40 years, 40 films…

Today (Saturday 16 March 2019) is my 40th birthday, so I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if I can nominate my favourite film from each of the previous 40 years. ‘Favourite’ is the key word here – they’re not necessarily what I think is the *best* movie (though in many cases that means the same thing). They’re the films I love the most, the films I most enjoy going back to again and again.

Narrowing it down was a really tough task, and I’ve had to exclude so many movies that are precious to me – the first two Aliens, A Christmas Story, Return of the Jedi, the first two Terminators, Clue, Withnail & I, Die Hard, DOA, Heat, Seven, 12 Monkeys, Fargo, Grosse Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown, Edgar Wright’s last three films and many, many more.

Here’s my roll call of favourites…

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

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The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

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Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987)

A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

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The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

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The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

From Dusk til Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

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Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinksi, 2003)

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

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Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005)

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Star Trek (JJ Abrams, 2009)

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Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, 2013)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014)

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard, 2018)

Now I’ve completed the list I can see trends: a dominance of Hollywood; a childhood love of films with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg connections; teenage years dominated by crime movies; a recent affection for big-budget escapism; a recurrence of James Bond.

Let me know in the comments section below if I’ve picked something you love too (or hate!)…

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My 10 favourite John Carpenter films

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To celebrate the 71st birthday of film director John Carpenter, here’s a list of what I think are his 10 best films.

10. Prince of Darkness (1987)
A group of post-grad students spend the night in an old church to investigate a mysterious cylinder which may contain the essence of Satan. As you’d imagine, things soon start to go wrong… It’s a film full of fascinating ideas and themes – real science, empiricism, religious mythology, dreams, time-travel, a cameo from Alice Cooper – but sadly not enough storytelling focus. The second half of the film gets quite intense and features some really out-there horror, but none of the characters is compelling enough for us to care.

9. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Carpenter’s love letter to kung-fu movies is a breathlessly directed comedy. It gets quite samey in the middle, but it’s often fun and is worth seeing for the amazing sets and Kurt Russell’s subversively inept action hero.

8. The Thing (1982)
A remake of a famous 50s B-movie, this has brilliantly bizarre monster make-up and special effects. It’s also tense and claustrophobic. Shame we don’t care more about the large cast of all-male characters, though.

7. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Carpenter’s first mainstream film. (He’d previously directed Dark Star (1975), a low-budget sci-fi comedy that spoofs 2001: A Space Odyssey but replaces the awe and wonder with mundanity.) It’s a Western-style siege plot, but the story plays out in a grimy, gritty, modern-day inner city. There’s bad dialogue and flat performances all over the place, but you’re pulled through by the amazing incidental music, the bursts of ultraviolence and the general sense of menace.

6. They Live (1988)
A sci-fi actioner about a man who uncovers an alien conspiracy in modern-day LA. The social satire is very good, as is the visual device of sunglasses allowing you to see the truth. Again, it’s a shame about the lacklustre characters. There’s also a punch-up that seems to last about half an hour.

5. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
A sweet if overly lightweight Chevy Chase comedy-thriller. The story’s slight and predictable, but the special effects are wonderful. The film was made slightly before the digital revolution, so we get a fun mixture of practical and optical tricks – all inventive. (Sadly, nothing Carpenter’s done since this film is worth seeing. Especially bad are the cheesy Vampires (1998) and the dunderheaded Ghosts of Mars (2001).)

4. Starman (1984)
A very charming film about an alien (an endearingly childlike Jeff Bridges) stranded on Earth. It’s not just the story’s similarity to ET that makes you think of Steven Spielberg; it’s the sense of wonder too (and the presence of Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Karen Allen, excellent as the widow who helps the alien get home).

3. Escape From New York (1981)
A brilliantly cynical sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian 1997. Kurt Russell plays former special forces soldier Snake Plissken (‘I heard you were dead…’), who’s coerced into a mission to rescue the US President (Donald Pleasance) when he crash-lands in a city-wide, lawless prison. Dark, twisted and a lot of fun. (Avoid the belated sequel, though.)

2. The Fog (1980)
A gorgeously atmospheric ghost story about a coastal town being terrorised by a century-old secret. There’s an ensemble cast of interesting characters and everything is so eerily evocative. Despite very little explicit horror – there’s almost no gore – it’s extremely scary and tense. Beautifully filmed too.

1. Halloween (1978)
This is a stripped-down, economical movie: trim, taut and terrifically constructed. For a film about a violent killer, there’s actually little gore on display; Halloween is more about tension and scares. In her first ever movie, Jamie Lee Curtis is very good as virginal lead character Laurie Strode; Donald Pleasance adds a bit of class as Michael’s manic psychiatrist, Dr Loomis; and the excellent incidental music (written by the director) is both creepy and catchy.

Horror Marathon: The Halloween film series

To celebrate 40 years since the release of influential horror film Halloween, I recently rewatched it… and then delved into all the sequels, spin-offs and reboots. It was often fun. It was often dispiriting. And that was just trying to keep track of all the times films ignore previous entries in the series. Here’s my journey into darkness…

Spoiler warning: Minor plot points may be revealed.

1. Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)
Fifteen years after he murdered his sister, psychiatric patient Michael Myers escapes hospital, returns to his home town and targets a group of young friends…

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It’s a staggeringly simple story – a ruthless, seemingly unstoppable killer picks off victims one by one – and has been copied endlessly ever since. But the first modern slasher film is still the best. Made for just $325,000, it’s a stripped-down, economical movie: trim, taut and terrifically constructed. Carpenter’s script has no flab on it and his shooting style is a masterclass in how to create mood and suspense. The widescreen anamorphic format keeps you looking for threats and danger in every corner of the frame, while long Panaglide shots give scenes a formal, elegant beauty. (The latter also sometimes act as Michael’s point of view, such as in the film’s bravura opening: a four-minute long take as he stalks and murders his sister.) But for a film about a violent killer, there’s actually little gore on display; Halloween is more about tension and scares. In her first ever movie, Jamie Lee Curtis is very good as virginal lead character Laurie Strode, one of the horror genre’s definitive final girls. Donald Pleasance adds a bit of class as Michael’s manic psychiatrist, Dr Loomis. And the excellent incidental music (written by the director) is both creepy and catchy.
Nine jack-o’-lanterns out of 10.

2. Halloween II (1981, Rick Rosenthal)
Later that same night, Michael Myers continues to terrorise teenagers in the town of Haddonfield…

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This direct follow-on picks up at the very moment that film one finished. John Carpenter co-wrote the script and produced, but later said he didn’t think he did a very good job. An injured and shaken Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis again, though given far less to do this time) spends most of the film in the world’s quietest hospital as Michael’s killing spree continues. Meanwhile, Dr Loomis continues trying to hunt Michael down. It’s a shlockier film than the original: there’s deliberately more gore, because the horror genre had moved on swiftly in the three years since the original, and more nudity too. But it’s still tense and scary enough to be basely entertaining. The imaginatively staged deaths are far more interesting than the new sacrificial characters, while the incidental music is again fantastic.
Retcon alert! In the first film, Michael targeted Laurie simply because he happened to see her near his childhood home. But we’re now told that they’re siblings: Laurie was adopted at a young age by the Strode family after older brother Michael went loopy. Not even Dr Loomis, Michael’s long-time psychiatrist, knew about the link until this film.
Six hydrothermal baths out of 10.

3. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, Tommy Lee Wallace)
A doctor and a grieving daughter investigate a mysterious toy company… 

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The oddity of the Halloween series: a self-contained horror story that has nothing to do with Michael Myers, Laurie Strode or the town of Haddonfield. In fact, it’s not even a slasher film. Season of the Witch is more like the kind of plot later seen in The X-Files – there’s horror and there are deaths, but it’s a conspiracy thriller about a spooky business run by a man with a secret, and the film is more about computers and CCTV cameras than a crank with a carving knife. It’s *wonderful*, a real gem that deserves a much better reputation. There’s a fantastic oddball tone to the whole thing (while still being scary), as well as an amazing score by producer John Carpenter and some very classy camerawork by cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, the Back to the Future series, Jurassic Park).
Retcon alert! The original Halloween film actually exists in this story’s fiction – characters watch a TV advert for an upcoming screening.
Eight Shamrock Novelties masks out of 10

4. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988, Dwight H Little)
On the tenth anniversary of his killing spree, Michael Myers escapes once again and returns to Haddonfield to target his seven-year-old niece…

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He’s back. After Season of the Witch’s attempt to morph the series into an anthology of different threats, Michael Myers was resurrected and wheeled out for a third iteration of the same basic slasher storyline. It’s 1988, 10 years on from the events of the first two films, and Michael learns that his sister Laurie has died in a car crash. (Jamie Lee Curtis, by now a huge star thanks to world-class comedy turns in Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda, didn’t want to come back.) So instead Michael goes after her young daughter, the aptly named Jamie played a not-bad Danielle Harris. Meanwhile, poor old Dr Loomis gives chase again, this time with a scarred face and a walking stick after the trauma he suffered in film two. Original co-writer/director John Carpenter had left the series after Season of the Witch, which may explain why this film is so plodding and why most of the deaths lack the shock factor of the original or the flamboyance of Halloween II. But let’s give the movie an extra mark for its unsettling – and genuinely unexpected – ending.
Retcon alert! Both Michael and Loomis were patently killed in Halloween II, but now we’re told that they were ‘nearly’ burnt to death.
Five roofs out of 10

5. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989, Dominque Othenin-Girard)
A year later: the presumed-dead Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield (again) to continue his persecution of his niece…

