes the opportunity to pose as him and work for the bad guys, who of course killed his dad. He even gets to find his long lost younger brother in the process.

The leading lady is Virginia Faire Brown but it's Gabby Hayes who's worth watching most, as seems to be usual.

Forbidden Games (1951) Ren� Cl�ment

It's June 1940 and the Germans are dropping bombs on the French countryside. There's a long line of traffic escaping from somewhere but the bombs still come, but little Paulette, maybe five years old, doesn't have a particularly good time of it. Everyone ducks for cover from one attack and her parents' car won't start afterwards, so others push it off the road. She rescues her little dog Jock but he runs off across the bridge and she chases off after him. Her parents follow in swift pursuit but are killed in a sdtrafing run across the bridge, along with Jock. Only Paulette is left.

Soon she meets Michel, the young son of a kindly farmer and his family take her in. Most of the story is told from the perspective of the two kids and both Georges Poujouly and Brigitte Fossey are joys to watch. Their perspective of the war and of death is completely different to everyone else's, of course. Michel's brother dies after being kicked by a horse, but at the funeral Michel and Paulette are more worried about all the cool looking crosses there are in the church.

Here's where the title comes in. The pair of them have buried Jock and to ensure that he wouldn't be sad on his own, they proceeded to turn his grave into a cemetery populated by no end of dead animals: moles, worms, birds. To mark each of them, they collect crosses from wherever they can find them, including the top of his brother's hearse. Michel gets caught trying to grab the large one off the church altar, but it doesn't deter them from hitting the real cemetery at night to gather more. Naturally it's there way of coping with death, which is all around them, but of course it leads to completely unforeseen circumstances, for them and for others.

This is another wonderful film from the world of French cinema which I'm coming to enjoy so much, and it tells us more about war when it isn't right there on the screen than most straight forward war movies. It's also an object lesson in how to wring emotion out of the viewer without any overacting or melodrama in the slightest.

Blue Steel (1934) Robert N Bradbury

I have absolutely no idea what this film has to do with blue steel, but then I'm sure half these old western movie names have nothing to do with anything. John Wayne still can't act but he's a government agent again sent to help out a town being starved of food by outlaws. Gabby Hayes is still a joy to watch and this time he's a sheriff who thinks Wayne has stolen a payroll run he's been tipped off about. In reality of course Wayne's chasing after the real thief too but he doesn't let on and the two team up to take on the outlaws.

After West of the Divide, which was pretty poor, this one's back up to the levels of stunningly average. While I'm happy that so few of these are actively bad, I wonder how long it'll take to find another one that's actually good. Oh, and this time the leading lady is Eleanor Hunt, who is just a tad less pointless than most of these leading ladies.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) Chris Columbus

Even though the title now makes no sense whatsoever because it's been renamed for the American audience who apparently don't have a clue what the Philosopher's Stone is, this one's a peach. I don't think there's anyone on the planet who hasn't come across Harry Potter yet. It took me a while and I still haven't read any of them, but I have seen films one and two. Now we have all four current movies and I can work through the lot, enjoying some of the best children's movies of the last couple of decades with performances by what seems like every great English actor of the last couple of generations.

After all it would be pretty difficult for the most incompetent director on the planet to turn anything featuring Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters, John Cleese, Alan Rickman and Zoe Wanamaker, and while he may not be the greatest, Chris Columbus is far from the worst. It's actually more notable that newcomers Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint can hold their own in their company, especially when Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane turn it up a notch or three. David Bradley is a hoot as the curmudgeonly caretaker and there's also such people as Mini Me Verne Troyer and Leprechaun Warwick Davis if you keep your eyes open.

Just in case you've been living in a cave or you're suffering from serious amnesia, Harry Potter is a young wizard of awesome pedigree who doesn't even know he's a wizard. His parents are dead under mysterious circumstances. He lives with his annoying aunt and uncle until the age of eleven when he gets invited to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he meets new friends, new enemies and finds out a huge amount about himself.

As far as I'm aware it follows the book pretty closely but I haven't read it yet so I don't know for sure. It feels right though, with all sorts of cool invention and quirky characters. There's a definable story to follow for this film but plenty more to carry on into future episodes. I particularly enjoyed the game of quidditch, which has a huge amount of depth all of itself. I also thoroughly enjoyed spotting shooting locations as I've been to or past many of them. I don't know how many times I've walked over that walkway at York railway station!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) Chris Columbus

Episode two for Harry Potter and we start once more at his aunt and uncle's house, which is apparently in Bracknell where by a freakish coincidence my aunt and uncle live too. They're just as annoying as always (Harry's not mine), but they're soon joined by Dobby the House Elf who had the potential for being as annoying as Jar Jar Binks in the nonexistent Star Wars prequel, but somehow managed to be at least a tiny bit endearing. He's trying to warn Harry away from going back to Hogwarts, not that he has much luck of course. Soon Harry's being rescued by the Weasleys, stocking up on supplies for school and missing the Hogwarts Express.

Even by this time we're introduced to major new English actors: Kenneth Branagh, surely the closest thing to an Orson Welles of his time, as an egotistical wizard; Mark Williams from The Fast Show as the Weasley's dad; and Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy. We soon find that all the other major names reappear, along with new ones like Miriam Margolyes and Robert Hardy. Talk about dream casts.

