Festive Films 1 – Trading Places

There are things lovelier about Trading Places than Jamie Lee Curtis’s breasts, but if they, the breasts, aren’t acknowledged right here at the beginning of paragraph one then they are just going to hang there, these breasts, on everyone’s mind.

“That’s fine him going on about the plot and the performances and all that malarkey”, you kind, enabling folk who read this might say. “But when is he going to mention the boobs? Because that’s what everyone remembers about this film. It’s the one where Jamie Lee got them out.”

Merry Christmas by the way.

We will leave her chest, with some regret on my part, entirely behind shortly, but before we do it is worth pointing out that Jamie Lee Curtis does not even appear in the film until the three-quarter hour mark and, grand and stately though her bosom may be, her breasts are merely the seventh and eighth to appear unclad in the film.

Their total screen time in two separate scenes (timecodes 00:58:15 and 01:07:32 embonpoint fans) is slightly under four seconds.

Here are some pictures.

Now can we please move on and consider the film’s other aspects? Crikey you people are obsessed! Get some help. And delete your browser history.

Trading Places is a film that has grown on me enormously over time. When it came out in 1983 I dismissed it rather pompously as being crass and unmannered. There was a grubby witlessness about it I thought, and a broadness that didn’t appeal to as refined a mind as mine.

I was eighteen and I was, evidently, a bit of a tool.

Several re-watchings over the years have left me very well-disposed to the film indeed though, and the more I see of the current generation of comedy movies the more I respect Trading Places for its warmth, intelligence, bonhomie and preparedness to engage with its own central concept.

Remember central concepts? They are what we used to find funny before sneering and ejectamenta were invented.

The principal concern of the movie’s story is nature versus nurture. Two elderly stockbroker brothers, played with considerable élan by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, cause one of their privileged employees (Dan Aykroyd) to lose his career, his fortune, his good name and his fiancée all in one day. They replace him with a jive-talking, rascally, homeless chancer (Eddie Murphy) to see whether or not breeding will assert itself.

The answer the writers come up with is not especially profound (something along the lines of be true to yourself whatever the circumstances and things will work out OK), but we aren’t here for the Platonic dimly-perceived ideals. We’re here to be entertained.

And the breasts. Some of us are here for those too.

So, is it entertaining? Hell, yes.

Director John Landis can be a puzzle. You never quite know what you are going to get. I am not personally a fan of the Rabelaisian excesses of National Lampoon’s Animal House, but I am permanently in thrall to the sheer ebullience and love of life on display in The Blues Brothers. I don’t find Burke & Hare to be the cultural atrocity some make it out to be, but I can’t bear the torpid smugness of Spies Like Us. In fact the only reason Spies Like Us is in my frontline library at all is that it has cameo appearances by Ray Harryhausen, Derek Meddings, Sam Raimi and Joel Coen.

What, surely, we can all agree on however is that An American Werewolf In London is something a bit special: funny and frightening, touching and fiercely accurate in its outsider’s view of what was good and bad about Britain in the early eighties.

Trading Places is one of Landis’s best anyway, and you know it right from the opening montage of a pre-Christmas Philadelphia set to Mozart’s overture from The Marriage of Figaro.

(Yes you do. It goes diddle-iddle-oo, diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-oo.)

Structurally it is very pleasing, taking time to establish that Aykroyd’s and Murphy’s characters are both weaselly enough that they deserve what’s coming, but also that they are both genuinely nice enough that the inevitable redemptive outcome is welcome.

Writers Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, whose subsequent oeuvre is less glorious than one might have hoped (Twins? Kindergarten Cop?), have here nailed a dramaturgical necessity: that your characters must descend very deeply indeed for their eventual triumph to have an emotional effect.

The set-up is most clearly indebted to Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, but the overall feel is more Dickensian (as befits what is basically a Christmas movie). There is a swagger to the main characters, an almost hyper-reality to them that makes them completely stand out from the scenery and supporting ensemble. There is also a good-naturedness and belief in humanity that comes from the school of Dickens rather than the more sardonic Clemens college.

Landis was fortunate or skilful enough to catch all of his actors at pretty much the top of their game. It’s hard to remember that Eddie Murphy was ever as engaging and lovable as he is here. Aykroyd must just have been coming out of that post-Belushi quagmire but displays here a range I’ve never seen from him since. Curtis is a comic revelation (still five years away from A Fish Called Wanda, and best known at that time for her Halloween, Prom Night, Terror Train imperilled damsel routine). And the sainted Denholm Elliott takes the snooty butler role John Gielgud pioneered in Arthur and adds a beguiling, twinkly dimension to it.

I’m glad I took the time to watch this again. It is a film which celebrates all that is good about Christmas but which also acknowledges the darkness and venality in us just enough to cut through the schmaltz.

God willing and weather permitting I’ll be looking at a few more festive fillums over the next two weeks or so. I’m planning The Apartment, Gremlins, It’s A Wonderful Life, Elf, Bad Santa, Die Hard and A Muppet Christmas Carol (which famously has no undraped breasts in it). Please feel free to join in or recommend any movies I could usefully add to the list.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

When C.P. Snow gave the Rede Lecture in 1959 he gave it the title The Two Cultures. His contention was that there was a breakdown in communication between the humanities and sciences which was badly hindering global development.

As an example he mentioned the number of times he had been in the presence of supposedly highly educated people who were loudly criticising the illiteracy of scientists. Provoked by this on occasion he had asked those making the complaint to describe the second law of thermodynamics. Their responses he described as “cold” and “negative”, yet this is the scientific equivalent, he said, of asking, “Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

Snow went on, I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question such as “What do you mean by mass or acceleration?” which is the scientific equivalent of saying “Can you read?” not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt I was speaking the same language.

Frankly Snow was lucky. At least he lived and wrote in a time when education was valued and the possession of knowledge was seen generally as a good thing. This attitude is in full retreat now and ignorance is galloping forward at full speed waving a flag and laughing at us.

The UK series The Apprentice has much to teach us in this regard.

For the joyous few who haven’t seen it the programme is, superficially, a recruitment process. An assembly of soi-disant entrepreneurs, blue sky thinkers, high achievers and assumption-challengers (all young, all pretty, all thin and scrupulously groomed) is set a series of tasks over a period of weeks. Their performance is assessed and, week by attritional week, they are booted off until only one remains. That person gets a “job”.

It’s a contrived entertainment of course, but there is a nucleus of truth in it. It isn’t the intelligent or imaginative that thrive in this environment. It is the amoral, the carnivorous, the self-seeking and the deeply deluded.

As a quick example, in the most recent series the business wannabes had the task of constructing a fast food outlet. Imaginatively enough one team came up with the idea of a “British” pie franchise. It is, I’m sure, a gap in the market. They named each of their pies after a famous Briton including, dismayingly, “Christopher Columbus, discoverer of the potato”.

At this point the planet developed a slight wobble due to a gyroscopic anomaly induced by twelve generations of dead British people suddenly spinning in their graves.

It wasn’t dwelt upon though, and there was no admission that someone had made a pretty basic factual error.

The Apprentice process is presided over by Alan Sugar an angry, wizened autodidact who, in this country, passes for a guru. He doesn’t need people telling him stuff like what’s right and wrong, doesn’t Sir Alan. He left school at 15 and now he has all of the UK’s money so he must know a thing or two. And all you fancy, book-reading, thought-thinking, idea-exchanging nonces had better get out of his way. Blahdy quickly.

Sir Alan's Gifts to the Nation 1: I had one of these. Got a lot of work done on it too.

Sir Alan's Gifts to the Nation 2: I never had one of these though. I'm not thick.

Like Tony Montana in Scarface (if he’d been played by Ray Winstone voicing a Yoda puppet) Alan Sugar has everything he could possibly want or need, and loads more stuff on top of that, yet it doesn’t seem to have bought him even a molecule of happiness.

That’s parenthetical though. I might come back to it if I remember.

Meanwhile, back at the pie debacle… Now everyone has blind spots and intellectual lacunae. I have committed hideous errors in print in front of large numbers of people. We are all human beings just trying to get on and whilst we may move towards perfection we are never actually going to get there.

I accept this, but I think it is crucially important to admit to a shortcoming when it becomes apparent and to try and learn from it. Bluster, shouting and trying to turn black into white to make your incorrect assertion correct is futile.

Some examples.

I used to work in a branch of a bookshop chain. Remember shops? They were like the internet except you had to walk to them in the rain and they never had what you wanted.

The first branch I worked in was in Aberdeen and was, at the time, the northernmost outpost of that retail empire. This made us the ideal branch in which to try stuff out. One experiment involved the introduction of a loyalty card scheme. This was in the mid-nineties and was genuinely pretty forward thinking at the time. There were those who argued that customers have no “loyalty” per se and that you couldn’t buy their repeat custom. The counter-argument was that they did and you could. Splendidly enough Head Office decided to give it a go in our branch, and our branch only, and see what happened.

As it goes this is pretty good empirical science.

Anyway the machines were bought. The laminated rectangles with the little magnetic strip doodahs on the back were made, and tons of posters and fliers were printed. We festooned the shop. We leafleted like mad. We stood and we waited. Day one of the scheme was going to be a big deal. A lot of head office people were going to be there.

It went pretty well. Slow at first, but momentum built and we were starting to get a good feeling when suddenly one of the booksellers went a bit pale and quiet.

When pressed as to what was wrong she pointed to the nearest of the billion posters in the shop.

“That quote,” she said.

It was the custom of the chain at the time to adorn bags, bookmarks and sundry items of point-of-sale with pertinent literary quotes and this one, the one causing the bookseller to have an attack of the vapours, was on every single poster, leaflet and card.

They took some honey and plenty of money wrapped up in a five pound note – Lewis Carroll, it proclaimed.

“Wasn’t that Edward Lear?” asked the bookseller.

It took some time to dismantle the whole operation and start again, but I don’t remember any blame throwing, just a resigned sense of “oh well that’s a fuck-up, best start again”. And that’s how you do it ladies and gentlemen. You take it on the chin and you move on.

A counterexample. Same bookshop chain though happily not a branch I worked in. In fact this may be an entirely apocryphal story, but it has the bouquet of authenticity.

Customer enters bookshop and walks straight to the till.

“Do you have Mein Kampf?” they enquire.

“I’m not sure,” says the bookseller. “Do you know who wrote it?”

“Well, Hitler,” says the customer becoming a bit embarrassed.

“How do you spell that?” asks the bookseller.

“Hitler. You know, the Second World War? Hitler? H-I-T-L-E-R,” says the now quite surprised customer.

“Listen,” retorts the bookseller querulously. “I can’t be expected to know all the authors.”

And that’s how you don’t do it.

My point is that there isn’t anything wrong with being wrong. We all do it from time to time. We have the ability to change what we think in the face of new evidence. Ignorance is not a bad thing, but wilfully remaining ignorant when the chance to learn something new crops up is.

