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Top 10 Films

1. The Man Who Would Be King

John Huston’s directorial career was nothing if not patchy and, following The Man Who Would Be King, so it would continue (he finished on a high, however). But this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s short story, concerning ex-army freemasons in 19th century British India whose quest for riches leads them to the fictional kingdom of Kafiristan, is as close to cinematic perfection as any of its main players ever came. Michael Caine and Sean Connery display the kind of chemistry that blows the much-celebrated Newman and Redford combination out of the water, and the cheerful irreverence with which Peachy (Caine) and Danny (Connery) view the former masquerading as a local divinity is delightful and infectious. That is, until it all goes to Danny’s head rather and it’s left to Peachy to warn him gravely over his burgeoning hubris.

Also along for the ride are Saeed Jaffrey and Christopher Plummer (as Kipling himself) and even Caine’s wife Shakira. Huston’s film as is humorously unmodernised in depicting its characters casually racist attitudes and mores, but there’s never any doubt over its sprightly intelligence and standing as a cautionary tale. Foot soldiers of the British Empire are fooled into thinking they are unstoppable, like the Empire itself; the wake up call is a particularly cruel one when it comes. Huston gives the film a lustrous sheen, making the most of the Moroccan locations, and Caine and Connery are such a joy to watch it’s criminal that they never reunited on screen, despite occasional talk.


CHOICE LINES

Daniel Dravot: You are going to become soldiers. A soldier does not think. He only obeys. Do you really think that if a solider thought twice he’d give his life for queen and country? Not bloody likely.


2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Jack Nicholson’s peak point in the career defining half-decade of signature roles that followed Easy Rider. He was sniffing too much to do anything of much value during the last half of the ‘70s and when he returned to coherence in the ‘80s it was with an altogether broader brush, playing on his own larger-than-life reputation. What can be said about Cuckoo’s Nest, except that it deserved every one of its Oscars. It’s that rare multi-award winner you can’t argue with, and Nicholson is superlative as convict R. P. Murphy, attempting to get off hard labour through an insanity plea but finding the alternative less than rosy; Murphy is ebullient, funny, unhinged, wholly justified in his rage and scorn at an uncaring system that leaves its patients medicated and abused.

It took well over a decade before Ken Kesey’s novel arrived on the big screen, but it was worth the wait. Milos Forman, a director with the propensity to make all-time classics or near-disasters, with little in between, would go on to strike gold again a decade later with Amadeus. He followed Cuckoo’s Nest with an ill-advised too-late adaptation of Hair, but this comes at a crucial moment before the tide has turned in favour of the blockbuster and the late ‘60s-early ‘70s sensibility has been dissolved. Before the despair at being unable to make a difference has been replace by avarice. It defines the mid-decade as much as the following year’s Taxi Driver.  Jack’s great, and he’s supported by a brace of recognisable faces as fellow inmates (Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd) and orderlies (Scatman Crothers). His only screen equal is Louise Fletcher’s unbending Nurse Ratched one of those performances so compelling it can drown a career (see also F Murray Abraham in Amadeus).


CHOICE LINES

McMurphy: What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin’? Well you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole our walkin’ around on the streets and that’s it.


3. Jaws

I came late to the Jaws appreciation party. Not that I didn’t think it was an effective, scary movie, but when I was younger I couldn’t pick out why, say Jaws was obviously vastly superior to Jaws 2. Both had a mean shark. Both had Roy Scheider. Both had a fairly crazy fate for said shark. Now the differences are night-and-day. This movie is Spielberg at his best; working in the wheelhouse of pure un-aspirational entertainment that only stopped serving him when he developed pretensions to better himself, ones that went beyond his intellect. Jaws stands shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder with Close Encounters and Raiders, a trilogy (if you coveniently exclude 1941) that sees him at his creative and commercial peak.

