Tim Burton in Wonderland

WRITTEN BY: CHRIS HALLAM. FIRST PUBLISHED IN GEEKY MONKEY MAGAZINE IN 2017

From Batman to Beetlejuice and Big Fish to Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s unique movie combinations of fantasy, sentimentality and horror have illuminated our cinema screens for over thirty years now. But with nearly twenty full length films under his belt and Burton himself approaching his sixties, how long can the magic continue?

WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM: TRY SAYING HIS NAME THREE TIMES IN FRONT OF A MIRROR AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS (BASICALLY NOTHING)

Almost nothing about Tim Burton career makes any sense.

Consider: much of his appeal rests in part on the maverick oddball nature of his work. The release of a new Tim Burton film is an event, with many people eagerly making a point of seeing everything he does. He is hip in a way neither Disney or Pixar could never be.

Yet, In reality, his reputation as an outsider seems odd. He has never been an obscure or unpopular director. His films nearly always do very well at the box office and always have done. He is currently ranked seventh on the list of the biggest grossing directors in Hollywood. Indeed, partly thanks to his outlandish Edward Scissorhands-like appearance is probably more recognisable than any of the other six with the possible exceptions of Steven Spielberg and onetime Happy Days star Ron Howard.

The world isn’t supposed to be like this. Offbeat, funny looking directors with unhappy childhood memories might direct one or two cult classics but that’s usually about it. Burton has directed hit after hit after hit for years and years and years. He has directed a film more or less every other year since the mid-Eighties.

At a time in which Hollywood has often been often accused of lacking inspiration and originality, Burton has frequently demonstrated he has both in droves. Although it’s true, he usually doesn’t write his own screenplays (Edward Scissorhands being an exception), Burton has always drawn far and wide for his sources of inspiration. The visual look of his films is frequently remarkable with impressive visuals even on his worst films like Planet of the Apes (2001) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Most of us will probably now feel we have our own preconceived notions of what to expect from a Tim Burton film. Yet really we have no idea what to expect. Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children (2016), for example is nothing like his previous film, Big Eyes (2014) nor is that like and Frankenweenie (2012) and so on. There is really no good trying to guess what he might do next. Although it might be worth placing a bet that Jonny Depp will be in it.

For all his success – his combined grosses have exceeded those of George Lucas, J.J. Abrams or any of the Harry Potter directors – there seems little logical about how Burton’s films have performed at the box office. Alice In Wonderland (2010) for example, is far from Burton’s best film but it is by some way his biggest grossing blockbuster. His Planet of the Apes (2001) is also one of Burton’s biggest grossing films but might actually be his worst. Other much better films such as Ed Wood (1995), meanwhile, came close to flopping entirely,

Another oddity is the lack of correlation between Burton’s critical success and Oscar recognition. Generally speaking, with the notable exceptions of Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland and Mars Attacks! all of Burton’s films have been well received by the critics, often overwhelmingly so. Yet not one Tim Burton film has ever received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Two of his films, The Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) have received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, but that’s it. Even allowing for the Academy’s traditional antipathy towards sci-fi and fantasy (nearly all of Burton’s films could be defined as the latter), this oversight seems surprising.

In short, screenwriter William Goldman’s old adage that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything” seems truer than ever when applied to the career of Tim Burton.

BURTON BEGINS

Burton’s feelings of being an outsider are not an act. Despite being born to apparently “hypernormal” parents in Burbank, California in 1958, he felt lonely and retreated into a fantasy world of his own imagination from an early age.

“When you don’t have many friends,” he later mused of his early life. “You’re at a distance from the rest of society, you’re kind of looking out of a window…But there’s enough weird movies out there so you can go a long time without friends”.

Burton later played homage to the B-movie horror movies of his youth in films like Ed Wood and Frankenweenie. Soon he was making as well as watching films. One such animation Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979) attracted the attention of Disney.

Paul A. Woods has written that “though he has sometimes dumped derision on the Disney name (Burton) is also a child of Uncle Walt,” and it is certainly true that while often a frustrating period for him, his years at Disney producing short dark films like Vincent and the later remade Frankenweenie were crucial towards the evolution of the unique combination of sentimentality and gothic horror which became Burton’s trademark. That said, by the mid-Eighties, he had left Disney and was directing his first full length feature film.

British audiences have never entirely “got” Pee-wee Herman. A children’s character created and played by Paul Reubens, he was never popular in the UK, his status later overshadowed by Reubens’ 1991 arrest for indecent exposure at an adult cinema where he was “enjoying” the film Nancy Nurse Turns Up The Heat. Reubens has since come back even recently resurrecting the Pee-wee character. Burton was generous to the disgraced Reubens even during his difficult period, giving him roles in Batman Returns (1992) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

But all this was in the future. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) was a far from inauspicious debut for Burton proving a critical hit and making an impressive $40 million on as budget of $7 million. But it would be Tim Burton’s next film which would see his distinctive style really coming to the fore for the first time.

IT’S SHOWTIME!

Beetlejuice (1988) was an unusual film by any standard. For one thing, the two likeable young romantic leads (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are killed off in the first ten minutes, the star (Michael Keaton) has only eighteen minutes of screen time, for another. It is also contains a surprising number of moments of horror for a PG rated comedy. The waiting room scene, for example, features a scuba diver with his leg still down the throat of a shark and a chain smoker who appears to have burnt to as cinder after an accident while smoking in bed.

Beetlejuice was almost a horror film and occasionally it shows. It was also a glorious success and launched Burton further along an impressive directorial career which continues to this day.

Though none of his films are full blown horrors, this dark element is a regular feature of Burton’s work. Though sentimental, the title character of Edward Scissorhands (1991) certainly looks he should be a horror character and seems like a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together by a creator played by Vincent Price. The casting of the horror legend (in fact, in his final role) is no coincidence, of course. The late Christopher Lee another horror iconic movie veteran also appeared in five Burton films. Sleepy Hollow (the first of Lee’s Burton appearances) based on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the tale of the headless horseman is closer  to being a horror than any of Burton’s other works, while the animations The Nightmare Before Christmas (in fact, directed by Henry Selick) and The Corpse Bride as well as the live action Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children all contain unsettling elements which expose Burton’s love of horror.

