Oliver Twist (1948)
A solid adaption of the Dickens classic with memorable turns from Alec Guinness as the conniving Fagin and John Howard Davies as the orphaned Oliver trying to find his place in Victorian England and moving from one home and precarious situation to another.
Robin Hood (2010)
An origins tale of Robin Hood, in a similar vein to Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 prequel of sorts to the myths of King Arthur. The historical context is shaky in places leaving the historian in me spitting feathers at times. Despite a good cast it’s a pretty standard retelling of the legendary outlaw.
A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)
Greenaway’s depiction of death and decay is evocative and weird in equal measure. It probably warrants more than one viewing to fully appreciate its message. Visually there are some stunning moments but I did not find it as accessible as some of Greenaway’s other films.
Escape from Sobibor (1987)
Made for TV but still an engaging and uncompromising depiction of the cruelty inflicted on Jewish people in Sobibor during the Second World War. Alan Arkin leads a strong cast and there is welcome support from the versatile Rutger Hauer as a Russian Jew who comes to Sobibor and agrees to help the prisoners there with a risky escape plan.
Black Narcissus (1947)
Powell and Pressburger’s erotic drama set amidst the resplendent Himalayas boasts some stunning visuals along with some intrigue and temptation for a convent of nuns whose faith and devotion to God are shaken by the arrival of a British agent.
Abel Gance’s silent epic is a magnificent depiction of the early years of Napoleon Bonaparte. Beginning with his birth in Corsica and following his rise through the ranks in Revolutionary France. The film sadly ends with Napoleon’s early campaigns in Italy when he was finding his feet in the military. Gance intended to make a series of films covering the entirety of Napoleon’s career but it was sadly not to be. Given the quality of this sole effort a series could have been one of the landmark moments in cinematic history.
Great Expectations (1946)
As with Oliver Twist (1948), this is an excellent adaptation of the much beloved novel by Charles Dickens and considered by many critics to be the definitive version. The film chronicles the trials and tribulations of Pip, an orphan who endures a tough upbringing, falling in love with Estella before his adulthood sees changing fortunes with the aid of a mystery benefactor. John Mills leads an accomplished cast and under Lean’s safe hands this is a most rewarding film.
Bride of the Monster (1955)
Ed Wood’s sci-fi horror is a good example of why he is considered one of Hollywood’s worst directors. Reporter Janet Lawton sets out to investigate the disappearance of multiple people at Lake Marsh and encounters Bela Lugosi’s Dr Vornoff, his assistant Lobo and a giant octopus that required the actors to flail around in the water to make it look like they were being strangled/devoured by it. While Plan 9 From Outer Space is unjustly considered one of the worst films ever made, I would lean more towards efforts like this from Wood. That said, I could still name dozens of films far inferior to this one.
Sherlock Jr (1924)
My first experience of legendary silent actor Buster Keaton. In this brief but delightful film, Keaton is a film projectionist who dreams himself into a detective film showing at the local theatre where he becomes Sherlock Jr and sets out to solve the theft of a pearl necklace. Keaton’s comic timing is superb and though the narrative isn’t overly complex it is a thoroughly entertaining film from start to finish. I’m a Keaton convert after this one.
Running for Good: The Fiona Oakes Documentary (2018)
This inspiring documentary chronicles the running career of Fiona Oakes who lost a knee cap when she was 17 but has since became a long distance runner and holder of numerous global records. The documentary veers between her past achievements and her latest challenge – the Marathon Des Sables, a 250km run across the Sahara Desert. As a runner myself, I can’t help but admire the likes of Oakes who have achieved far more than I ever will in my lifetime. The only downside to the documentary is such an accomplished runner deserved a much longer film.
House by the River (1950)
Fritz Lang’s film noir sees a rich author (Louis Hyaward) accidentally kill his maid after making a pass at her. He ropes his unfortunate brother (Lee Bowman) into disposing of the body in a nearby river. When the body is found the police begin to ask questions and the brothers’ loyalties become fragile. Lang’s thriller is a pretty standard one but the cast keep the story ticking along nicely as you speculate about who will get their comeuppance and indeed whether you even care for either of the brothers.