There’s little here to betray the logistical nightmares that beset a junior director in turning Peter Benchley’s novel into box office gold. Now it seems like a fait accompli; the director who ushered in the purpose-built blockbuster. But neither this nor Star Wars assured any guarantees. And, while you can see that keen acumen here, making every shot count and bringing a different kind of wunderkind (to the more politically and socially aware approach of his peer group) attitude to a production that could have been as formally inert as, say, the previous year’s The Towering Inferno, it’s an elusive alchemy that makes Jaws so good, so rewatchable. The shark is the big bad monster, the trio of men at its centre different archetypal portrayals of the masculine; the tension between them gives the picture as much momentum as the promise of successive attacks. And there’s even a sprinkling of ‘70s conspiratorial cynicism; the mayor wants to keep the beaches open because beaches mean big bucks in revenue. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw are at the top of their games. Spielberg’s mastery and enthusiasm is delirious; this a funhouse ride you don’t want to stay aboard. And John Williams’ score. Well, he’d be riding high for the next decade with some of cinema’s most iconic themes.


CHOICE LINES

Hooper: Mr Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all. Now, why don’t you take a long, close look at this sign (indicates the billboard). Those proportions are correct.
Mayor Vaughn: Love to prove that, wouldn’t ya? Get your name into the National Geographic.


4. Picnic at Hanging Rock

Peter Weir’ haunting tale of civilisation at the mercy of the untamed unknown is in some respects a direct descendant of Nic Roeg’s Walkabout. But, where Roeg takes a schoolgirl and her young brother and casts them adrift in an Outback rites of passage, encompassing the juxtapositions of a clash of cultures and environment when they encounter an Aborigine youth, Weir fixes on something all together more primal and mystifying.

The turn of the 20th century (Picnic at Hanging Rock is set in 1900) girls’ private school prides itself on order; the assured, the repressed and the rigid. So the disappearance of three girls during an outing to the titular Rock carries with it a sense of the ancient and occult. A palpable dread is evoked through the reactions of survivors; more than that, the effects of the unleashing of pent-up emotions, and the attempts to control reactions to the event, have repercussions as damaging as the disappearance itself. Weir shoots subjectively, which further fuels the sense of the uncanny. It’s no surprise that many thought this was a true story; just positing the tale as an unsolved mystery (albeit one solved in Joan Linsday’s novel) fosters such an interpretation (the narrated epilogue is rendered in the language of newspaper reports), but also on a local and intimate scale Picnic is lent a prevailing verisimilitude, countering the beckoning sense that something highly out-of-the-ordinary has occurred.


CHOICE LINES

Miranda: What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.


5. Dog Day Afternoon

Al Pacino ineptly robs a bank to fund his wife Leon’s sex change operation. Events quickly escalate into a hostage situation. Would this get made now, less still become a huge hit? But this was the ‘70s and, for all the evidence to the contrary in multiple Airports and disposable junk no one ever talks about now, there was a genuine yen for interesting and offbeat material; thoughts of commerciality rode on the post-Bonnie and Clyde wave that engulfed Hollywood and made it a better and more interesting place, for a while at least. This openness was predicated on the thinking was that something with an edgy sensibility could end up as the next Bonnie, or M*A*S*H. When a Dog Day scored big time, based on a true story and starring with the brightest new star in the firmament (Dustin Hoffman was also offered the part, mind), it justified all that otherwise unsafe betting.

Sidney Lumet’s career was variable in terms of quality, more because he’d try anything – some of which was unsuited to him – than sticking to what he did best; gritty dramas, usually with crime aspect. Full marks to him for testing himself, but it generally exposed his limitations. The ‘70s was probably Lumet’s most accomplished decade, despite The Wiz, and includes Serpico, The Offence and Network. Dog Day is frequently very funny, as Pacino’s well-meaning Sonny attempts to juggle the demands of his hostages, the hostage negotiators, his wife and unstable and confused accomplice Sal (John Cazale, whose line “Wyoming” in answer to what country he’d like to flee to was improvised, and is one of the picture’s biggest laughs). As the media storm converges, so Sonny gets the crowd on his side (shouting “Attica! Attica!” in reference to the prison riot demanding better rights and conditions). So Lumet’s film takes in the remnants of the period’s movement for change (the events it is based on occurred in 1972), nursing a topical rebellious spirit, just as its protagonist loses, beaten by the system (and sacrifices his friend in the bargain, which is where we meet future Piranha II star Lance Henrickson). This was the same year as Jaws (above) and the writing was on the wall for the now-not-so-new spirit in town. When, as here, he’s not attempting an all-out comedy Lumet delivers the laughs with ease, and counters with equal weight on the tragedy. He was rewarded with a Best Director Oscar nomination, one of six including Best Picture the film. It walked away with one, for Best Original Screenplay (Frank Pierson). It wasn’t nominated for Best Score, however. Because there isn’t one.