Anyway, the story has to do with some sort of threat to the students, who have been turning up petrified. Naturally Harry Potter gets to do something about it. While it may have been partly to do with incessant interruptions that meant it took five and a half hours to watch a two and a half hour movie, I didn't feel this was as good as I remembered it and certainly wasn't as good as the first one. It felt much more like a blockbuster and less like a film.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Alfonso Cuarón

This series started with a fluffy but solid introduction, continued with a fluffy but nowhere near as solid Hollywood sequel and now carries on with something very different indeed. Chamber of Secrets was darker than the first film but even when Harry and Ron had to escape from the den of the giant spiders it was still Hollywood darkness where we didn't particular fear for anyone in the slightest. With a change of director, from Chris Columbus, who made a lot of safe product and whose finest moment was probably Home Alone, to Alfonso Cuarón whose last film was Y Tu Mama Tambien, everything changed.

All the major cast return, but the kids are two years older and thus look a little different. However they have a different tone to work under, much darker and far more real. Suddenly these characters are real people instead of cool characters. Hogwarts is a real place, with real tensions affecting real students. The colour balance of the film is obviously different, the camera rarely stays still and the music is more original. Even the game of quidditch and the populated portraits at Hogwarts are transformed, and there's suddenly weather and characters of other races. I've read that book three is the favourite of many a Harry Potter fan, including those playing the lead characters, and I'd be surprised if film three isn't their favourite too. This has all the magic I'd expected in earlier films and is apparently so integral to the source books.

As usual the cast expands to include more great British actors and comedians, this time including Gary Oldman as the title character Sirius Black; David Thewlis; Emma Thompson suggesting that her husband Kenneth Branagh had as great a time as he seemed to have in the second film; Dawn French; Paul Whitehouse; Julie Christie; Timothy Spall; even the voice of Lenny Henry as a shrunken head. Taking over the role of Albus Dumbledore is Michael Gambon, superbly following the work of Richard Harris who died after making the second film.

Chris Columbus made spectacles but Alfonso Cuarón has made art here. There are textures here, contours, depths, consequences, ambiguity, beauty, themes, emotions. He knows how to use actors as well as special effects and he knows how to use many of them at once too. He also knows how to use things: the invisibility cloak is finally used properly and Harry has balls at last! This is probably just as great a movie for kids as its predecessors, but it's also a real film for adults too. I didn't even know what was going to happen next or where the film was going to go, which I certainly did throughout the first two. Superb.

Union Depot (1932) Alfred E Green

The camera sweeps around one of the largest sets Hollywood had built at the time and lets us in on snippets of the lives of a wide range of characters: shopkeepers, actresses, sailors, prostitutes, families, imminent divorcees, people who are happy, people who are far from it. No this isn't Grand Hotel, it's Union Depot but there are obvious similarities. There's also Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Guy Kibbee as a couple of tramps who we first see stealing a suit through a barred window. It's this suit that makes all the difference for Fairbanks who becomes quite different for it and suddenly life has masses of potential.

He encounters, among others, Frank McHugh as a drunk and Joan Blondell as a chorus girl desperate to get to Salt Lake City, Alan Hale as some sort of Germanic counterfeiter, David Landau and Earle Foxe as G-Men out to get them and George Rosener as a mysterious weirdo out to get Blondell. It's a fun little precode even though it tries a little too hard. Fairbanks is somewhat out of place but enjoys the role and he has some cool lines with double meanings a go go. Warner Brothers should have put James Cagney in the role. All in all though it's a solid success for being able to put so much complexity into a film only 67 minutes long.

Incidentally while this would appear to be a Grand Hotel ripoff in many ways, I'm guessing that because the unpublished play this was based on was copyrighted in 1929 and the original title was Gentleman for a Day, it wasn't really a ripoff but the title was probably changed to exploit it.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) Mike Newell

After the artistic triumph of Prisoner of Azkaban, I was surprised to see a new director for this one. It seemed to me that after two kids movies, the third one finally did things right. Then again I haven't read the books yet and from what I've read about the films, it was the least true to the source material. This one is apparently closer but, while it was certainly grittier than the first two, that wouldn't have been difficult. However a lot has been said about how this was where the series grew up and the kids suddenly became adults, I found that much of it was petty and puerile, and not just on the part of the kids either. All the bickering and selfishness was embarrassing, to be honest.

The goblet of fire of the title is a device that magically throws out the names of those who are to compete in the Triwizard Tournament. It should be one from each of the three schools taking part, but Harry's naturally pops out to everyone's surprised as well. He's not even old enough to be eligible and he didn't even enter in the first place but the goblet of fire's word is all that matters. Suddenly he's thrust into the dangers of a tournament with dragons and whatever else.

Finally there's a new major character played by someone I don't recognise. I know Frances de la Tour, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Eric Sykes, Miranda Richardson and Ralph Fiennes, but the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, the most prominent of all, is played by someone called Brendan Gleeson. I didn't think I knew him at all, though looking at his credits I've seen him a bunch of times. He chews up the scenery but is great fun to watch.

There's a lot of coming of age adolescent hardship stuff here, but most of the depth and ambiguity of the last film has gone, though thankfully not to the degree of the first two. Much of it didn't make any sense either and it didn't even pretend to hide the numerous plot holes. Also the beauty that Alfonso Cuar�n brought to the series with The Prisoner of Azkaban is lessened also. Some of it remains but it doesn't compare. There's so much that's good here but so much that's annoyingly bad.