I like Doctor Who. I have done since about 1970 when it was all opera capes, clumsy assistants and SF stories hiding social realist agendas. I can accept that there’s a large number of people who don’t like it. Fair enough. That’s why there are different things on the telly too.

It’s always struck me as a programme that appeals to the outsider, Doctor Who. There is, I understand, a particularly large gay following which makes sense when you think about it. A charismatic, flamboyantly dressed authority figure who can sort out planetary injustices and yet still has time for the eccentricities of individuals. Why not?

When I grew up during the seventies and my nerdliness was burgeoning there were only really two science fiction shows on the TV with any degree of longevity: Doctor Who and Star Trek.

Now this is proper Star Trek we’re talking about here. The ego, superego and id of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. But even in those prime directive-flouting, alien-shagging days there was a codified formality to Trek that put me off. Kudos indeed to Gene Roddenberry for casting an African-American actress in a primetime programme at a time when that was quite a progressive thing to do. Shame on him though for then giving her the job of, basically, answering the telephone.

Further Trek coups of characterisation: Pretty white girl? You’re a nurse. Russian man? You have no sense of humour. Scotsman? You’re an engineer. And drunk.

I am unfamiliar with the eight thousand Star Trek spin off series but my overall (completely unfair) impression is that they appeal to people who like uniforms and rigidly enforced hierarchies. Are there any main Trek characters who are gay? It would be nice to think there are but I can’t name any.

Doctor Who on the other hand practically revels in its pan-sexuality. This bringing to the front and centre an aspect that has always existed dates from the 2005 revival of the show and can be credited to the then-show-runner Russell T. Davies. A man of outstanding energy and open-mindedness Davies brought both his love of old Doctor Who and a grounding in ace contemporary telly (such as Queer As Folk and The Second Coming) to create in new Doctor Who what many of us had thought would be impossible: a show which appealed to the mythical Saturday teatime family audience, but which at the same time didn’t piss off the hardcore fans of the old stuff.

That was pretty fucking impressive.

Davies moved on after a rampagingly successful four years and handed control of the show over to Steven Moffat. This is where things become complicated and Britain’s current obsession with anti-intellectualism, wilful incomprehension and Thick Pride become depressingly apparent.

Moffat is a highly accomplished writer. He is responsible for The Girl In The Fireplace and Blink, two of the most thrilling and innovative Doctor Who stories ever aired. He is responsible for the updated Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock. He wrote the cheeky, galvanic Jekyll which (incredibly) briefly made a James Nesbitt fan of me. He was co-opted by Steven Spielberg to write the first draft of the forthcoming Tintin movie. He is no hack is Moffat. He can plot and do dialogue. And he loves Doctor Who. Safe pair of hands then.

But almost immediately the whinging started.

One of Moffat’s characters in the programme, River Song, is a time traveller just like the Doctor. The logical result of this (almost always ignored in time travel narratives) is that she and the Doctor keep meeting out of order. Sometimes she knows a lot more than he does, sometimes vice versa. Additionally, the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory are married. A great deal of the most recent season has been the story of Amy’s developing pregnancy and who her child might turn out to be.

Well that’s too hard to understand, complained the press.

Is it? Is it really? I’m pretty certain an attentive eight year old could follow it.

But the reviews have continued to be hostile and the tone is not one of “Oh this is an interesting narrative, I’d better pay attention and see what happens.” No it’s more “This is complicated. I don’t get it. Why don’t I get it? It must be the writer’s fault.” That would be embarrassing enough coming from an adult on the street. From professional television reviewers it’s excruciating. There is precious little on TV that’s challenging. To complain about the tiny amount that is seems a bit perverse.

It’s a similar story with game shows. On the radio we still have Brain Of Britain and Round Britain Quiz which don’t yet seem to have succumbed to the oncoming storm of militant thickism. And on TV we have University Challenge and Only Connect, though as the controllers seem to be about to shoot BBC4 in the face we may soon have to discount the latter. Apart from these though, where are the brains?

(Also Feargal Sharkey, Mr. Over-Defensive: Nobody really thinks that you’re a cabbage because you hate University Challenge, though a few of us find your rhyming schemes a bit perplexing. Now leave us to enjoy our half hour a week in peace.)

The majority of game shows currently aired seem resolutely proud of their absence of intellectual rigour. They are glorified guessing games at best, hollow box-opening spectacles at worst.

Take as an example Deal Or No Deal which has been broadcast every weekday for the last six years. The format is not difficult to understand. Twenty-two people have sealed boxes each containing an amount of money ranging from 1p to £250,000. One of them is selected to play the game. This involves them opening other peoples’ boxes three at a time and then receiving an offer for their own box. So if the boxes they open all contain small amounts of money it becomes increasingly likely that their box contains a high amount and it becomes worth more. If they open boxes to reveal large amounts of money then it becomes more likely that their box contains a small amount and it becomes worth less. The amount they are periodically offered for their box is dependent on which amounts are still in play. It’s basically probability theory, though there is an element of the offer being fine-tuned according to how rash or fearful the player appears to be. Essentially there is only one thing the player has to do, guess the point at which to bail out and accept the offer for their box. The chances of winning the £250,000 are 1 in 22 to start with. They are zero as soon as it is revealed in someone else’s box. They fluctuate during the rest of the game depending how many boxes are left.

It is luck.

There is no system you can bring to the table that will tilt the odds in your favour.

I say again, it is luck.

However… You would not believe the stuff contestants have said, in public, on TV. They have lucky numbers. They have birthday numbers (though the boxes are numbered from 1-22, so what you do if your birthday is the 31st is a bit of a mystery). They have house numbers that are significant to them. They have guardian angels watching over them. They believe everything happens for a reason. They once heard someone talking about something they’d read about quantum mechanics and it turns out you can rescue a cat out of a box full of poison by having a positive attitude. Or something.

It’s enough to unhinge your jaw permanently.

The “everything happens for a reason” people are the most depressing. Yeah, they say, what goes around six swings comes around on half a dozen roundabouts. What will be will be. Then they skulk off with 10p at the end of the game, victims of nothing other than their own vanity and venality, teeth clenched and clearly bitter about the fact that their guardian angel apparently thinks they’re a bit of a prick.

That calm, Zen-like acceptance of unalterable circumstances only really works as a philosophy if you are prepared to accept apparent adversity the same way you accept apparent good fortune.

The whole farrago is presided over by the brittle, short, over-sensitive, bullying seventies DJ Noel Edmonds. This, in his mind, is clearly his show. He is the life-giver. The contestants go in one end, move through the show in some ghastly process of peristalsis before emerging, sucked dry of entertainment value at the other end. But Edmonds abides!

He is an appalling presenter. When flustered he hides behind an array of three or so “funny” voices. When feeling threatened by a contestant’s personality, wit or simple conversation he resorts to volatile hostility.

The seventies

In a recent show a contestant chose in his opening round (where you have to choose five boxes) box 4, then 8, then 12, then 16.

“You’d better have box 10 now,” said Edmonds (though I thought he was supposed to remain impartial). “To keep the pattern going.”

When the player pointed out that the next box would have to be 20 to keep the pattern going Edmonds visibly bristled and remained tetchy and wounded-looking for the remainder of the show.

And now

In keeping with all other programmes involving members of the public Deal Or No Deal encourages its participants to have a story, to consider their lives not as a haphazard parade of mundane incidents but rather as the modern urban equivalent of the saga of Thorfinn Skullsplitter. So one after another these wheezing human sea cows finger their magic photographs and sob about the tragedy of their tragic grandma who tragically died at the age of 104 tragically and peacefully in her own bed surrounded by her friends and family. And they cry, and the audience cries and Noel fingers his money clip and the majority of the world dreams of having as much as a dollar a day to get by on.

The Cosmic Ordering System has dispatched your Scimitar. It is expected to arrive in 1973.

There has clearly been some sort of counter-Copernican revolution at some point.

What an amazing shift the Copernican Revolution originally was, the intellectual inversion of the geocentric model to the heliocentric one. What a coup of decentralisation. Initially a scientific landmark it had social and philosophical repercussions too. How refreshing suddenly to realise that we weren’t at the middle of anything after all. Alive we most definitely are, and important probably too, just not, you know, the MOST important things in the universe.

That’s all been reversed now. In a backwards cultural leap of astonishing magnitude we are back to being encouraged to think of ourselves as that around which all things revolve.

Want some anecdotal evidence? Watch some adverts.

I watch adverts a lot, almost always against my will. Sometimes it’s my fault admittedly. I watch a great deal of TV which I have recorded on my Sky+ box. Customarily I forget quite quickly that what I am watching is recorded and I sit blithely through ad breaks that I could be fast-forwarding through. Irritatingly often I will get 90% through an ad break, realise I could have skipped it, press fast-forward and end up whizzing well past the end of the break and into the programme I’m watching. So I rewind, end up further back than I was and end up watching some of the ad break twice.

I am an idiot.

Sometimes though the ads are unavoidable, often even though you have paid for the experience and might reasonably expect to be left alone by commercial sponsors. Yes cinemas I’m looking at you. How much do I have to pay for a ticket to see a film that doesn’t have half an hour of commercial suck-hole before the main feature?

And if I start on the unskippable ads I keep finding on Blu-rays I have paid full price for we’ll be here all day.

Some time ago, before the financial implosion of the entire western world (yeah, go on Cameron, leave the rich alone, tax the poor, that’s where the real money is) adverts were a bit fuzzy and cuddly.

Typically some low-end equity card-holders would act all amazed and entranced in front of a green screen whilst the CGI guys would add some coloured balloons or paints or crayons, or have everything all wrapped up in paper. There’d be plinky, whimsical music like from off of Juno and a calm voice would intone “What if everything was different, and nothing was the same?” or some such before a brief shot of a phone or a car or a bank or a sweetie.

Not any more though. It’s all dead sinister now. The text of a lot of ads is the bang-on austerity message of “we’re all in this together”, but the subtext is clearly “not you though mate, you’re special”. So we have ad after ad featuring groups of people each and every one of whom clearly thinks that they are the main one.

Look at the current Lucozade advert. Kids on skateboards! With musical instruments! They’re a band! But as they career (in an unintentional allegory) downhill look how individual and special they’re all being.

Look at the menstruating chocolate lady. She only wants a bit of chocolate, but one of her BFF, sexy-city flatmates has taken the last bit. They’ve even left the wrapper in the fridge, the cow. Chocolate lady doesn’t mind though because she’s got a special place for hiding chocolate that the rest of them don’t know about. The fuckers.

The rebarbative Malteser girls? The highly killable Pepsi Max guys? They look like they are in groups. It looks all friendly. But they are all pursuing their individual agendas.

The least successful, most telling version of this advertising genre was one for a pain relief formula. I can’t remember which one, and I’m not going to dignify it by looking it up.