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After a recap of film four, which has some new footage to explain that Michael actually survived a hail of bullets and crawled away into the woods, we cut to a year later. It’s Halloween again and the town of Haddonfield is tempting fate again by celebrating it. After her trauma in the last movie, young Jamie (Danielle Harris, impressively intense throughout) is now in a children’s hospital. She’s troubled, mute and scared, while Dr Loomis (a frail-sounding Donald Pleasance) is still keeping a watch over her. And we meet a whole new gang of kids for Michael to kill: a desperately drab gang, one of whom is a prick who dresses up as Michael Myers *as a prank*. This film was directed by Dominique Othenin-Girard, who later made the appalling Omen IV. He does a terrible job. It’s shot and cut like a TV movie; many scenes feel rushed or abrupt; Michael’s first kill is confusing because the camera ‘crosses the line’; there’s precious little tension; the story is forgettable; and the deaths lack theatricality. The script is atrocious too.
Retcon alert! Not so much a contradiction, more a confirmation, but Michael’s supernatural quality is finally made explicit in this film. In earlier films we’ve been invited to question whether he’s something more than a man – he’s repeatedly survived being shot and burnt, for example. But now we learn that he has a psychic connection with his niece.
Three comedy cops (scored by cartoon incidental music) out of 10

6. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995, Joe Chappelle)
Michael escapes from a secretive cult who have been holding him prisoner for six years and continues his quest to murder his family…

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Decidedly unscary and exceedingly boring, this film sees the series sink lower than ever before. Jamie (recast with JC Brandy) is now a teenager and has been held captive by ritual-loving weirdos for six years. She gives birth, then escapes with her baby. So uncle Michael gives chase – back to Haddonfield (again)… A lost-looking Paul Rudd (Clueless, Friends, Ant-Man) plays Tommy Doyle, a character who was a child in the original film; he’s now an adult with a Michael Myers obsession who pervs at his next-door neighbour who just happens to be related to Laurie Strode and lives in Michael’s childhood home. A visibly unwell Donald Pleasance returns for a final time as Dr Loomis (the actor died before the film was released), and the plot picks up hints from Halloween II that there’s a supernatural reason why Michael always strikes on 31 October. But this is a truly abysmal film. The script is half-arsed horseshit, and it’s directed with the nuance of a wrecking ball. There’s an obsession with empty, artificial, horror-movie clichés, for example, while none of the characters feels even remotely real.
Retcon alert! At the end of Halloween 5, we saw a mysterious ‘man in black’ character take Michael away but leave Jamie behind. Now, we’re told that he kidnapped Jamie too – and both have been locked away in an underground bunker ever since.
Two radio phone-ins out of 10

7. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998, Steve Miner)
Having faked her death, Laurie Strode is living under an assumed name and working as a school headmistress. But then, two decades after her encounter with brother Michael Myers, he returns…

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Laurie Strode is living under a new identity, having gone into hiding after the events of Halloween II. She has a 17-year-old son, who goes to the secluded private school where she works, but she’s dogged by nightmares and has a drink problem. On the 20th anniversary of her encounter with Michael, her brother shows up again intent on killing her, so Laurie decides to fight back… A *galactic* leap up in quality from the previous few movies, this project was instigated by Jamie Lee Curtis. The script has life and bounce to it, while there’s a confidence and a competency to the staging. Because it’s the postmodern 1990s, we also get plenty of knowing references to other horror films – the Friday the 13th series, Scream 2, Frankenstein, Psycho… (Among several nods to the granddaddy of slasher films is the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis’s mother, Psycho star Janet Leigh, in a small role.) The school setting, teenage characters and funny dialogue are also reminiscent of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while a more-interesting-than-usual guest cast (Adam Arkin, Michelle Williams, LL Cool J) only add to what is a very enjoyable slasher movie.
Retcon alert! The last three films are wiped from the narrative slate completely. Laurie’s off-screen death, Laurie’s daughter, Michael’s extra killing sprees – all are now ignored. This presents the oddity that Michael and Dr Loomis’s deaths in Halloween II are being retconned for a second time.
Eight ice skates out of 10

8. Halloween: Resurrection (2002, Rick Rosenthal)
A group of kids take part in a reality show filmed inside Michael Myers’s childhood home. But they don’t know he’s in the house too…

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After an opening 15-minute sequence that’s basically an extended Jamie Lee Curtis cameo so she can be on the poster, we cut to Haddonfield University. A gang of students (all thoroughly dull except for Katie Sackhoff’s spirited Jen) win places on an internet reality show called Dangertainment. The plan is for them to spend the night in Michael Myers’s long-abandoned house and for people to watch them online. In other words, the postmodern pep of Halloween H20 has given way to noughties narcissism. Unfortunately for the contestants, Michael has sneaked into the house and rather slowly bumps them off one by one… It’s rarely tense or scary and you never really care what’s happening. But in the film’s favour, there’s some satire of reality shows – the producers have salted the house with artificial scares, for example, while viewers assume the murders are staged. There’s also a neat bit of writing when the murders kick off: a friend of a contestant is watching online, so texts her with guidance (‘He’s climbing up the stairs,’ etc). Meanwhile, Busta Rhymes plays Dangertainment’s producer and almost keeps a straight face when he confronts Michael: ‘Trick or treat, motherfucker!’ It’s not a great movie, but it’s not as awful as some of the previous ones.
Retcon alert! Halloween H20 ended with Laurie decapitating Michael Myers, but we’re now told that it wasn’t Michael. He’d earlier switched places with an unfortunate paramedic who was unable to tell Laurie who he was because his larynx had been crushed. (Why he didn’t remove the mask, though, is another matter.)
Five internet Emmys out of 10