The Face Behind the Mask (1941) Robert Florey

Peter Lorre was born in Austria-Hungary and learned his curiously accented English while making films for Alfred Hitchcock in England. When he was hired he couldn't speak a word of it and got through the interview by laughing at what seemed to be the right moments. He thus becomes an obvious choice to play a Hungarian watchmaker immigrating to the States with only a basic command of the language. He starts off well, meeting a policemen who helps him to find his feet and then finding a job, but soon the hotel catches fire and he is seriously injured.

Lorre is joyful when he's wide eyed and bushy tailed, full of hope in a new country. He's also great at capturing all the different emotions needed for the task. He's nervous when nervously awaiting the removal of his bandages, goes seriously off the deep end when he sees his disfigured face for the first time and alternately hopefully pleading and starkly disappointed when applying for work and being rejected because of his face. When he first meets the underworld his responses are so hollow that they ring painfully true. And all of this while mostly being seen from behind or from behind a mask.

The slide into crime is a gradual one, as Janos Szabo is a good man who gets caught up in what appears to be necessity. When about to commit suicide he's saved by a thief called Dinky, one who's small time and fundamentally decent but still a thief. Szabo doesn't want anything to do with these jobs Dinky talked about, but when this little thief falls ill he ends up taking them to finance his friend's recovery. When he discovers that courtesy of his manual dexterity he's a natural and that money can pay for expensive operations to potentially heal his face, he ends up running the show. His world changes again though when he meets a blind girl who of course can't see his face.

The script is a little clumsy in places but Evelyn Keyes and especially the awesome Lorre restore the subtlety and the depth. There's something of M in here and Mad Love and other great performances Lorre gave us throughout the early years. Unfortunately the film story can't keep up with his acting.

The Man from Utah (1934) Robert N Bradbury

This was a pretty awful film in every respect. It's less than hour long to start with but what seems like half of it is taken up by stock footage of some rodeo somewhere that doesn't resemble in the slightest the little town the film is set in. John Wayne is John Weston, the man of the title, and when he rolls into town to find a job, he ends up saving the sheriff from some bandits who rob the local Wells Fargo office. The sheriff wants to talk to him but Weston runs away only to fall off his horse and get hired by the sheriff to investigate a rodeo gang who have been responsible for some mysterious deaths.

Naturally someone who can't even stay on his horse is so awesome as to win every single event at this huge rodeo, beating world champions and breaking world records. Yeah. And he catches the bad guys and he gets the girl. None of these old John Wayne films are great but many are perfectly fine to watch and enjoy. This is emphatically not one of them. Definitely the worst of the bunch so far.

The Honeymoon Killers (1970) Leonard Kastle

Based on the bizarre true story of the Lonely Hearts Killers, this very low budget black and white film from 1970 links up an overweight nurse Martha Beck with Spanish importer Raymond Fernandez through a 'friendship club'. She soon discovers that he's a murderer who snags women through the club in order to marry and then kill them. However rather than turning him in, she becomes besotted with him and ends up as his assistant instead.

What was most fascinating here was how this entire story was stolen in entirety for a recent episode of Cold Case, right down to the details. It's also stunning how much Leonard Kastle managed to put into his film given the tiny budget and the fact that original director Martin Scorsese left after a week. The strange thing is that in the Cold Case episode it was the fat obsessing almost victim that was the joyous character. As much as she helped kill a bunch of women for their money, she was a lively bubbly person. Martha Beck as played here by Shirley Stoler is a complete bitch and I don't know what Tony Lo Bianco's Raymond ever saw in her.

Both actors are superb here, but that doesn't mean that their characters are appealing. It's highly realistic which makes it more gripping than enjoyable. It's hard to look away though, especially as we know it's all true. The Mahler score is entirely appropriate even though it was presumably used because it was out of copyright and thus didn't cost anything. There's some great filmmaking, perhaps partly not in spite of but because of the lack of budget because Kastle had to seriously improvise. He did some great work though and there are a number of powerful scenes, not least the murder of Janet Fay which is as far from Hollywood slickness as could be comfortably imagined.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the slant the film took. We don't see a single detective, there has to be a major investigation going on but we don't see any of it, we don't even see the trial. All we see is the murderous rampage, as from the killers' point of view. It really helps us get into their minds to try to understand the why of it rather than the how, which is the current trend. What a shame Leonard Kastle never made another movie.

Randy Rides Alone (1934) Harry L Fraser

John Wayne again in another Lone Star production from the early to mid thirties which means that he's costarring with George 'Gabby' Hayes, Yakima Canutt and Earl Dwire on exactly the same lot with exactly the same sets and horses and everything. At least there are some additional ones here that I haven't seen before but they're refreshing after the ones I know by heart now.

Wayne is the Randy of the title, Randy Bowers who is not Randy the Singing Cowboy as I expected him to be. He appears to be some innocent guy who gets arrested for murder and robbery, but he's really investigating on behalf of one of the murdered men. He catches the bad guy and his gang and, in an incredibly tacked on ending unrelated to anything in the film, gets the girl too. There's a cool concept here of a wanted gang leader being one and the same with the decent mute businessman who 'helps' the sheriff search for, well himself, but it's hardly used. Unfortunately there's not a lot else: it's predictable and rich on ridiculous coincidences and the leading lady is even more of a complete waste of space than usual.

Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) Elmer Clifton

Produced in New Bedford, Massachusetts, by The Whaling Film Corp, this is about quakers and whales, hardly standard subjects for Hollywood movies. Then again this goes way back, so far back that it isn't just a Clara Bow picture, it's a really early Clara Bow picture, the one that made her name.

