Ivanhoe (1952)

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Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to right the wrong of kidnapped Richard the Lionheart’s predicament, confronting his evil brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) and Norman knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). His own estranged father Cedric (Finlay Currie) doesn’t know he’s loyal to the king but feisty Rowena (Joan Fontaine) is still his lady love although his affections are now swung by the beautiful Jewess Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter to Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who is almost robbed by the knights and whose fortune can aid the King. Robin Hood appears and Ivanhoe joins forces with him and his men, there’s jousting at the tournament and love lost and won, and a trial for witchcraft ….  Adapted by AEneas MacKenzie from the Walter Scott novel, this was written by Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, whose name was removed subsequent to her being blacklisted. It’s glorious picture-book pageantry in Technicolor, such a wonderful change from those grim grey superhero and historical excursions to which we are being currently subjected in the multiplex. Everyone performs with great gusto, there’s chivalry and action aplenty, a great baddie, a kangaroo court, a ransom to be paid, a love triangle, a king to rescue, costumes to die for and properly beautiful movie stars performing under the super sharp lens of Freddie Young to a robust score by Miklos Rozsa. It was the first in an unofficial mediaeval MGM trilogy shot in the UK, followed by Knights of the Round Table and The Adventures of Quentin Durward, all starring Taylor (Robert, that is) and shot by Richard Thorpe. Prepare to have your swash buckled. Fabulous.

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The Dark Crystal (1982)

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A long time ago, on a planet far, far away … I had to be persuaded to watch quest narratives after mistakenly wandering into the Ralph Bakshi animation of Lord of the Rings instead of Superman at a very young and impressionable age. No such worries here. It’s a straightforward fantasy in all but one respect – it’s performed by animatronic puppets, and very attractive and convincing they are too, created by Jim Henson at his creature workshop. Jen (Stephen Garlick) is the last surviving Gelfling who has been raised by The Mystics. They need to restore balance to the world by replacing a shard in the eponymous crystal which has long stopped shining, otherwise the evil Skeksis will retain control of the universe. A prophecy foretells their defeat … On his journey he encounters Kira (Lisa Maxwell) and a romance of sorts develops as they tackle various obstacles – particularly the very funny vultures they are trying to vanquish. There is a highly amusing Delphic Oracle, witchlike Aughra, a hilarious pet (Fizzgig), impressive Longstriders, frightening Garthim (crab monsters) and tremendous production design so inventive and multi-faceted you want to dive through the screen. Gorgeous, magical, somewhat sinister and pretty much perfect. And it’s only 94 minutes long! Written by David Odell and directed by Henson with Frank Oz.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

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Aka Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales. Thanks to the Australian government’s tax incentives, that Pirates-shaped gap in my life has finally been plugged with a new instalment in the delayed series. I love these films, and all pirate films, and have had to sate myself with the genius Black Sails in the interim (I have one series to go, so no spoilers please! I’m still not over Charles Vane’s execution!). This is number 5 in the franchise and it operates as a kind of unofficial reboot because it has been (gasp) 14 long years since the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was released. And it’s aptly returned to this for most of the bones in terms of story, character and structure, even if this has way more shaggy-dogness about it in an untidy set of plot mechanics. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann vows to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to right the wrong on his father who’s abiding in a watery limbo on the Flying Dutchman. He knows that the Trident of Poseidon will break the curse. Death meanwhile lurks on the high seas in the form of Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew who cannot set foot on dry land – also condemned and cursed by Sparrow’s antics. An astronomer Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario) is being executed as a witch in St Martin where a bank is being opened – and this is where Captain Jack makes his spectacular reappearance with his unruly and disgruntled crew led by Kevin McNally, with their awful ship in dry dock where they’re all broke. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is summoned by Henry to help out and he is ironically reunited with a daughter who doesn’t know the provenance of the map she seeks … Colourful, silly, not entirely logical and definitely rehashing plot points from the earlier films particularly the first one, this is handled pretty well by Norwegian directing duo Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg working from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, with a story by Nathanson and Terry Rossio.  The young lovers story gets a run-through, the Barbossa plot gets a very fitting conclusion, there’s a fascinating flashback (I want one to give me skin like that in real life) and there are homages here and there to make you smile – the zombie sharks being a reference to the original summer blockbuster granddaddy of them all, the ghost crew a nod to the original’s skeleton crew, Depp taking his Robert Newton/Keith impersonation to new heights of pantomime, a great Paul McCartney cameo and a bank robbery like no other. Some of the lines could have done with a rewrite – especially the jokes which are heavy on the misogyny; and there’s no real mad surrealism which has graced previous episodes (is there anything as wild as the hallucination of the ship on dry land and the multiple Jacks?!). While most of the legendary tropes are present bar a real Brit villain the last action sequence is so darned complex I genuinely forgot what it was about. But it’s full of fun and wild adventure and I for one love this series even if number 4 fell far short of expectations. Thwaites and Scodelario make a pretty useful couple to base the next set of films, kicking some new plotlines into touch. What do you want – live action Space Mountain?! Hoist the mainbrace! Wahey me hearties! More!