CHOICE LINES

TV Anchorman: Sonny, you could give up?
Sonny: Give up? Right. Have you ever been in prison?
TV Anchorman: No!
Sonny: No! Well let’s talk about something you fucking know about, okay? How much do you make a week? That’s what I want to hear. Are you going to talk to me about that? (The transmission cuts and a “Please Stand By” message appears on the screen.) Hey, what the fuck happened?
Mulvaney: I guess he didn’t appreciate your use of language.
Sonny: Fuck him.


6. Three Days of the Condor

Sydney Pollack’s paranoia thriller is one of the decade’s best known. Three Days of the Condor is considerably glossier than the Pakula peaks that surround it, and burdened by Faye Dunaway’s unlikely hostage-come-love interest. But it’s a confident, slickly made work that has barely dated despite the low-tech surrounding Robert Redford’s CIA bookworm (he reads for the Company, looking for hidden meanings and messages in books, manuscripts, newspapers and journals).

Condor (Redford) wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s surveillance world, but here he has first timer’s luck.  He can disappear into the woodwork, up to a point, and his limited knowledge of ways and means keeps him off the grid. Until he inevitably trips up. The opening massacre of his co-workers is a bravura set piece, and informs our expectations for what follows. Sure, it has the inevitable rotten group in the organisation, rather than espousing that the whole structure is corrupt, but Max Von Sydow’s philosophical hitman sets up a world where the job is all, where belief is nothing, and links in to the disintegration of the ideals of only a few years before (see Cuckoo’s Nest above). Meanwhile, Condor’s boss lays out his plan to take over Middle East oil fields. It’s a world of simple economics dictating subterfuge, and as such feels very prescient.


CHOICE LINES

Joubert: Condor is an amateur. He’s lost, unpredictable, perhaps even sentimental. He could fool a professional. Not deliberately, but precisely because he is lost, doesn’t know what to do.


7. Love and Death

Woody Allen, midway between full-on slapstick mode and the stirrings of a more serious bent. What better then, than a Napoleonic farce taking on the Russian literary heavyweights? Hence the title, and wheat, wheat, fields of wheat. It would be the director’s only foray outside of the US for two decades, so little fun did he have shooting in Europe.

Part of the fun here is the scattershot tone; extended riffs on existential angst (Allen’s Boris debates the meaning of it all with Keaton’s Sonja); the lurking spectre of Death (that’s the Bergman influence making its presence felt); the requisite masturbation gags (Countess: You are the greatest lover I ever had Boris: Well, I practice a lot when I’m alone); Village Idiot Conventions; Don Francisco’s sister; Mr Strickland from Back to the Future as Napoleon and his double. Keaton was Allen’s greatest screen muse and she probably fares better than Allen here, all told. This used to be one of my very favourite Allens, and its still pretty damn funny, but the gaps between what it sets out to do and what it achieves somehow seem greater now (certainly more so than a relatively simple affair like Sleeper, which hits most of its targets). It still has a gag hit rate most comedies can only dream of, however.


CHOICE LINES

Napoleon: Do you find me attractive as a man?
Sonja: I think that’s your best bet.