Quaker Charles W Morgan is the most powerful man on the waterfront. His son was lost at sea but he has a daughter Patience who is the apple of his eye. That's not Clara Bow though: she plays his granddaughter Dot Morgan, daughter of his lost son. She's a wild and lively young lady and she steals every scene she's in. A good portion of the story has to do with educating us on which part of a whale is which and what it does, but there is a plot in here too.

Patience has a beau, but Allan can't get her father to agree to their marriage because any whaleman's daughter should apparently become a whaleman's wife, and besides Allan isn't a Quaker either. So off he goes to harpoon himself a whale so as to even become eligible for the honour he seeks, but there are bad guys of course who shanghai him onto a ship populated by a mutinous crew who would be more than happy to heave him over the side. Somehow Dot ends up on the ship too which complicates matters no end, but gives Allan the chance to come home a hero. He can in one fell swoop save Morgan's daughter, his granddaughter and his fleet of ships.

It's a slow movie, for all the action at sea and during the finale, but not a bad one. It's outdated and overblown but interesting and worthwhile.

Copy (1929) Norman Houston

Here's an MGM one reeler with Roscoe Karns as the city editor of some newspaper or other. He plans to publish stories exposing the negligence of a steamboat company but he's trumped by his boss, who comes under pressure from the company's owner who happens to be a major advertiser. Unfortunately circumstances are on his side.

The entire film is set in a single room thus easing the life of Douglas Shearer and his sound crew who were still getting used to the whole new sound technology. This is 1929, after all, so the actors still shout just as if they were on stage without the aid of microphones, but they're part of a capable cast. Roscoe Karns knows not just how to speak but how to bark with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and he has a good role for a one reeler. In fact there's so little of everyone else that this is almost a twenty minute monologue. Other characters, like Jack Carlyle and Tom McGuire, are decent but handicapped no end by their forced lack of movement and the short running time.

The Star Packer (1934) Robert N Bradbury

Today's early John Wayne isn't bad at all, though the familiarity of it all is getting really tiresome. Not only am I recognising the cast, the horses, the landscapes and the sets but I'm starting to recognise hidden passages within the sets. This one reprises bits of plots from almost all the others: Wayne is a government agent sent from Washington to help out a bunch of townsfolk who are being plagued by outlaws who rob all the stages, kill all the drivers and shoot all the sheriffs.

For a change Gabby Hayes is the bad guy, which is so obvious as to not be a spoiler, but he's a bad guy in interesting ways at least. There's also a leading lady (Verna Hillie) who is even something other than a complete waste of space, at least for a good portion of the movie. She could have been so much more but she's already so much more than her predecessors.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) Sidney Lumet

Albert Finney as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, but look how many names we get to see before the title: Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York. Wow.

Anyway, in 1930 the Armstrong baby (not the Lindbergh baby, though I'm sure there are ridiculous numbers of parallels) is kidnapped from the family mansion in New York state. We see a cleverly shot introductory passage to run us quickly up to the discovery of the slain baby, and then jump forward to the present time, five years later, in Istanbul where Poirot and many other people are heading for the Orient Express. Before too long, while being held up by a Yugoslavian snowdrift the irritable Mr Ratchett is murdered. He pretends to be a retired American businessman but in reality was the mastermind behind the Armstrong baby kidnapping, and Poirot is asked by his friend Signor Bianchi who is on the board of the line to investigate.

What makes this investigation so bizarre is that every single one of the passengers, from the princess to the butler, the maid to the count and countess, the colonel to the mission worker, are all connected to the Armstrongs and revenge is obviously the dish of the day. Poirot's unravelling of all of this is marvellous and Albert Finney does an awesome job dominating over such powerful actresses as Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller and Lauren Bacall. Then again, this is a rare exception from the standard rule that all star casts turn into collections of cameos where each actor tries to outdo the rest. Here they all make themselves subservient to the plot and the film benefits hugely from that fact.

The Trail Beyond (1934) Robert N Bradbury

This came as a huge surprise. After eight John Wayne films for Lone Star Productions from 1933 and 1934 that used the same sets, here's one set in Canada and that looks like it was shot there too. After eight films with a supporting cast of George 'Gabby' Hayes, Yakima Canutt and Earl Dwire, here's one with two Noah Beerys, both Sr and Jr, and no Hayes or Canutt. After eight films with very simple linear plots, here's one with multiple plot strands that all weave together. It's the same director as most of these Lone Star films but everything is completely different.

Wayne is asked by his dad's friend to find his niece. He has no kids, his brother has disappeared, his sister-in-law is dead and so he wants to leave his property to her. He also wants to find out about his brother. So off goes Wayne, but on the train he meets up with an old college buddy who is getting set up for a murder and thus rescues him and marks them both as wanted men. While escaping the Mounties, they hide in a shack occupied not just by two skeletons, one of which is his dad's friend's lost brother, but also the map to their gold mine.

There are other plot threads going on too, all of which tie together nicely if well over-coincidentally. It's such a refreshing change that it's very easy to praise it overduly. However as much as there's a lot of good, it really ends up merely average and ends quicker than any film I can imagine. It literally felt as if this film was buliding nicely at the 52 minutes mark, which is fine for a 100 minute movie but not for one that has three minutes left. I wonder if this was originally planned to be a much longer film but those plans got shelved.