In the advert literally dozens of the recently pain-relieved were shown unconvincingly jamming a version of “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” originally by McFadden & Whitehead. They were all up on stage. All of them! Well a handful occupied an inexplicable recording booth pushing meaningless faders up and down meaninglessly. But basically everyone was doing a special thing. A funny drum solo. A wiggly dance thing. A hey-look-at-me-got–my arms-in-the-air bid for attention.

And who was enjoying the spectacle?

No one. There was no one where you would conventionally put an audience.

And that’s the problem. When everyone is special, no one is.

The reality is that you just aren’t that important. You matter, you’re just not crucial to the running of the universe. Chances are that, unless something has gone horribly wrong, you come from a family some of whom survive. You don’t get on with them all the time but basically you love them. You’ve got friends. Some of them can be a bit twatty from time to time but fundamentally they’re a good bunch. That’s groovy. That’s the normal way of things.

We aren’t all lead guitarists in a band. Some of us are bass players. Some of us serve the hotdogs or sell the T-shirts. Heaven help us, some of us are just sitting in the audience enjoying the spectacle. And in fact, why would you want to be the big important one receiving all the attention?

Why would you want to be a celebrity? It’ll break your heart if you watch the lauded and the screamed-at closely enough. They have all the stuff and they have all the attention but they have no joy. They can’t even see the irony attendant in selling a story to a celeb magazine about how impossible it is to have privacy.

Where, if your only talents are doing poor cover versions of limp songs and crying about your grandma whilst a Snow Patrol song plays in the background, are you going to get a sense of self-worth from?

You want the meaning of life?

I point you in the direction of Monty Python:

“Well it’s nothing very special. Try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and then. Get some walking in. And try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”


I have recently been watching the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from 1979 and it has cheered me up enormously. It is a very long time since I read the book, probably when this series was first on the TV in fact at which point I would have been fourteen. And I have never seen the TV adaptation before, though I’ve long been aware of its high reputation.

Smiley, Smiley, bad times behind me.

It is a wonderful and compelling endeavour, the type of which you could never expect to see made for TV today. And it is extraordinarily absorbing for what, when you boil it down, is pretty much 300 minutes of middle-aged white men sitting in rooms, sitting in cars and walking through parks.

The strength is that the characters are fascinating (the four mole suspects are introduced and effortlessly characterised in a wordless two minute sequence at the beginning of the first episode), and the plot is labyrinthine, with frequent, almost episode-long flashbacks.

Brilliantly, the makers of the programme (as was conventional at the time) make no allowances for the viewer. It is assumed that you’re going to watch the whole thing in order, and that you will be capable of remembering who all the characters are and that you can follow dialogue consisting of quite long sentences peppered with authentic-sounding intelligence jargon.

It is magnificent.

The cast is amazing too, but Alec Guinness is the undoubted star as the phlegmatic, implacable moral centre of the story, George Smiley. And saucy old Beryl Reid gets a massive amount out of her brief cameo as Connie Sachs. The whole thing is just a big, faultless, luxurious treat. I have Smiley’s People to look forward to too.

There is a new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hoving into view. This would en-dreaden me if it was a TV adaptation as I can imagine various diversity checklists being ticked off and tedious things like plot and dialogue being jettisoned in favour of sexified car chases and whatnot.

Happily though this is a movie version directed by Tomas Alfredson whose previous film was the Swedish vampire story Let The Right One In, and the auspices are good.

Gary Oldman as Alec Guinness and Kathy Burke as Beryl Reid? Go on then. I’m in.


The Pandaemonium of Brians is a scary place near which to find yourself. Sewell, Dowling, Dennehy, that thick cheery gastropod from off of The Magic Roundabout, they are all there. Bryan Adams too at a push. Also among the more daunting, and less cherishable Brians, is Brian De Palma, Catholic mathematician, big bushy beard wearer, and director of really REALLY loud movies.

Brian, a snail

There are, rightly or wrongly, respected films in De Palma’s work: Carrie, Blowout, The Untouchables, Casualties Of War, Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible; and I think there are merits in a lot of his misses.

Sisters elicits a magnificent couple of turns from the sainted Margot Kidder. Phantom Of The Paradise lopes merrily along, high on its own narcotic lunacy. Dressed To Kill has an achingly lovely Pino Donaggio score and, that rara avis, a good Michael Caine performance from the eighties. The Fury is a spirited attempt to recapture the éclat that Carrie had but suffers from the wayward plotting of John Farris’s original novel and the what-the-hell-were-they-thinking casting of Kirk Douglas (62) as the boyfriend of Carrie Snodgress (33). It’s as uncomfortable a partnership in its way as Roger Moore and Grace Jones in From A View To A Kill and, er, Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett in Saturn 3.

The less said about de Palma’s Bonfire Of The Vanities, Mission To Mars and Snake Eyes the better, and, as I am sure I have muttered darkly before, his spavined adaptation of Black Dahlia is exactly the sort of film you would get if you showed a bunch of kids L.A. Confidential and then got them to play “cops and other cops” in the playground the next day.

(Do kids still have playgrounds? I am old and out of touch and will mercifully be dead soon.)

Black Dahlia is a particular disappointment as the James Ellroy novel whence it sprang is one of my favourite books. Steeped though they are in Hollywood lore and the occult aspect of West Coast history, Ellroy’s novels are far too finely characterised and abundant in narrative detail to make for good movies – and if you think Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is a good movie then read the four Ellroy books of which it is the third volume to have the film’s comparative moral and intellectual weediness exposed.

Out of all of De Palma’s oeuvre though the most culturally significant film he has made seems to be Scarface, and for those of us who were around to see it on its first release in 1983 this is considerably surprising.

Scarface (very, very approximately adapted from Howard Hughes’s 1932 gangster movie written by the mighty Ben Hecht) tells the story of the rise from impoverished obscurity to Croesus levels of wealth and power of Cuban immigrant Tony Montana, played with irresponsible glee by Al Pacino.

Principal among its many obvious faults are the facts that the film, scripted by Oliver Stone with his customary lightness of touch, has no likeable characters and surprisingly few actual events for something that demands near enough three hours of your time.

According to popular legend novelists John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut both walked out of the premiere in disgust during the chainsaw sequence which occurs quite early on. At the same showing lovely, cussed old Dustin Hoffman is alleged to have fallen asleep.

Perhaps we were all a bit too close to it then to see it for what it actually is though, because the passage of time has been very gracious to Scarface. The film remains a cold-blooded, borderline reptilian celebration of the pursuit of money and power, but that seems cleverer now than it did in 1983.

At the time the film’s very few adherents saw it as an indictment of the new Hollywood.

To put it in context 1983 had seen the release of some genuinely good films: Zelig, Koyaanisqatsi, Videodrome, The Hunger, The Right Stuff, Local Hero, there are more I bet. You fill them in. It had however also been the year in which the highly unnecessary sequel had become an acceptable part of the cinema landscape: The Sting II, Psycho II, Porky’s II, Superman III, Staying Alive, the battle of the geriatric Bonds with Octopussy versus Never Say Never Again, and, most ominously, the dead-eyed two hour marketing opportunity that was The Return Of The Jedi. And yes, I know that Psycho II is an epic bit of retro-fitted storytelling but that isn’t, I think, what was foremost in the minds of the money guys when they gave it the green light.

What Scarface symbolised at the time for those smart enough to read it (not me I must emphasise since I was then, and remain now, as thick as fudge) was the changing of the movie industry guard. Out with old-fashioned stuff like actually having ideas, character and plot, and in with the new cash-flashing, drug-chugging, bottom-feeding rippers-off of everything that had gone before.

To the experienced eye Tony Montana’s negotiation of a seventeen million dollar drug deal whilst in possession of little other than his tight white disco suit and colossal personal swagger was highly reminiscent of the talent-free producers swarming through Hollywood at the time like cock-a-roaches, but cock-a-roaches who could spin air into gold.

(And for the dedicated here I wholeheartedly recommend Charles Fleming’s brilliant book High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess which is as perspicacious an indictment of that era as can be expressed using the medium of language.)

Twenty-eight years on and time has deposited layers of irony on Scarface’s existence. It has, for example, been embraced by the hip hop community, whose accumulation of brand name trappings and affection for homicidal carnage provides a jaunty backdrop for a genre of music which was, originally, born of genuine anger at social injustice but now represents the nadir of conspicuous consumption and aspirational inanity. A hymn to the grim, top-end Argos catalogue of expensive things that premier league footballers think they like.

Scarface goes to very great lengths to show the futility of the progression from hungry achiever to bloated pig. Several times during the story’s progression we have our attention directed towards characters who have more than anyone could want or use, but who are still joylessly dedicated to the accumulation of more.

It’s almost readable as an anti-consumerist parable, but as with so many enterprises whose irony is lightly worn that irony is lost on most of the audience.

More money? Faster cars? Thinner women? Bigger guns? Mountains of cocaine on your massive desk in your massive mansion? Yes please. And then some more if that would be OK.

So, a warning from the past to the future, or a crass celebration of excess? The choice is yours.

What is undeniable is that in the quarter century plus since its ignominious opening and subsequent poor reception Scarface has become one of those hits that hit rather heavily.

Two of its lines for instance have become globally, and frequently incorrectly, quoted:

“In this country you got to make the money first. Then, when you get the money you get the power. Then when you get the power then you get the woman. That’s why you got to make your own moves.”


“Say hello to my little friend!” which, frankly, lacks real impact if you’re not actually toting an M16 with the M203 grenade launcher attached as you shout it.

In a shopping centre.

A gun or something earlier today

A number of video games are in debt to the movie too, most notably the Grand Theft Auto series which can leave the nerdy types slightly anxious during the film as they are unable to direct the characters and vehicles using a PS controller. I speak from personal, tragic, lonely experience.

Anyway Scarface is newly out on Blu-ray and this is the first time I’ve seen it in some years. As I’ve previously suggested I think that history is a friend of the movie. What seemed garish and ham-fisted at the time now looks pretty authentic.

This isn’t the early eighties as vaguely imagined by someone who wasn’t born at the time and processed through the numbing mills of the CGI factory. This is the eighties as it actually was. You could buy Quatro in cans and watch Michael Elphick in Private Schulz on the telly when this was being made.

The performances are genuinely great. I’d previously dismissed Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as Elvira as being a bit bland, but it’s actually a hellishly accurate portrayal of a flint-hearted, unscrupulous woman on the make. All the supporting actors (including the slippery, elusive F. Murray Abraham) are impressive. But it is on Al Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana that the whole film stands or falls.

A picture of a flint-hearted, unscrupulous woman. You know, just in case you never see one in real life

Opinion at the time was largely negative. Pacino’s mannerisms and accent were seen as broad caricature. Worse, there was a creeping liberal dread that it might actually be a bit racist, bordering on the regrettable tradition of blackface. This kind of thing had still been acceptable on British TV until comparatively recently. The Black and White Minstrel Show ran, embarrassingly, until 1978. It was still no big deal to have Michael Bates playing Rangi Ram on It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and Michael Spice as Weng-Chiang in Doctor Who in the late seventies, but attitudes were changing.

