Cold in July (2014)

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2016 #118
Jim Mickle | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Cold in July

After a family man (Michael C. Hall) shoots dead an intruder in his home, the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) threatens his family.

People often call for more originality in their stories, then criticise a film like this for jumping around in genre and tone. Personally, I didn’t think it changed much in either. The plot is far from straightforward — twists take the story in unexpected directions with each act (if not even more often) — but as a whole it remains a neo-noir crime thriller.

Filling out the film beyond its story, there are some great performances — Shepard, in particular, says very little but conveys his whole character and attitude. It’s very nicely shot by Ryan Samul, and there’s an amazing score by Jeff Grace.

At first blush Cold in July may look like just another crime thriller, but, with an unguessable narrative supported by strong filmmaking, it stands out from the crowd.

5 out of 5

Cold in July placed 9th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

Ghostbusters (2016)

aka Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

2017 #41
Paul Feig | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.78:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Ghostbusters

I doubt you need me to recap the controversy that dogged co-writer/director Paul Feig’s remake of the beloved ’80s classic Ghostbusters from its inception right through to its release (and, I guess, beyond). For one thing I think it would do us all good to be able to forget that ever happened, though I guess we won’t anytime soon. That said, one of the headline aspects of the campaign of negativity directed at the remake purely because it had an all-female lead cast (it’s unfathomably sad that that’s what it was all about, isn’t it?) was the reaction that greeted the film’s trailer — it’s officially the most disliked movie trailer in the history of YouTube. Obviously a lot of that was thanks to empty-headed hate, but it didn’t help that the trailer was legitimately weak: for a comedy it seemed short on humour, and what supposed gags were present either weren’t funny or were unimaginative and overused.

Fortunately this complete dearth of laughter doesn’t extend to the film itself, though it’s not all good news: while parts are pretty funny, others are just as lazy as the trailer implied. Considering the volume of alternate lines included in the film’s special features, you have to wonder how some glaring duds, overfamiliar ‘jokes’, and flat-out clichés were left in. Of the lead cast, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones are all equally affected by this sometimes good / sometimes bad oscillation, though Chris Hemsworth as their pretty-but-dim receptionist manages to escape unscathed in a bubble of, if not hilarity, then definite amusement. However, while even people who dislike the film on the whole seem to reserve praise for Kate McKinnon, I thought she was by far the worst of the main cast. I don’t think her kerazy antics made me laugh once.

The Ghostbusters

Although Feig opted to fully reboot the Ghostbusters universe rather than continue where the previous films left off, there are variety of fan-pleasing fun nods to the original film, which I won’t spoil be detailing here. The same goes for the scattering of cameos from most of the original cast, which some have read as pace-breakingly fan-service-y but I thought mostly worked (though I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumours that Bill Murray only appears due to a contractual obligation he couldn’t get out of). Similarly, there are at least four different recordings of Ray Parker Jr’s famous theme song, not to mention that it’s often mixed into Theodore Shapiro’s score too. Maybe that’s overkill, but it is a helluva catchy tune (though there’s nothing in-film quite as good as this remix of the trailer music). Thankfully, the risible version by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott (which was at one point promoted as the main song) is relegated to a brief snippet in the middle of the film.

For a comedy director, Feig has a decent handle on the genre side of the movie. The climax is like an attempt at a big action scene by someone unfamiliar with filming action, but although it lacks a degree of polish it’s not bad — indeed, while McKinnon may not have made me laugh, she does get a fairly badass fight sequence. On the other hand, the special effects are excellent — some people seem to really hate them, but I think the colourful, fluorescent ghosts (and associated supernatural thingamajigs) look great. Even better is the way the apparitions regularly break out of the 2.35:1 frame. I mean, it’s pretty pointless (unless you’re watching in 3D, where such larks will enhance the 3D effect’s effectiveness), but it’s a kind of cinematic playfulness I like.