The Lawless Frontier (1934) Robert N Bradbury

In this stunningly average film, John Wayne is a good guy who gets arrested by a dumb sheriff because he thinks he's a bad guy. Again. Earl Dwire tries to play a halfbreed Apache who tries to play a Mexican, and he's the worst outlaw the state has ever seen. Wayne brings him in but the sheriff still thinks he's bad and it all carries on for a while. There are fights, gun battles, Wayne jumping off his horse onto a branch so he can drop down onto a bad guy and knock him off his, even a very similar tobogganing stunt through the water drains to one of the earlier Wayne movies for Lone Star.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't awful by any means. It's just about as close as you could get to average if you tried.

Under Eighteen (1932) Archie Mayo

As we begin it's 1928 and Alf and Sophie are getting married. He's on the up, the state billiards champion who has bought a pool hall with his winnings, and he's thinking big. Sophie looks good but it's her sister Marge who's radiant. A couple of years later it's Marge who we're watching, but now it's the depression and she's stuck in the poor end of town, scrimping and saving to get out of it. Unfortunately in walks sister Sophie and her hubby (and baby) who's turning out to be something of a bum. Back in 1928 Sophie was happy to explain to her sister about how marriages last when they're based on love, but now there's nothing but discontent.

It's 1932 so Warren William is only fourth on the bill. It's the earliest I've seen him, though later the same year he was stunning in Beauty and the Boss, The Mouthpiece, The Dark Horse, Skyscraper Souls and Three on a Match, all great precodes that made excellent of use of his particular talents. There's also The Woman from Monte Carlo and The Match King, which I haven't seen yet but have read about and am looking forward to. That's eight notable films in 1932, of which this was the first. I guess he definitely made his mark!

He's a rich Park Avenue playboy type here who has a thing for models, picking them up at the place Marge works. She's just a seamstress but she gets noticed by William when she's the only one who hasn't left for lunch and has to substitute as a model for him. He gets some great moments. And I'm not surprised Marian Marsh got noticed. I've seen many of her early films from this era but none of her later ones and while they weren't always the greatest films (nowhere near the quality of William's, except the ones that featured both of them) she was about the best thing about them. She has a meaty part here, of the sort that didn't come along after the code got enforced, especially for women, and she does more than just cope. In fact the whole thing is put together very well indeed, and a lot of supporting actors get great lines and hints of attitudes here behind knowing faces, from business owners to elevator operators to butlers.

This sort of depth is exactly why I love precodes so much. The leads get real acting to do playing complex characters, the supporting cast get to do far more than fill up the screen and there's plot and loaded dialogue to back it all up. At the end of the day we're still wondering who's exploiting who! There's plenty of skimpily clad ladies to titillate the audience and upset the future censors but how I wish they'd have looked past all that to see the substance behind it. This one is hardly a subtle film but it's a gem.

'Neath the Arizona Skies (1934) Harry L Fraser

Eight year old Shirley Jean Rickert features in her 16th film as a young halfbreed Indian called Nina who looks up to her Daddy Chris, not her real father but the man who's taking care of her. When oil is struck on Indian land, the government starts paying out huge sums to the Indians and little Nina is suddenly worth $50,000. Daddy Chris needs to locate her real father so that he can sign paperwork but needless to say, the bad guys led by Yakima Canutt's character, Sam Black, are on their trail to take Nina and her oil money for themselves.

Daddy Chris is of course John Wayne, who is about the only decent thing in this Lone Star production. Gabby Hayes is fun as always but he doesn't even get credited this time round. Nina is fun but hardly gets any screen time and ends up wasted. Outside that, there's a lot of filler.

The Irish in Us (1935) Lloyd Bacon

The biggest catch to my having enjoyed my way through most of a particular actor's filmography is that there aren't many left to catch. The good bit is that each remaining one becomes an even more special joy. In this particular instance, I've seen James Cagney's first 21 movies, this being the 22nd, and with this one out of the way it'll leave me with only one of his first 40 missing. Here there's the added benefit of Cagney's double act partner Pat O'Brien, along with Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins in support, and with Olivia de Havilland as the leading lady.

Most of these are O'Haras: Cagney as Danny O'Hara the boxing promoter, O'Brien as Pat O'Hara the policeman and McHugh as Mike O'Hara the fireman. Danny picks up Allen Jenkins who is a fighter with plenty of issues, not least the fact that he comes out swinging whenever he hears a bell. That's fine when he's in the ring but not so hot when the ambulance drives past. Ruling the roost is Ma O'Hara, played by Mary Gordon who was best known as Mrs Hudson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes.

The plot is complete nonsense. O'Brien wants to marry the boss's daughter, even though he doesn't know her very well, but Cagney takes a shine to her too. And that's about it, but the plot isn't what this is about. This entire cast is so damn good, and knew each other so well, that they could spark off each other with the worst script in the book and could make me laugh by staring at the camera and doing nothing. This one may have no plot but it has the situations and it has the lines, and by God it has the cast.

Texas Terror (1934) Robert N Bradbury

Not a bad little B western, this one has John Wayne starting out as a Sheriff, something I haven't seen in any of the Lone Stars yet. He may have ended up as one in a few but he never started out that way. Well here it's the other way around. He's a sheriff to begin with but believes that he's shot a good friend during a gun battle with bad guys and gives back his tin star. He becomes something of a recluse, complete with beard, but cleans himself up a year later when this good dead friend's daughter arrives to take over his ranch. Naturally the bad guys try to stir things up between them but everything comes out fine and dandy in the end.