Appearing in nine of his films to date, Johnny Depp has become synonymous with Burton’s work. Though as a famously good looking film star, Depp has proven a good fit for Burton’s out of kilter world view, effectively becoming Robert De Niro (or, if you prefer) Leonardo DiCaprio to Tim Burton’s Martin Scorsese. Burton’s former partner Helena Bonham Carter has also been a regular collaborator appearing in seven of his films since the start of the 21st century.

If there was a point where Burton might have been expected to have “sold out” it was with Batman (1989). Having enjoyed early successes, one would have expected being given the reins to Warner Brothers’ massive superhero franchise would have crushed any independent spirit out of him, like hiring Orson Welles to direct Star Wars or perhaps more aptly hiring David Lynch to direct Dune. But instead Burton did what all the best directors do, making Batman a hit while clearly marking his own independent stamp on the end product. He also produced a film that was considerably darker than any superhero film Eighties cinema audiences were used to. In Batman Returns (1992) Burton produced a sequel, still darker, weirder and more Burton-esque than what had gone before.

WHEN BURTON GOES BAD

Every director has a few turkeys in their closet but in truth, Tim Burton has far fewer than most. Even where his films have gone down badly, the record is so mixed it’s hard to write them off completely as total flops.

In 1995, after a decade of spectacular directorial success, Burton experienced his biggest ever box office failure with his biopic of Ed Wood. Wood, played by Johnny Depp, was notoriously “the worst film director ever” behind such cinematic monstrosities as Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton himself chose to take the experience as a salutary lesson: “Any of my movies could go either way, they really could, and so the line between success is a very thin one,” he said. “Who knows, I could become Ed Wood tomorrow.”

But in truth, Ed Wood is a fine film and well-reviewed at the time. Martin Landau even won an Oscar for his portrayal of the has been horror legend Bela Lugosi, the only acting performance in a Burton film to ever receive one. Perhaps audiences were simply put off by it being in black and white.

“Hi Jack: loved you in Mars Attacks!” joked the late Robin Williams to Jack Nicholson at an award ceremony. This was funny, of course, because supposedly Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy was so awful, Burton’s first major flop (Ed Wood, had at least, been cheap to make) and surely a source of embarrassment to Nicholson who had taken two roles in it. At least, that’s the story.

In reality, Mars Attacks! (1996) is Burton’s most divisive film, sitting in odd comparison to the much duller but much more successful box office smash Independence Day which was released at about the same time and which it comes across almost as a direct spoof of, even though it isn’t. Speaking personally, I and the mostly student audience I saw it with in Aberystwyth laughed our heads off at it and many people love Mars Attacks! to this day. I would suspect it went down better in the UK than in the US. But lots more people seem not to and on reflection it is perhaps a bit of a mess. “Often what I think is funny, other people don’t find funny,” Burton admits, perhaps explaining why few of his other films have been pitched as full-blown comedies.

Less equivocation is needed in summarising Burton’s “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes (2001). Tim Roth gives a good villainous (unrecognisable) performance. Most of the make-up is decent and Danny Elfman’s score is fine. But that’s it as far as good points go: the film is otherwise irredeemably horrendously dreadful. One wonders what the hell Burton was thinking.

It’s not actually just that the Planet of the Apes suffers by comparison with the 1968 version of the story. Even if you don’t like Franklin J. Schaffner’s earlier film (which despite it’s marvellous ending does rather go on a bit), Burton’s film is still awful, hampered by a weak lead performance (Mark Wahlberg), a botched and doomed attempt to make Helena Bonham Carter’s ape more attractive than the others (moral: apes are generally only attractive to other apes), a dreadful script and an ending which makes no bloody sense whatsoever. It is Burton’s worst film. Ten years later, Rupert Wyatt made the far superior reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) perhsaps rubbing salt into the wound. But against all the odds, The Apes of Roth proved a hit. Critically mauled, Burton’s film was nevertheless the ninth biggest movie at the box office of 2001.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2006) was another hit but many feel it is unbalanced by Johnny Depp’s overly sinister portrayal of Willy Wonka (a performance reportedly based on Michael Jackson). Comparing Willies can be a controversial game but most viewers seem to prefer the late Gene Wilder’s Wonka from the 1971 version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. Alice In Wonderland (2010) is also something of a mess and generally overuses CGI, yet it too was a big hit: indeed Burton’s biggest hit to date.

Only one film in fact Dark Shadows (2012) based on an obscure US TV series of the Sixties and Seventies about a darkly gothic family, constitutes both a commercial and critical flop. With Burton having directed nearly twenty films to date his really isn’t a bad record.

And truth, be told, even Dark Shadows isn’t all that bad.

BURTON BEYOND

Ultimately, probably the worst that could be said of Tim Burton is that while he has undoubtedly produced an impressive overall body of work, it is harder to identify an individual movie of his which is universally revered as a truly great film. For what it’s worth at the time of writing, not one of Burton’s films ranks in IMDB’s 250 Top Rated Movies. This might also explain why none of his films have yet received any Best Picture nominations. It could also simply be that his films are too offbeat for the Academy.

This is to dwell on the negative, however. Tim Burton’s career has been a magical glorious success. Burton turns sixty next year and we can only hope he continues to direct with such aplomb as he approaches old age.

For let us picture the following: Beetlejuice smiling malevolently as Lydia (Winona Ryder) says his name a third time. The mournful look on the face of Edward Scissorhands. The young Edward Bloom (Ewan MacGregor) looking up to Karl the giant (the late Matthew McGrory) in Big Fish. The Caped Crusader confronting the Joker. A Martian invader gleefully vaporising more victims. The macabre humour of Sweeney Todd.

The fact that there are simply too many good Tim Burton films to discuss here is testament to his brilliance in itself.

CHRIS HALLAM

THE BURTON FACTOR

Which Tim Burton film is the most Burtonesque of them all? Watch as our unscientific survey settles the matter once and for all. And remember, the final score is based on how ‘Burtonesque’ the film is: not how good it is. So there!

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Are any major Burton regulars in it?:  No. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?:   No. Funny?: Yes.  Scary?:  No. Summary: Generally ore of a Pee-wee Herman film than a Tim Burton one although some Burton trademarks are already in place. Burton Factor: 4.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Yes: Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara. Is it animated?: Mostly not.  Musical?:  No. Funny?:  Yes. Scary?: Fairly. Summary: The distinctive blend of comedy and humour is already there. Burton Factor: 9.