I ain't afraid of no fluorescent ghosts

However, one place the director’s hand really shows is in the story structure, because it’s really obvious that some stuff has been cut. Primarily, Wiig’s character rejoins the team in time for the climax, but we never actually saw her leave it. Later, villain Rowan makes the crowd pose in a dance move for no apparent reason, though the end credits reveal there was a whole dance routine that’s been relegated to under-the-crawl status. I guess these things were a victim of necessity: Feig has said the first cut was 4¼ hours long. The Blu-ray includes an extended cut that’s 17 minutes longer, though apparently it’s effectively more than that because it features many alternate takes as well as plain extensions. For that reason I decided to watch the theatrical cut now and I’ll check out the extended version at a later date.

That’s not all, though: there’s also 138 minutes (aka just over 2¼ hours) of deleted, extended, and alternate scenes on the UK & European Blu-ray (over an hour more than on the US release). If you’re a serious fan of the film then I guess that’s a treasure trove, but it also says something about how comedy movies are produced nowadays, doesn’t it? (Or possibly how they always have been, I dunno.) I suppose you can spin that as both a positive and a negative. In the latter camp, it’s a “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks” approach, rather than a “write something good in the first place” one. In the former, why not try everything you can think of on set and then hone it to the stuff that works best in the edit? Though, as discussed earlier, it doesn’t feel like we got all grade-A material in the final cut.

Bustin' makes me feel badass

For all the dumbass criticisms online about it starring women (which there’s at least a couple of jokes about in the film, as it goes), it can only be a positive to see a genre movie starring women in the central roles. It’s not wholly positive in this field (the male characters are all degraded in one way or another, which is a full-180 role reversal that might feel just but isn’t helpful in the grand scheme), but every little helps, right? Leaving such political aspects aside, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (as the closing title card would have it) is mostly entertaining while it lasts, though it’s kind of lightweight with it, and therefore not something that’s likely to endure as the original has. Well, there have been worse remakes.

3 out of 5

Ghostbusters is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Nice Guys (2016)

2016 #156
Shane Black | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Nice Guys

I’ve been struggling to think what to write in this review because, really, why I loved this movie can be thoroughly summed up in two words: it’s hilarious.

Screenwriter Shane Black has been doing this kind of action-thriller buddy comedy for decades now, but he’s still got it where it counts — there are quotable lines galore, and visual gags that would be just as quotable if you could quote a visual. As a director he may not be a great visual stylist or anything, but in an era of ShakyCam and obfuscatory editing, his helmsmanship has a welcome clarity.

As the titular duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling reveal heretofore unseen comedic chops (at least as far as I was aware). Crowe is more of the straight man, though gets his share of good lines, while Gosling bumbles around with pratfalls and slapstick, like in a perfectly-executed bit with a toilet cubicle door… which I would quote but, you know, visual gag. Like most of the best characters, they’re entertaining just to be around, often making scenes of exposition as entertaining as actual set pieces. Most of the villains serve as foils for our heroes, but young Angourie Rice shines as Gosling’s clever kid.

What do you mean there's not much chance of a sequel?

Tonally, it’s every inch a spiritual sequel to Black’s directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I’m very much OK with that. If you copy someone else it’s plagiarism; if you copy yourself it’s your style — you know, that kind of thing. If someone lets Black do another one of these once he’s finished with The Predator — either literally The Nice Guys 2 (as has been mooted, but probably ruled out by the so-so box office) or just something else in the same vein — I would be a very happy bunny.

5 out of 5

The Nice Guys is available on Netflix UK from today.

It placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

San Andreas (2015)

2017 #24
Brad Peyton | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

San Andreas

San Andreas is a most amusing movie. It’s not a comedy, just a generic effects-driven disaster movie in exactly the same style Hollywood has been producing for about 20 years.

In its favour it has the surprising likeability of Mr The Rock, Paul Giamatti hamming it up for a paycheque, and the mammarially blessed Alexandra Daddario running around, lazing in a bikini, getting wet, etc. There’s some solid spectacle, including a couple of nice long takes, which is what these movies are all about.

Conversely, it couldn’t be any cheesier if it had been entirely made out of dairy products.

