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How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

The President is dead. You got that? Somebody’s had him for dinner.

Escape from New York (1981)
(SPOILERS) There’s a refreshingly simplicity to John Carpenter’s nightmare vision of 1997. Society and government don’t represent a global pyramid; they’re messy and erratic, and can go deeply, deeply wrong without connivance, subterfuge, engineered rebellions or recourse to reset. There’s also a sense of playfulness here, of self-conscious cynicism regarding the survival prospects for the US, as voiced by Kurt Russell’s riff on Clint Eastwood anti-heroics in the decidedly not dead form of Snake Plissken. But in contrast to Carpenter’s later Big Trouble in Little China (where Russell is merciless to the legend of John Wayne), Escape from New York is underpinned by a relentlessly grim, grounded aesthetic, one that lends texture and substance; it remains one of the most convincing and memorable of dystopian visions.

The present will look after itself. But it’s our duty to realise the future with our imagination.

Until the End of the World (1991)
(SPOILERS) With the current order devolving into what looks inevitably like a passively endorsed dystopia, a brave new chipped and tracked vision variously in line with cinema’s warnings (or its predictive programming, depending on where your cynicism lands), I’ve been revisiting a few of these futuristic visions. That I picked the very Euro-pudding Until the End of the World is perhaps entirely antagonistic to such reasoning, seeing as how it is, at heart, a warm and fuzzy, upbeat, humanist musing on where we are all going.

Everything will fall apart. In this world, just as in yours. Again. And again. Because of you. And because of me.

Dark  Season Three
(SPOILERS) Early reaction to the conclusion of the German time-travel saga appears overwhelmingly positive, but I’m less convinced of its merits. On the plus side, a resolution was hatched for the interminable loop. On the minus, Dark’s Season Three plot mechanics felt a little underwhelming, hasty even, just as the resolution for Jonas and Martha proved quite touching.

All the way up! We’ll make it cold like winter used to be.

Soylent Green (1973)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in Chuck Heston’s mid-career sci-fi trilogy (I’m not counting his Beneath the Planet of the Apes extended cameo). He hadn’t so much as sniffed at the genre prior to 1967, but over the space of the next half decade or so, he blazed a trail for dystopian futures. Perhaps the bleakest of these came in Soylent Green. And it’s only a couple of years away. 2022 is just around the corner.

If we don’t stop this thing soon, the whole damn planet’s in trouble.

The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)
(SPOILERS) There’s an evergreen lure to the Philadelphia Experiment’s mythos, up there with the Bermuda Triangle for “fact-based” mysteries. A movie version would doubtless benefit from a more literal and “plausible” approach, as would many of the rumoured alt-science ventures of WWII. What we got was much more basic, but the premise itself goes a long way. So much so, it helped mask the movie’s relative averageness at the time of its release – at least, for someone who lapped up the possibility that it was based on an actual event. And we should probably grateful The Philadelphia Experiment is as serviceable as it is; after all, director Stewart Raffill closed out the decade with Paul Rudd’s star-making turn in Mac and Me.

They’re a normal condition of the planet. They’re just not part of our consensus of what constitutes physical reality.

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
(SPOILERS) Movies tackling renowned supernatural or folkloric themes are prone to satisfy no one. Most certainly not the devotees, for whom the key features are inevitably dumbed down or simplified. And more than likely not a general audience either, since despite all available concessions, attempts to convert such material into an accessible narrative still fall short. I remember seeing The Mothman Prophecies at the cinema and being unmoved by Mark Pellington’s snoozefest, the occasional atmospheric moment or two aside. Revisiting the film, I wonder if I might have given it too much credit.

That’s what’s so refreshing. Knowing that you don’t know is the first and the most essential step to knowing.

Synecdoche, New York
(2008)
(SPOILERS) I’d seen all Charlie Kaufman’s other pictures – yes, even Human Nature – and greatly enjoyed most of them – no, not Human Nature – yet had contrived to avoid Synecdoche, New York. Something about it just didn’t appeal. Perhaps it was the writer-director element, the feeling that unfiltered Kaufman might just be a little too rich. Or perhaps it was that the concept, even by his standards, seemed like a lot of hard work, the rewards for which would likely be familiar by this point. Unfortunately, I was proved largely correct. For all its virtues – a fine cast, fitfully inspired explorations of the unravelling of the mind/being and with it, greater reality and its assumed underpinnings – the film is a sombre, indulgent slog. As Jonathan Rosenbaum observed, “it seems more like an illustration of his script than a full-fledged movie, proving how much he needs a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry to realise his surrealistic conceits”. This is true. Kaufman …

The crags on your face. Do they hurt?