Now, culturally insensitive boor I may be, but I am sympathetic to people’s offence at this sort of thing. Still I do have to confess that it doesn’t actually ruin my day to see someone playing a race, nationality or gender that isn’t their original one if the intention is clearly not to demean or patronise. It’s not Anne Hathaway’s Yorkshire accent that is keeping me away from One Day for example. It’s the fact that I am a boy rather than a girl.

Actoring isn’t generally a hate crime. It’s just dressing up and pretending. And to this end Pacino is a brilliant Tony Montana. He is rarely off the screen, and his initial sangfroid and its gradual mutation into cocaine psychosis is fabulous to behold.

Ultimately though the filmmakers were touchy enough about the idea of alienating a whole slice of humanity that they appended the following lily-livered disclaimer to the end of the movie.

I don’t know about you, but I find the phrase “enriched the American scene” a bit of an unconvincing one.

The transfer of Scarface to Blu-ray is fantastic. As I seem to be finding over and over, old movies shot carefully on proper film make for sumptuous hi-def experiences. I recommend this with some vigour, but only to those with affection for the amorality of the era and tolerance for bass-bothering Giorgio Moroder music.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is not the greatest film ever to be set in San Francisco. That would be John Huston’s 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. Nor is it the second greatest. That would be Vertigo. Third best is Philip Kaufman’s impudent, mumbly, riotously non-orthogonal remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Fourth… Well you get the idea.

We could be here for quite a long time and get right the way through Zodiac, Dirty Harry, 48 Hrs, A View To A Kill, that bit in The Core where the Golden Gate Bridge goes all broken, and All Dogs Go To Heaven Part 2 before we get anywhere near Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

How did this get made? Who are these people and what do they want from us? Is there literally no one in Hollywood who knows the meaning of the word otiose? And no, Otiose wasn’t one of the Muskehounds.

Planet Of The Apes started life as a 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle, “La Planète des singes” (English translation = Planet Of The Monkeys, yeah I know). It’s a surprisingly satirical book and was a considerable departure for a writer previously best known for having written Bridge On The River Kwai.

It's just a book! It can't hurt you!

The book was stripped, gutted, turned inside out and presented to cinema audiences in 1968 as a straightforward science fiction adventure starring Charlton Heston.

(A quick note on spoilers here: I don’t want to wreck anyone’s fun by blurting out stuff that might not be known. This movie, however, is 43 years old now. I didn’t get any spoiler alerts on my box set of The World At War. The makers, quite correctly, guessed that I would know that the Allies won. If you’re seriously worried that I might divulge something you don’t want to know you may wish to visit a more considerate blog because I’m just going to trundle on regardless. As regards the movie at hand, Rise Of the Planet Of The Apes, there is so little that is mysterious once you have accepted that a planet of apes is going to rise that I’m not even going to try monitoring myself.)

It was good, the first movie. I’m a bit antipathetic towards Heston who always struck me as a limited actor and, in real life, a gun-waving loony. On the virtuous side of the scale though are the remarkable Jerry Goldsmith score, the intelligent, gentle acting of Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, and of course the famous Statue Of Liberty ending, smart, but not as smart as Boulle’s ouroboric ending in the source novel.

The four Apes sequels are a mixed bunch.

Beneath The Planet Of The Apes is a bit of a re-tread but it gets points for its subterranean psychic tribe who worship a nuclear bomb from antiquity.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes boasts some supple plotting as three apes (played by McDowall, Hunter and astonishingly enough Sal Mineo) escape to present day Earth and set up the events that will lead to the first film.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes are less fulfilling affairs and are presumably the ones which prompted Bernard’s ace critical summary in Black Books, “You really believe monkeys could have meetings.”

There followed a live action TV series which had the same narrative problem experienced by the Logan’s Run TV series and Beyond Westworld (which was actually a TV sequel to Futureworld and so was technically waaaay Beyond Westworld) namely that the plot could neither alter the back-story nor propel the story forward in any non-reversible way. I’ve wasted a lot of my life watching TV episodes maintain the status quo. I am a nitwit.

TV Logan's Run: Donald Moffat! Heather Menzies! Some bloke!

There was also an animated TV show called Return To The Planet Of The Apes. I can’t speak about it with any authority, but the upside of that is that I have kissed some girls.

...and then left at the Statue of Liberty.

And that was that for a while. Occasionally the movies would crop up on TV. They were fondly remembered, re-mastered and re-released. John Chambers’ Oscar-winning makeup achievements stood the test of time. And who doesn’t like seeing Roddy McDowall in a film?

Then Tim Burton happened.

I don’t really like Tim Burton. Well I do. I like him. He seems like a big old cuddly emo kid who’s, like, really attracted to dark, inane melancholy, but his oeuvre mostly makes my pancreas spasm. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow do it for me, but I lack the gastrointestinal fortitude for the rest of them. Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Alice In Bloody Wonderland? No, no, no, no, no. Not on my retinas.

And really what was the point of Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes? It just looked like a chance for him to have his grubby way with logic without having to go to the trouble of treating logic to a dinner and a dance first.

An unjustifiable waste of cash and acting talent. We move on.

What the intention of the makers of the recently released Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is remains a bit of a conundrum. Well they want a machine that eats air and shits out iridium, obviously, but artistically it’s a conundrum.

It isn’t part of the narrative continuum of the first five films but it makes constant reference to them, to the extent that a casual viewer is likely to be utterly mystified. A chimpanzee called Cornelia! Big important thing! Oh no, we never see her again. Mission to Mars goes missing! We cut back to it twice! Then it never gets mentioned again. Oh, and look, a clip on TV of Charlton Heston giving it ham factor ten in The Agony And The Ecstasy.

If you are the kind of person who chortles at all the werewolf movie references in The Howling or is driven to nudge the person next to you when Steven Spielberg turns up in Gremlins or The Blues Brothers then you will find all this fascinating. If you aren’t, and we mostly aren’t, you won’t.

Positioning itself in the vicinity of Conquest and Battle, Rise tells the story of a genius chimpanzee (son of a mother who was being treated with experimental brain medicine) who rebels against his oppression and rallies monkey-kind in an uprising.

Have I missed anything out? No. I really haven’t.

It’s a weirdly constructed film. The guy who is putatively the hero, James Franco (I have no idea if we ever even learned his character name), is responsible for the whole mess in the first place. He hides and encourages Caesar the rebel chimp, stands around pointlessly as people are killed and then apologises rather sulkily towards the end of the film.

There is a notional heroine, a vet played by Freida Pinto, but she drifts in and out of the story with all the Rabelaisian energy of the inert gas xenon. I don’t even remember what happened to her at the end of the film and I only saw it four fucking hours ago.

So it’s Caesar the chimpanzee who becomes the central character by default. Fair enough. He’s played by Andy Serkis who has brought a distinctive physicality to special effects characters in the past (Gollum and King Kong) using motion capture technology.

Now I don’t wish to come across as an old, resentful, crotchety, good-looking Luddite, but that’s what I am so it will inevitably happen. The thing is I liked effects in the olden days. I liked those solid model effects that Doug Trumbull and Derek Meddings used to do. Look at 2001, Silent Running, Superman, Moonraker and many others today and, the odd matte line notwithstanding, they still look pretty amazing. And with the original Apes films the apes on horseback looked real because they were real. They were actors in painstakingly constructed masks.

It’s all motion capture these days anyway, and what I know about motion capture I have gleaned from switching off, in the first two minutes, over 100 different DVD featurettes about some actor mincing around in a green leotard with reflective ping pong balls glued to it.

The computer gets a notion of how the actor moves apparently and then translates it into a fully realised animated character on film in a process called JarJarBinksing. Great.

Except it looks shit.

There is so much in this film that is disappointing:

*James Franco clearly confusing the process of “acting” with the process of “furrowing his own brow”.

*The frittering away of talent like Brian Cox and John Lithgow.

*The least convincing science you will ever see outside a shampoo commercial. “Look,” shouts Franco boffinishly pointing at a line among other lines. “That was his IQ a month ago. This his IQ now!” He points even more boffinishly at a broadly similar line a bit further down. “It’s more than doubled!” They never mention whether or not the experimental brain medicine mends split ends.

*Appalling dialogue. “I love chimpanzees,” intones the vet profoundly. “And I am scared of chimpanzees. It is appropriate to be scared of chimpanzees.” You may wish to write this down in your jotter in case the film becomes too hard to understand later on.

So much to be disappointed by then, but I thought I would at least enjoy the special effects. Fat chance. A lot of them are sub-Jumanji even. There is that constant ghostly disjunction between actual things and computer-generated things. Jurassic Park looked better than this in 1993.

Are there any saving graces? Well Lithgow and Cox are great for the small amount of time they get. And, after a disastrous first eighty minutes, things do perk up slightly for a bit of Wrath Of Khan-age rumbling on the Golden Gate Bridge where the apes’ ability to think in 3D gives them a tactical advantage over the ground-based humans, but it’s a long hot trudge for a very watery glass of Ribena.

I’d have had more fun with back to back old Grape Ape episodes. He’s over forty feet high you know.

Grape Ape - just a little bit shy

John Carpenter’s The Ward

Where does Silent Running (1972) get its reputation and its loudly singing choir of appreciation from?

It’s a great looking film, as you might expect of the first film directed by Douglas Trumbull, previously the special effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Beyond that visual bravura though the film is a mess. Bruce Dern finding the limits of his range. Cute robots bumbling around. Joan Baez singing earnestly about issues with the political insight of a sock puppet, and not a particularly widely-travelled sock puppet at that. It’s an ordeal.

The worst aspect of the film though is the idiocy at work in the story. Having taken the Earth’s last remaining plants (filed away on a spaceship for reasons I have forgotten) out past the orbit of Saturn to escape the destructive plans of the authorities, hippie botanist Bruce Dern wonders why the plants begin to shrivel and die.

After much agonising he realises that they have no sunlight and that plants need light to live.

I reckon the standards must have been slipping on the day NASA interviewed him. My own botanical expertise is sparse, but I’ve got enough left over from O Level Biology to remember the whole light thing. And he’s supposed to be the botanist in charge.

This hobbled narrative, it breaks my heart to report, was written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino and Steve Bochco. Washburn went on to write The Deerhunter. Cimino, in addition to his directing career, scripted Thunderbolt And Lightfoot and Magnum Force. Bochco pioneered the complex character driven, multi-stranded TV drama we thrive on today with his revolutionary Hill Street Blues.

How they fluffed it so badly in Silent Running baffles me.

It’s a film with a long shadow though. Duncan Jones cited it as an influence on his magnificent movie Moon, and Andrew Stanton credits the making of WALL-E to it as well.

My favourite post-Silent Running movie though appeared comparatively quickly, two years later.

Dark Star (1974) is a bit of a rickety film. Its student roots and its paltry budget are quite evident throughout. It is also very lovable though, and if its parodic nature becomes clumsily broad from time to time it doesn’t really matter because there are some very well thought-out aspects to it. Particularly pleasing is the desperate philosophical argument one of the crew has with a sentient bomb, trying to persuade it not to blow up.