3 out of 5

Room (2015)

2017 #37
Lenny Abrahamson | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, Canada & UK / English | 15 / R

Room

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
4 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Actress.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay.





Inspired by the infamous Josef Fritzl case (but most decidedly not a a direct fictionalise thereof), Room is a drama about a horrific crime — at times it could even be said to be a crime thriller — but it’s not interested in dealing with the usual outcomes of such filmic narratives; namely, justice or revenge (or both). Rather, it has a goal both more realistic and humane: it’s about the victims, and the psychological toll the crime exerts upon them.

It’s told primarily from the point of view of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a five-year-old boy whose entire world is Room, the small space he lives in with his mother, Ma (Brie Larson). What Jack doesn’t understand, but is quickly obvious to the viewer, is that they’re being held captive by ‘Old Nick’ (Sean Bridgers), who visits nightly for… well, you can guess what for. Ma has tried to keep Jack sheltered from the reality of their situation, not telling him properly about the outside world — until one day she hatches a plan for their escape.

Which possibly makes Room sound more action-packed than it is. There’s a sequence of edge-of-your-seat tension in the middle of the film, when Jack and Ma execute their plan, but otherwise this is a very grounded movie. Obviously the situation the characters have found themselves in is pretty extraordinary, but we know these things happen (Fritzl is, sadly, not the only example), and Room is committed to being a plausible exploration of such cases rather than an adrenaline-fuelled Movie version.

In Room, no one can hear you scream

This is a spoiler, really, but it’s also vital to understanding the film’s point and focus: that escape attempt, which occurs more-or-less exactly halfway through the movie, is a success. After seeing the existence Jack and Ma endured inside Room for the first half, the second is about how they adjust and cope to being in the real world after their ordeal. This half-time switch-up is the film’s primary strength. A comment I read online taps into why that’s the case: “At the beginning it was great. I thought it was gonna be a claustrophobic thriller/horror film following the line of others like Cube, Panic Room or even Das Boot… I got the feeling that if they would had escaped later on, the film would have been better.” This person is, of course, wrong, and their own comment demonstrates why. Sure, you could make this kind of story into “a claustrophobic thriller/horror film”, but that would be a genre B-movie and nowhere near the psychological realism (and, by extension, respect for real-life victims of such crimes) that Room is clearly interested in. I have to reluctantly agree that the first half is the more gripping and involving, but the second half — the having to cope with the psychological fallout once their ordeal is over, a very real but much less-seen aspect of crime — is where the meat and heart of Room lies. Or wants to.

The thing is, is it the case that the characters’ situation is inherently emotional, and therefore it’s pretty hard for a film about it to not elicit strong responses, rather than that this film in and of itself is doing anything particularly special? Some would give that an emphatic “yes” — criticism of Lenny Abrahamson’s plain direction abounds. I think that does him a disservice. This is not a showy movie, but nor should it be. Saying it’s no better than a cheap cable TV movie shows a lack of understanding for the quality of being understated, and the difference between that and thoughtless point-and-shoot quickie filmmaking. Indeed, the wiseness of the filmmakers in not giving the story an overly histrionic treatment is one of its biggest assets.

If you're happy and you know it stare blankly into space

Another is the performances. Larson is excellent, full of subtleties even when called on to enact more obvious Dramatic Moments. Ma runs the emotional gamut throughout the movie and Larson negotiates every changing facet with believability. Tremblay isn’t half bad either. I stop short of bigger praise for him because, frankly, I found his character pretty irritating at times, but that might be part of the point so maybe I’m being unfair. While those two are the natural focus, there are effective supporting turns from the likes of Joan Allen as Ma’s mom and Tom McCamus as her new partner, who gets one of the best scenes.

Despite these qualities, I was left wondering how much it had dug into Jack and Ma’s psychology, really? The decision to focus on the kid keeps us removed from Ma at some key points, giving us a snapshot of how she’s been affected rather than a detailed portrait. But we never fully get the psychology of Jack either. On the one hand that’s because, well, he’s only five years old; and on the other it’s because he’s lived his entire life in a situation we can only try to imagine — it’s hard to connect with his very unique worldview. That’s not to say the film fails entirely — there are moments, even whole scenes, where we’re able to access some level of understanding for what these characters have experienced — but as for the totality of it? Well, as I said, it’d be hard for the film to not generate sympathy just given the pure facts of the story it tells, but in terms of going further than that, I just felt there was something missing.