Logan’s Run (1976)
(SPOILERS) There’s a lot of nostalgia out there for Logan’s Run. Unfortunately, most of it that isn’t focussing on the pulchritudinous presence of Jenny Agutter is unjustified. Logan’s Run’s problems are two-fold. It isn’t escapist enough to be a true crowd pleaser, and it isn’t brainy enough to rank in the top end of more respected SF fare of that immediate period (Planet of the Apes, Silent Running). Plus, it’s directed by Michael Anderson. Nevertheless, Logan’s Run occupies an interesting place for science-fiction movies, as the last of an era grappling with dystopian themes before Star Wars spawned a new visual language and mythic envelope that made such pontificating seem old-hat and antiquated overnight.

I’m tired. I’m tired of the future.

Minority Report (2002)
(SPOILERS) Spielberg doesn’t really do downers. Sure, you can find them; his early attempt to make a movie in line with his peer group (Sugarland Express); the Oscar bait of Saving Private Ryan (softened by an interminable coda). And doubtless, unless he really messes with the plot, West Side Story will not be ending on a note of good cheer. And then there are the back-to-back science fiction outings that opened the century, both standing apart as rather curious fish. At first glance, Minority Report concludes very much with a prevailing sense of order restored; the bad apple in an otherwise honest system is removed, which is very much the Hollywood norm for nominally conspiracy pictures (Enemy of the State, for example). But even with that questionably affirmative conclusion, this adaptation of the 1956 Philip K Dick short story merely offers the continuation of what is unquestionably a Grade-A dystopia.

We're the last trustees of civilisation when everything else has failed.

Things to Come (1936)
(SPOILERS) Turgid, lifeless and inert. That’s the future for you. Apparently, HG Wells’ influence over the production of Things to Come has been overstated, although it seems he did manage to ensure the magnificent Ernest Thesiger was replaced by Cedric Hardwicke; more’s the pity for any hopes the picture had of any spark of wit or humour. Whether or not Wells was kept at arm’s length, Things to Come carries intact a wearying surfeit of pompous speechifying and dry staging. Yes, there’s impressive spectacle here – some of it still impressive – but there’s nary a nudge of narrative tension. What there is, is an abundantly alarming approval of benevolent dictatorship, one that opportunistically reaps the benefits of the twin scourges of war and disease. That, and an unswerving faith in the triumph of scientific materialism as equated with progress.

Nobody trusts anybody now. We’re all very tired.

The Thing (1982)
(SPOILERS) The Thing has been thesis fodder for years, as much so as any given pre-1990 Cronenberg movie, and has popularly been seen as a metaphor for AIDS and even climate change. Now, of course, provided we’re still in a world where film is studied in the aftermath and we haven’t ball been assimilated in one form or another, such staples are sure to be scrubbed away by an inundation of bids to apply the Coronavirus to any given text (much in the way Trump has been popularly overwritten onto any particular invidious fictional figure you care to mention in the most tedious shorthand). And sure, there’s fertile ground here, with rampant paranoia and social distancing being practised among those in Outpost 31 (the “virus” can even be passed on by pets). That flexibility, however, is the key to the picture’s longevity and effectiveness; ultimately, it is not the nature of the threat (as undeniably and iconically gruey and Lovecraftian as it is), but rather the response of…

You’re a regular little CIA all on your own, aren’t you?

The Internecine Project (1974)
(SPOILERS) I underrated Ken Hughes’ sharp little spy thriller last time I saw it; probably, the quality of the battered, pan-and-scanned print didn’t help any. In pristine form, The Internecine Project – I think it’s a great title, in contrast to Glenn Erickson’s appraisal – reveals itself as commendably oddball and unlikely, but also politically shrewd picture, if in a manner that is anything but heavy-handed. Plus, it has James Coburn, being magnificently James Coburn about everything.

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

God and the Serpent have joined hands, and we are all kicked out of Eden.