Batman (1989)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?:  Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson. Is it animated?:  No. Musical? Well, aside from Prince. Funny?:  A little. Scary?: Slightly.  Summary: Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds! Tim retains his credentials even when going all blockbustery on us. Burton Factor: 8.

Edward Scissorhands (1991)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?: No. Funny?:  Scary?:  Ish .Summary: The essence of Burton. He even looks a bit like him. Burton Factor: 10.

Batman Returns (1992)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Michael Keaton. Michael Gough is also in this and a few others. Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito also return later. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?:  No. Funny/Scary?:  A bit of both. Summary: Batman + 10% added Burton. Burton Factor: 9.

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Are any Burton regulars in it?: Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman.  Is it animated?:  Yes. Musical?:  Yes. Funny?:  Yes. Scary?: Kinda.   Summary: What’s this? The most Burton-esque film of them all and he didn’t even direct it! Burton Factor: 10.

Ed Wood (1994)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No. Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?:  No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?:  No, despite gothic elements. Summary: An enjoyable homage but none of the usual fantasy elements. Burton Factor: 6.

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?:  DeVito and Nicholson return from Gotham, Sarah Jessica Parker. But most of the large cast are non-Burtonites. Is it animated?:  Partly. Musical?:   When I’m Calling You Oooo-oooo. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No Summary: A bit of an odd one even by Burton’s standards. Burton Factor: 6.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Depp, Michael Gough, Walken, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?: No.  Musical?:  No. Funny?:  No. Scary?:  Yes. Summary: It seems odd that this is the only one with Christina Ricci in. It sort of feels like she should be in all of them. Burton Factor: 7.

Planet of the Apes (2001)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Helena Bonham Carter. Is it animated?:  No.  Musical?: No. Funny?: Not intentionally. Scary?:  No. Summary: More sci-fi than most Burton efforts. Also: RUBBISH. Burton Factor: 4.

Big Fish (2003)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Bonham Carter, Deep Roy, Danny De Vito.  Is it animated?:  No. Musical?: No. Funny?:  Not really. Scary?: No. Summary: Moderately Burtonesque. Burton Factor: 6.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Any Burton regulars in it?:  Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy. Is it animated?: No.  Musical?:  Yes. Funny?: Intended to be. Scary?:  No. Summary: Ingredients: 50% Dahl. 50% Burton. Burton Factor: 7.

The Corpse Bride (2005)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy.  Is it animated?:  Yes. Musical?:  Yes. Funny?: A bit. Scary?: Creepy.  Summary:  A Nightmare Before Christmas One and a Half. Burton Factor: 8.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No, all Stephen Sondheim.  Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Depp, Bonham Carter. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?:  Yes. Funny?: Yes.  Scary?:  Gory. Summary: A good choice for Tim B. Burton Factor: 8.

Alice In Wonderland (2010)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp and Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee. Is it animated?:  Lots of CGI. Musical?: No. Funny?: A little. Scary?:   No. Summary. Burton’s biggest hit. Curiouser and curiouser… Burton Factor: 8.

Dark Shadows (2012)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Any Burton regulars in it?:  Depp and Bonham Carter in their fifth Burton film together in a row. Eva Green. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No.  Funny?:  Scary?: A bit.   Summary: Burtonesque, certainly, although the formula seems less potent than usual. Burton Factor: 7.

Frankenweenie (2012)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes  Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Quite a few on voices including Winona Ryder. Is it animated?:  Yes. Musical?:  No. Funny?:  Yes. Scary?:   Eerie, yes Summary: Resurrected from the age of Burton past. Burton Factor: 8.

Big Eyes (2014)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes.  Are any Burton regulars in it?: No.  Is it animated?: Mostly not.  Musical?:  No. Funny?:  No. Scary?:  No.  Summary/rating: With very little fantasy element at all, you might easily not notice who the director is. Burton Factor: 2.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2016)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  No.  Are any major Burton regulars in it?:  Eva Green. Is it animated?:   No. Musical?: No.  Funny?: No.  Scary?:  Yes. Summary/rating: Burton fans will recognise the mixture of childhood fantasy and horror. Burton Factor: 7.

THE ELFMAN COMETH

He is the Elfman, or rather Danny Elfman. Ten things you may not have known about Tim Burton’s favourite composer…

  1. Elfman has scored all but three of Tim Burton’s eighteen studio releases to date.
  2. The exceptions were: a) Sweeney Todd, which is based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim. b) Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children, was scored by Matthew Margeson and Mike Higham as Elfman had a scheduling conflict due to scoring Alice Through The Looking Glass, James Bobin’s sequel to Burton’s own Alice film. c) Ed Wood: Howard Shore scored this one as Elfman and Burton had briefly fallen out.
  3. Danny Elfman provided the singing voice for Jack Skellingon in The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also voiced Bonejangles in The Corpse Bride and the Oompa Lumpas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
  4. He used to be in a rock band called Oingo Boingo. In recent years, he has complained of hearing loss as a result. He is 63.
  5. He composed the iconic TV themes for The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.
  6. He has composed loads of film scores for many other films too amongst them Nightbreed, the Men In Black and Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Oz The Great and the Powerful, The Girl On The Train and many many more.

How to review any film

From 2015!

So you want to make “it” as a hot young movie reviewer? Then why not try following these ten easy steps…

1. Do not just recount the plot of the film

A surprising number of wannabe critics fall into the trap of simply retelling exactly what they have just seen, perhaps to show that they have at least watched the darned thing and understood it. But while a short summary of the early stages of the film is actually not a bad way to start, generally speaking, you should try to break off before any major plot twists start happening. The use of the phrase “spoiler alert” should not be necessary in any decent film review. Unless it’s the title of the movie.

2. Be a protractor: find the right angle…

Whether you want to begin with a summary of the premise or not, at some point you’re going to need some sort of angle to begin from. In the case of the James Bond film Spectre, for example, you could try one of the following…

Historical: “It has now been 53 years since James Bond first appeared on our screens…”

Daniel Craig: “This is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as the world’s favourite secret agent, matching Pierce Brosnan’s total, ahead of both Dalton (two) and Lazenby (one) but still way behind Connery and Moore (seven apiece)…”

Bold expression of opinion: “First, the bad news: Sam Smith’s new Bond theme is rubbish.”

