The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

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Have you ever noticed how everything seems better at Christmas? It’s Christmas Eve. Kermit the Frog is Bob Cratchit the put-upon overworked office clerk of stingy boss Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine). Miss Piggy is his wife (their family are quite the example of inter-species marriage with Robin playing Tiny Tim) and other Muppets –  Gonzo, Fozzie Bear and Rizzo (who are Dickens and his friend) and Sam the Eagle – weave in and out of the story, as Scrooge reluctantly agrees to give his book keepers a day off. Scrooge falls asleep and receives a visit from his late business partners the Marley Brothers (Statler and Waldor) who warn him to repent or he will live to regret his ways. Then he is visited by the Ghosts of three Christmases – past, present and future. They show him the error of his selfishness but he seems past any hope of redemption and happiness until a vision illustrates that not everything valuable is a financial transaction … Dickens’ melodramatic classic gets a sharp treatment that oozes wit, wisdom and charm in an adaptation by Jerry Juhl that avoids the most sentimental and condescending aspects of this morality tale. Stunningly made and told, with Caine’s underplaying of the old miser merely heightening the immense charm of the enterprise, brilliantly offset by the songs of Paul Williams and music by Miles Goodman. Funny, inventive, smart and humane. Probably the best Christmas film ever. Directed by Brian Henson. 

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At the Earth’s Core (1976)

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You cannot mesmerise me! I’m British! Nineteenth century scientist Dr Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) tries out his giant iron mole machine and burrows into an underground labyrinth where he and his travelling companion and financier David Innes (Doug McClure) encounter giant telepathic birds and prehistoric cavemen. They may be sub-human but they’re the master race! Adapted by exploitation producer Milton Subotsky from the story by Edgar Rice Burroughts, this was the second of three cheapo sci-fi fantasies to star TV’s beloved Virginian star Trampas, who was on those re-runs throughout my childhood. McClure had been that show’s leading man for its entire 9 years and then had a peripatetic film career despite a prolific TV history. These films were beloved of many a child but the budget Seventies production wouldn’t pass muster nowadays however it’s great fun and for cult fans there’s always the attraction of Caroline Munro as the gorgeous slave girl Princess Dia. Romance! Mind control! Pure silliness! I particularly like when Cushing tells McClure, I have a firm grip on your trousers, David. Directed by Kevin Connor.

Effie Gray (2014)

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He must be mad.  Young virginal Effie (Dakota Fanning) marries art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) shortly after her family has endured financial hardship. When she enters his family home she finds that he has an unhealthy relationship with his mother (Julie Walters) and his father (David Suchet) is genially oppressive. On their wedding night her husband looks at her with … distaste. And never touches her. Her mother in law insists on dosing her with some strange herbal concoction that knocks her out. Mingling with the great and the good she finds a sympathetic friend in Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson) the wife of his patron at the Royal Academy and she suspects all is not right particularly on a visit to their stifling home during a spectacularly awkward dinner.  On a trip to Venice it is assumed that Ruskin is quite mad and Effie is pursued by Raffaele (Riccardo Scarmarcio) who almost rapes her. When Ruskin commissions a portrait of himself from his protege John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) the trio decamp to the countryside and an affection grows between the two young people:  it is clear Effie is starved of genuine human warmth. She summons her little sister Sophy (Polly Dartford) to visit her and makes a plan to escape… This project had a very troubled birth following two plagiarism suits against actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson. Notwithstanding the issues that caused the script to be redrafted this doesn’t come to life – something of an irony given that the living Effie was immortalised as the suicided Ophelia by Pre-Raphaelite Millais. Fanning isn’t the most energised or personable of performers at the best of times but she really is given little here and the interrelationships aren’t especially well exposed. Wise has likewise little to do except look pained and self-absorbed:  mission accomplished. It may well be true but it doesn’t mean it works on the screen. For a story with so much scandalous content this is a disappointment on a massive scale. Look at the paintings instead. That’s Tiger Lily Hutchence as the young Effie in the opening scene and how lovely it is to see Claudia Cardinale as the Venetian viscountess. Directed by Richard Laxton with some staggeringly beautiful landscape photography by Andrew Dunn.

Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

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The Sutton family headed by sadistic and conventional middle class pharmacist father Mervyn Johns lead a stultifying and cruel Victorian existence;  innkeeper’s wife Googie Withers plots a way out of her nasty marriage by luring the oppressed younger Sutton (Gordon Jackson) into a friendship that will gain her access to his poisons and frame him for her husband’s murder while she carries on with her lover. This airless drama has much to recommend it in terms of setting – there are some rare scenes between gossiping women at the Oyster Bar – and performance, especially Withers, whose fabulous face and figure scream sex. However its emphasis on the unfortunate children of Johns, including an ambitious daughter who wants to make her way as a concert singer, somewhat dissolves the drama’s potential. It’s difficult to believe that Withers will give up as easily as she does – Johns simply doesn’t possess that kind of power outside the four walls of his home. Nonetheless, it was the wonderful Robert Hamer’s atmospheric debut and we love his films, don’t we?  It’s a fairly damning take on 1880s standards. Adapted from Roland Pertwee’s play by Diana Morgan. An Ealing production. And for trivia fans, yes, Roland was the father of Jon Pertwee, some people’s best ever Dr Who!

 

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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You would never know that this was an Ealing comedy – it is totally unsentimental. Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) is in prison awaiting his execution when he puts pen to paper and recounts the reason for this turn of events. Born to a beautiful if rash aristocratic mother who ran off with an Italian opera singer, this orphaned young man is now working in a draper’s when his lady love Sibella (Joan Greenwood) marries a love rival. He sets out to dispatch the eight remaining members of the D’Ascoyne line to recuperate the title he feels is rightfully his. All of them – including the venerable Lady Agatha – are played by Alec Guinness. (He also played a ninth!). Louis marries the virtuous wife Edith (Valerie Hobson) of one of them. The range of their respective deaths is stunning. A sublime work of British cinema, adapted from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank:  The Autobiography of a Criminal by John Dighton and the woefully underrated director Robert Hamer, whose masterpiece this is. Transgressive, ironic and subversive, and the ending is simply genius. Breathtaking black comedy for the ages. Perfection.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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Truncated and abbreviated to 125 minutes from its intended original 200+ minute running time it might well be, but there is much to love about this Billy Wilder-IAL Diamond screenplay adaptation of everyone’s favourite ‘tec. With two stories instead of the four plus a flashback (apparently available on Laserdisc – remember them?!), Robert Stephens is the intuitive one with Colin Blakely as Watson, whom he pretends to a forward Russian noblewoman is gay to get out of fathering her child. Then he is taken in – for a spell – by a German spy masquerading as a woman in peril (Genevieve Page) with a detour to Scotland where a Jules Verne-esque submersible, Trappist monks and dwarves at Loch Ness are involved in an elaborate scheme which even attracts the attention of Queen Victoria. Brother Mycroft shows up in the person of Christopher Lee. Warm, witty, compassionate and sad, with a beautiful sense of irony, this is the underrated but gorgeously charming film that inspired the current BBC show. Happy International Sherlock Holmes Day!

Man in the Attic (1953)

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Ugly does as ugly is:  there’s a lesson here, folks, Beware ugly people and that means Jack Palance, an actor rather limited by his foreboding appearance. What he lacked in looks he made up in horrible intensity.  In this B-movie adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ fictionalised Ripper tale, The Lodger (already done by Hitchcock and John Brahm) he’s the self-proclaimed pathologist renting a room in London c1888 from Helen Harley (Frances Bavier),  whose niece, dance hall performer Lily Bonner (Constance Smith) responds to him and ignores warnings about his odd behaviour while all around her London looks for Jack. Hugo Fregonese directs an oft-told tale with surprising dexterity, the theatrical shows are well staged, it’s commandingly shot by Leo Tover, Palance goes off the rails as only he can and it’s great to see Smith, Ireland’s answer to Hedy Lamarr, giving her considerable all as the decent, naive Parisian veteran – surely a contradiction in terms. Adapted by Barre Lyndon and Robert Presnell Jr, edited by the marvellous Marjorie Fowler.