Hammock

Make no mistake, Room is a very good, very affecting film, powered by two strong lead performances, but at the end I felt there was more left to understand about these characters and their experiences.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Room is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Deadpool: No Good Deed (2017)

2017 #32a
David Leitch | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

Logan

Screened before Logan in the US but only available to us poor disadvantaged foreigners thanks to the magic of the interweb, No Good Deed could be regarded as nothing more than a teaser trailer were it not: (a) about four times longer than your average teaser, (b) almost certainly not actually part of the film it’s teasing, (c) listed on IMDb and so forth as a short film, and (d) a self-contained story that is, all things considered, pretty amusing.

If you were also unfortunate enough to have not had your screening of Logan graced by Deadpool’s irreverent goodness, enjoy:

4 out of 5

All being well, Deadpool 2 will be released on 2nd March 2018.

Logan (2017)

2017 #30
James Mangold | 137 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

This review contains major spoilers.

Logan

Little Miss Sunshine meets Hell or High Water via Midnight Special, with more superpowers and (probably) fewer Oscar nominations, in the film some people are calling the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight.

In the not-so-distant future, the man once known as Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman), is living / hiding on the US-Mexico border, his once formidable powers diminished by age. He works as a limo driver to afford meds for an ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose psychic powers have become dangerous as his brain falters with age. When a woman recognises Logan and asks for his help, the disillusioned former X-Man fobs her off. But soon dark forces and a mysterious girl (Dafne Keen), not to mention his innate moral code, will force his claw-wielding hand…

While Marvel Studios harp on about how they mix other genres into their superhero movies, with such-and-such a film being superheroes-cum-political-thriller, or this-and-that film being superheroes-cum-heist-movie, and so on, everything they produce is really merely colouring within the lines of the superhero picture, they’re just using different crayons to do it. Logan not only uses different crayons, but it’s colouring a whole new picture, too. It’s not the first superhero movie to operate at a remove from the standard big-budget tropes of the genre, but it is perhaps the first from a major franchise to dare to step so far outside the norm. As I intimated at the start, the feel of the piece is more indie neo-Western road movie than CGI-driven superhero spectacular, though to imply it stints on expensive action thrills would be disingenuous. It still cost $97 million, after all, and so works at ways to retain the favour of a blockbuster-seeking crowd. Nonetheless, the overall impression is of a refreshing change for the subgenre, with a more distinctive feel than any of those aforementioned Marvel movies.

Wolverine vs Robotic Hand Man

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, sadly. Functionally speaking, Logan barely has a villain. There are some ill-intentioned and dangerous people after X-23, so our heroes have to run away from them — that’s all the role they have to play. Heading up the hunt is Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a henchman figure who’s de facto lead villain purely because he gets the most screen time. Unfortunately, he has more personality in his defining attribute, a CGI robotic arm, than in the rest of his characterisation combined. The theoretical Big Bad is Dr Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), an evil scientist who we’re told developed some kind of virus that all but wiped out mutantkind, but now seems incapable of tracking down a group of preteens. He’s not on screen enough to make any kind of meaningful impression. On the bright side, on my “how badly miscast is Richard E. Grant” scale (which ranges from “very badly” to “not that bad, I suppose”) this errs towards the positive end, precisely because of that lack of screen time. Lastly there’s younger, fitter Wolverine clone X-24 (also Jackman), who’s at least intentionally devoid of personality — he’s been bred without it so he’ll be the perfect biddable killing machine. Obviously he’s ripe for some sort of thematic commentary — on ageing; on morality; on heroism; on, frankly, anything — but it never comes.