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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It seems a little odd to suggest the obvious – that this remake isn’t as good as the original – until you recall that the 1991 animation was the first one to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture. While a little flawed, it didn’t outstay its welcome. The opening narration here seems to go on for about a half a day. As voiceovers go, it’s redundant if you stick to the Show Don’t Tell rule of cinematic story:  we can SEE what’s happening as Belle (Emma Watson) trots around the village waving her book-reading superiority at her fellow natives. Gaston (Luke Evans) is a bumptious character, hilariously played and sets the tone proper with his antics chasing ‘the most beautiful girl in the village’ (hmm….) His self-love is reflected in the slavering attentions of sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) and the opening sequence culminates in an outstandingly well done groupsing at the local inn.This is one of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Belle’s papa Maurice (Kevin Kline) needs to travel for his work and promises to bring her back a rose – like he does every year. And when he finds the enchanted castle where Beast (Dan Stevens, who makes a very wan prince indeed) resides reclusively since having a spell cast upon him years earlier … Belle arrives to save him and swaps places and the rest you know. The animated houseware is now characterised through CGI and voiced among others by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth – he previously worked with director Bill Condon in the wonderful Gods and Monsters), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Cadenza) and most disappointingly, Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts) whose harsh faux Cockney cannot approximate to the warmth and sheer incomparable charisma of Angela Lansbury. The whole film is shot in an incredibly dark palette which renders the experience quite difficult – made worse in 3D – and the staging is very awkward in places: the first ballroom scene, featuring the famous dance between Belle and Beast is really underwhelming (remember the brilliance of the original?) suggesting a lack of attention not just to famous musicals of the past but basic dance steps, decent choreography and a sense of magic which is nonexistent at what should have been the story’s high point. The shots are completely wrong for such a sequence. There are great life lessons in the story – misunderstanding people on the basis of their appearances, the swift way in which groups become mobs and the way that Belle is told of her mother’s death is very well done but the narrative momentum is lost to bad handling. The outstanding performance is by Luke Evans, literally pitch perfect in an overly long underimpressive production. Maybe if they hadn’t been so hellbent on making something so politically correct/gay/racially diverse they’d have had a monster film.There’s always La Belle et la Bete.

Bewitched (2005)

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Way back when, a friend saw a movie before me and her review was succinct:  “The fireplaces were marvellous.” And, aside from a wonderful cat called Lucinda who greatly resembles my own lovely Frodo, for a while that’s pretty much how I felt about this Nora Ephron outing – exacerbated in no small way by the fact that at the screening I attended there was a soundtrack of contemporary music for the first 10 minutes – the projectionist’s personal choice. So much for postmodernism – for that’s exactly what this is, an interweaving of the old TV show with a modern interpretation of how a reboot is put together by egomaniac freshly divorced and failing film star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) who bumps into the best nose-twitcher in LA, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman). She’s a newbie to the Valley in an effort to enter the mortal realm and be normal – so she becomes an actress. Only in LA. She falls hard for Jack but his weaselly agent Ritchie (Jason Schwartzmann) rubbishes the idea in her hearing. She wants to put a spell on him and it works, for a while. The scriptwriter (Heather Burns, who also acted for Ephron in You’ve Got Mail) gives her great lines and shows up Jack/Darrin. “Nobody likes Darrin!” he whines when the preview numbers are in and she’s a hit and he’s not. Nora and Delia Ephron wrote this with Adam McKay who’s long been house writer/director of that bromance crew led by Ferrell. Here, warlock dad (Michael Caine) isn’t too impressed with the real world translation of immortal shenanigans but co-star Iris playing Endora (Shirley Maclaine) literally puts a spell on him because she’s got a witchy secret of her own. Halfway through Isabel rewinds her spell on Jack and their story re-starts – right in the middle of his guest interview with James Lipton, which is absolutely appropriate. Steve Carell and Carole Shelley have nice bits as Uncle Arthur and Clara, Ferrell gets to go naked in front of Conan and Nicole has a ball in a light as air souffle, just as Ephron would have served up for one of her carefully constructed meals, with an I Love You scene that perfectly fuses the structural ambitions of this postmodern romcom. Are Isabel and Jack in love with each other? Their characters? The idea? Themselves? That is the question … “I’m about to be killed by a fictional character!” squeaks Jack at one point. Well, duh. And the kitchen is marvellous!