The two writers behind the film were Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter. O’Bannon went on to re-work some of Dark Star into the industrial gothic of Alien. John Carpenter, who also directed Dark Star, went on to have one of the most celebrated genre careers throughout the seventies and eighties.

There are, I think, three crucial Carpenter films: Halloween, The Thing and Prince Of Darkness.

A lot of the rest of his career is noteworthy too. Ghosts of Mars and Starman are negligible. Escape From LA and Memoirs Of An Invisible Man are actually awful. The balance though is cool beans in awesome sauce served up on a hot bed of WIN!

  • Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) – An entirely successful, quite shocking urban update of Rio Bravo.
  • The Fog (1980) – You would get a more sensibly written plot if you just threw Alphabetti Spaghetti at a rotating egg whisk for two hours, but logic aside this is a great, scary film.
  • Escape From New York (1981) – An iconic turn from Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken. The film is still being imitated today. Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008) owes it a great deal.
  • Christine (1983) – That rara avis, a good Stephen King adaptation. Not flashy, just well judged.
  • Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – A joyous romp which only makes sense, as my pal Lawrence pointed out to me, when you understand that Kurt Russell’s character Jack Burton is the sidekick rather than the hero, and that in fact it is Wang Chi (played by Dennis Dun) who is the protagonist. It makes viewing the film a completely different experience.
  • They Live (1988) – Satirical dystopian wrestling fun.
  • Vampires (1998) – Lively action-horror with a laconic James Woods, which suffers slightly from being released a decade after Kathryn Bigelow ploughed similar ground with her far superior film Near Dark (1987).

There are Carpenter films I haven’t seen. I will have to leave it to others to tell you whether or not In The Mouth Of Madness, Village Of The Damned, or his TV movies Elvis and Someone’s Watching Me! are any good. His three masterpieces are worth revisiting any day of the week though.

Halloween (1978) remains as terrifying now as it was the first time I saw it on TV in a house on my own. It utterly freaked me out. I was in my teens, and I still had to check behind all the furniture and curtains before I went to bed. It’s effective at a primal level. Who isn’t terrified of a blank-faced, indestructible, murderous monster? Stellar work on the character acting and Carpenter’s almost Kubrickian sense of space and its boundaries make this a film which far exceeds any expectations you can reasonably have of it.

In his version of The Thing (1982) Carpenter stripped out a lot of what lamed the (still very good) Howard Hawks version, The Thing From Another World and returned to the original source material (the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell), much as the Coens have done recently with True Grit. With its ensemble male cast, Spartan environment and escalating sense of threat The Thing manages to be both a supreme thriller and at the same time a nudging enquiry into the nature of identity and how we perceive others. It’s fabulously rich in subtext.

Prince Of Darkness (1987) is a personal favourite. I love it because of its attempts to transplant and nurture a Quatermass narrative in eighties America. Basically scientists find Satan in an abandoned church in LA. If you haven’t already seen this, then please consider rooting it out. Life does not give us many opportunities to see Alice Cooper being stabbed to death with a bicycle. Here’s one to seize.

Carpenter has been quite quiet since 2001’s pretty awful The Ghosts Of Mars. He directed two episodes of the gratifyingly gory TV anthology show Masters Of Horror, but apart from that, and some writing and producing work on the joyless remakes of Halloween and The Fog he has been absent from the screen.

Which makes the appearance of John Carpenter’s The Ward pretty big news for those of us with no girlfriends and an empty Friday evening ahead of us.

And is it any good? Well the short answer has to be no. The slightly longer answer has to be, not really.

But the full answer is this:

It is an old school, jump every five minutes, spooky haunted hospital, horror film. If you want mimsy stuff like character development and emotions other than the ones that sit on the spectrum between worry and terror then go and watch Rabbithole or Blue Valentine or something. This is not for you.

Amber Heard stars as Kristen, a young woman confined to a mental hospital after committing an initially un-contextualised arson attack on a farm building. As the other patients in the hospital start disappearing she becomes convinced that there is a malignant supernatural presence on the ward.

The film doesn’t really make awfully much sense, though the wrap up (dismayingly familiar from at least two other films of recent vintage) at least has a stab at closure. The shocks along the way are fun though, and as close as some of us are going to get to a full physical workout.

The Ward is a 15 certificate, which makes me realise how far we’ve come since the days of the Video Nasty witch hunts. The horror field is currently so rife with string em up, strip em and chop bits off em gore porn that when something like The Ward comes along with its relative paucity of gore and reliance instead on supernatural dread, it’s almost light relief.

When I alluded to it being old school a couple of paragraphs ago I meant it. This is the sort of horror you would get in the late seventies or early eighties. It reminded me in that respect of Ti West’s under-valued 2009 film The House Of The Devil. That film was set in the eighties which neatly sidestepped the deadening narrative effect that mobile phones and the Internet can have on a story.

The Ward is set in the sixties and has a similar low-tech feel. This is a good thing.

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time by saying you have to go and see this. If you don’t think you’re going to like it then you’re not going to like it.

If like me, however, you’ve got Carpenter love going on then you will not begrudge the hour and a half it takes to get from the establishing steady-cam prowl through deserted corridors to the closing credits.

True Grit

The novel True Grit by Charles Portis was first published in 1968 and must have seemed oddly anachronistic in its rectitude and formality in that furry-headed era of counterculture. It was well received, with Roald Dahl declaiming “True Grit is the best novel to come my way for a very long time. What book has given me greater pleasure in the last five years? Or in the last twenty?”

There were similar plaudits from contemporary writers of the calibre of Ira Levin and Richard Condon. In the UK it was published in 1969 as Penguin paperback number 3017 (thanks to my spheniscid pal Keir for pointing this out http://www.flickr.com/photos/scatterkeir/2548316773/). The writing was beautiful and the widespread assumption was that the novel would live on permanently, revered as a classic.

In her effusive introduction to Bloomsbury’s welcome 2005 reprint Donna Tartt notes of the novel that in the 1970s “…True Grit vanished from the public eye, and my mother and I, along with many other Portis fans, were reduced to scouring used bookstores and buying up whatever stock we could find because the copies we lent out so evangelically were never returned.”

I don’t agree with Tartt that truffling around second-hand bookshops is a mean or lowly pursuit to which one is “reduced”. Some of us find it quite noble. I do share her frustration though. It pre-echoes my constant astonishment that John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books don’t enjoy enduring popularity.

So what causes lie behind Portis’s disappearance from the literary canon?

True Grit is an amazing book. It details the handful of days in which fourteen year-old Mattie Ross heads off into the Choctaw Nation with the spent, dissolute US Marshal Rooster Cogburn and the prickly Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, her only intention being to deliver justice to Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father.

The novel sets itself up in an amazingly economical first chapter, and 215 pages later finishes with a beautiful coda in which Mattie relates, in a matter of paragraphs, the rest of her life. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a compelling account of how an entire life can crystallise around a single event, nor as convincing an evocation of how we all move apart in life like galaxies, no matter how important we are to each other.

“Time just gets away from us,” intones Mattie at the book’s very end. Amen to that.

What comes in between the introduction and the end, the actual story of the novel, does not describe a complicated curve, but the details are convincing and Portis’s writing (in the voice of an old woman, remembering events that happened to her as a young girl) is astonishing in the unwavering nature of its conviction. Best of all though the three central characters change gradually and irreversibly over the course of events, and not one of them ever refers to “going on a journey” apart from in a strict geographical sense.

It is not too overblown to call True Grit a great book. That it fell from renown I think can only be blamed on the broad film adaptation that followed.

The 1969 film version of True Grit is truly a film to make the guts tired. It’s lazily directed by Henry Hathaway, who at this point is coming to the end of a career verging on the illustrious, but who still has 1970’s Airport in his future. It’s catastrophically screen-written by Marguerite Roberts who misses every beat, constantly loses dramatic focus and fills her script with such deadening amounts of exposition that even that gobby bloke at the end of the third Matrix picture might think it was a bit much. She can’t even keep hold of the basic id/ego/superego pattern that the three characters in the novel suggest, like McCoy/Kirk/Spock in Star Trek or Quint/Brodie/Hooper in Jaws.

But worst of all, really, it’s an extravagantly badly cast film. Kim Darby (who had played Miri in olden days “proper” Star Trek) is an awful Mattie Ross, too old, yet not worldly enough. And the stunt casting of Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf misfires very badly indeed.

Why True Grit is remembered is partly for its Dennis Hopper turn, but mostly for the fact that John Wayne won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal (broad mummery, bordering on self-parody) of Rooster Cogburn. He beat both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight who were nominated in the same category for Midnight Cowboy.

Oh Oscar. Why are you so laughably and persistently wrong? Remember in 1982 when you asserted that Gandhi was better than ET, and that Ben Kingsley was better than Paul Newman in The Verdict? Remember also that year when you gave the best supporting actor to Lou Gossett for An Officer And A Gentleman over James Mason in The Verdict? You are an idiot.

So Wayne got his Oscar and there was some mileage to be got out of that, but I think the film cheapened the reputation of the book, and I further think (with noooooo evidence whatsoever) that it contributed to the book’s decline from popularity.

If there is any justice the new film version of True Grit will correct this.

With their 2010 movie version the Coen brothers have opted for an almost literal adaptation of the book. There are a few ellipses and one or two liberties taken, but generally this is the exact plot of the book with large swatches of dialogue rendered word for word from the page.

Hailee Steinfeld is perfect in her steadfast priggishness as Mattie, providing the supporting mechanism of the film with complete confidence. Watching that degree of competence in so young an actor reminded me of Natalie Portman’s performance in Leon. And that’s as big a compliment as I am able to give.

Matt Damon gives good value as LaBoeuf, once again showing that he is shaping up to be one of the standout actors of his generation, and making me sorry that still every time I see him I am shouting MATTDAYYMMONNN in my head. Team America has a lot to answer for.

Josh Brolin does as much as he can with slow-witted character Chaney and Barry Pepper (so good in The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, and recipient of a Razzie for his collaboration with Battlefield Earth) is a suitably weaselly Lucky Ned Pepper.

But this is very much Jeff Bridges’ show, and he is tremendous as Rooster Cogburn, reclaiming the nuance of character that got blurred in the embarrassing pantomime of John Wayne’s interpretation of the role. Bridges can do the comedy, but he underscores it with the bitterness of age and defeat. His physicality is impressive, and he brings a lot of wounded-elephant grandeur to play, but he never lets you forget that underneath the misanthropy, illiteracy and orneriness – quite far underneath all that in fact – is an actual human being whose current state is the result of everything he has endured in life. The accent, I will assume, is well researched, though I felt we were only ever one “hornswoggle” away from authentic frontier gibberish.

So how good of a film is True Grit in its current incarnation?