With the villainous side of the equation so unbalanced, we’re left primarily with our heroes. Fortunately, they do take up the slack, mainly through a pair of fantastic performances from Jackman and Stewart. Wolverine is undoubtedly the defining role of Jackman’s career, a part he’s played on and off for 17 years across seven movies (as a lead, plus a couple more cameos). Here he’s the most human he’s ever been. In many ways Logan was always one of the most relatable X-Men, one of our points of entry into their world and taking the piss out of them and the situation when it was called for. He was still primarily a likeable character in a fantastical world though, whereas here he feels more like a real person, struggling with the physical detriments of ageing and (less explicitly) the metaphysical quandaries of what it was all for. As he puts his time with the character to bed, Jackman gets to deliver his most nuanced and affecting turn in the role. Neatly, it mirrors where it all began for this version of the character: protecting a young mutant girl struggling to come to terms with her dangerous powers in a world that’s out to get her.

Professor X-piring

Stewart is every bit as good as a man defined by his mental prowess whose mind is failing. Originally cast to play a statesman-like role in the series, here Stewart gets to have a bit more fun, to be a bit more cheeky, but also to tap into a bit more depth of emotion, as Charles struggles with whatever it was he did to land him in hiding in Mexico (I think there was some dialogue that explained it but, frankly, I missed it in the mumbly sound mix. I’ll catch that on Blu-ray, then).

Of course, they both die. Normally that’d be shocking in a major studio blockbuster, but it’s quite clear Logan is playing by different rules, and in those rules the old good guys die. Heck, nearly everyone dies, but the only deaths that matter are Charles’ and Logan’s. What’s at least a bit interesting is how they die. For Professor X, it’s almost ignominious, — in a bed, not even his own, stabbed by X-24 for virtually no reason, then later fading away in the back of a truck. It’s not a grand heroic self-sacrifice while trying to save the world, the kind of death you’d expect for a character of his stature (and more or less the kind he got in The Last Stand, the first time they killed him off). It’s a great life come to a meaningless end. Well, Logan’s that kind of movie — it has no reverence for such things, just as life itself does not. Conversely, the death of Wolverine / Logan / James Howlett (who is he, in the end?) is a sacrifice, the selfish man of the movie’s opening giving himself up to save some kids; or, in grander terms, to save the future. Ah, but he was never really selfish, was he? It was an act. An affection brought by the hard years. He was always a good guy at heart. Always an X-Man, as the neat final shot emphasises.

Wolverine: The Last Stand

So there is some thematic meat to tuck into here, even with the apparent dead-end (pun not intended) of the X-24 subplot. Couple that with the many uncommon-to-the-genre plot and tonal points and you have a movie that does merit consideration as one of the finer superhero films. However, the perception some espouse of this being brave or bold moviemaking is not inherent to the film. If this were an original story starring new characters, especially if they didn’t have superpowers, it wouldn’t make it a bad film, but nor would it be perceived as being so original or revolutionary. What is uncommon or remarkable is making that kind of movie with a well-known character, and in particular one who’s familiar from leading CGI-fuelled PG-13 summer spectacles.

Is that alone enough to confer greatness? Logan’s consistency of style and tone render it easily the best Wolvie solo movie (as much as I liked The Wolverine on the whole, its climax was horrible), but for this X-fan it’s not enough to usurp the top-draw traditional superheroics to be found in the three or four genre classics produced by the main series. Perhaps time and re-viewing will increase Logan in my estimation, however, because it is a very strong film indeed.

4 out of 5

100 Films @ 10: Short Films

For the final in my series of ten top tens (yes, we’ve reached the end already / finally (delete as appropriate)), I’ve decided to take a look at one of the less-discussed aspects of the film world: shorts.

In the past ten years I’ve watched and reviewed just 51 short films, but as I’ve never ranked them before it seemed overdue that I create some kind of quality-sorted list. Here, then, are my ten favourite short films that I watched in the last decade.

10
Pixels

Don’t worry, there’s no Adam Sandler in sight — this Pixels is the three-minute short that went down so well online someone bought the rights and turned it into a feature. A fun idea, it works better as a narrative-less couple of minutes than it did forced into the shape of a blockbuster.