Asterix & Obelix: The Mansion of the Gods (2014)
This modern adaptation of one of Goscinny and Uderzo’s classic comics retains the essence of our Gaulish hero and his band of indomitable friends. The use of CGI, while faithful to the comics, doesn’t quite feel right and for all the advances in technology these days the original Asterix adaptations remain superior.
Stan & Ollie (2018)
This moving biopic sees Laurel and Hardy in the twilight of their careers, touring the UK to small and near empty theatres, the glory days long since behind them. Both Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are so good as the leads that they become Laurel and Hardy right before your eyes. Beautifully acted and poignant throughout, this one will be fondly remembered long after your tears have dried.
Early Man (2018)
I always have time for anything Nick Park has created with Creature Comforts, Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run all being masterpieces. Early Man is undoubtedly another animation masterclass but it loses its way with the prehistoric story line, which lacks substance. The visuals and humour are there in abundance, the voice acting is also good, but somehow it doesn’t quite work.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
In less than an hour, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari really delivers as one of the earliest horror films ever committed to screen. Dr Caligari tours the carnival circuits with his companion, Cesare, who emerges from the cabinet of the title as the star attraction and wows audiences, that is until some murders start to take place. It may seem quite tame today but, like Nosferatu, it’s easy to imagine just how terrifying this would have been at the time.
Dominic Sena’s action thriller combines a great cast with Hugh Jackman, John Travolta, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle and even Vinne Jones in there for the ride. Jackman swaps Wolverine for a spot of hacking while Travolta continues to perplex in another villainous role. By no means a bad film, Swordfish just doesn’t have anything that makes it stand out in the crowd which is a shame given the undoubted talent on board.
Bruce Lee: Immortal Legend (2001)
Phillip Dye’s documentary about the legendary martial arts superstar offers a brief but interesting chronicle of his career. I’m a big fan of Bruce Lee and did enjoy the summary on offer here which includes interviews with other celebrities who worked with and admired the great man. The only downside is for such a legend I would have hoped for a longer documentary about his life. His achievements certainly warrant it.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)
I first watched Black Mirror last year and approached it with caution given all the hype it had enjoyed. The four series were more than worth the praise and they latest offering continues the momentum. Set in 1984 a computer programmer is tasked with adapting a fantasy novel into a video game. The episode puts the viewer in charge of multiple decisions throughout the story changing the narrative as you see fit and ultimately offering a variety of paths to the conclusion. With the potential for each viewer to experience the story differently, this is a thoroughly engaging and innovative addition to the Black Mirror series.
A Month in the Country (1987)
Pat O-Connor’s adaptation of the novel by J.L. Carr sees a young Colin Firth sent to rural Yorkshire in the 1920s to do restoration work in the local church. During his month long stay he bonds with a fellow war veteran played by Kenneth Branagh and becomes close to the vicar’s wife. It was refreshing to see Firth, Branagh and Richardson at the start of their careers but although enjoyable in places it doesn’t fully showcase the abilities of a talented cast.
100 Years of Japanese Cinema (1995)
Nagisa Oshima’s exploration of the first century of Japanese cinema offers quite an odyssey for enthusiasts of Japanese films. Covering 100 years is quite a task and, unfortunately, this documentary weighs in at less than an hour. What’s there is great but it’s more of a quick summary rather than a detailed study and the very brief nod to anime was disappointing.
Paddy Considine directs and stars in this gritty drama following about a boxing champion who has one fight too many and suffers brain damage as a result. With memory problems, difficulty communicating and even his personality altered, Considine’s character faces a difficult battle to not only recover but to hold onto his wife and baby daughter. Journeyman veers away from Hollywood cliche and offers a harsh dose of reality for a family torn apart by the boxer’s injury. Some terrific acting from Paddy Considine and Jodie Whittaker as his wife make this one a winner.
Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
A solo venture for the much-loved Shaun the Sheep sees he and a group of friends from a local farm head for the city when the farmer suffers an accident and ends up with amnesia. One can only imagine the trouble farm animals would get up to in an urban environment and there are plenty of laughs and predicaments for Shaun and friends to get themselves out of. While not as memorable as Shaun’s outing in A Close Shave this still an enjoyable film for adults and children alike.