The Last Valley (1971)
(SPOILERS) The received wisdom on this more obscure Michael Caine film is pretty much “unusual setting but dull”. I didn’t find The Last Valley so. Dull that is. But then, I didn’t think the highlight was Caine’s studious German accent (per biographer Christopher Bray in A Class Act), which sounds to me exactly what you’d expect of Sir Michael attempting a German accent.

You are, by your own admission, a vagabond.

Doctor Who Season 10 - Worst to Best
Season 10 has the cachet of an anniversary year, one in which two of its stories actively trade on the past and another utilises significant elements. As such, it’s the first indication of the series’ capacity for slavishly indulging the two-edged sword that is nostalgia, rather than simply bringing back ratings winners (the Daleks). It also finds the show at its cosiest, a vibe that had set in during the previous season, which often seemed to be taking things a little too comfortably. Season 10 is rather more cohesive, even as it signals the end of an era (with Jo’s departure). As a collection of stories, you perhaps wouldn’t call it a classic year, but as a whole, an example of the Pertwee UNIT era operating at its most confident, it more than qualifies.

I’ve seen detergents that leave a better film than this.

The Muppet Movie (1979)
(SPOILERS) I like The Muppets – love some of the individual ones – but I’m not sure the movie format has ever entirely suited them. Their best puppeteered foot forward in this regard may actually be the spoof/pastiche format adopted by The Muppet Christmas Carol and Treasure Island in the 90s, since it ensures a robust frame for whatever mayhem and gags they wish to hang on it. Here, in their first big screen outing, events are strung together in a freewheeling “genesis of The Muppet Show” narrated prequel format that only fitfully offers inspiration (and laughs).

He says the Sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
(SPOILERS) Interviewed on the set of Saving Private Ryan for Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s twentieth anniversary, Steven Spielberg expressed the view that it was the only film of his he looked back at that “dates me”, that falls victim to the “privileges of youth”. He alluded in part to this being down to his then passion for the UFO subject and possible interpretations thereof (“Now, I grew up”), but chiefly because of the fate of protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who leaves his family for a flight across the universe with little grey men. As a father of seven, Spielberg found this unconscionable. And you’ll get no arguments that it may not be most mature or responsible thing to do, but it’s telling that this is the most interesting choice he has given one of his characters in any of his films, and a marker of his decline as a vital filmmaking force that the one project reeking of personal investment is now one he wouldn’t go nea…

You are physically close to him. He’s in that urn over there.

The Invisible Man (2020)
(SPOILERS) Incredible how you can see right through him. As a fan of Leigh Whannell’s sophomore film Upgrade, I was willing to give this latest telling of The Invisible Man a chance, even though I was doubtful of its repurposing, seemingly falling prey to the kind of unrefined stalker antics that largely did for Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, the last major studio take on the premise (okay, excepting The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). And while it’s certainly the case that Whannell does rather limit his canvas in that regard, he has nevertheless made an undeniably effective stalker picture, one that features a number of quite satisfying plot turns.

Do I look like anybody’s bloody comrade?

The Jigsaw Man (1983)
(SPOILERS) Michael Caine’s 80s career increasingly looks much more respectable when set against the “really will do any old shit” latter-day approaches of John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis and John Cusack. In particular, his recourse to Cold War thrillers when all else failed and he was at a loose end for more than five minutes is now surrounded by a rather nostalgic, muggy grey hue. That doesn’t make The Jigsaw Man remotely any good, occupying as it does the bargain bin of even that spy thriller sub-genre, but it does have its incidental pleasures.

I know enough to know that that great big, dumb cowboy crap of yours don't appeal to nobody except every jockey on 42nd Street.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
(SPOILERS) Midnight Cowboy waltzed off with a Best Picture Oscar and John Schlesinger and Waldo Salt with Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay respectively, but this is a film that was and remains mystifyingly overvalued (there have been plenty of bad choices for Best Picture since, but often with a degree of groundswell surrounding their lack of merit). That’s likely because it does suggest an end-of-an-era starkness – misery porn, one might call it – that, with Easy Rider (rightly) not in the running for the main award, made it an easy pick. Previously, I’d been more charitable towards the film, while nevertheless acknowledging that I didn’t see in it what the cognoscenti appeared to, but on this occasion, I simply found it a patience-testing ordeal.