9. Halloween (2007, Rob Zombie)
After a killing spree, a young boy called Michael Myers is committed to a psychiatric hospital. But 15 years later he escapes to go after his surviving sister…

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This remake of the 1978 original also acts as a prequel. It begins with more than half an hour focusing on Michael Myers as a child – a topic covered in less than five minutes by John Carpenter. We see him kill his elder sister, his stepfather and a school bully – all of whom have it coming because they’re so obnoxious – then his sessions with psychiatrist Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). So rather than Michael being a character-less, motiveless ‘Shape’, we see events from his point of view and understand why he is how he is. All this means it’s nearly the halfway point before we meet teenager Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and enter a dreary retelling of the 1978 plot. The grown-up Michael is played by the 6’9″ Tyler Mane, while Danielle Harris (Jamie in Halloweens 4 and 5) plays Laurie’s pal Annie and has to suffer the indignity of acting topless for several scenes after Michael attacks Annie while she’s having sex. That coarseness sums the whole movie up, really. This is the kind of horror film that’s all about a sustained tone of unpleasantness, a focus on suffering and pain, and characters who are pricks for no reason. It’s a dreadful, depressing couple of hours, full of caked blood and sharp edges and gore and rape and a grimy colour palette.
Retcon alert! Obviously, being a reboot, all the previous movies are ignored. In a change from the 1978 original, Michael and Laurie are siblings straight away here.
One taco deluxe supreme out of 10

10. Halloween II (2009, Rob Zombie)
A year later: Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield…

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Just like Rob Zombie’s first Halloween movie, this sequel has a fetishist fascination with gore, blood, suffering and general unpleasantness. The film goes intense and graphic early on, which means there’s never any chance of suspense or dynamic storytelling: if it’ll show *that* early on, you think, then it’ll do anything. After a looooong opening sequence which is then revealed to be a nightmare, the body of the film takes place a year after the events of the previous film. Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) has PTSD: she’s now a wild child and says fuck a lot. Meanwhile, Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is living off the fame of the Myers case, while the not-dead-after-all Michael Myers has been having Freudian dreams about his mother. (Soon, for some reason, Laurie’s having dreams about her too – a woman she hasn’t seen since being a baby.) Michael then heads back to Haddonfield and begins killing again… This dreadful, ham-fisted, charmless travesty has two light-hearted things of note. It’s the first Halloween film to mention Mike Myers, the Austin Powers actor. And, because she’s been to a fancy-dress party, Laurie spends the last third of the story dressed as Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Retcon alert! Michael Myers was shot in the face in the previous film, but now we’re told that no body was found.
One shaggin’ wagon out of 10

11. Halloween (2018, David Gordon Green)
Forty years after his killing spree, Michael Myers escapes custody and heads for the victim that got away: Laurie Strode…

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Thankfully, the latest entry in this up-and-doooooooown series is a really entertaining slasher film made with thought and craft and decent storytelling. Wisely turning its back on the humourless, hackneyed tone of the Rob Zombie reboots, this sequel to the 1978 original may be yet another Halloween film that pretends previous films don’t exist – but it’s so entertaining that doesn’t really matter… Forty years after Michael Myers tormented her, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a hardened, embittered and lonely women. She’s kept at a distance by her grown-up daughter (Judy Greer) and has spent four decades preparing for Michael’s return. (In promotional interviews, Curtis likened this version of Laurie to doomsday preppers.) When Myers (inevitably) escapes and goes on another murderous rampage, Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) gets in the way… This is a horror film that never forgets that horror only works in relation to other stuff: we need to know and care for the characters; the darkness must contrast with the light. So we get plenty of moments of humanity and humour, and a well-cast and interesting group of characters. As well as Laurie and her family (all very good), Allyson’s babysitting mate Vicky and the young lad she’s looking after are especially fun. All that means that when the tension builds, it’s effective. And when the violence comes it’s savage. Add in some clever callbacks to John Carpenter’s original and you have a terrific way to cap forty years of carnage.
Retcon alert! Yet again, lots of previous sequels are ignored… including the last time Laurie Strode returned to the series and ignored previous sequels! Also, the fact Michael and Laurie are siblings is now downgraded to a rumour.
Eight basements out of 10

seaQuest DSV: Season one

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Today is the 25th anniversary of science-fiction show seaQuest DSV beginning on American television. It’s always been a much-ridiculed show (‘Star Trek glug, glug, glug,’ my mother used to call it). But I’ve always been very, very fond of it – especially the first season, which was set 25 years into the future (ie, 2018). So here’s a list of the 10 best episodes from that opening year…

10. Knight of Shadows (31 October 1993)
Shown on Halloween, this episode abandons the rest of the season’s plausible science and just has ghosts in it. A Titanic-style ship is found after lying on the seabed for 105 years.

9. To Be or Not to Be (12 September 1993)
The pilot episode, shown 25 years to the day before this blog post went live. It introduces the characters and concepts very well.

8. Games (3 October 1993)
A Hannibal Lector type inveigles his way aboard the ship and plays cat-and-mouse games. Creepily directed with a terrific score by John Debney.