Comical misunderstanding: “Fear not! It may be Halloween, but despite its title, Spectre is not a horror film.”

Of course, an opening line is not enough in itself. You need to be able to back up your arguments.

3. End as you begin…

Although not essential, a good clever trick is to return in your closing sentence to the subject you brought up in the opening one. So using the above lines you could go with…

“On this evidence, the Bond franchise is good for another fifty years yet.”

“Perhaps then, as with Brosnan or, if you prefer, Steve Guttenberg on the Police Academy films), Craig’s fourth Bond film should also be his last.”

“Thankfully, unlike Sam Smith’s banshee-like caterwauling – I counted no less than four cats leaving the cinema during the title sequence alone – Spectre is an unalloyed delight.”

“On reflection, perhaps Spectre is a horror  film after all. Spectre? Sphincter, more like.” (Actually, perhaps don’t do this one).

4. Avoid cliche

The Bond franchise is quite vulnerable to this sort of guff: “a film that’s guaranteed to leave you shaken, not stirred” (what does this even mean?) “Bond proves once again that he has a licence to thrill”, “out of 8, I score Spectre: 007.”  And so on. Avoid.

5. Do not overdo the waffle

A bit of preamble is good but don’t overdo it.As McFly famously did not sing “It’s Not All About You”. Surprisingly, some people might actually want to hear about the film at some point.

6. Read other reviews

Try Googling “Chris Hallam reviews” or better still, “movie reviews” generally and read the results. Other than writing reviews yourself and perhaps watching films, reading professional reviews is the best tutorship you can receive. Other than actually being tutored by a professional critic obviously. Reviews of films can also often be found in those weird papery version of the internet you can get now: books and magazines.

7. Consider your goals: who is reading your review and why?

There is no need to disappear up your own arse about this but you should bear in mind your audience and what they want. My view is that they want to know a bit about the film while also being briefly entertained. These are the seven golden rules if you want to make “it” as a hot young film reviewer. Good luck!

My cinema year: 1987

A-Ha! They did the theme tune, I mean.

TOP 1987 MOVIES AT THE WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE

I saw one of these at the cinema in 1987. I have seen nine of them now.

  1. Fatal Attraction
  2. Beverly Hills Cop II
  3. Dirty Dancing
  4. The Living Daylights
  5. 3 Men and a Baby
  6. Good Morning Vietnam
  7. Lethal Weapon
  8. Predator
  9. Moonstruck
  10. The Untouchables

The Living Daylights was the first of Timothy Dalton’s two outings as 007. Dalton is not usually considered to have been the best Bond by most fans and nobody seems to consider this to have been the best James Bond film. I am not a big Bond fan and maybe it was the novelty of seeing the character on the big screen for the first time. But I’m sure I have never enjoyed any James Bond film as much as when I saw this as an excited ten-year-old. I was consistently entertained throughout. The bit where he hangs off the back of a plane. The beautiful blonde cellist. The chase through the snow. I loved it.

Sadly, Dalton’s next outing as Bond, Licence to Kill flopped, perhaps in part because it was given a ’15’ certificate preventing twelve-year-olds like me from seeing it. The first ’12’ certificate film, Tim Burton’s Batman was released a week after Licence to Kill in August 1989, which presumably didn’t help. Dalton was dropped and the franchise was ‘rested’ for five years as filmmakers contemplated how to respond to the end of the Cold War and films like Die Hard driving up budgetary expectations.

Another reason for Licence to Kill’s failure? Unlike The Living Daylights, it was rubbish.

“Replacing me?…What?…Pierce who???”

The Living Daylights didn’t actually make the U.S top ten, so am pleased I got a list for the global 1987 box office here. Aside from that and one other film, I’m pretty sure I saw all the other films on either video or TV by the end of the 1990s, the decade where I truly became a film buff.

The Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop franchises never impressed me much and Fatal Attraction (directed by Adrian Lyne, who like me, was born in Peterborough) always seems a bit overrated, perhaps because of the famous bunny boiler sequence. Presumed Innocent was better. I liked Moonstruck when I saw it. Cher’s in it. John Mahoney crops up in it too. What was it about? I’ve no idea now. Is Nicholas Cage in it too?

The Untouchables is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are a number of memorable sequences: De Niro and the baseball bat, the exploding suitcase girl, Costner pushing the guy off the roof (“he’s in the car”) and the copied Odessa Steps gunfight. Connery’s ‘Irish’ accent is all over the place though. He basically won an Oscar because he was shot about a million times and still took an hour to die.

I quite liked Dirty Dancing (the film I mean, not the activity). When I was about 18, it seemed to be every girl’s favourite film.

The Untouchables: no inhibitions about enforcing prohibition.

A friend showed me all the violent bits of Predator on video. I hadn’t asked him to. This came in handy when I later saw the heavily censored version on ITV. It’s a classic sci-fi. Good Morning Vietnam also made an impact.

I’ve never seen 3 Men and a Baby. I suspect I never will now. I don’t think I’ve missed much. For a while rumours circulated that a ‘real-life’ ghost appears briefly in one scene of this comedy, supposedly a boy who died in the apartment where the movie was filmed. Stills of the supposed phantom apparently standing in the background and ‘looking’ towards the camera do genuinely look quite creepy. Some have claimed the rumours were deliberately encouraged to boost sales and rentals of the video on its release in 1990.

Slowly, the truth emerged. The ‘boy’ was revealed to have been a cardboard cut-out of Ted Danson’s character (dressed in a top hat and tails) which had been left in the background after being used in a scene which was subsequently deleted. Danson’s character in the film was apparently an actor and the cut-out would have been related to a commercial the character was filming. Director Leonard ‘Mr Spock’ Nimoy seems not to have noticed the prop was still in shot, or at least was unable to remove it for whatever reason.

An odd explanation? Perhaps, yet still more plausible than the alternative, especially when you remember ghosts don’t actually exist in real life. Also, no boys died in the apartment. There wasn’t even an apartment. The film’s ‘apartment’ scenes were not even filmed in an apartment at all but on a sound stage.

One man, one woman, one cardboard cut-out. And a baby. But which is which? Find out next time.

My cinema year: 1985

TOP TEN U.S FILMS OF 1985

(I saw one at the cinema then. I have seen six today).