No there aren't any real surprises here, but the general quality is higher than many of these Lone Star productions. Lucile Browne gets to be a lot more important than most of the leading ladies paired off with Wayne in these films and she'd be back for Rainbow Valley too. Fern Emmett also gets to be a strong female character, making two more than we normally see.

Rainbow Valley (1935) Robert N Bradbury

Much better than most of its fellow Lone Star westerns, it has some cool ideas behind it. Eventually it sinks back into mediocrity but it's closer than most of the rest to keeping above it. John Wayne ends up undercover in Rainbow Valley where the good guys want to bring in the law to clean it up but the bad guys want to keep it bad, and do so by wrecking every effort the good guys throw at building a road in and out of the valley.

I liked the road angle and the schemes and double crosses that went along with it. Wayne is starting to show that although he can't really act yet he can make a half decent attempt at it. He's twirling his guns nicely by 1935 and even beginning to hold his own opposite Gabby Hayes who stole most of their scenes together in earlier Lone Stars.

The Desert Trail (1935) Lewis D Collins

In an interesting attempt to turn John Wayne into a comedian, the new Lone Star director Lewis Collins (not the Professional), teams Wayne up with Eddy Chandler as a pair of loveable rogues. They're not bad, they're just drawn that way, I guess, but they're good at heart. Anyway they get misidentified as murderers, thieves and bank robbers and have to fight and prove their way out of it.

I enjoyed this one, which was certainly very different to the rest of the Lone Star cheapy western product I've been watching, but it's far from a good film. None of this makes the remotest bit of sense and nobody seems to care. We even get a bunch of the same stock footage of a rodeo we saw in The Man from Utah.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) Nicolas Gessner

Very 70s in attitude if not in obvious styling, which is strange in itself, this one's an odd little film, helped no doubt by the fact that Laird Koenig wrote the screenplay from his own novel. I'd never heard of director Nicolas Gessner but he's Hungarian and has a few other films to his credit, as either writer or director or both. I've not heard of any of those either. I had heard of the stars though, who remain major names today: a 14 year old Jodie Foster dominating in the lead as a 13 year old girl living alone in a rented house and Martin Sheen as the pervert son of her landlady, played to wonderfully bitchy effect by 40s leading lady Alexis Smith.

Foster plays Rynn Jacobs, a highly intelligent and precocious young lady who is forced to cope alone while her poet father works. Or at least that's her story. It's so refreshing to see a lead character so young be so intelligent. That seems to be a distinct no no these days, where the studios dumb down their audience by dumbing down their characters. Not only is Rynn so bright but the one friend she makes is far from dumb himself. He's an interesting character, a mild cripple whose hobbies include magic, which develops who he is rather than gets included for dubious plot purposes. The only catch is that all the great young lead characters with intelligence have a dark side and this one's no exception.

Sheen appeared strangely in this one. At times he seems just like every Sheen and Estevez, and there are plenty of them, but others he's much more like Robert Vaughn or even Robbie Robertson. However creepy he gets as the pervert protected by a powerful family, he's overshone by Foster who was really making her mark at this time. She came to this from Taxi Driver that had brought her an Oscar nomination. Here she proved that she could carry a lead role just as well as a supporting one and do it very well indeed.

The 70s stamp comes for a couple of reasons, most notably the ending. There's no way this could have been made under the Production Code and a decade later it would have far more pointless gore and far less substance. The other is the brief nudity, which is admittedly Foster's older (and legal) sister, but is supposed to be a 13 year old girl. Definitely an identifiable era.

The Dawn Rider (1935) Robert N Bradbury

This time round John Wayne is John Mason, who rides into town and gets into a fight with Ben McClure, who has the hots for Alice Gordon, who nurses Mason back to health after he gets hurt chasing down the bad guys who killed his father, who was McClure's employer. Once he's well and on the hunt again, he realises that the killer is Rudd Gordon, who is Alice Gordon's brother, who persuades McClure that Mason is trying to steal his girl. Yeah, these Lone Star westerns sometimes read like a wiring diagram. I can envisage the screenwriter counting up the number of characters in the story, writing their names down on a piece of paper and connecting them all together with convenient plot strands.

Wayne is getting better and he works well with Reed Howes, who plays Ben McClure and who reminds me of Cooter from the original Dukes of Hazzard. There's also the inevitable Yakima Canutt and Earl Dwire, though no Gabby Hayes. There's also Nelson McDowell as an undertaker who tries his best to sound like Boris Karloff.

The 'Burbs (989) Joe Dante

If this doesn't start with the biggest power zoom of all time I'm not sure what would beat it. We zoom in from the globe on the Universal logo all the way down to a single house in a single street somewhere in American suburbia. Tom Hanks, back when he was still a comedian and a damned fine one too, lives next door to a creepy old mansion populated by creepy people who do things like digging holes in their garden in the middle of the night and driving their garbage to the curb.

Hanks is the all American guy who gets caught up in the paranoia of his neighbours: the nutjob Rick Ducommun who's really trying to be John Candy and Bruce Dern the ex-military man. Corey Feldman is the local teenager who gets so into the reality show of his neighbourhood that he invites his girlfriend to sit on the porch and watch them. The suspicion builds until everything gets truly out of hand. Even Hanks's wife Carrie Fisher who is the voice of sanity in the film can't quite keep a lid on everything.