7. Treasures of the Mind (26 September 1993)
A well-written, early episode about international diplomacy after a long-lost cache of antiquities is found.

6. Give Me Liberte (24 October 1993)
Crew members have to be quarantined after being exposed to a deadly virus in this mystery episode, guest starring Udo Kier.

5. Brothers and Sisters (17 October 1993)
A nice, low-key plot about a young boy who has to be convinced to abandon a dangerous location. ER’s Kellie Martin is excellent as his friend.

4. The Good Death (15 May 1994)
A stylishly directed action episode about a South American military dictator (Luis Guzmán).

3. Nothing But the Truth (9 January 1994)
SeaQuest does Die Hard as terrorists storm the boat while there’s a skeleton crew aboard.

2. Greed for a Pirate’s Dream (16 January 1994)
A deliberately slender plot because it’s the drama concerning the guest characters – a group of treasure hunters on an island about to destroyed by lava – that’s more interesting.

1. Bad Water (7 November 1993)
A shit-hits-the-fan story about a sunken tourist sub and crew members stranded in a hurricane. (It’s easily the piece of television this blogger has seen the most often.)

 

My 10 favourite Christopher Nolan films

Christopher Nolan

To celebrate the 48th birthday of film director Christopher Nolan, I’ve ranked his 10 movies to date in order of wonderfulness…

10. Following (1998)
Nolan’s self–financed debut is a story about a wannabe writer who stalks strangers out of curiosity. It has many of the elements you’d expect from a 1990s low-budget crime movie: a story told out of sequence (because, you know, Tarantino); a cast who aren’t as sharp and believable as you’d hope (to save money, Nolan only allowed one or two takes); black-and–white photography (because that makes it look moody, right?); and handheld camerawork (because that’s quicker than setting up elaborate shots). Mildly diverting to begin with, it then starts to drag.

9. The Prestige (2006)
An interesting film rather than an entertaining one. It’s about Victorian stage magicians competing to find the perfect trick, but it feels clinical and cynical. The craft is there, but not enough heart.

8. Insomnia (2002)
An orthodox crime thriller elevated by a really great performance from Robin Williams as the bad guy and the generally weird setting of Alaska in the never-ending daylight of summer.

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The weakest of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, this sees a reclusive Bruce Wayne forced to suit up to fight the muffled-voiced terrorist Bane. It’s too long, too convoluted, and has too many risible moments (most famously, an entire city’s police force gets lured into some tunnels) – but it’s still a fun watch. Anne Hathaway is especially good as the cat burglar Selina Kyle.

6. Inception (2010)
Mindboggling at times, but fascinating nevertheless. It’s a film full of complex concepts and it expects you to keep up. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the leader of a gang who can secretly access people’s dreams and plant ideas in their subconscious. (The gang are an enjoyable bunch, with chalk-and-cheese members like Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As much as it’s a sci-fi ‘concept’ film, this is also a heist movie.) The visual flamboyance on show is absolutely staggering. Many scenes take place in a dreamworld that’s spatially surreal and yet still solid, while CGI and inventive camerawork are expertly used to tell the story and embellish the settings. Also, Hans Zimmer’s *much*-copied incidental music makes everything feel monumentally huge.

5. Batman Begins (2005)
A retelling of the Batman origin story that turned its back on the kiddie-friendly slush of the most recent entry in the series. With the character rebooted, the story was played straight and given psychological rigour. It takes a while to get going, but once we’re into Bruce Wayne fighting crime in Gotham City the film sings with theatrical style.

4. Interstellar (2014)
A science-fiction movie with real sweep and panache. In a near-future blighted by ecological problems, Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, an astronaut sent on a vital mission into the depths of the solar system. Due to the differences in relative time, decades will pass on Earth while he’s away… There’s plausible science mixed with speculative theory and even spiritualism, an adventure plot merged with family drama, as well as shocks and twists. Jessica Chastain is also tremendous as Coop’s grown-up daughter.

3. Dunkirk (2017)
The evacuation of Dunkirk seen from various points of view – young soldiers stranded in France, airmen providing the cover for the retreat, and the crew of a fishing boat crossing the Channel. The three subplots take place over different time spans (an hour, a day, a week), yet feel totally concurrent due to the film’s artful editing and Nolan’s sense of storytelling. The 70mm photography takes your breath away, while several epic action sequences are impressively staged for real. Moving, well cast and engrossing.

2. Memento (2000)
A superb, noir-ish thriller with – famously – its scenes in reverse order. Devilishly clever and admirably bold, with a great central performance from Guy Pearce, this is the story of a man hunting for his wife’s murderer. The biggest problem? A medical condition means he can’t form any new memories so must rely on self-written notes and photos he can’t remember taking. As with later films Interstellar and Dunkirk, the unusual chronology never feels confusing or clunky. Instead, it puts us into Leonard’s point of view: we don’t know what happened earlier because he doesn’t.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Big, bold, complex, provocative and dangerous, this is the superhero genre’s equivalent of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s monumental. Daunting. Impressive. Threatening. Challenging. Fascinating. *Ambitious*. Heath Ledger commands the frame whenever he’s on screen as the Joker, while the IMAX-shot action sequences are thrilling.