I know, I know, we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
(SPOILERS) When I say the appeal of Fiddler on the Roof is all about Topol’s performance, that’s not to suggest I might not have similarly rated Zero Mostel had I first seen him as Tevye (although I’m guessing that’s unlikely). And it’s not a slight on Joseph Stein’s adaptation of his stage play, or the clutch of great songs peppering the picture, or Norman Jewison’s unobtrusive direction and Oswald Morris’ fine earthy cinematography. But Topol makes the film, in the same way F Murray Abraham is the pulse of Amadeus.

This is about one thing: dominion. It’s not their planet any more.

Ghosts of Mars (2001)
(SPOILERS) I might have more sympathy for John Carpenter’s protests that Ghosts of Mars was misunderstood if the content did more to support the idea that it was intentionally over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek. Such as silly/amusing plotting and characters and campiness instead of scares. It does rather come across, as per his defence of Escape from L.A. as better than the original, as trying to cover the ineptitude of the production with the old “It was meant to be ‘so bad it was good’; it was self-consciously, post-modernly bad” excuse.

Gerard. Did you know your pops had a mushroom belt on?

Boomerang (1992)
(SPOILERS) Eddie Murphy was trying to recover his footing in 1992. He’d experienced a couple of missteps, most notably the underwhelming reception of his self-penned, self-directed vanity project Harlem Nights and tired, desperate and unwanted sequel Another 48 Hrs (which one imagines Murphy must have agreed to do as an easy hit maker, but he even came up with the story). Neither came close to his run of 80s hits. Boomerang represented a reinvention, with Murphy as a romantic lead and essaying an actual character arc. But it only half works.

Let's have two Tom Jones.

Greed (2019)
(SPOILERS) Michael Winterbottom’s relationship with Steve Coogan extends to nearly two decades and has seen them essay biographical subjects Tony Wilson and Paul Raymond amid semi-regular Trips, although their best collaboration probably remains Tristam Shandy adaptation A Cock and Bull Story. Winterbottom’s nothing if not prolific – I count fifteen dramatic features since 2000 – which guarantees that occasionally he hits a bullseye, but more frequently’ his work is merely reliably, diligently “okay”. He’s also a singularly political filmmaker and the problem with Greed, a satirical biography of Sir Philip Green by another name, is that he just has too many targets he wants to throw a light on. With the result that, as with the lion at the climax, the beast ends up devouring him.

I got poodles comin' out of my ass.

Spenser Confidential (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve expressly avoided the previous string of jingoistic Peter Berg/ Mark Wahlberg collaborations, and probably would have skipped Spenser Confidential too, if not for the possibility that, besides it going straight to Netflix, it was offering a worthwhile take on Robert B Parker’s private eye – also the source of 1980s series Spenser: For Hire – and an entertaining role for Wahlberg, always better when he isn’t playing the straight-edge hero. It does neither.

I hated it, but I wasn’t interested enough to listen to it again to find out why.

Yesterday (2019)
(SPOILERS) Danny Boyle’s paean to The Beatles via a scenario where they – as a band, rather than the individuals themselves – have been winked out of existence during a power surge is a cute enough Mandela Effect conceit; only Himesh Patel, and eventually two others, have any recall of their existence. But the result, scripted by self-professed muso Richard Curtis – see The Boat That Rocked, or rather don’t – from a story by Jack Barth, is weak swill. Apparently $10m of Yesterday's $26m budget was spent securing rights to use the Fab Four’s songs, but you have to ask, was it really worth it to hear a bunch of bad covers?

It isn't a matter of hate. It is a biological obligation.

Village of the Damned (1995)
(SPOILERS) It’s probably easiest to point to Village of the Damned as the beginning of the end of John Carpenter as an estimable director. He was only 47 when it came out, but watching it, you’d be hard-pressed taking away any notion that he cared anymore. I tend to place the beginning of the rot earlier, post-Big Trouble in Little China, when he stopped working with Dean Cundey as DP and hooked up with Gary B Kibbe. Sure, they made In the Mouth of Madness together, and They Live! but the effect isn’t so dissimilar to Spielberg relying on Janusz Kaminski, even when the latter has been utterly unsuited to a picture (the biggest reason the announcement of the Berg vacating the director’s chair for Indy V is no bad thing).