  1. Back to the Future (cinema – amazing)
  2. Rambo First Blood Part II (NS = Never seen)
  3. Rocky IV (saw on video in the 80s)
  4. The Color Purple (NS – Probably should have. Read book though)
  5. Out of Africa (90s TV. Mostly dull)
  6. Cocoon (NS properly – looks dull)
  7. The Jewel of the Nile (video or TV 80s – dull)
  8. Witness (TV/video. 90s – great)
  9. The Goonies (80s video. Good)
  10. Spies Like Us (NS)

I love Back to the Future.

I loved it when I was eight and I love it now. Not every childhood favourite survives the journey to adulthood. Fewer still survive the further journey into middle age. What pleases a child of the Eighties is, after all, not necessarily the same as what pleases a forty-something in the early 2020s. But Back To The Future is an exception. at least for me.

I already liked time travel-related things and was particularly excited after watching a documentary about the genre on TV which in fact turned out to be a cleverly disguised bit of publicity for the new film hosted by star Michael J. Fox himself. He was completely unknown to me at this point (his sitcom Family Ties was never very big in the UK) but he was perfect in the role and remains one of my heroes.

I saw it quickly. I remember the dates on the dashboard of the DeLorean being very close to the day I actually watched it.

I am aware now that there were problems behind the scenes. Disney wanted nothing to do with the film as they were concerned about the potential incest element of the storyline i.e. the young Lorraine fancies her own son. Initial lead Eric Stoltz was sacked early on after failing to tap into the comedy element of the story (a few shots featuring him can still be seen in the completed film). Crispin Glover effectively sabotaged his career by being endlessly temperamental on set: a shame really as he’s perfect as Marty’s father, George. None of these things in any way detract from the overall enjoyability of the film, however.

I am aware that it isn’t quite perfect. The make-up used to ‘age’ the younger actors, such as Lea Thompson, in the 1985 scenes isn’t great. She is that age in real-life now, after all (she is nine days older than her onscreen son, Michael J. Fox) and doesn’t look anything like that. Some people (such as Crispin Glover again) complain that the resolution of the film hinges too heavily on the McFlys’ Reagan-era material success. But though I’ve grown up to be quite the politics geek, this element has never really bothered me. It’s true Marty’s siblings have both become yuppies but George’s sense of fulfilment on becoming a successful science fiction author is surely not purely to do with money anyway.

Like most time travel things, it doesn’t make much sense. Why don’t George and Lorraine notice Marty has grown up to look exactly the same as their old teenaged friend? And, of course, if Marty had really altered the course of his parents’ lives so much, neither he nor his brother or sister wold have been born anyway, creating a paradox. But that would be no fun.

I didn’t see any of the other top ten US films at the cinema. The Goonies was a fun 80s video childhood favourite, complete with a pirate called One-Eyed Willie (a deliberate innuendo?) and a scene where a corpse falls out of a wardrobe onto a child.

I watched Rocky IV on video with both my brothers. I know the original Rocky is supposed to be the great one but for some bizarre reason the montage bit in Rocky IV (Rocky training in the snow while the evil Soviet, Dolph Lungren just takes steroids and says things like, “if he dies, he dies” has stayed with me like nothing else in any of the four or five Rocky films I’ve seen.

I also also saw Ghostbusters (released in 1984 and discussed already), 101 Dalmatians, The Last Starfighter (quite fun but a flop) and Return to Oz (awful and terrifying and a flop) at the cinema in 1985 but none of them made 1985’s US box office top ten.

And none of these were a patch on Back to the Future, a film that, ironically given its subject matter, has proven to be timeless.


Netflix film review: Moxie

Moxie is the story of how a group of teenaged girls band together to defeat the sexism endemic in their high school.

The sexism is everywhere. The school American football team are treated as all-conquering heroes, even as they slap girl’s behinds in public and send out lists of which of the female students has the “best rack” or is “most bangable.” One suspects both this behaviour and the language used – though undeniably unacceptable – is actually fairly mild compared to what actually goes on in many schools in both the US and UK.


Worse still, a serious complaint of harassment made by new girl, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) against bullying sports star, Mitchell (who, in an interesting piece of casting is played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) is not taken seriously at all by the school’s head, Principal Shelley (Marcia Gay Harden). Another girl is angry over being unfairly penalised for wearing a tank-top, others are irritated by the lack of support given to girls’ sports by the school. A trans student is also annoyed to be excluded from the school production of Little Shop of Horrors. Long-suffering liberal teacher, Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz) amusingly ties himself in knots by trying to retain a neutral stance amidst the rising tide of rebellion.


One student, Vivian (Hadley Robinson) has had enough. Inspired both by the defiant attitude of her new friend, Lucy and by tales of the 1990s riot grrrl activism of her mother (Parks and Recreation star, Amy Poehler, who also directs this), Vivian single-handedly conceives, devises, writes, produces and distributes MOXIE! an underground magazine designed to tackle directly the plague of male chauvinism which infects the school. She manages to keep her own role in producing the new journal entirely secret from friends and family, an element of the story, I personally didn’t find entirely believable. At times, Vivian exhibits signs of the intolerance which occasionally emerges in such movements. She also comes close to alienating her best and oldest friend, Claudia (Lauren Tsai).


Based on Jennifer Mathieu’s novel, I did not find every aspect of the film entirely convincing. The name Moxie or MOXIE! rever really works as a film title.


But as a well-acted and potentially inspiring call to arms against the evils of everyday sexism, Moxie is definitely worth watching.
Moxie is available to watch on Netflix now.

Blu-ray/DVD review: Laughter in Paradise (1951)

After a long life of pranks and practical jokes, the wealthy Henry Russell (Hugh Griffith) is dead, leaving aside a substantial sum of money to four of his relatives. But old Henry being Henry, things are not going to be quite as simple as that. For each of his relatives are all flawed in various different ways and under the terms of the old rascal’s will, each will have to complete a very specific task before they can get at his money. Each challenge has been perfectly designed to force them to confront their own worst failings.

Agnes (Fay Compton), for example, a dreadful snob is forced to spend a full month in the employ of a middle-class family headed, in this case, by a hypochondriac Scot (played by John Laurie, later of Dad’s Army). For the supremely timid young bank clerk, Herbert (George Cole), however, the task is different. He must stage a hold up at the very bank he works for using a water pistol. Simon (Guy Middleton), meanwhile, is a first-class cad and a womaniser in the mould of the type of characters Terry-Thomas often used to play in films like this. He is obliged to marry the first single woman he speaks to, to get his share of the loot. He actually cheats straight away ignoring the first single woman he meets, a beautiful but presumably penniless young cigarette seller. This very small part is played by Audrey Hepburn in her screen debut.