Joe Dante was the man back in the late eighties. He made a string of quirky comedies that had plenty of depth and social comment but were still great fun movies to sit back and laugh at. Beyond the main cast, there's Henry Gibson and Dick Miller, who both never fail to impress. It was really refreshing to see this one again and see that it's as great as I remember it. The only downside was the ending which, while it does work very well indeed, always felt like a copout compared to what it could have been. This is a perfect example of a film where I want to see the alternative endings on the DVD. Instead I'm stuck with a faded VHS copy that looks forward to the opening of EPCOT in 1990. But hey, this one works any which way.

The Final Cut (2004) Omar Naim

It's the future, which is naturally a scary place because it's not explicitly pointed out as being a utopian future. Outside the usual video screens everywhere, most things look little different. The exception is the Zoe implant, which is some sort of chip that records everything a person experiences throughout their entire life. Robin Williams plays Alan Hakman, who is a cutter, someone who edits entire lives down to a more convenient couple of hours for the family to enjoy. It's a disturbing profession and we're treated to a decent swathe of the issues that resonate around it. The key one for Alan is that he works as a cutter for personal reasons of his own and compares himself to a sin eater, a historical character in folklore that takes on the sins of the deceased.

When he takes on the job of cutting the life of one of the founders of the company that make the Zoe implant he collides not only with anti-implant activists but also a man from his past. As he investigates he discovers a lot of uncomfortable truths about both his job and himself and falls deeper and deeper into danger. Williams sleepwalks through the film but then that fits the role. I know what he can do on the manic end of things and it's good to see him at the other end of the scale.

What makes this film most worthwhile though are the potentials for so many things. We don't have Zoe implants, so far as we're aware, but the privacy issues they raise are becoming important issues today. Unfortunately there are huge gaps in the way the issues are addressed. There was no attempt to address government or law enforcement oversight of these lives as would surely happen about ten seconds after the technology was involved, and I was surprised to see that such a devastating future technology long established while no other tech has progressed at all from what it is today. The tech Hakman uses is designed very retro and it looks very nice indeed, but the UI is highly unrealistic.

Really all we have here is Alan Hakman himself and he's a fascinating character. Everyone else in the plot is only there to make a point and they really don't become characters of their own.

Youth Runs Wild (1944) Mark Robson

While America's men are off fighting abroad in World War II, their kids run riot. The end.

Actually there's a little more to it than that and there are a few interesting names involved here. For a start, this is a Val Lewton production, he of lasting fame to horror enthusiasts through his sadly too few movies. He produced fourteen in total and nine of them are horror films, including favourites like Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher. I've seen all nine and haven't rated a single one lower than an Excellent. Director Mark Robson made four of them, including Ghost Ship, The Seventh Victim and the superb Bedlam. He also made this one too for Lewton, though it's a long way from being a horror movie.

The lead is Bonita Granville, even though she doesn't have the biggest part. She's famous of course as a child actor for a recurring role as Nancy Drew and parts in films like Little Women and These Three, but she's far from a kid here though: this is the latest I've seen her, two years after Now, Voyager with Bette Davis and a year after the strange Hitler's Children opposite Tim Holt. There's Lawrence Tierney as her boyfriend, edgy as always, and he's a magnetic actor who I can't stop watching. Unfortunately nobody else has much to offer, including the scriptwriter.

If the story is supposed to make us aware of the youth of the day running out of control, it failed miserably. The adults aren't anything to write home about it either: lecherous, drunken, insensitive, disagreeable, supercilious know-it-alls, the lot of them, and the only kids running wild are doing so at the urging or the bidding of adult crooks. The only decent adult character is Kent Smith from the Cat People movies playing a crippled soldier back from the war, but even he ends up making life more difficult for the kids around him. Granville and Tierney go straight for the second half of the movie but they're not necessarily nice people and they have histories.

Apparently RKO massacred this film but even had they left it alone I'm not sure there was much here to start with and I still have no idea what the point was.

Winds of the Wasteland (1936) Mack V Wright

After sixteen films for Lone Star Productions, John Wayne's home for a couple of years and a lot of 55 minute movies, 1936 found him working for a new company. Republic Pictures was formed from a merger between Lone Star and Mascot Pictures and it made an obvious difference. There's a budget for a start, that goes way beyond anything Lone Star could pump up on their own. The script is solid, the acting much improved and the end result almost unrecognisable.

Out of 16 Lone Star pictures, I only gave one of them more than an OK rating, strangely enough the first one, Riders of Destiny. This one tops that and demonstrates well just how much John Wayne's acting had improved over the last couple of years. He plays John Craig, a Pony Express man who has to find new work after the telegraph puts paid to the Pony Express business. He takes his two free horses and a partner and heads off to start a stage line. Unfortunately they get sold a turkey, a franchise to run a stage to a ghost town with a population of two. However Craig takes it in stride and turns his lemon into lemonade. Soon Crescent City becomes quite a metropolis and in the process he exacts some worthy revenge on the crook that got him into the mess in the first place, without having to be so cliched as to just shoot him.

Paint Your Wagon (1970) Joshua Logan

Back when I was a kid I remember this one being about the only musical I really enjoyed. Oliver was pretty cool too and Cats was great but there wasn't anything there outside the poems/songs so it's more like a long music video. This one was always a bizarre one too, which probably helped. It's a Lerner and Loewe musical and those are names I would have recognised back then but not known anything about, but it stars such well known singers and dancers as, well Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Yeah, that Lee Marvin and that Clint Eastwood. How could it go wrong? If they'd have put Gene Kelly in it the quality of the singing and dancing would have been about a billion times higher but I'd probably have hated every other minute of the thing.