9
Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter

Easily the best of Marvel’s now-defunct series of short films, Agent Carter was so good — exciting, characterful, funny — that it was later expanded into a two-season TV series (which I still haven’t watched. Oops.)

8
Telling Lies

A simple idea, very well executed: as we listen to a series of phone conversations, the speakers’ dialogue appears on screen… except instead of transcribing their exact words, it reveals their true thoughts. At only a few minutes long Telling Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, instead maintaining the basic idea well and crafting a neat and amusing little story with it.

7
Toy Story of Terror!

Having managed to beat the odds and create three great Toy Story movies, Pixar seemed foolish trying to extend it further as a franchise. Toy Story of Terror justifies that decision, however, with a story, style, and message that would’ve been strong enough to be a whole feature (with some expansions, of course) but plays equally well in just 20 minutes.

6
Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death

As with #7, this was a seasonal special for old animated favourites that would’ve worked just as well (perhaps even better) expanded out to a full feature. A Matter of Loaf and Death is the first Wallace & Gromit film since the very first not to win an Oscar, but it’s every bit as good as its forebears — I can’t think of much higher praise than that.

5
Presto

The Pixar short that accompanied WALL-E, Presto is a perfectly-executed piece of near-silent slapstick tomfoolery. Surprisingly, this also lost out on an Oscar. Its director went on to co-direct last year’s Storks, which… didn’t go down so well.

4
The Lunch Date

Winner of the short Palme d’Or and an Oscar, The Lunch Date is a clever little tale with a well-disguised twist. I imagine if it was made today people would talk about its social relevance, which is a little depressing nearly 30 years on, but there you go. The first work by director Adam Davidson, he’s since gone on to helm episodes of shows like Six Feet Under, Lost, Deadwood, Dexter, Rome, True Blood, Fringe, Fear the Walking Dead, and many, many more.

3
The Present

As with most of the best shorts, The Present presents a simple but effective idea quickly and with a strong emotional hit. A cute tale of a boy and his dog, it also has a message about positivity and overcoming adversity. No Oscar here, but its director has since worked for Disney on Zootropolis and Moana, as well as on The Secret Life of Pets and Revolting Rhymes.

2
Feast

Another lovely short, also told economically and without dialogue, about a friendly little dog who helps out his owner. Yeah, I’m a sucker for cute dogs. But Oscar-winner Feast is also beautifully animated: nicely stylised and executed as essentially one long montage, proving again that exceptional filmmaking can create an emotional experience in the briefest of times.

1
Commentary! The Musical

Unlike the previous films on this list, it’s the very opposite of silent — it is, in many ways, all about sound. There’s also no big emotional hit and no sniff of awards recognition either. So why does Commentary! The Musical top my list? Because it so impressively made. It’s the commentary track on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but rather than just the production team chatting about how they made the show, it’s sung through. And it’s not just a collection of new songs played over the original production — it’s frequently scene specific, sometimes even shot specific. It’s an incredible feat of writing and planning; not only that, but it’s hilariously funny too.

Tomorrow: birthday day.

100 Films @ 10: Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes Films

Yesterday I ranked the film series that have been a part of 100 Films down the years. The Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the Great Detective and Nigel Bruce as his trusty sidekick Dr Watson may only have placed 6th on that list, but they have been a regular presence on my blog for most of its life as I slowly worked my way through all 14, from The Hound of the Baskervilles in Year 2 to Dressed to Kill as the record-breaking #200 in Year 9.

It seemed only fitting to include the series in my tenth birthday celebrations, therefore, so for today’s top ten I’ve gone back over all my reviews (and memories) and used them as a guide to rank my ten favourite instalments.

10
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

“The basic concept is a nice idea for a war-set spy-thriller, but not really for a Sherlock Holmes mystery. […] The consensus seems to be against me, but by the end I was quite enjoying Voice of Terror. It may be a Sherlock Holmes film in name only, but taken instead as a cheap spy thriller it makes for passable entertainment.” Full review.