Midnight Offerings (1981) (TVM)

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Witching hour again! And this time it’s a witch-off between Little House on the Prairie‘s Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson) and The Waltons‘ Erin (Mary Beth McDonough), a battle that has an incendiary ending.  Anderson is Vivian Sotherland, the spiteful Mean Girl at Ocean High CA who intimidates male teachers sexually and if they don’t succumb she murders them – we enter as she casts a spell that causes one to crash his car, saving her quarterback boyfriend Dave (Patrick Cassidy) from flunking and thereby keeping him on the team. New (motherless) girl Robin Prentiss  (McDonough) has read about his drunken misdemeanour in the local freebie paper but likes him despite her dad’s objections. They’ve moved from Connecticut following a series of unfortunate events – she has powers too, but no idea how to control them. Vivian can’t read her and starts to attack her dad and Dave and nearly kills Robin in a house fire. Dave is on to her scheme and brings Robin to Emily Moore (Marion Ross, Mom from Happy Days!) to help her ward off evil. Mrs Sotherland (Cathryn Damon) didn’t abort Vivian to stop breeding the 7th daughter of the 7th daughter and blames herself for allowing her to go off the rails so she must intervene before another murder occurs … This is clever, intelligent stuff, as you would expect from long-time Rockford Files writer/producer Juanita Bartlett, responsible for the screenplay. Anderson is very well off-cast in the lead but it’s McDonough who has the more expansive role and she is very good. A newly blonde Kym (Sound of Music‘s Gretl) Karath is the hobbled cheerleader and this is a point of interest – she made her debut in Spencer’s Mountain as a three year old, a film that was the first adaptation of Earl Hamner’s book that of course became … The Waltons. And look fast for Vanna White too. Excellent stuff, thanks to the Horror Channel for resurrecting it. Directed by veteran TV helmer Rod Holcomb.

Legend of the Witches (1970)

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In the annals of Britsploitation this has an appropriately legendary rep – but still seems only available in its truncated 72-minute form. The brainchild of ‘auteur’ Malcolm Leigh, active from the late 60s until 1980, it’s an excuse to stage alleged initiation ceremonies in the altogether – drama documentary I believe it’s called. Accompanied by an unusually restrained voiceover, we are treated to a history of witchcraft through visuals, drawings and illustrations as well as filmed inserts demonstrating links to mainstream religion (ie Christianity) and its supposedly appropriated rituals. One sequence shows a series of illustrations of sex orgies but the voiceover insists that this is not in fact what we are seeing. Show and … don’t tell?  The last section, linking rhythmic sounds and electronica to the patterns in which people fall prey to belief is pretty convincing (I was reminded of a friend who spent a weekend with some headbangers and they spent it chanting and being deprived of food – at which point the captives would have believed in anything just to get protein.) It’s been suggested that the main actress in the staged scenes is Jane Cardew of horror/trash fame, but I’m no expert. All those exhibitionists look the same after a while. Leigh made ‘religious’ drama docs something of a speciality but he’s best known for that foot fetishist’s fave, Games That Lovers Play, starring Joanna Lumley before she became a housewives’ rave. Only for the committed.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

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How fabulous was Kim Novak? She had an intimate relationship with Richard Quine which led to probably her best performance, in the later Strangers When We Meet, but in their collaboration here she’s the gorgeous Gillian, who bewitches staid publisher James Stewart when he moves into the apartment above her shop in snowy Greenwich Village. She puts a love spell on him because he’s engaged to Janice Rule, who made her life hell in college. Then … she starts to like the idea of being human. With Ernie Kovacs as the crazed overpraised writer on Shep’s books, Jack Lemmon as Gillian’s kooky brother and Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold in a witch-off, this is a highly enjoyable adaptation by Daniel Taradash of John Van Druten’s stage classic. Beautiful in every way, Gillian’s shop is why my lounge looks like I’ve been doing some Magic in Mexico research myself. Scored by George Duning and shot by James Wong Howe, this is a perfect romantic entertainment with one of the best cats ever. Love you, Pye!

The Virgin Witch (1972)

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In my never-ending quest to see some of the most awful films ever committed to celluloid I am aided by The Horror Channel, currently fulfilling its remit with a quota of Brit sexploitation horror. Real-life sisters Ann and Vicki (Allo Allo) Michelle are recruited by a modelling agent for nude shots – but she’s really lining them up as a ritual sacrifice for a coven based in the same country house that we visited in Satan’s Slave. Ah, ‘censor-baiting rubbish’ as IQ Hunter would have it, and so it is. The sisters disavowed it. As did the BBFC who insisted on major cuts to this orgy of lesbianism and satanic excess. Greater London Council gave it an X Cert. Made by the creator of Crossroads and an ITV wrestling commentator. Quelle surprise!  Some people like the soundtrack. Ho hum. This is how I spend Sunday mornings. So you don’t have to.