 

Four years of reviews…

To celebrate four years since I began this blog, here’s a list of every review that’s gained a maximum score of 10 out of 10…

Rubber Soul (1965)
Revolver (1966)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967; actually, I gave it 4,000 out of 10, but that’s the same thing)
Abbey Road (1969)
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The Wicker Man (1973)
Fawlty Towers: The Builders (1975)
Fawlty Towers: The Hotel Inspectors (1975)
Fawlty Towers: Gourmet Night (1975)

Jaws (1975)
Star Wars (1977)
Alien (1979)
Fawlty Towers: Communication Problems (1979)
Fawlty Towers: The Kipper and the Corpse (1979)
Fawlty Towers: The Anniversary (1979)
Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat (1979)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980; actually, because it’s so good I gave it 11 out of 10)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Return of the Jedi (1983)
Hatful of Hollow (1984)
Back to the Future (1985)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Aliens (1986)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
The Queen is Dead (1986)

Die Hard (1988)
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Batman (1989)
Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Licence to Kill (1989)

Red Dwarf III (1989)
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Aliens: Special Edition (1991)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Schindler’s List (1993)

Definitely Maybe (1994)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
GoldenEye (1995)
(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
Fargo (1996)
The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition (1997)

Jackie Brown (1997)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Masterplan (1998)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Firefly: Our Mrs Reynolds (2002)
Firefly: Out of Gas (2002)
Firefly: Objects in Space (2002)
Serenity (2005)
Casino Royale (2006)
Love (2006)
Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Star Trek (2009)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
The Lego Movie (2014)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Logan (2017)

My 10 favourite Ridley Scott films

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To celebrate the 80th birthday of visionary film director Ridley Scott, here is a list of what are – in my opinion – his 10 best movies…

10. Black Hawk Down (2001)
It might be a bit one-note, and too long, and too quick to paint foreigners as evil, but Scott’s based-on-a-true-story war movie is incredibly well staged.

9. Hannibal (2001)
A decent-enough sequel to an admittedly better film (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

8. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Ridley’s Crusades epic was cut down by studio executives before its release, but was still a good film, full of rich imagery and historical context. Thankfully, the director then released his edit on DVD – running at three hours, it’s much the better version and adds back in some necessary character detail and subplots. Only the blank central performance from Orlando Bloom disappoints.

7. Black Rain (1989)
Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia head to Japan in this fish-out-of-water cop thriller, which is stylish and thoughtful.

6. Gladiator (2000)
Made on the cusp of the CG revolution, this movie uses still-impressive computer graphics to extend its huge physical sets and the result is a totally convincing historical world. Russell Crowe, as a Roman general forced to become a gladiator, has rarely been better.

5. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Despite its serious subject matter – oppression, misogyny, death and rape – this is a huge amount of fun, thanks to a smart, witty script, two world-beating central performances from Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and Ridley Scott’s visual panache and sense of pace.

4. The Martian (2015)
Superbly charming and likeable sci-fi disaster movie with a sense of humour. It’s based on a really good book, and carries over its playfulness and droll line in comedy. Matt Damon’s excellent, the supporting roles are really well cast, and the situation is genuinely affecting.

3. Robin Hood (2010)
One of Ridley’s most maligned movies, this does have one significant flaw. At various points of his career, lead actor Russell Crowe has attempted a vaguely English accent – see Gladiator, Master and Commander, Man of Steel, The Mummy… Nowhere, however, is it quite as ear-scrapping as in Robin Hood. The actor once walked out of an interview when a journalist suggested he sounded Irish. I’d go more for a mix of Irish, East Midlands, Cornish, Australian, Geordie, Welsh and Dick Van Dyke. But this is just a blemish on an otherwise excellent piece of work. Basically Robin Hood: The Origin Story, the movie ticks the usual boxes – the Crusades, King John, Marian, the sidekicks – but also weaves Robin’s story into a tapestry that involves palace intrigue, civil rights and a coming war. Beautiful to look at, well cast, exciting, funny, and with a fascinating backstory informing everything, this deserves to be much more liked.

2. Blade Runner (1982)
See full review for more, but basically it’s a masterpiece.

1. Alien (1979)
Beating Blade Runner by a Jonesy the cat’s whisker, Alien is not only one of the best science-fiction films ever made and one of the best horror films ever made, it’s one of the best films of any description ever made – see my full review for more.

 

“Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience…”

Episodes of the American sitcom Cheers typically begin with a voiceover informing viewers that the show has been recorded with a studio audience in attendance. The device was introduced during the first season to confound rumours that the producers were adding a laughter track.

The phrase first appeared on the 13th episode (Now Pitching, Sam Malone, which was broadcast on 6 January 1983) and was used on nearly every episode until the show came to an end with its 11th season in 1993. The regular cast shared the duties, on a seemingly random rotation, so I thought it would be edifying – or at least diverting – to see who did it the most often.