There is, I contend, no such thing as a bad Coen brothers film, unless we are to be merciless and include Joel Coen’s cameo in John Landis’s execrable 1985 comedy Spies Like Us. Admittedly some of their less accessible movies like Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man have failed to find a wide fan-base. And two of their comedies, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty are loudly and frequently unloved, which is a shame. The lunatic gravity of Tom Hanks’ ill-judged performance does destabilise the orbit of The Ladykillers rather, but there’s a lot left to enjoy in the film. And as for Intolerable Cruelty I would argue that Geoffrey Rush’s amazing turn goes a long way to cutting through the apparent smugness of the rest of the movie.

True Grit looks beautiful courtesy of the Coen’s regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, and constant Coen composer Carter Burwell scores it up a storm. The acting is great but, I am left to ask, what’s the point of it?

The book is so fluidly written, and so quick to read that in the time it takes to watch this film you could sit down and read it cover to cover.

The film has no flaws at all apart from the fact that it brings absolutely nothing new to what already exists. It’s like Gus Van Sant’s inexplicable shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. No harm has been done, but you strain to find a single microgram of benefit anyone has got from the endeavour.

Why was so much skill, effort and time spent on this?

On a final note, some commentators have tried to infer a political agenda from the fact that Wayne plays Cogburn with an eye patch on his left eye whereas Bridges plays him with the patch over the right eye. As far as I remember in the book Cogburn is described as an old one-eyed jasper. I don’t believe it is ever specified which eye is missing.

Black Swan

Black Swan is very good indeed.

I am not fond of the ballet. As an endeavour, for me, it is right up there emotionally and aesthetically with raffia weaving, with the added drawback that at the end of the ballet you don’t even have a little round thing to put your cafetière on. But we live in an age of metaphorical opulence. So, The Social Network is not “about” Facebook, There Will Be Blood is not “about” drilling for oil, and neither is Black Swan “about” the ballet.

Darren Aronofsky is an intelligent, articulate director and although films in his oeuvre have touched upon abstractions like number theory, religion, faith, love and spirituality (π and The Fountain) it is in the domain of the flesh that he seems to be most confident, coming on like the natural heir to David Cronenberg. In fact I think that as literary adaptations go Requiem For A Dream kicks The Naked Lunch’s talking ass right round the block.

Requiem For A Dream showed an admirably brutal insouciance towards the depredations of its characters’ bodies and psyches. The rot, the pain, the malfunction: that’s just the way things are. It’s still a hell of wrenching film to look at.

The Wrestler was similarly without qualm, and had a parallel agenda. The impossibility of arresting progress. The inability to stay still. The futility of resisting time’s arrow. Bloody thermodynamics.

It’s tempting to look at The Wrestler and Black Swan as the obverse of each other, they certainly have screamingly obvious similarities, but I think that their intentions are completely different.  In The Wrestler Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy The Ram Robinson, is shown to be pitiable and wretched outside of the strictly codified environment of the wrestling ring. He is hopeless with his family. He can’t hold down a job. Only when he’s wrestling does he have any sense of purpose, and it isn’t progressive purpose. It’s about the maintenance of the status quo.

The opposite is true of Black Swan in which Natalie Portman’s character Nina is obsessed by the idea of movement towards perfection. But for her the joy does not lie in the progress. It’s all about culmination. There is no satisfaction in the journey for her. It is one hundred percent about the destination. In this delirium, which basically lasts for the entire duration of the movie, there is no distinction between her life and the performance of Swan Lake she is rehearsing for. It’s not even as if reality and fantasy bleed into each other. There is literally no separation between the two.

Much has been made of this film’s antecedents. It has, even to the casual viewer, less in common with The Red Shoes than it does with Dario Argento’s horror films of the seventies. Mark Kermode, a critic I admire, but whose studied contrariness and confrontational saltiness I find a bit wearing, has likened Black Swan to Deep Red and Terror At The Opera, two of Argento’s gialli. I can see what he’s driving at but Black Swan reminds me far more of the saturated, heightened realities of Argento’s supernatural films Suspiria and Inferno.

There are also, I think, clear lines of descent from two non-consecutive Cronenberg films: Videodrome (1983) and Dead Ringers (1988).  Dead Ringers is an eerie, detached nightmare featuring twin gynaecologists both played by Jeremy Irons. It has at its core a morbid fascination with duality and the thinness of the membrane between the socially acceptable and the psychopathically unhinged.

Videodrome is concerned with, among other things, transcending the limits of the flesh and questioning the validity of any attempt to describe an objective reality. From a narrative point of view the second half of Videodrome looks like a bit of a mess, but the central character is seen to don a virtual reality helmet halfway through the story and we never see him take it off. The descent into incoherence may be the point. It’s difficult to say.

There is no such lack of coherence in Black Swan, but it definitely has its fun with duality, with bodily morbidity and with the uncertain perspective of an obsessed mind.

Portman is an absolute revelation. Who knew she had enough charisma to flame Vincent Cassel off the screen? Not me. I’m glad she got her Oscar. I hope she finds the courage to try more roles like this in the future.

The performance of Black Swan I was at was the first one in Inverness post-Oscars, and whilst it would be nice to write about the film without touching on the viewing experience in this instance I find that I can’t.

It’s very difficult to kill a good film. Scanners looked great on a disintegrating 16mm print fed through two clapped out Bell & Howell projectors the first time I saw it. The Evil Dead looked magic in a scratchy print at the long-since knocked down Tower Cinema in Leeds in the early eighties.

You can wound a good film though, and Vue in Inverness consistently and pointlessly make this their principal aim in life, seemingly.

Bad enough that the audience consisted of a large number of morbidly obese harpies, lured in by Oscar hype I assume, who giggled nervously at every mention of sex. And there are a lot of mentions of sex as this is a film largely concerned with Nina’s burgeoning concupiscence as the role of the Black Swan begins to subsume that of the virginal White Swan. I mean seriously. We’re all grown ups. It’s 2011. Do we still giggle at masturbation and oral sex? Looks like it.

Bad enough too that there was a guy in the audience who couldn’t put his mobile phone away for 108 minutes. His mobile phone, I might add, which had more luminous output than Commissioner Gordon’s fucking Bat Signal.

This is all just audience idiocy. You don’t get it at Eden Court so much. You get it at Vue all the time.

No, what bugs me the most is the contempt the cinema itself has for the film. I’m a credits nerd. I like to stick around until they’ve finished, or what I call “the end of the film”. Now I accept that at the first threat of having to read something some people need to run like Usain Bolt to the exits. It’s a bit annoying and distracting for those of us interested in “the end of the film”, but it’s their choice. Occasionally they will miss a little post-credit treat. So what? Fuck ‘em.

Other folk will stand up in front of the credits whilst they put their coats on and have a bit of a natter. That’s just rude, but again. I can live with it. People are idiots.

Where I draw the line is when the cinema itself obstructs you from watching the credits and this is a Vue speciality. At the end of the last scene of Black Swan, the precise second the (black on white and hard to read) credits started to roll the staff turned the lights up full.

I stood, or more literally, sat my ground. But even as the moody, entrancing Clint Mansell score was drawing to a gentle close they started pumping out the vile ear slurry of Good Enough by Dodgy. It’s depressing.

Film is a wonderful medium and cinema can be a transcendent experience, but Vue make it horrible.

They are dastardly and I do not like them.



And finally, whoever put in my head the idea that every time I see the name Darren Aronofsky I have to sing it to the tune of If I Were A Rich Man… I don’t much like you either.

Of Gods And Men – Tron Legacy 3D

Of Gods And Men was one of the regrettable no-shows at last year’s Inverness Film Festival. Here it is now though, and it was worth the wait.

Telling the story of a group of French monks in Algeria who were found dead in 1996 having stayed in the country during the Algerian revolution despite being advised not to, the film deals in a softly-spoken, slow-handed manner with the question of what motivated them to stay and face death.

It is not a complex film structurally but it is a deep one. It moves with the careful lack of haste of an archaeological dig and gradually allows some insight into what may have motivated the monks, what their experiences of religious calling might have been, and what generally constitutes the practice and purpose of prayer. Most enthrallingly, from my point of view, the film through its precisely delineated characters gets to grips with the question of what men of retreat and non-violence should do when conflict presents itself. “The serenity to accept the things that can’t be changed, courage to change the things that can, and wisdom to know the difference” in the comforting but confusing words of twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Director Xavier Beauvois is not, I think, concerned with answering any moral, ethical or religious questions absolutely, but he clearly enjoys exploring the experience of individuals.

This where my interests lie too.

I was brought up in a religion from which I moved away a long time ago. There were compelling reasons for me not to belong to a specific religious faith, but the matter of (for want of a better word) spirituality has become extremely interesting to me in recent years.

It seems to be such a common experience in people, this nebulous, unquantifiable, undetectable, spooky interaction with the supernatural. I hear people talking all the time about their relationship with God, or Allah, or their Higher Power, or the guiding angel light of their recently-departed Aunty Bunty, but it doesn’t coincide with anything I’ve ever felt or experienced.

This not, I hope, simple posturing on my part. I don’t particularly like the bit in Star Wars where Han Solo slouches insouciantly on the Millennium Falcon’s DFS sofa and quips dully about having flown from one side of the galaxy to the other and never seeing anything to make him believe in the force. This seems particularly disingenuous as a mere twenty years previously the Jedi were poncing all over the shop using the Force, but I digress.

I like to take people at their word. I like to assume for the most part that when people tell you about their own experiences they are doing just that and not forcing an agenda. My problem is that other people’s experience of God seems to be different from mine. When they use words like “spiritual” or “supernatural” I don’t know what they mean.

I’m not a solipsist. I work on the principle that the universe exists, and that it’s the same objective universe for all of us. I think our subjective experiences of it differ, but I’ll never know that for sure. What I’m happy about is that when we all say, “Look, there’s a sorbet or an armadillo or a fleet of Austin Allegros” and we lick it or chase it or drive it towards one another we are sharing an experience.

But I don’t get this notion that we can somehow interact with something that cannot be detected. When I pray, or meditate, or zone out I am aware afterwards that my conscious mind has been absent, or at least stilled to the point where it’s not filling my head, but I don’t feel that I have communed with something ineffable. There’s a lot of unconscious brain activity that goes on in my noggin, and it is good at what it does. It keeps me alive. Bloody hell, where would we be without our autonomic functions? I trust my medulla oblongata to steer me right. It’s a long way from a burning bush though.

When people tell me about their direct experiences of God I believe them, but I haven’t had one myself. I feel very much like a blind person having Magic Eye pictures explained to him. I nod a lot. I don’t really understand the phenomenon.

Of Gods And Men is scrupulous in its depiction of the monks as good people. It even-handedly portrays their local Islamic community as good people too, and celebrates the similarities of the Abrahamic religions. The antagonising force in the Algerian revolution, the Jama’ah al-Islamiyah, is shown to be violent and political, temporally driven rather than spiritually so.