9
The Hound of the Baskervilles

“One of the novel’s strong points is its occasional Gothic styling, and this is something the film version does very well. Dartmoor looks fantastic, like something Tim Burton would have created were he working in the ’30s. It’s clearly a set, but it’s dramatic and moody and completely effective.” Full review.

8
Terror by Night

“a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. […] That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.” Full review.

7
The Pearl of Death

“Holmes first rescues the priceless Borgia Pearl, but then quite spectacularly loses it. The notion of Holmes being doubted, of having to prove himself to reassert his reputation, is a good one — one recently borrowed by avowed Rathbone fans Moffat & Gatiss for their modern-day Sherlock, in fact.” Full review.

6
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon

“The name’s Holmes, Sherlock Holmes, as Universal’s loose adaptations of Britain’s Greatest Detective deliver a low-key proto-Bond, 22 years before Goldfinger applied the same tricks to Britain’s Greatest Spy. […] As with Voice of Terror, I enjoyed a lot of Secret Weapon in spite of its distinct un-Holmes-ness — it’s another pacey, exciting World War Two spy thriller.” Full review.

5
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death

Faces Death leaves behind the proto-Bond WW2 spying of the last three films (“it can almost be viewed as the starting point of a completely new Holmes series” asserts one review I’ve read) to involve Holmes in a genuine detective mystery […] packed with proper deduction, which is excellent.” Full review.

4
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“There’s rain-lashed, fog-drenched Victorian London streets! Brutal murders by foul foreigners! Dastardly plots against the crown! Galloping carriages! Romantic subplots! A smattering of comedy! A song-and-dance number! (No, really, there is.) And a final shoot out… in the Tower of London! You can’t escape the joyous feeling that this was designed as pure entertainment, literally including something for everyone.” Full review.

3
The Woman in Green

“Starting with a particularly vile series of murders that mask an even more detestable scheme and genuine peril for our hero, I can imagine some fans would find The Woman in Green to be too big a step outside the Rathbone Holmes comfort zone. For me, however, these elements mark it out as one of the series’ best instalments.” Full review.

2
The Spider Woman

“Screenwriter Bertram Millhauser skillfully mixes elements from various Conan Doyle tales [including] The Sign of Four, The Final Problem, The Adventure of the Empty House, The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot and The Adventure of the Speckled Band. […] Several of these borrowed elements — the faked death and The Woman — lead to some delicious scenes, such as when Holmes reveals he’s alive to Dr Watson, offering one of those occasions where Bruce’s comedic rendition of the role actually works.” Full review.

1
The Scarlet Claw

“[Roy William Neill’s] direction is incredibly atmospheric, from a wonderful mist-covered opening scene, replete with an incessantly tolling bell, to regular instances of shadow-drenched photography afterwards; not to mention various pleasing camera angles and moves. The story — in which townsfolk believe a mythical beast has returned to murder its residents — presents a well-constructed mystery all round, though as it moves into the second half some of its twists become all too guessable. [Such] little niggles may stop the film from being perfect but, like the similarities to The Hound of the Baskervilles, while they’re certainly there, they’re easy to overlook in the name of a rollicking good horror-mystery-adventure.” Full review.

Tomorrow: as seen on TV.

100 Films @ 10: Most-Played Soundtracks

For today’s top ten I’ve opened up iTunes, sorted all my songs by play count, and seen which are my most-listened-to cues from film & TV soundtracks. I’m not a great musical connoisseur, really, so because of that and this just being a statistical most-played list, expect lots of exciting action music — especially as this includes plays from when I wrote a blockbuster-style screenplay for one of my university dissertations, so I listened to an awful lot of that kinda stuff then.

Couple of other points: These are all score cues rather than songs that are on soundtracks, because, well, that’s what I chose to do. However, I have included trailer music, but only when it was composed especially for the trailer — nothing from those generic “music for trailers”-type albums. Finally, I’ve ditched repeats from the same album, because I thought this would basically be the track list for Pirates of the Caribbean otherwise. Turns out that wouldn’t’ve been the case, and instead it removed a track from, of all things, Torchwood.