11. Nicholas Colasanto (Coach Ernie Pantusso) – 0

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Of the 10 actors credited in a Cheers opening title sequence, only one never said “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience”: Nicholas Colasanto, who played dim-witted but eternally loveable barman Coach. The character was a regular from episode one, but Colasanto died from heart disease on 12 February 1985 during production of the show’s third season.

=9. Kirstie Alley (Rebecca Howe) – 1

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Despite neurotic bar manager Rebecca being in all 149 episodes made after she joined the cast in 1987, Kirstie Alley performed the introductory voiceover just once: on the episode Paint Your Office (5 November 1987).

=9. Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith Sternin-Crane) – 1

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Psychiatrist Lilith was initially a one-off character in season four – a love interest for Frasier Crane – then returned as a semi-regular from season five onwards. But despite all these appearances, Neuwirth only got to say “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience” once. It was on Madame LaCarla (3 October 1991), which came during the 10th season when she’d been temporarily promoted to the regular cast.

8. George Wendt (Norm Peterson) – 12

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One of only three actors who appeared in all 270 episodes of Cheers, George Wendt – who played slovenly but good-natured barfly Norm – was conspicuously underused when it came to assuring viewers that the laughs were genuine. When the gimmick was introduced, he actually said it on the first three episodes. But he was then called on just three times in the next two seasons… and then not again until season 10. His final go at it was on the episode It’s Lonely On The Top (29 April 1993).

7. Kelsey Grammer (Frasier Crane) – 13

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Psychiatrist Frasier Crane was introduced in the first episode of the 1984/85 season, initially as a short-term character. But he proved so popular he was promoted to the regular cast and stayed until the end. He performed the voiceover 13 times, from season six’s My Fair Clavin (10 December 1987) to season 11’s Is There a Doctor in the Howe? (11 February 1993).

6. [No one] – 22

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There are 22 episodes of Cheers that don’t use the phrase. Most came before the device was introduced, but in occasional later episodes it was replaced by either a ‘Previously on Cheers’-type voiceover or simply the first line of the opening scene.

5. Shelley Long (Diane Chambers) – 27

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One of the co-leads when the series began, Shelley Long – who played aspirational waitress Diane – featured in every episode until leaving at the end of the fifth season. (She also returned as a guest star for the last ever episode in 1993.) Her first go at “Cheers is filmed…” was on the second-season episode Homicidal Ham (27 October 1983); her final instance was on I Do, Adieu (7 May 1987), her last episode as a regular.

4. Woody Harrelson (Woody Boyd) – 33

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Naïve, young barman Woody Boyd joined the show at the start of season four, as a replacement for Coach, and stayed until the end. But he had to wait for his first “Cheers is filmed…”. It finally came in season six on the episode Christmas Cheers (17 December 1987). His final voiceover was exactly five years later on Love Me, Love My Car (17 December 1992).

3. John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin) – 49

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Postman Cliff featured in the show’s opener, Give Me a Ring Sometime (30 September 1982), then was in nearly every episode until the finale in 1993. Ratzenberger said “Cheers is filmed…” regularly between No Contest (17 February 1983) and Look Before You Sleep (1 April 1993). He’s one of only two actors who got to do it in all 11 seasons. He’s also one of only two actors who were allowed to embellish the phrase. The first and fourth times he performed the function, it was amended to “Here’s a little-known fact: Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience.”

2. Rhea Perlman (Carla Tortelli/LeBec) – 53

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Caustic waitress Carla was in every episode of Cheers and performed the voiceover in every season, from Show Down Part 1 (24 March 1983) until penultimate episode The Guy Can’t Help It (13 May 1993). She also got her own character-centric embellishment. In most of her instances during the first five seasons, she said “Hey” before the usual wording. This addition was then dropped.

1. Ted Danson (Sam Malone) – 59

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Unsurprisingly, the actor who introduced episodes of Cheers the most often was the top-billed Ted Danson, who played bar owner and ladies’ man Sam Malone in every episode. What is surprising, perhaps, is that he didn’t do it until the third season. Ted’s first voiceover was on Rebound (Part 1) (27 September 1984), then he performed the role regularly until series finale One for the Road (20 May 1993).

My top 10 Harrison Ford characters

Harrison Ford has been one of my favourite actors for a very long time. Being about five years old and realising that the same man played both Han Solo and Indiana Jones was possibly the exact moment I became a film geek. So to celebrate his 75th birthday here’s a rundown of his best characters…

10. President James Marshall

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Appears in: Air Force One (1997)
Quote: “Get off my plane!”
In this silly but fun thriller, Ford is a fictional US President fighting terrorists who have taken over his personal airliner. It’s one of the actor’s *many* roles in which he plays a husband/father whose family is threatened by bad guys. This motif in his CV was spoofed in a very funny YouTube mash-up.

9. Martin Stett

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Appears in: The Conversation (1974)
Quote: “I’m not following you. I’m looking for you. There’s a big difference.”
A relatively minor role in a paranoia thriller directed by Francis Ford Coppola. In the original script Stett was just an unnamed underling, but Coppola liked Ford’s approach so much – he played him with a cool menace and decided he was gay – that the character was given extra screentime.