8. The Great Waldo Pepper

Robert Redford ‘s second team up with the combination of writer William Goldman and director George Roy Hill (in between he made The Sting with the latter and after starred in All the President’s Men and A Bridge Too Far with the former). It wasn’t a box office disaster on release, but the mediocre returns can’t have made Universal overly chuffed; no doubt all they could see were the dollars Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had rung up.

Redford is the titular Waldo, a stunt pilot in the late 1920s who never got to taste action in WWI because he was made a flying instructor. We follow him through a series of accidents and tragedies, which see both his best friend (Bo Svenson, in a scene that was horribly memorable when viewed as a youngster) and wing-walker (Susan Sarandon; this is the element Goldman cites as turning audiences off the movie) die. This is not an upbeat tale (ignore that title) but it’s a engaging one, blessed with superb aerial photography and led by the obstinate derring-do of Pepper. As played by Redford, he’s relatable despite his intractability and recklessness. Perhaps not relatable enough; not for Universal anyway. We’re encouraged to see Pepper as a man out of time, desirous of a world that caters for one of his temperament and foolhardiness.

It’s only in the last act, when Pepper is reduced to flying for the movies, that he meets a man worthy of himself. And, of course, he enacts a dogfight with this German air ace (Bo Brundin) despite neither having any ammo.  Pauline Kael performed a notable hatchet job on the movie, accusing it of perpetrating an adolescent wallow in boy’s own adventuring and lacking authenticity. Kael was never one to hold back, with movies she liked either (she adored the next one on my list), but I think she does the intelligence of this picture a disservice. Waldo undoubtedly has an immature passion for danger, and Hill, Redford and Goldman have a plain respect for his single-mindedness and purity of vision but they aren’t blind to his flaws. If they were, this surely would have ended up as an air-punching glorification of its main character (lets save that for the Michael Bay remake).


CHOICE LINES

Werfel: Anybody can supply accuracy. Artists provide truth.


9. Shampoo

I didn’t really “get” Shampoo the first time I saw it, with literal awareness of its cultural backdrop.  Its most exotic quality, that of a Beverly Hills hairdresser who services his female clients (thankfully it’s only similarity to Don’t Mess With the Zohan), didn’t play as particularly racy but then, Shampoo isn’t so much about the act itself as it is about sexual politics. At the time I wasn’t much a fan of Beatty either, who grows on you as you see more of his pictures and get a fix on his preoccupations; his rep as a lothario is the least interesting of these.  Politics is the most; this is a just-about period piece, set on Election Day, November 5th 1968, the day Tricky Dicky was voted into the White House.

It’s a curious choice for a movie, from title on down. A heterosexual male hairdresser, in a comedy of indiscretions that is more poignant than “funny” funny, Beatty’s George Roundy is seeing Jill (Goldie Hawn, adorable), begins an affair with Jackie (Julie Christie, Beatty’s forever-maybe at the time), who is seeing Lester Karpf (Jack Warden). George is also servicing Lester’s wife Felicia (Lee Grant) and his daughter (Carrie Fisher). All the ingredients for bedroom farce are here, but this isn’t really raunchy and reckless. Beatty, co-credited with Robert Towne (so hot right then) for the screenplay, has more serious commentary in mind, and abetted by a malleable Hal Ashby he delivers on the promise he had been bottling up since Bonnie and Clyde. While the backdrop of the picture is the event that set in process the path to Watergate, the focus is on George’s (lack of) self-realisation, that his swinging style has sacrificed the one woman he (possibly, might) loves (Jackie), which could be Beatty’s musing on the real life Christie affair. George, however, doesn’t learn and Jackie is willing to sell out (in Beatty’s view anyway).

As such the picture, while dealing with the bursting of the bubble of ‘60s seeds of change (Manson was just round the corner, and Jill appears to obliquely reference his coming) the picture is acutely 1975 with its sense of weary wisdom about the mistakes that were made.  The picture was a surprise hit; no one had much faith in it, and Beatty had come off a string of flops. The cast are all fine fits, particularly Warden (who took best Supporting Actor). Lee Grant was awarded Best Supporting Actress. It’s one of those pictures very much of its time and place (despite depicting a different time) and perhaps because of this in-the-moment-ness has been rather forgotten over the years. People know its title but it tends to be lightly dismissed; I know I did it until I revisited it years later. It’s a shame, as Shampoo is a sly comedy and Beatty incorporating political commentary always finds him at his most fruitful (he’d only sporadically be as good again, with Reds and Bulworth).