Demon, eh? Well, it's no more far-fetched than your gillman.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
(SPOILERS) Jack Arnold’s classic Universal horror isn’t especially impressive in the cold light of day (or absent the thrills, frills and gills of 3D). In terms of characterisation and atmosphere, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a bit of a cold fish. Indeed, it’s only that cold fish (man) who evokes much of a response at all.

Now you’ll sing for me. And I’ll play, and we’ll be together, forever.

Phantom of the Opera (1943)
(SPOILERS) I can’t say I’ve ever been especially au fair with Phantom of the Opera lore, such that I wasn’t even aware this version (included on the Universal Monsters Box Set) was the remake of the original featuring Lon Chaney’s deliriously unsettling visage. Arthur Lubin’s colour production is an altogether lusher affair, one that backpedals on the horror in favour of melodrama and extended musical – well, operatic – interludes. And, surely rather defeating the point of the exercise, it’s a more engrossing picture before Claude Rains’ Erique Claudin suffers an excruciating facial disfigurement.

Because every mother wants their son to grow up and eat a doctor.

Dolittle (2020)
(SPOILERS) Roundly slated, as if its troubled production and rejigged release dates condemn it to purgatory without due consideration, Dolittle isn’t nearly the abomination critics would have you believe. It makes an affable, inoffensively watchable family entertainment, lacking the bloat of the Rex Harrison version or the shamelessness of Eddie Murphy’s and one never quite at ease with itself or sure of what it wants to be, but largely underserving of being hung out to dry as the latest example of Hollywood excess; there are other, far more deserving recipients, usually found in any given calendar quarter of any given studio’s roster of releases.

I might just hang myself by my underpants.

Doctor Dolittle (1998)
(SPOILERS) By several miles the least ambitious Doctor Dolittle adaptation, but possibly for that reason, probably the most agreeable. No one here is trying very hard – although the Jim Henson Creature Workshop creations are mostly pretty good – from the screenplay credited to Nat Maudlin and Larry Levin to director Betty Thomas (who managed a couple of decent, sharpish comedies prior to this, The Brady Bunch Movie and Private Parts), to star Eddie Murphy, sinking into the family comedy morass that would preoccupy him for the best part of twenty years.

Good heavens! I speak pig!

Doctor Dolittle (1967)
(SPOILERS) If there’s an obvious and immediate contender for the crown of least justified Best Picture Oscar nominee, it’s surely Doctor Dolittle. Infamous for the campaigning this box office bomb received, leading to nine nominations and two wins, the ignominy is understandable and deserved, even if it’s simply a worst-case and highest-profile example of the kind of behaviour that’s par for the course in the Oscar business. As for the film itself? It isn’t terrible, but it’s so sedate as to be almost inert, a killer for a two-and-a-half-hour family musical.

I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out in the lobby until this is over.

The Marx Brothers  Worst to Best
Thirteen features over twenty years, the general consensus is that Paramount = the Marx Brothers’ golden era, before drifting into gradual decline after back-to-back hits on moving to MGM. That’s at least partly true, but… read on.

Leave it open, we'll get free fumigation.

Parasite (2019)
(SPOILERS) I had the ending of Parasite spoiled for me before seeing the film – it was difficult to avoid, given the time that has passed since its US release. Albeit, more in terms of the manner in which violence suddenly erupts than the specifics of who perpetrates it. Some of these mentions alluded to it coming out of nowhere, and thus being tonally inconsistent with the picture. It’s a view I can’t really get on board with, except in so much as there’s nothing so graphic hitherto. Otherwise, though, there’s an air of foreboding and dread running through at least the latter half of the film, however leavened it as points by Bong Joon-ho’s satirical swipes.

Nice porthole, though. Very nautical.

Bait (2019)
(SPOILERS) Deserving winner of the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer – well, despite it not being Mark Jenkin’s debut feature, that is – Bait’s originality comes less from its storyline, the very recognisable subject matter of impoverished locals’ charged relationship with the affluent class descending on their Cornish fishing village, buying their properties and pints but failing to put anything of substance into the community, than the way in which Jenkin approaches the material, shooting on 16mm with a Bolex, with all the handmade imperfections that entails. Added to which, he has no compunction in experimenting in the edit, sometimes to mesmerising effect.