8. Allie Fox

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Appears in: The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Quote: “Look around you. How did America get this way? Land of promise, land of opportunity. Give us the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Have a Coke. Watch TV.”
Based on a Paul Theroux novel, the film tells the story of an American man who moves his family to Belize in search of a purer, simpler life. Ford plays Allie’s increasingly unhinged behaviour really well.

7. Jack Trainer

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Appears in: Working Girl (1988)
Quote: “Me? Nah.”
Harrison shows off his skill with light comedy in this likeable 80s film about big business. He plays the object of the lead character’s affections: a honest, undemanding guy in a cut-throat world.

6. Rusty Sabich

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Appears in: Presumed Innocent (1990)
Quote: “Next time you talk to him, tell him to call me so I can find out what’s going on in my own fucking investigation.”
In this taut mystery movie, Ford plays an assistant district attorney who must investigate the murder of his own mistress. It’s his story, so we’re seeing events through his eyes, yet the longer the film goes on the more you doubt his sincerity. Is Rusty actually the killer?

5. Dr Richard Kimble

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Appears in: The Fugitive (1993)
Quote: “I didn’t kill my wife!”
Wrongly accused of murdering his other half, Kimble goes on the run and is chased by a US marshal played by Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a classic everyman role for Ford – well, a successful and rich everyman – and he’s excellent at playing an innocent who’s overtaken by events.

4. Jack Ryan

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Appears in: Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Quote: “I couldn’t just stand there and watch him shoot those people right in front of me. It was… rage. Pure rage… Just made me mad.”
This character – a CIA analyst and family man – was first played by Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October (1990), a superb thriller about a rogue submarine. When Baldwin dropped out of the sequel, Harrison Ford took over. He played Jack Ryan in two very entertaining and well made movies, and brought bags of decency and guile to the role.

3. Rick Deckard

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Appears in: Blade Runner (1982), Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Quote: “I was quit when I come in here, Bryant. I’m twice as quit now.”
Harrison Ford’s skill at conveying a huge amount with relatively little dialogue has never been better used than in this magnificent movie. Deckard is a classic film-noir private detective working in a futuristic LA. He’s world-weary, laconic and damaged.

2. Dr Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones Jnr

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Appears in: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues (1993, TV), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Quote: “It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”
Indy is part college professor, part archaeologist and part globetrotting, Nazi-beating, wisecracking adventurer. With his fedora hat, leather jacket and whip, he’s a comic-book character come to life. A swashbuckling hero for the ages.

1. Han Solo

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Appears in: Star Wars (1977), The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Quote: “Sometimes I amaze even myself.”
The words swagger and charisma could have been coined to describe Han Solo, the untrustworthy-smuggler-turned-hero-of-the-rebellion. He’s a dry, droll presence in the Star Wars series, adding cynicism and sarcasm to the otherwise earnest first film and then romance and soul to the sequels. He has the best spaceship in all of sci-fi, dresses like a cowboy, and is capable of a man-crush-generating smirk. Peerlessly, effortlessly, relentlessly cool.

Best of the rest: Also worth mentioning are… Boy racer Bob Falfa in American Graffiti (1973) and More American Graffiti (1979)… Colonel Lucas, the nervous military toady in Apocalypse Now (1979)… David Halloran, the US soldier in soppy war film Hanover Street (1979)… Policeman John Book in Amish thriller Witness (1985)… and Richard Walker, yet another husband worried about his under-threat wife, in Frantic (1988).

My 10 favourite Tony Scott films

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Film director Tony Scott died in 2012, but today would have been his 73rd birthday. So to celebrate here’s a rundown of his 10 best movies.

10. Top Gun (1986) – ridiculous, overblown and macho. But so much fun too.

9. Spy Game (2001) – a CIA thriller with Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, four different time zones and lots of flashy camerawork.

8. The Fan (1996) – Robert De Niro goes entertainingly nuts as a baseball fan who stalks his favourite player.

7. Deja Vu (2006) – the sci-fi gimmick is ingenious and inventive, but the film never loses sight of the plot and the central character (played by Denzel Washington in one of his five Tony Scott films).

6. Crimson Tide (1995) – a tense submarine thriller with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman butting heads in a battle of the heavyweights. (Quentin Tarantino did a pass on the script and added some pop-culture references.)

5. The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) – a hip, flashy remake of the 70s train-based caper. It also has another great Denzel Washington performance, this time squaring off against John Travolta.

4. Unstoppable (2010) – essentially just a single 90-minute action scene, this movie has absolutely no fat on it at all. A simplistic yet thrilling film. It’s pure cinema: storytelling through action and visuals.

3. True Romance (1993) – an early Quentin Tarantino script given a Hollywood sheen by Tony Scott. Vivid characters, cracking dialogue and visual flair.

2. The Last Boy Scout (1991) – a stylish, witty neo-noir written with bags of attitude by Shane ‘Lethal Weapon’ Black.

1. Enemy of the State (1998) – a fantastic techno-thriller about surveillance, with Will Smith as the Cary-Grant-in-North-By-Northwest-type innocent caught in the crossfire.