Finally, there is Deniston (Alastair Sim), a retired army officer, whose life is already pretty complicated even before Henry’s demise. Publicly engaged to an overenthusiastic armed services girl, ‘Fluffy’ (Joyce Grenfell, great as ever), Deniston leads a double life enjoying a secret career dictating the trashy American-style crime novels he has composed to his adoring secretary (Eleanor Summerfield) which are then published under a variety of pseudonyms. Deniston’s task is to commit one actual genuine crime which will seem him incarcerated for precisely 28 days. Sim’s character finds the execution of this, surprisingly difficult.

There are a few extras. Although he obviously hasn’t watched the film that recently, Stephen Fry’s knowledge and genuine love for the film is obvious during his interview. We also get to see Sim hamming it up as the Roman Emperor Nero opposite his frequent co-star George Cole in a wartime short. More dedicated Sim fans might want to listen to his 1949 speech delivered on being elected Rector of Edinburgh University (beating future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan) in full.

Newly restored nearly seventy-years after it first appeared, Laughter In Paradise is still lots of fun. Alastair Sim, in particular gets some marvellous screen moments, self-consciously turning a bust of Shakespeare the other way at one point so as if to prevent the Bard seeing him delivering the particularly purple prose of his latest potboiler (e.g. “she was one hot tomato”). Other brilliant sequences see him make several abortive attempts to throw a brick – for some reason, neatly tied up in string – through a jeweller’s shop window and and a long, drawn out attempt to get caught shoplifting an umbrella in a Piccadilly department store. “The wrong tartan,” he explains, on returning it, embarrassed.

A genuine classic.

Vintage Classics. Studio Canal. Original release: 1951. Cert: U.

Release date: 29 June 2020

Running time: 80 minutes

Directed: Mario Zampi

Cast: Alastair Sim, George Cole, Fay Compton, Guy Middleton, Joyce Grenfell, Hugh Griffith, Audrey Hepburn

DVD/Blu-ray extras:

New Alastair Sim and Laughter In Paradise Interview with Stephen Fry

Ministry of Information short Nero: Save Fuel (1943) starring Alastair Sim and George Cole

Stills Gallery

Alastair Sim’s 1949 Rectorial Address at Edinburgh University (Audio Only)

Easter Egg

DVD/Blu-Ray review: The Green Man (1956)

The 1950s was undoubtedly a classic period in the career of character actor, Alastair Sim. This film sees him playing Hawkins, a watchmaker who also operates as an assassin. Early scenes demonstrate how Hawkins has often adopted a variety of ingenious disguises before successfully blowing up his victims. His main target here is an adulterous politician Sir Gregory Upshott (Raymond Huntley) who he tracks to a hotel, The Green Man of the title.

It isn’t long before things take a farcical turn as a vacuum cleaner salesman curiously called William Blake (a young George Cole) and a local beauty (Jill Adams) get drawn into proceedings. With Terry-Thomas playing a philandering cad called Charles Boughtflower and a trio of elderly female musicians also becoming involved, Hawkins’ carefully laid out plans soon descend into chaos.

Although hardly groundbreaking, The Green Man is pleasantly enjoyable fare, packed with familiar faces recognisable to anyone who enjoys post-war British cinema. Can you spot Michael Ripper, Dora Bryan and Arthur Lowe?

And unlike Sim’s hapless assassin, this is a comedy which rarely misses its target.

Vintage Classics

Studio Canal

Directed by: Robert Day

Starring: Alastair Sim, George Cole, Terry-Thomas, Jill Adams, Raymond Huntley

A Star Is Born: A poem and a film review

Meet Jack: a country music star,

He can sing and play guitar,

One night, he walks into a bar,

And sees Ally (Lady GaGa).

She’s soon singing La Vie en rose,

She’s has lots of talent (and lots of nose).

He steals her eyebrow: they have quite a night,

She hurts her fist during a fight,

He puts peas on it to ease her rage,

(Later he pees himself on a stage).

You may have seen this tale before,

For this is version number 4,

And here’s a very important thing,

Both stars can act as well as sing,

He: the voice of the raccoon from space,

She:  with her p-p-p-Poker Face.

And credit where credit is due,

Bradley Cooper directs this too.

The Oscars preferred the film, Green Book,

But this film too, is worth a look.

DVD review: Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

Back in the 1980s, a Manchester man called Chris Sievey started appearing in public wearing an oversized Papier-mâché head. At first, he called the character, ‘John Smith’ before changing it to ‘Frank Sidebottom.’ Frank soon became something of a success. You may well have seen him yourself. This documentary tells his story, or rather, the story of his creator. Chris Sievey ended up playing Frank for the rest of his life.


Chris appeared live as Frank as well as on Saturday morning kids’ shows like Motormouth and in the comic, Oink! He worked with a few people who later became famous such as Mark Radcliffe (interviewed here, before his recent illness), Caroline Aherne and Jon Ronson. Ronson later wrote a book about his time with Sievey, which later became the 2014 Michael Fassbender film, Frank.


He was never hugely famous himself, despite once introducing Bros (at the height of the short-lived ‘Brosmania’ era) at Wembley stadium. He played songs and told jokes, appearing with a ventriloquist’s dummy made in Frank’s image called ‘Little Frank’. He was often not very funny and his songs were often not good.

Despite this, it’s hard not to be won over by the warmth of this affectionate tribute to Sievey (who died in 2010, aged just 54) from director Steve Sullivan. There was certainly a dark side to Sievey: his success with Frank Sidebottom came only after years of persistent failed attempts to launch his own music career notably with band, The Freshies. A song called, ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk’ came closest to success. Like Sidebottom, he seems to have been possessed by a child-like optimism and a naivety about such things as paying taxes and bills which must have made him very hard to live with. He seems to have grown to resent the fact his only real fame was achieved through a made-up character. No joke intended, but he also seems to rather have let the success he did have as Frank Sidebottom rather go to his head.