Nearly 25 years old and I have finally watched Babe. Based on a novel by Dick King-Smith, the title refers to a piglet that is won in a competition by a farmer, Arthur Hoggett, and grows up wanting to be a sheepdog. Sounds a bit random but thanks to some good visual effects and voice acting, not to mention a wonderful performance from James Cromwell as Arthur Hoggett, Babe remains an enjoyable family film more than two decades on. This one will do, pig.
Set in Taliban-controlled Kabul in Afghanistan, The Breadwinner follows the story of Parvana, an eleven year old girl who is forced to dress as a boy and try to earn money for her family when her father is unjustly arrested and imprisoned. The animation is often stunning and the film reflects the many challenges faced by the Afghan people under the strict and violent regime of the Taliban. The narrative demonstrates a woman’s inferior role in this society and how reliant she is on a husband, uncle, brother or son for survival. Often a challenging film to watch, it is still highly recommended.
The War Zone (1999)
Actor Tim Roth went behind the camera to direct this dark family drama. Parents Ray Winstone and Tilda Swinton have moved from London to Devon with their 18 year old daughter, Jessie, and 15 year old son, Tom. The arrival of a new baby becomes the main focus but Tom is disillusioned with his new home and when he accidentally witnesses a family secret things begin to unravel. A strong cast coupled with Roth’s assured direction make for compelling viewing though the subject matter may be challenging for some audiences. At present, this is Roth’s only feature as director which is a shame as unquestionable talent is there for all to see.
L’Age D’Or (1930)
Written by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, this surrealist early sound film from France is divided into a series of episodes with the main theme being a young couple trying and failing to consummate their desire for one another. They find themselves in a strict society that thwarts their passion at every turn. Being a surrealist flick there’s some head scratching to be had here but it’s an interesting early exploration of sound cinema though falls short of the majesty of Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou.
Paul King’s labour of love is based on the classic character created by Michael Bond. As with the original story we have Paddington deep in the heart of Peru before making the long journey to London in search of a new life. He is taken in by the Brown family but Peter Capaldi’s nosy neighbour and Nicole Kidman’s taxidermist provide obstacles along the way. The use of modern effects can sometimes lose the essence of a story’s original charm but Paddington retains many qualities. It’s simple and formulaic but still a delightful family film.
One Day I Saw 10,000 Elephants (2015)
This documentary tells a story through archival footage and an interview with a Guinean man, Angono Mba, who takes us back 70 years to 1940s West Africa. Mba becomes the guide for a Spanish filmmaker, Manuel Sanjuan, who wishes to head deep into Africa to seek out a lake where 10,000 elephants are set to gather. Mba’s voice immerses one in the colonial history of an Africa he grew up in. While the focal point of the story is Sanjuan’s search for this mystery lake, Mba recounts the oppression his people suffered at the hands of colonists. Sometimes painful to watch, this is also a beautifully told story.
Cat Heaven Island (2016)
This delightful documentary takes one on a journey to the small island of Tashirojima, off the coast of Japan. Once home to a thriving community, the island now has a small and ageing population but its main attraction is the dozens of cats that live with the islanders. For cat lovers this truly is a version of heaven. However, sadness and regret reverberate across the island, a longing for a distant and lost past, but hope remains and the welcome sight of so many cats make this one hard to resist. If you’re up to the challenge: try picking a favourite!
Loving Vincent (2017)
This innovative animation uses the oil painting techniques of Vincent van Gogh to tell the story of the aftermath of the famous painter’s death. Armand Roulin is given a letter by his father to deliver to Vincent’s brother, Theo. In trying to carry out this request, Armand meets a series of individuals that all knew the famous painter and he begins to piece together the final days of Vincent and trying to understand what may have driven him to suicide. The painting and animation throughout the film is delightful, particularly the flashbacks that offer conflicting views of van Gogh in the midst of joy in his painting one minute, before delving into the dark shadows of inner demons that haunted him.
Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)
Clint Eastwood’s biopic takes us back to January 2009 where pilots, Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, were forced into an emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River with everyone on board surviving. The film moves around with the narrative looking at the events of the flight, the publicity the pilots faced and an investigation into their conduct. Hanks and Eckhart excel as the two pilots and are ably supported by the likes of Laura Linney and Anna Gunn. It is a worthy and moving tribute to a truly heroic act.
The Hero (2017)
The effortlessly cool Sam Elliott stars in this drama about an ageing Western actor who is faced with mortality and looks to reconcile with family before the end. Like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Elliott is perfectly cast as the ageing star whose glory days are long behind him while Laura Prepon provides excellent support as a comedian who becomes a part of his life. The film packs a lot into its short run time but is worth it for the privilege of Elliott in a leading role with that voice and, of course, that moustache.
The General (1926)
My second foray into the world of Buster Keaton and another privilege it was as well. Set during the American Civil War, Keaton is a train engineer named Johnnie whose is refused entry to the Confederate army and ends up losing both his fiancee, Annabelle, and his train, The General. What follows is a series of memorable events along the railroads as Johnnie looks to put things right. Keaton is delightful once again with impeccable comic timing and some impressive stunts thrown in. Ironically, The General was not well received upon release and would deprive Keaton of creative freedom in future works. Today it is hailed as a masterpiece and rightly so.
Some Voices (2000)
Six years before his first appearance as James Bond, Daniel Craig was involved in this adaptation of a stage play. He plays Ray who has schizophrenia but is discharged from a mental hospital to stay with his brother, Pete (David Morrissey), who runs a cafe/restaurant. When Ray meets Laura (Kelly MacDonald) he decides to stop taking his pills and immerse himself in this relationship instead. Some Voices tackles family relationships and carefully explores mental illness with Ray coming across as almost child-like and innocent, rather than hostile or dangerous as other depictions of schizophrenia may portray. Although well-acted the film feels like it overreaches in juggling Ray’s mental illness and his relationships with his brother and with Laura and none of the treads feel like they are concluded satisfactorily.
Charlotte’s Web (2006)
A modern adaptation of the classic children’s novel by E.B. White. It tells the story of Wilbur, a runt in a litter of pigs, who is spared by the pleas of a farmer’s daughter. Wilbur befriends many of the animals on the farm with one in particular, a spider named Charlotte, being the one he is closest to. Constantly under threat of being killed, Charlotte decides to come up with a plan to save Wilbur by making him famous and hopefully avoid the farmer’s axe. Like Babe the film has animated talking animals and boasts some welcome voice acting with the likes of Julia Roberts, John Cleese and the wonderful Steve Buscemi lending their voices. It’s an enjoyable but standard adaptation of the book which may bring a tear to your eye.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018)
This documentary looks at the struggles Orson Welles had in trying to complete what he hoped would be his masterpiece, The Other Side of the Wind. Weaving between archive footage of Welles on and off screen and interviews with the likes of directors John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich, the documentary sheds further light on the legendary director’s career. Welles’ unquestionable talent is on show but also are his personal struggles with the studios when it came to financing and stifling his creativity. Multiple scenes from The Other Side of the Wind are also included and give a taste of the film which is now available, along with this documentary, on Netflix.
Gus van Sant reunites Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, both in Good Will Hunting, for this short and ponderous story of two friends that head hiking into a desert and have forgotten to bring any supplies with them. They soon lose their sense of direction and are left wandering aimlessly which puts a strain on their relationship. This is one of those films that audiences will either love or hate. Large parts of the film are monotonous but then some scenes will stir your interest. I’d describe it as interesting rather than absorbing but for me it falls short of the likes of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester.
Julian Baggini – The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher (2005)
Julian Baggini shares 100 thought experiments which follow the same format throughout the text. We are introduced to the experiment and given a brief summary of the concept before Baggini deigns to throw in some solutions on not necessarily solving each incidence but how to approach each one in turn. This is a fascinating read though one I tackled slowly given the sometimes complex nature of some of the experiments.
Frances Larson – Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014)
Frances Larson offers a detailed history of heads covering a range of topics from executions, trophies and anatomy studies. The book offers a general overview of some famous heads and excels in particular with its focus on the Pacific War between the US and Japan. Not one for the squeamish but an interesting read nonetheless.