A Study in Terror (1965)

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The poster says it all:  the great literary detective versus the notorious serial killer of women in this Sixties fantasy chiller set in Victorian London. Adapted by Derek Ford and Donald Ford from their story which takes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters played here by John Neville and Donald Houston, with John Fraser as the aristocratic lunatic terrorising the East End. Produced by those exploitation experts Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger, this could easily have slid into the realms of the lurid but thanks to the great handling by director James Hill, costumes by Motley, delicate cinematography by Desmond Dickinson and an elegant score by John Scott it skirts the edges of taste to produce a gripping, entertaining thriller. The theory presented here is perfectly viable but one that might be scotched by more recent findings (even director Bruce Robinson has spent a decade on this trail). Still, it’s always been fun to speculate about this most horrifying of murderers. The cast is fantastic and just look down the ensemble:  Barbara Windsor, Anthony Quayle, Robert Morley, Adrienne Corri, Judi Dench, Cecil Parker, Kay Walsh, and my beloved Frank Finlay! You had me at hello!

Corpse Bride (2005)

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Aka Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. With the season of spookiness upon us it’s time to look at this stop-motion animation, a reverie of marriage and death and multiple scary lairy characters. In a monochrome world shy sweet pianist Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) is about to marry Victoria (Emily Watson) by arrangement through socially ambitious parents when a branch from a tree drags him to the land of the dead where murdered Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) wants to marry HIM. She reunites him with his dead pet dog as the newly married man (albeit to a dead woman) descends to a paradoxical world of colour which is great fun but he needs to get back to reality to ensure Victoria isn’t ensnared in a marriage to villainous Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) who is eventually revealed to be the fiance who murdered Emily! If it’s a little incoherent on the story level it’s fun to watch, with some star talent having fun – Enn Reitel as the maggot/conscience in Emily’s brain, Christopher Lee as Pastor Galswells, Joanna Lumley as Victoria’s mother and composer Danny Elfman as a one-eyed skeleton (modelled on Sammy Davis Jr.). It’s maybe too smooth for stop-motion (using a different camera than the one on Nightmare Before Christmas) but it’s always good to watch Burton’s macabre work at Halloween. Screenplay by John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler based on characters created by Burton and Carlos Grangel.

Possession (2002)

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To get ahead in academia you have to be pretty tough. My own supervisor told me, I know you’re after my job. And didn’t read a page of my work for three and a half years. And stayed in his job. Quelle surprise. (45% of doctoral candidates drop out because of this kind of sanctioned behaviour.) Well, Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) has been passed over for an academic post that went to Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens) and has to keep labouring under eccentric Irish Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey) in search of anything relating to Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam),  the subject of an upcoming celebration and famous for a collection of poems dedicated to his wife (Holly Aird). Mostly Roland is cataloguing recipes. Ensconced in the London Library, however, he steals a couple of handwritten letters tucked in a book which he thinks are written to a lady poet, Christabel La Motte (Jennnifer Ehle). He follows his hunch to the acknowledged expert on her work, lecturer Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and despite her extreme misgivings, they visit her relatives, descendants of La Motte, and thence to France and Whitby, on the trail of what they find was a forbidden and adulterous romance. The stories are told in interweaving parallel, with a hint of French Lieutenant’s Woman about it all, but with added Lesbianism (La Motte has an inhouse painter, Lena Headey). Wolfe is assisting American literary bounty hunter Cropper (Trevor Eve) to get anything related to Ash and the mystery thickens and takes on a vicious patina with lives at risk. The story is wonderful even if Neil LaBute is probably the last director on earth you would expect to be handling it.  David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute himself each did a draft screenplay. The acting is the problem. Paltrow is horribly stiff, Eckhart cannot pronounce her name correctly (it sounds like Mad) and the stories that emanated from the set about their intolerance of each other and lack of chemistry certainly dooms any reality about their performance. LaBute made Roland brash and American so we get a culture clash that’s underlined a few times in the dialogue. Ehle is rather an insipid player but the romance with Northam is convincing and tragic and the impact on the women in their lives is horribly realistic. AS Byatt’s novel was a great literary bestseller and if it doesn’t work in its entirety (the Gothic potential was clearly not realised in lighting, cinematography or design) it’s a pleasing narrative, occasionally very touching and mostly well told with some nice performances by Tom Hollander and Anna Massey in the supporting cast. Red buses. Books. Libraries. I’m there!