CHOICE LINES

Jill: You never stop moving! You never go anywhere!


10. Barry Lyndon

There are those who will claim every one of Stanley Kubrick’s films is an unalloyed classic, and there is an unassailably legendary quality to the director’s body of work. Each one yields a dense feast of possible readings and interpretations. The more straightforward a plot is on the surface (The Shining) the more unfathomable it may become upon analysis, throwing the viewer in all manner of different directions both in terms of what the narrative is saying and the director’s visual language and choices. Barry Lyndon is an easy film of his to admire, but difficult to love.

It was shot after Kubrick’s Napoleon project with Jack Nicholson fell apart, and the director still had a period itch to scratch. He picked William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, set in the 1750-80s and beyond, and made a wryly (thanks to Michael Hordern’s narration) tragic tale in which Lyndon’s eventful and roguish life sees him made a fool of, robbed, join the army, desert, join the enemy, become a professional gambler, and marry a beautiful countess for riches rather than love. This is only the first act. The second is a studiously hypnotic, impassive, depiction of Barry’s decline and fall, with a stepson who loathes and conspires against him (not that Barry deserves respect, mind, doing his level best to bring ruin on his the estate to which he has acceded, but the stepkid is a right little shit) and a natural son upon whom he dotes and for whom (you guessed it) tragedy strikes.

Kubrick adorns the film with classical music (as was his wont, he spurned original compositions), most notably the bookending of Handel’s Sarabande, which lends the picture a mournful inevitability. The cinematography, sporting the aesthetic of natural light, is stunning. The film as whole is sumptuous, elegant, in direct contrast to its lead character. Kubrick took away the comedic tone of the novel, and excised Lyndon himself as unreliable narrator. Both of these choices may be argued for, although they beg the question why you’d pick a work to adapt only to decide its entire tenor needs upending, but the casting of Ryan O’Neal, at the time Hollywood’s No.2 box office star, is entirely problematic. It may be that Kubrick wants us to be indifferent to Barry’s fate, a puppet dangled on cosmic strings that care not whether he succeeds or fails, but O’Neal is mostly a blank in the role. He can do the cruelty but he has zero charisma or charm. Barry’s strokes of good luck have to be exactly that, because he has nothing going for him in terms of personality. Once the first act has passed, there is even an absence of lively, engaging supporting characters. But still, this is a Kubrick movie so inevitably it’s fascinating, engrossing and stunning, in spite of its shortcomings.


CHOICE LINES

Redmond Barry: I’m under arrest? Captain Potzdorf, sir! I’m a British officer.
Captain Potzdorf: You are a liar! You are an impostor. You are a deserter. I suspected you this morning, and your lies and only have confirmed this to me. You pretend to carry dispatches to a British general who has been dead these ten months. You say your uncle is the British Ambassador in Berlin, with the ridiculous name of O’Grady. Now, will you join and take the bounty that is on your head, sir, or will you be given up?
Redmond Barry: (pause) I volunteer.


Best Picture Oscar

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The relatively rare occasion when a Best Picture winner richly reserved the gong. Cuckoo is as fiery and potent as it was 40 years ago, and won five of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated. Nicholson at his most winningly pre-caricature Jack, but also best served by the material. Louise Fletcher goes into the category of winners who never capitalised on their win (as noted above, this also happened to F Murray Abraham in Milos Forman’s other Best Picture winner, Amadeus). Bo Goldman (who would also win for Melvin and Howard five years later) and Lawrence Hauben took Best Adapted Screenplay. Missing out were cinematography, editing, Jack Nitzsche’s haunting score and Brad Dourif (who would go on to make a career out of playing mentally tumultuous types).