Oh no, I’m not going to follow you and get shot. If I was half-shot, I’d follow you

Love Happy  (1949)
(SPOILERS) And so the Marx Brothers’ (collective) screen career ends with a decrepit whimper. It’s very obvious that Love Happy was initially developed as solo project for Harpo – he falls in love! – since he gets the lion’s share of the scenes. More surprising is that Groucho wasn’t in fact a late-stage addition; he provides the narration, but only really intrudes on the proceedings at the very end. And Chico? He mentions tootsie-frutsie ice cream.

This food doesn’t look any more poisoned than any other hotel food.

A Night in Casablanca (1946)
(SPOILERS) After a run of films of waning quality – and a five-year gap – the Marx Brothers delivered a very pleasant surprise with this remarkably respectable bounce back, so good, it can happily be mentioned in the same breath as their first two MGM pictures. True, this isn’t on a par with the unbridled anarchy we saw in the Paramount pictures, but there are enough proficient set pieces and sustained routines to confirm A Night in Casablanca’s status as seriously underrated.

Shall we bind the deal with a kiss? Or, five dollars in cash? You lose either way.

The Big Store (1941)
(SPOILERS) Three go mad in a department store. The results are undoubtedly more diverting than low point Go West, but it feels as if there is even more flotsam to wade through to get to the good stuff in The Big Store, which is almost exclusively delivered by Groucho as private detective and bodyguard Wolf J Flywheel. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the climax is one of the better ones, an extended chase sequence through the store that is frequently quite inventive.

Time wounds all heels.

Go West (1940)
(SPOILERS) Comedy westerns were nothing new when the Marx Brothers succumbed – Buster Keaton had made one with the same title fifteen years earlier – but theirs served to underline how variable the results could be. For every Bob Hope (Son of Paleface) there’s a Seth McFarlane (A Million Ways to Die in the West). In theory, the brothers riding roughshod over such genre conventions ought to have been uproarious, but they’d rather run out of gas by this point, and the results are, for the most part, sadly pedestrian. Even Go West's big train-chase climax fails to elicit the once accustomed anarchy that was their stock in trade.

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

The last time I saw a head like that was in a bottle of formaldehyde.

A Day at the Races (1937)
(SPOILERS) Very much of a piece with its predecessor, right down to the title, A Day at the Races lacks the highs of A Night at the Opera (there’s nothing here to compare to the State Room sequence), but it’s probably more even overall. Certainly, while it’s fifteen minutes longer (and there are about twenty minutes of music), overall it has a better sense of flow, and just the fact of Groucho’s false pretences (Dr Hugo Z Hackenbush, a horse doctor posing as the human kind) gives it a certain distinction.

On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera (1935)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

You’re a disgrace to the family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible.

Horse Feathers (1932)
(SPOILERS) After a scenario that seemed feasible in Monkey Business – the brothers as stowaways – Horse Feathers opts for a massive stretch. Somehow, Groucho (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) has been appointed as the president of Huxley University, proceeding to offer the trustees and assembled throng a few suggestions on how he’ll run things (by way of anarchistic creed “Whatever it is, I’m against it”). There’s a reasonably coherent mission statement in this one, however, at least until inevitably it devolves into gleeful incoherence.

Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars? You bet I’m afraid.

Monkey Business (1931)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ first feature possessed of a wholly original screenplay, Monkey Business is almost brazenly dismissive towards notions of coherence, just as long as it loosely supports their trademark antics. And it does so in spades, depositing them as stowaways bound for America who fall in with a couple of mutually antagonistic racketeers/ gangsters while attempting to avoid being cast in irons. There’s no Margaret Dumont this time out, but Groucho is more than matched by flirtation-interest Thelma Todd.

You killed my sandwich!

Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
(SPOILERS) One has to wonder at Bird of Prey’s 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, such things are to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it would be easy, given the disparity between such evident approval and the actually quality of the movie, to suspect insincere motives on the part of critics, that they’re actually responding to its nominally progressive credentials – female protagonists in a superhero flick! – rather than its content. Which I’m quite sure couldn’t possibly be the case. Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t very good. The trailers did not lie, even if the positive reviews might have misled you into thinking they were misleading.

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

The Lighthouse (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.