Supported by interviews from fans like poet John Cooper Clarke and comics Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas as well as Chris’s son, Harry, who was subsequently tragically killed in a cycling accident in 2017, this is a first class documentary about a minor popular culture icon who deserves to be remembered.

Director: Steve Sullivan. Running time: 105 minutes,

Film review: Calvary (2014)

Review first published on Movie Muser, August 2014  

http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Domhnall Gleeson

Directed By: John Michael McDonagh. Running Time: 100 minutes. UK DVD Release Date: August 11, 2014. Certificate: 15

Your Rating: 5 out of 5

Review: Father James (Gleeson) is a priest. Once driven to alcoholism by the death of his wife, he appears to have found solace in his vocation, living a peaceful existence with his dog in an apparently serene Irish coastal village.

Or at least that would be the case if the villagers ever left him alone. Chris O’Dowd’s local butcher Jack, for example, has serious marital problems, his wife “sharing” him with another man. Then there’s the local millionaire Michael, played by Dylan Moran. Prone to alcoholism and urinating on priceless Holbein portraits, he is just one of the village’s many eccentrics whose grievances range from sexual frustration to an elderly American man (M. Emmett Walsh) who wants Father James to shoot him to death

Things get more personal, however, when the priest’s daughter (Reilly) turns up after a suicide attempt and Father James soon finds himself and his church subject to a series of threats and outright attacks from foes known and unknown.

Initially, it appears we might be in for a tale of whimsy and humour with the populace resembling the eccentric Craggy Islanders of Father Ted. But McDonagh (director of the lighter although similarly excellent The Guard, also starring Gleeson) makes it clear we’re in for a much darker adventure from the very first scene. There is humour here, yes. But all the characters seem deeply troubled, often by unspecified problems in their past. Moran’s Michael clearly has serious problems while some such as the doctor played by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen seem to be positively evil. Although a genuinely good man himself, Father James soon faces the wrath of a very angry community reflecting an Ireland still scarred by the after-effects of the numerous real-life scandals concerning paedophile priests.

This is a superb film which benefits from all the cast truly giving their all even to the tiniest role.

Overall Verdict:

Another darkly humorous instant classic from the hugely talented John Michael McDonagh.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: Capote (2005)

The following review was first published in DVD Monthly magazine in 2005.


Sub-heading: The Truman Show

Region 1 review. Text by Chris Hallam Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban Director: Bennett Miller

The Lowdown: On learning of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas, author and celebrity Truman Capote travels to the victims’ town with his lifelong friend, novelist Harper Lee. By befriending the local community, sheriff and the killers, he finds material for his literary masterpiece ‘In Cold Blood’.

God knows what the good people of Kansas made of Truman Capote in 1959. Short, portly and as camp as a field of boy scouts, the ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ author was openly gay and more familiar with swanky New York literary parties than courtrooms and jail cells.

Capote’s personal investigation into the Clutter murders was to prove a turning point not just in his own life but also in the history of literature. ‘In Cold Blood’ would provide a compelling mix of fact and fiction that would revolutionise modern journalism. Yet the moment of Capote’s greatest triumph would also precipitate his downfall. The film centres on the author’s conflict as he befriends one of the accused men Perry Smith while ultimately hoping to benefit from his execution (if only because it would guarantee a suitable finale for his book). By focusing exclusively on the crucial 1959-1965 period, ‘Capote’ reveals as much as any standard cradle to grave ‘Truman is born, realises he’s gay, writes, becomes a success, parties, drinks a lot, falls out with everyone, dies’ biopic would have done. It also gets round the thorny issue that unless the subject is a suicidal maniac like Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath, the process of writing (as with the world of computer hacking) is notoriously un-cinematic.

As Capote, Hollywood’s second most famous Hoffman is great, richly deserving his Oscar. But he’s not the only good thing here. The ever excellent Catherine Keener also excels as Harper Lee, Capote’s lifelong friend (Truman was the model for Dill in her ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’) whose success eats Capote up with jealousy. And with a flawless cast and sensitive intelligent screenplay from TV actor Dan Futterman, newbie director Miller (who has only directed one documentary before) doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Extras-wise, as so often before, the splitting of the ‘Making of’ featurette into two, merely serves as a none too convincing cover for the fact that neither are more than a few minutes long. And while both are good – the first half cantering more on Capote the man, the second more on ‘Capote’ the film – a longer documentary on Capote is sorely missed as it’s exactly the sort of film to leaves you thirsting for more info about its subject. Hoffman and Miller’s generally sedate commentary is lifted by Hoffman’s refreshing frankness in frequently admitting his struggle to get into character in many of his (ostensibly flawless) scenes. The other commentary in which Miller returns with cinematographer Kimmel is less interesting. But while more input from the screenwriters would have been appreciated, this is a generally fine package, which like the film, cannot easily be faulted.

Text By Chris Hallam

Captions 1: Hoffman lost 40 pounds for the role (although is still six and half inches taller than Capote was).

2: Catherine Keener plays Capote’s friend, author Harper Lee. The real Lee reputedly liked the film.

3: Unusually, two out of five of this year’s Best Picture nominees centred on gay characters.

4: Chris Cooper: in this and every other film this year seemingly.

5: The accused men have rather more riding on the outcome of the case than the success of a book. 6: The real Capote boozed himself to death in 1984.

Final Verdict An excellent, well-acted portrait of a troubled, super intelligent man at a pivotal stage in his life.

Rating FILM: 8 EXTRAS: 7

DVD review: Blue Valentine (2011)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2011  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, John Doman, Mike Vogel, Jen Jones Directed By: Derek Cianfrance Running Time:112 minutes UK Release Date: May 8. 2011 Certificate: 15

Rating: 5 out of 5

Happy families are all alike, Tolstoy famously wrote, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. If this is true, then perhaps unhappy marriages follow a similar pattern. What isn’t in doubt and what becomes apparent very quickly in this is that the young couple, Dean and Cindy, portrayed here by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, are a very unhappy couple indeed.

It also becomes clear very early on is that the narrative sequence of the film has been deliberately jumbled up. Yes, it’s one of those films a bit like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We might first witness (for example), a scene of a balding, drunken Dean consumed with suspicion, paranoia and jealousy over the suspected infidelities of his desperately unhappy wife. The next minute, he’s a happier, more charming and carefree younger man wooing the willing Cindy by playing (with unintentional irony) You Always Hurt The One You Love to her on his mandolin.