Barry Lyndon

Kubrick’s fourth dual Best Picture and Best Director nominations in a row; he’d find the going a lot tougher from then on out (not that he cared at all). It’s illustrative of the picture’s strengths and weaknesses that out of its seven nominations it won in mainly technical categories (cinematography, John Alcott’s solo nomination and win; Art Direction; Costume Design; and Leonard Rosenman’s score – all adapted of course; and don’t forget Rosenman committed the aural atrocity that is Robocop 2). Kubrick’s triple-header of Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay went ignored, and that’s probably appropriate.

Dog Day Afternoon

In any other year… Dog Day lacks the all-out incendiary quality of Cuckoo, and the Academy always likes to get behind a cause. But it’s also a looser, more naturalistic picture, and that immediacy was recognised; Frank Pierson’s Original Screenplay was his only score (Cool Hand Luke and Cat Ballou were his other nominations). Chris Sarandon would never fly so high again (Best Supporting Actor nomination), Pacino would wait another 17 years before striking gold (for an inferior piece of work) while Sidney Lumet was Best Director nominee four times and ne’er any joy. Dede Allen’s was the sixth nomination (later also a nominee for Reds and Wonder Boys).

Jaws

Reflective of the picture’s dent on the zeitgeist rather than its indubitable merits, Spielberg was ignored for not the first time (back, pre-Schindler’s List, he was quite agitated about how the Academy refrained from garlanding him; the irony being he was a far superior filmmaker before they finally gave him the merit badges). Jaws didn’t deserve to win, but it did deserve to be recognition as more than just another piece of product. Here are the infant steps of the modern blockbuster but with attention to character and drama now too often absent. The movie won all three of its remaining nominations; John Williams’ score was his second of five wins and more than 30 nominations; Best Sound; Verna Fields was also nominated for editing American Graffiti.

Nashville

Robert  Altman had finally popped with M*A*S*H five years earlier, but he had a bumpy ride with critics and at the box office in between. Subsequently to Nashville, he wouldn’t find greater favour again until The Player. He took dual nominations (one less than Kubrick, but there’s no sneezing at any level of multi-hyphenation) but it was, appropriately, Best Original Song that won (for Keith Carradine). The other nominations were Best Actress (Lily Tomlin’s only flirtation with Oscar) and Ronee Blakely as Best Supporting Actress.


Top 10 US Box Office

I’m a little bit dubious about the veracity of a couple of these entries; there’s only The Numbers to bear testament beyond The Apple Dumpling Gang.

1. Jaws
2. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
4. Dog Day Afternoon
5. Shampoo
6. The Return of the Pink Panther
7. Funny Lady
8. The Apple Dumpling Gang
9. Aloha, Bobby and Rose

10. The Other Side of the Mountain

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They say if we go with them, we'll live forever. And that's good.

Cocoon (1985)
Anyone coming across Cocoon cold might reasonably assume the involvement of Steven Spielberg in some capacity. This is a sugary, well-meaning tale of age triumphing over adversity. All thanks to the power of aliens. Substitute the elderly for children and you pretty much have the manner and Spielberg for Ron Howard and you pretty much have the approach taken to Cocoon. Howard is so damn nice, he ends up pulling his punches even on the few occasions where he attempts to introduce conflict to up the stakes. Pauline Kael began her review by expressing the view that consciously life-affirming movies are to be consciously avoided. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but you’re definitely wise to steel yourself for the worst (which, more often than not, transpires).

Cocoon is as dramatically inert as the not wholly dissimilar (but much more disagreeable, which is saying something) segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie directed by Spielberg (Kick the Can). There, OAPs rediscover their in…

I think it’s gratuitous, but whatever.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best
This is an update of a ranking previously published in 2018. I’d intended to post it months ago but these things get side-tracked. You can find the additions of Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home and a revised assessment of Ant-Man and the Wasp. There are also a few tweaks here and there.