It's been a long while since I've seen it so I don't remember much. I remember the dirt and the rain and the gold, but not the actual plot. I naturally remember a few of the songs, but I was surprised to hear the two stars sing more than one each. I was also surprised to enjoy both the singers and the songs, which is something else I've been discovering about the great musicals: even when I love the songs I don't love them in the form they appear in the film, much preferring the later jazz renditions, blues or rock versions or even later versions by the same people! Here they're great: touching or hilarious by turns and sung honestly and lustily.

Anyway, Lee Marvin is a mountain man with a colourful past and a colourful future. He has his white shock of beard, medicine man top hat and no nonsense attitude to life. Into his life comes Clint Eastwood in a runaway wagon hurtling down the hillside. Clint breaks his arm but his brother dies, but they strike gold when they dig his grave. So Marvin and Eastwood suddenly become partners. As the area quickly becomes a town with everything that comes with it, the only thing missing is women. Then a Mormon turns up, with two wives and ends up auctioning off Jean Seberg. Naturally it's a drunken Lee Marvin who wins the bid and thus acquires her as a wife under mining law.

Lee Marvin steals the show here as only Lee Marvin can. He swaggers, lurches, collapses and any other movement he can conjure up that doesn't involve standing still. He's a riot, pure and simple, even when he isn't singing Wand'rin' Star. Eastwood can't help but be overshone and that that doesn't happen too often. What's most surprising is that the film tells the story of the west wonderfully. It isn't How the West Was Won, especially as it isn't studded with stars every which way you look, but it doesn't try to be and becomes something damn near it anyway. The story of No Name City tells all about Mormons, multiple spouses, bull and bear fights, drinking, gambling, whoring, hellfire and brimstone, mud, gold fever and all the rest of it, starting from nothing and ending with not much more. OK, half of it makes no sense and the finale is played completely for slapstick, but it does make sense and it's certainly memorable.

The Virgin Spring (1960) Ingmar Bergman

I was stunned, seriously stunned, when I discovered that an Ingmar Bergman movie, an Ingmar Bergman movie that I'd heard of even before I began to explore the history of film, had been remade in the States, and not just into another art film but into something as beyond the pale as Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left. It becomes even more surprising when we realise that this original is based on a fourteenth century Swedish legend.

We open on a young woman, dark and almost feral, crouched to blow a fire into life. She's pregnant and antagonistic, definitely a wild child. However she's only one of the young woman we ought to be paying attention to. The other seems far more innocent, partly through her good youthful Swedish blonde looks and partly because she's obviously been shielded far more from the harsh reality of this 14th century world. She has to get up to take the Mary candles to church for a religious festival because she's still a virgin herself. She's an innocent but she's also a minx, spoilt and flirtatious and she constantly plays with the truth, though perhaps less because she's a liar and more because she lives in something of a fantasy world.

The wildcat is Ingeri and the minx is Karin, played by Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson respectively. The two of them end up riding out together, one to take the candles and the other to accompany her, but Ingeri has plans of her own and pulls out early. It's a gorgeous spring day in gorgeous countryside and it's a long ride to church, so Karin stops to share her lunch with three herdsmen she meets in the forest. However her fantasy world hasn't prepared her much for the real world and it doesn't take long for her to be raped and murdered. And the killers make the stunning mistake of unwittingly asking for shelter in their victim's house.

This is not a pretty film and Bergman makes it stark and simplistic on the surface. Because it's Bergman, there are depths of course and the whole concept of guilt as depicted in this film could be argued about for ever. Not one person here is really innocent but how worthy their punishment is another matter. It's definitely something to stick in the mind and now I'm not surprised it became an American horror movie.

The Dirty Dozen (1967) Robert Aldrich

Here's another of those movies I saw as a kid because we only had three TV channels at the time, leading to not a heck of a lot of choice, and it was a solid late sixties family movie with a scarily large amount of names in the cast. It's also another of those movies I haven't seen since then. Lee Marvin is the tough and unconventional Major Reisman who gets the unenviable task of running a behind the lines suicide mission.

To make it even more difficult, his twelve men have to be handpicked from military prisoners facing either death or very long sentences indeed. The men are a sorry bunch, but they include people like Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas. As the army psychologist points out to the Major, 'You've got one religious maniac, one malignant dwarf, two near idiots, and the rest I don't even want to think about.' Sutherland is a moron, Clint Walker isn't far behind, Savalas is a religious nutjob serial killer and John Cassavetes is a real troublemaker. All of them are fascinating to watch though.

The actual mission itself doesn't come until the end of the film and to be honest, isn't particular important. What matters here is how the men, under Reisman's direction, progress from individuals into a cohesive and viable unit, against their own inclinations and those of a sanctimonious colonel played by Robert Ryan. The way they get to prove their worth as a unit by screwing up the colonel's plans during a trianing exercise is priceless and I'm sure half the people involved really enjoyed themselves, especially George Kennedy and Ernest Borgnine as a major and a two star general respectively.

The whole thing is a success, even the huge French chateau which in reality was one of the largest buildings ever constructed for a movie and which was constructed so well they had to blow up a model replica instead because it would have taken too much explosive to have taken out the real thing. It's also highly refreshing to see a whole bunch of the good guys bite the big one too, something that I'm sure would be hard to justify to a studio today. It all helps the realism behind what is a pretty outre concept to begin with. However it worked so well that it spawned a number of belated sequels and even a TV series.


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