It’s not a proselytising film though. There is room in it for the exploration of doubt and loss of faith, and I was grateful for that. I often feel that of all the apostles Thomas gets the hardest time. His reaction always seemed to me to be the sensible one.

This is absolutely worth your time and subsequent consideration. The acting highlight (and the cast are all utterly persuasive) for me was Michael Lonsdale’s performance as Brother Luc. Day Of The Jackal and Moonraker are now but dim memories.

Also concerned with aetiology, deification and questions of the interaction of conscious minds with their environments is 2010’s least likely blockbuster Tron Legacy. It’s the first film I’ve seen that puts a plausible case for 3D, so intelligently does it use its differentiated frames of reference. The spaces the film uses for its game play sequences use completely different physics from the less frenetic scenes. It’s a remarkable conceit, but more of technical stuff later. First some history. (And I’m afraid there are likely to be spoilers. I wouldn’t blame you for not reading this. The condensed version of the rest of this blog is “It’s really, really, really good.”)

When the original film Tron came out in 1982 it was widely sniggered at. It didn’t look anything like its contemporaries thanks to its weird, processed neon-stripe livery and pioneering use of wireframe computer graphics. Nor did it sound like anything else out at the time thanks to its spiky score by Wendy Carlos (formerly Walter Carlos, if you want more details Google it).

Carlos’s previous gigs had included A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. S/he made some fabulous, if odd, contributions to film soundtracks, a fact for which we should be atonally grateful.

(And yes, I wish I’d made that joke up. Truth to tell I nicked it from David Quantick.)

The other big sci-fi blockbuster of 1982 was ET. I like ET a lot, but if you contrast it with Tron it’s an exceedingly safe movie. The lustrous John Williams score, the sympathetic camera angles, the conventional narrative structure. Next to it Tron is a strange, awkward, angular film. No wonder there was tittering.

And the science in Tron is utter gobbledygook. For a lot of the film’s duration you might just as well say “and then they done some magic” to explain what’s going on.

But there are two important things about Tron.

Firstly, it posited in popular culture (at about the same time William Gibson would have been consolidating the notion of cyberspace in his fiction) the idea that what we put into computers is of us, but no longer in us. It was an early intimation of the Internet, social networks, hacking and what we might loosely refer to as the information revolution.

Secondly it neatly side-stepped the process of becoming dated. A lot of movie sci-fi, particularly the stuff dependent on special effects, becomes passé instantly as technology advances. There is a handful of works (which I think includes Metropolis, Things To Come, Forbidden Planet, 2001 and Blade Runner) that avoid this process by being completely sui generis. Their form and function is so completely contextualised as they are released that they never move forward in time with the rest of us.

Neat trick if you can do it.

So Tron was not initially embraced, but it became increasingly admired and loved and now, 28 years later we have the sequel.

Tron Legacy is ace.

In the original an impish Jeff Bridges played a computer programmer whose work was appropriated by a tech company whose “Master Control Programme” had reached sentience and was accumulating power. Hacking in to the system, in an attempt to prove that his work had been stolen, Bridges’ character enters the world behind the screen (best to hurry past this bit). Here he finds anthropomorphic versions of computer programs forced by the MCP to do battle if they are of no other use. Charmingly the programs have a mythology about the “users” who control their lives for some unknowable purpose.

The olden days of 1982. Can it be that it was all so simple then?

Long story short. Bridges’ character battles his way to the Input/Output tower returns to the “real” world with the proof he needs and becomes MD of the company.

In the sequel, set in a version of now, Bridges’ character Flynn has been missing for some years (there is some great CGI with Bridges in flashback the way he would have looked in 1989, using his Against All Odds appearance as a reference I think).

Flynn’s son Sam, having long given his father up for dead, finds himself in the same virtual world (there is some unconvincing talk of quantum teleportation, again don’t look, keep moving). However things have changed a lot since 1982, the threat is more acute and the stakes are higher.

It is, I hope, not the stuff of spoilers, to reveal that Flynn senior has been in the virtual world all this time, now looking like the ancient and grizzled Jeff Bridges we love from Crazy Heart and Iron Man. Once reunited with his son, Flynn realises he has to do battle with his computerised alter ego Clu who is running the virtual world as a kind of Reich.

This is one of the major similarities with Of Gods And Men, this interest in how a man of peace, whose moral way is not to fight, must behave when confronted with the unacceptable.

A lesser film would sit back on its father/son dynamic and go for some Manichaean goodies versus baddies action. Not Tron Legacy though. As soon as the protagonists and antagonists are in place it moves straight to the theology of it.

Flynn, effectively the creator of the Universe he is in, is tacitly acknowledged as God. Clu, his alter ego who is waging an ideological war with him, represents Lucifer. Flynn’s son Sam is Christ whose presence in the virtual world is shown to be instrumental in saving the artificial life that has evolved there (the analogue of humanity).

Even with this structure though, the film-makers have not settled for the conventional Judeo-Christian interpretation of the ur-soap opera. In this version God accepts that Lucifer only behaves the way he does because that’s how God created him. The film’s climactic battle is not a fight so much as a struggle for God to get the Devil to forgive him.

And through all of this, almost as an aside, the writers throw in with gleeful enthusiasm radical off-grid, Deepnet, dark Web ideas about life, evolution and the boundaries of identity.

I just don’t think you get stuff like this in Pirates of the Caribbean.

The look of Tron Legacy is amazing. The sheen and texture of the CGI is completely appropriate for its setting and, as I suggested earlier, the application of the 3D process is extremely intelligently done. The flashbacks are in 2D. There is a pre-credits warning telling you that they are supposed to look flat.

Bridges’ performances are wonderful and bring to mind the highly lauded twin-acting that Jeremy Irons did in Dead Ringers.

In place of Wendy Carlos’ eighties synthesiser-wonking we get Daft Punk. I was pre-indisposed to this. My mistake. It is beyond apt.

Moving 'long the Queen's highway looking like a streak of lightning.

In short, I loved it. As with two other big-budget films of last year Inception and The Social Network, I feel that Tron Legacy is far braver and more experimental than it is being given credit for. I will happily accept your criticisms of any of these movies, but I maintain that they are better than, say, the entirely predictable, lazily manipulative Toy Story 3.

We got a better class of blockbuster than usual last year.

Some films that are better than Avatar (M-Z)

Nearly there now…

The Man Who Fell to Earth – Bowie has never been better cast than as the isolated alien Thomas Jerome Newton. Nicolas Roeg turns a comparatively linear Walter Tevis novel into a fractured delight in which you get the narrative components in the order of their relevance. Roeg’s films of this period are often praised for their artistry. The craftsmanship is also of considerable éclat.

Maniac Cop – Lowdown street level horror from William Lustig, written by Larry Cohen. Bruce Campbell (Ash from the Evil Dead movies) leaves behind all traces of parody as the eponymous monster.

Martin – An almost gentle movie from zombie auteur George Romero. This is an alternative, acutely psychological take on vampirism.

The Medusa Touch – In the wake of The Exorcist and The Omen, but before the gonzo Italian rip-offs like Holocaust 2000, came this understated British thriller with an on-the-skids Richard Burton as a misanthrope with a destructive telekinetic gift.

Network – If you see the word Network and your mind instantly comes up with the phrase “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more” then it is no wonder that we are friends. Watching this 1976 news satire and reading Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves To Death will take you a huge distance towards understanding today’s media.

Peter Finch - Look how mad he is! He's really, really mad.

Never Say Never Again – The “unofficial” Bond film people talk about even less than the sixties version of Casino Royale. It’s a remake of the problematically-copyrighted Thunderball in which Connery, wrinkly and be-toupeed, reprises his 007 role charmingly. There are lapidary script embellishments by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, and an appalling Rowan Atkinson cameo, but it still all works. “Oh I’ve made you all wet,” apologises Kim Basinger arriving on water-skis. “My martini’s still dry,” retorts Bond.

Night of the Comet – A rom-zom-com twenty years before Shaun Of The Dead. Highly likable post-apocalyptic valley girl doomsday flick featuring the much-missed Mary Woronov.

Oasis of Fear – A swinging London Italian sexploitation thriller from 1971. It stars the beautiful Ornella Muti who went on to play Princess Aura in Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon.

Our Man in Havana – So how does this work? You take the writer (Graham Greene) and director (Carol Reed) of one of the greatest films of all time (The Third Man). You cast Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Noel Coward and Maureen O’Hara. You light the touch paper, stand back and… Fizzzzzle. Phut. It’s certainly worth watching, though the humour is a little forced. Specifically though it’s a lesson in how unpredictable cinema alchemy can be.

Outland – High Moon we called it. We were funny in the early eighties. Sean Connery takes the Gary Cooper role as the only law, albeit on Io rather than Hadleyville. Director Peter “steady hand on the tiller” Hyams also directed Capricorn One and 2010. Oh, and Timecop.

Phantasm – A macabre, lurid tale of a funeral parlour which is home to a ghoulish tall man, a portal to a hellish dimension and a bunch of flying, blood-sucking silver fears. I don’t think I sold that well, but this and its three sequels are disconcerting, threatening and fun.

Pleasantville – Oh, what a beautifully crafted thing this is. Nerdy Tobey Maguire and his slutty sister Reese Witherspoon are “magicked” into the world of a black and white 50s sitcom. He thinks they should go along with the scripts (he’s a buff). She thinks they should do what they want. They both learn lessons as he becomes more relaxed, and she becomes more responsible. The film takes on another dimension though halfway through. There has been no sex in the sitcom world before Witherspoon’s arrival. She initiates it. It spreads and, as it does, colour starts to erupt. The remaining repressed black and white residents take against the “coloureds”. It’s funny, affecting and occasionally erotic, and there are genuinely bittersweet performances from William H. Macey and Joan Allen. Randy Newman’s score doesn’t exactly hamper things either.

True colours - some proper actoring from Pleasantville.

Primer – Hardcore, no-prisoners-taken time travel without the paradoxes genius. The unfolding of the plot in mumbled, tech-heavy jargon is fantastic. The understatedness of the whole thing really works in its favour. Short but incredibly intense. A movie triple espresso.

Prophecy – High energy occult pantomime starring an exultant Christopher Walken as the arch-angel Gabriel. Walken also starred in two of the sequels, Prophecy II and Prophecy 3. It is in keeping with the movies’ skittishness that the makers can’t even be consistent about whether to use Roman or Arabic numerals. Fun though. Certainly much more fun than last year’s po-faced Legion which trod similar ground.

Psycho II – There are three sequels to Psycho. Psycho IV is a disappointing, but watchable, prequel. Psycho III is a sleazy piece of brilliance directed by Anthony Perkins himself. But this is my favourite. Left in the hands of Australian Hitchcock fan Richard Franklin, who had previously directed the magnificent movie Road Games, this unloved bastard child became a surprisingly inventive, but respectful, thriller.

Q – The Winged Serpent – Aztec flying serpent god Quetzalcoatl has made his home (undetected) in the roof of the Chrysler building and is terrorising New York rooftop sunbathers. Mad, mad, mad as you like. It’s got Richard Roundtree and David Carradine in it, but it is Michael Moriarty’s loony performance that binds it all together.