The emotional impact of the juxtaposition of these scenes is frequently devastating. Dean and Cindy can clearly barely speak to each other by the later stages of their marriage and as some very uncomfortable sex scenes make clear she is ultimately physically repelled by him. Neither character is entirely black and white, however, and while Gosling’s Dean is generally the less sympathetic of the two, even he musters some sympathy.

As you’ve probably gathered, Blue Valentine isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. So why on Earth should you want to watch it at all?

The short answer is because it’s a superb, beautifully made film, criminally neglected at the Oscars. Although he perhaps doesn’t need an ego boost, Gosling consolidates his status (demonstrated in the underrated Lars and the Real Girl) as one of the best young actors in Hollywood. Michelle Williams is, if anything, even better, giving a heart rending Oscar-worthy performance. “The Creek” now seems like a very long time ago indeed: Dawson Leery wouldn’t recognise her.

There’s also a solid Bonus Features package including a commentary from director Derek Cianfrance and editor Jim Hendon, a Q and A session from the Sundance Film Festival and a making of featurette. There are also some home movie sequences, glimpsed briefly in the film, played out in full.

But if you’ve ever looked at an unhappy couple and wondered why they ever got together in the first place, this could be the film for you.

Overall Verdict:

Not an easy evening’s viewing: the emphasis is more on the “blue” than on the “valentine”. But both Williams and Gosling are sensational and it’s undoubtedly one of the better films of the past year.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with Director Derek Cianfrance and Editor Jim Helton

Q and A Featurette

Deleted Scenes

Making of Blue Valentine Featurette

Home Movies Clips

Trailer

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: The Young Victoria (2009)

Title: The Young Victoria

Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong, Jim Broadbent, Paul Bettany,

Directed By: Jean-Marc Vallee

Running Time: 104 mins

UK Release Date: July 13, 2009

Certificate: PG

Your Rating: 3 out of 5

Review first published on Movie Muser, July 2009  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Review: Queen Victoria didn’t just reign. She ruled.She in fact ruled for nearly 64 years, longer than anyone else, a record the present Queen may beat if she holds out until 2016 (update: this has since happened).

Yet while most films about, say, Henry VIII see him transformed from a handsome young Jonathan Rhys Meyers-type into an obese Charles Laughton-like glutton, movies about Victoria usually centre exclusively on her later years as a gloomy, sour faced old widow. This is different. Opening in the 1830s, we first meet Emily Blunt’s teenaged Princess Victoria as she develops an initially awkward romance with her German suitor, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), before we move onto her early years on the throne.

In the meantime, she finds herself in a constant battle to assert her authority over her Germanic mother (Miranda Richardson) and bossy baron, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong).

Although too tall and, frankly, much too attractive to be Queen Victoria at any age, Emily Blunt is otherwise perfect for the role while Rupert Friend is impressive as the crusading Albert. Some of the smaller roles are less well-handled, however. Paul Bettany just looks weird as the sixty-something Lord Melbourne and Jim Broadbent, while brilliant as ever as Victoria’s eccentric uncle, William IV, is so heavily made up that during the state banquet scene he resembles Bilbo Baggins at his eleventy-first birthday party.Yet, for the most part, the film is both visually authentic and well cast.

The problem really is the setting. Victoria came to the throne at a relatively peaceful time in the nation’s history. Her life wasn’t untroubled by any means, but despite a reasonable attempt to demonise Mark Strong’s Conroy, there’s little scope for dramatic conflict. Recognising this, screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) sexes up events by heavily fictionalising a major event towards the end of the film. This contrivance apparently provoked the ire of the present Queen, not a good idea if Fellowes ever wants a knighthood (update: Fellowes was elevated to the peerage in 2011).

The five featurettes here are all less than ten minutes long and primarily focus on the set design, costumes and historical background to the film. ‘The Real Queen Victoria’ is perhaps the best of these, enlivened by diary entries from Victoria herself, even if these are undermined by them being read by someone apparently auditioning for a part in ‘EastEnders’.

For quiet Sunday evening viewing though, The Young Victoria is hard to fault.

Overall Verdict:Blunt and Friend are okay and the central romance is well-handled but anyone fancying something racier should go for ‘The Duchess’ instead.

Special Features:

‘The Making Of Young Victoria’ Featurette

‘The Coronation’ Featurette

‘Lavish History: A Look at The Costumes and Locations’ Featurette

‘The Real Queen Victoria’ Featurette

‘The Wedding’ Featurette

Deleted Scenes

Trailer

Reviewer’s Name: Chris Hallam

DVD/Blu-ray review: School For Scoundrels (1960)

scoundrels - bow tie

Directed by: Robert Hamer

Starring: Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Alastair Sim, Janette Scott, Dennis Price, Peter Jones

Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) is, by his own admission, a failure. Though he runs his own small office, he proves totally incapable of keeping his newfound girlfriend (Scott) away from the bounderish intentions of Raymond Delaunay (Terry-Thomas). After he is conned further into buying a ridiculously clapped-out car, Palfrey decides to take action, travelling to the College of Lifemanship headed by one Dr. Potter (Sim) in Yeovil.

There is plenty to charm here in this film, an adaptation of Stephen Potter’s now largely forgotten Gamesmanship books. Terry-Thomas is on career-best form, peaking during a game of tennis, while the remaining cast (all except Scott, are sadly now deceased) are as reliable as they are familiar to the audience as they must have been to each other. John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques and Irene Handl make up the numbers, as does future sitcom writer Jeremy Lloyd (at thirty, playing a school student!)

The problem is indicated by the gentle subtitle, How to Win without Actually Cheating. Cheating would actually be a whole lot more fun than what occurs here and frankly Palfrey’s transformation after the course is more akin to that enjoyed by someone who has just attended a self-assertiveness class than that of someone who has truly turned to the dark side.

The best of the bonus features is British comedy expert Graham McCann’s discussion of Terry-Thomas. For  while Peter Bradshaw makes great claims for the film, during his interview, in truth, this is a gentle so-so comedy: pleasant, but little more.

Studio Canal release. Out: now.

Bonus features

Interview with Peter Bradshaw, Film Critic

Interview with Chris Potter, grandson of Stephen Potter

Interview with comedy author Graham McCann on Terry-Thomas

Stills Gallery

Trailer