Quest for Fire – A thoroughly sincere and wholly convincing recreation of the Stone Age. Anthony Burgess constructed the rudimentary language. Desmond Morris coached the body language. Everett McGill (big Ed Hurley from Twin Peaks), Ron Perelman (from everything) and Rae Dawn Chong star. It’s beautiful.

Excuse me, mate. Have you got any fire? - RDC rocks the Palaeolithic era.

Razorback – Brightly lit Australian version of Jaws with a giant pig instead of a shark, and set in the outback rather than at sea. Lush. Flamboyant director Russell Mulcahy had previously directed Wild Boys and many other Duran Duran videos. He went on to direct Highlander and Highlander II.

Red Dawn – A staggeringly offensive lump of Reagan-era right wing political naivety. Mainland USA is invaded by the USSR and its allies. Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and C. Thomas Howell lead the resistance. John Milius gets credit for the sheer balls-out swagger of the film. Wolverines!!

Right at Your Door – LA suffers a dirty bomb attack. Brad seals himself into his house with his neighbour’s Mexican handyman. When Brad’s wife returns to the house asking to be let in a standoff ensues. This is a textbook example of how to extract the maximum tension from a limited budget and just three main cast members. There’s a pleasing twist towards the end too.

Runaway Train – Thundering good action movie, with a nihilistic edge set on… Well guess. Did you say a runaway train? You are correct. Jon Voight and Eric Roberts star. It’s based on a script, and I still find this hard to believe, by Akira Kurosawa.

Safe – Being a Julianne Moore fan will take you to some strange places. Shelter? The Forgotten? Blindness? Sheesh. However she is an amazing actress and this is one of her overlooked masterpieces. She plays a woman who gradually becomes allergic to everything and ends up living in a porcelain igloo in the desert. A to the R to the T.

Save the Green Planet – Byung-gu kidnaps the CEO of a chemical company, convinced that he is the leader of an alien invasion from Andromeda, ties him up and proceeds to torture him. An off-its-meds South Korean sci-fi/horror/comedy of considerable achievement.

Streets of Fire – Walter Hill’s musical, or rock and roll fable as he preferred to call it. Jim Steinman contributed some of the songs so there’s a ponderous air to it, but the look is overwhelming and the movie thrives on its comic book-style wipes between scenes.

Triangle – Marketed as horror, this is certainly an unnerving film but there is so much more to it than that. Inventive, convincing and ultimately agonising this remains to date the only film I have ever seen to be explicitly based on the myth of Sisyphus.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me – Has there ever been a bigger Fuck You than this? Taking a lulled TV audience who only wanted a resolution to the Black Lodge/White Lodge stuff from the end of Twin Peaks season 2, David Lynch instead provided them with the artistic equivalent of baring his bottom through a window. An unwished for prequel that entirely resists interpretation. It is brilliant.

The Valley of Gwangi – Cowboys versus dinosaurs. Still a regrettably small genre. Ray Harryhausen provided the special effects.

Wolfen – Ah the early eighties. So much werewolf action. Eschewing the conventional lycanthrope trappings, so brilliantly subverted in The Howling and An American Werewolf In London, this instead goes for a Native American myth. It is based on a novel by Whitley Strieber (the anal-probe fetishist’s answer to David Icke). Albert Finney stars as a New York cop. It was only director Michael Wadleigh’s second film, his first having been Woodstock twelve years earlier. There is some high quality severed head action.

Zombie Creeping Flesh – Euro-zombies! This starts with an undead rat in a chap’s biohazard suit and ends mid-chomp in a full-on zombie rampage. In between is all manner of absurd dubbing and arbitrary shocks. The zombies are old-school shufflers so there is a lot of standing-still and running-slowly action. The music is by Goblin.

And so there we have it. 72 films that are effortlessly better than Avatar – obviously I didn’t think it through or I’d have chosen 75. That’s the trouble with the top of my head. It has the worst ideas.

There are millions more, but I’m not sensing an appetite out there for it.

We will move forwards (complicated hand thing) together (reassuring head nod).

Just one final thought: I have proved scientifically, by imagining it pretty much to be the case, that you could make all of the films I have written about for less than the cost of one Avatar.

Mind how you go now.

Some films that are better than Avatar (I-L)

Previously on my blog: A-H. Now some more filmic randoms that are much better than James Cameron’s colon-wearingly bad blockbuster.

Intacto – From Juan Carlos Fresnadillo who would go on to direct the respectful sequel 28 Weeks Later, this is a tale of people who have huge amounts of luck and gamble to the death with each other. Part thriller, part meditation on fate. Max von Sydow gives the movie a wonderful centre of gravity.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers – I have four versions of this and I kind of like them all. The 1993 Abel Ferrara version “Body Snatchers” tends towards superficiality, and the 2007 Oliver Hirschbiegel “Invasion” has a fatal inconsistency of vision. But my favourite is Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version. It takes the enemy within/Commie menace threat of Don Siegel’s brilliant. 1956 original and turns it into a unique take on seventies self-regard and narcissism, and the isolating paranoia that goes with that. Kaufman’s film is set in San Francisco and there are a lot of crazy angles and disturbing visual non-sequiturs in the background. It’s an unsettling piece of work with more of a social agenda than the overt political agenda of the original, but it’s a key seventies movie.

Leonard Nimoy's in it y'know.

Jaws 3 – Hey, shut up and leave me alone. I think it would be a happier world if there were no sequels at all to Jaws. Spielberg’s blockbuster is still (along with Die Hard) a perfect example of how to write, cast and direct a thriller. There’s not a duff note in it. By contrast Jaws 2 and Jaws: The Revenge (Jaws 4) are awful. They are hack jobs of the direst sort; complete misunderstandings of what made the first one so great. I can’t pretend that Jaws 3 is actually any good, but it’s a welcome breather between the two stinkers and bounces along with a likable insouciance as to what you actually think of it. Released as part of the early 80s craze for 3D it contains a lot of lunging and some pretty ropey effects, but no film starring Dennis Quaid and Simon MacCorkindale can be all bad. Director Joe Alves was the second unit director on Jaws, and the uncredited art director on 1970’s Pufnstuf TV movie starring Mama Cass.

King Kong – Not the original. If you need me to tell you that that is better than Avatar then you are definitely reading the wrong blog. Neither do I mean Peter Jackson’s morbidly obese remake. I respect the guy’s reverence but fucking hell it’s about 100 hours longer than the original and has much less to say. No, what I am weakly applauding here is the 1976 John Guillermin version. The effects are man-in-a-monkey-suit rubbish. The publicity was a complete con: the poster had a massive ape astride the two WTC towers. Never happened in the film. Where the film scores though is in the laid back seventies playing of Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. It takes a lot of style to come through that kind of film with dignity.

The Big Lying Poster

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – The wisest-cracking of all wise-cracking thrillers. Shane Black wrote the Lethal Weapon films and the sublime The Last Boy Scout. This was his first, and so far only, directorial job. The choice of casting two of the most infamously prickly actors at the time (Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr.) was inspired and provides a transcendent, edgy double act. Why is this so under-rated? Too clever?

Koyaanisqatsi – No words, no story. Just a stunning set of time-lapse sequences of skyscapes, deserts and cityscapes from which you are welcome to infer your own doomy interpretation the state of mankind. The Philip Glass music is compelling. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance”. Chin-stroking genius. There are two sequels which aren’t as good.

Krull – The movie that couldn’t decide whether to rip off Star Wars or Conan. The result, an unrescuably mangled mess of science fiction and fantasy. Weirdly hypnotic though. Hell of a cast too. Bernard Bresslaw, Liam Neeson (he doesn’t talk about it much these days), Freddie Jones and Todd Carty (Tucker from Grange Hill). When are you going to see all them in the same film again? Director Peter Yates also directed Bullitt. Amazing.

The Lady from Shanghai – Unhinged “Oirish” performance by Orson Welles fails to undermine a labyrinthine noir. Directed by Welles at speed in order solely to make money this is nonetheless a fascinating piece of work. Some claim that there are clues in the film that indicate Orson Welles was the Black Dahlia murderer. Others are sceptical. Whatever, it’s an entertaining field of speculation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Dahlia_suspects

Lifeforce – It’s based on a book called The Space Vampires, so what did you think you were going to get? They are vampires. From your actual space! There are a lot of people involved in this who should have known better: Patrick Stewart (who’d also been in Dune the previous year), Frank Finlay, Peter Firth. The put-upon Mathilda May wanders round for the entire film stark naked. For no reason. Tobe Hooper has only ever directed three watchable films: Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist (widely assumed to have been ghost-directed by Spielberg) and this. It is a fine spectacle and has a lovely Henry Mancini score.

Mathilda May in her one, brief, clothed moment.

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue – One of those seventies Italian zombie films I’m so fond of (except the director Jorge Grau is Spanish, but that’s just a technicality). This one is set in exotic Manchester. I love the cross-cultural failures and infelicities of nuance of things like this. The film-makers could have researched life in the city, but it was clearly easier not to, so the establishing montage has yellow double-deckers, dowdy Mancs shuffling round grimacing and smoking, factories emitting billowing clouds of pollution, a dead bird, and… A STREAKER! You know, like you used to get in the seventies. Except this isn’t at a public occasion. It’s just along a street during the day. I also enjoyed the white standard van with Manchester City UK MORGUE stencilled on it. That’s how I want to go. In a transit van. There’s an eco-agenda shoe-horned in here, but it’s mostly about the flesh-eating. The gore effects are good, but the sci-fi trappings are right out of Rentaghost. Alternative titles for this (and there are many) include the unbeatable Brunch With The Dead. Yes, they were being serious.

The Long Riders – Walter Hill is a brilliant action director whose people skills are not always evident. This 1980 Western is an exceptional bit of movie-making though. The casting has the air of “stunt” about it with real life brothers playing real life brothers so Stacy and James Keach are Frank and Jesse James, Randy and Dennis Quaid are the Millers, a whole bunch of Carradines play the Youngers and Christopher and Nicholas Guest are the Fords. It works very well however and Ry Cooder always gives good soundtrack.

Lost Continent – A lesser known 1968 Hammer film which got a pretty smart DVD release finally in 2010. It’s not horror, it’s not sci-fi. It’s a vaguely sort of fantastical film based on a book by Denis Wheatley. Its immediate cinematic neighbours would be Island At The Top Of The World and The Land That Time Forgot, that sort of thing.  A modern day ship transporting explosives is becalmed in the Sargasso Sea and encounters the descendants of people who were trapped there centuries before. And a giant octopus. It features the basically luminous Dana Gillespie who was also in The People That Time Forgot.

Dana Gillespie gets ready to rumble.

Holy hell, how long is this alphabet anyway? Coming next, from The Man Who Fell To Earth to Zombie Creeping Flesh

Love you.