10
Suite from X2

from X-Men 2

I’ve written before of my fondness for John Ottman’s X-Men theme. As this was the only version of it for years, I listened to it plenty. I guess it’ll be supplanted by the version from X-Men: Apocalypse eventually, because the tracks on that album are less ‘cluttered’ with other bits of the score. (As the confusion about X2’s title continues, let me note this: the UK soundtrack album is called X-Men 2 and this track on it is called Suite from X2; the US soundtrack album is called X2 and this track on it is called Suite from X-Men 2.)

9
Wheel of Fortune

from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

From the second Pirates movie, this is the cue from the big sword fight climax — which, as you may remember, includes a runaway water wheel, hence the title. For all his production-line type methods, Hans Zimmer can deliver a very effective action cue.

8
Closing Credits: “Bolero”

from Moulin Rouge

As with much of the music in Baz Luhrmann’s musical, this is a track that suggests a lot of drama, even if it ‘only’ plays over the end credits. I can’t really explain why I like it so much, but I do. For whatever reason I listened to it every day on my way to work when I interned for a summer in New York, which (a) didn’t do its play count any harm, and (b) means I always associate it with riding the Subway, weirdly. As to who wrote it, I’ve got it down as being by the film’s composer, Craig Armstrong, but Wikipedia says Steve Sharples and Allmusic says Simon Standage, so I dunno.

7
This is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home

from Doctor Who: Series 3

Murray Gold has been composing all of Doctor Who’s music for over a decade now, which is quite an achievement, especially for a show that so regularly changes its style — week to week, in many respects. My favourite piece of his work is probably his theme for the 11th Doctor, created for series five, but I’ve most listened to this elegiac piece for the Doctor’s home planet from the series three finale.

6
Mind Heist

from the Inception trailer

Braaaam! Christopher Nolan’s film is perhaps most famous for defining trailer music for the next… well, it’s still kinda ongoing, isn’t it? Yet that recognisable cue used in the trailers isn’t actually from the film itself. Heck, it’s not even by the film’s composer, Hans Zimmer (him again!) The story behind it is a mite more complicated, but Zack Hemsey was one of the main people involved in the final trailer, and it was he who put out a track with his version of that work, so here it is.

5
The James Bond Theme

from the Casino Royale trailer

Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme has been re-worked countless times down the years, but this version struck me as soon as I first heard it for one key reason: voices. The final part of the track has the familiar tune accompanied by a choir, I believe for the first time, and it sounds fantastic. It was created by trailer music outfit Pfeifer Broz. Music specifically for the Casino Royale trailer, so you won’t find it on the soundtrack CD, but, of course, it’s still out there to be found…

4
Can You Dig It (Iron Man 3 Main Titles)

from Iron Man 3

Despite their continued success, there are criticisms regularly raised against Marvel’s shared universe movies. One is the weak villains. Another is the painfully generic music. That’s precisely why Brian Tyler’s title theme from the third Iron Man stands out so: it accompanies the ’70s-action-show-style credit sequence with a ’70s-action-show-style reworking of the film’s main theme (which I also quite like, but is much more standard “modern blockbuster music” in sound).

3
Drink Up Me Hearties

from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

More Zimmer Pirates. This is the final cue, accompanying the end credits of the film, and as such is something of a summation of the series’ music. It’s kind of the epitome of modern blockbuster scores, for good or ill.

2
The Chase

from Torchwood

More Murray Gold, here composing with his Doctor Who orchestrator, Ben Foster. This ticks many of the boxes I mentioned at the start: an action cue from my screenwriting playlist. Gold’s Whoniverse music has most often been in the style of modern blockbuster movies, because that’s the feel the show has gone for, but by distilling the essence of that style he has on occasion produced tracks that exceed its big-budget counterparts for effectiveness. This is one such occasion: as fast-paced action tracks go, this is often one of the fastest and actioniest.

1
He’s a Pirate

from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

The creation of Pirates of the Caribbean’s soundtrack is a notorious clusterfuck of composers literally competing against each other to produce something for the Disney movie. Reports vary on what exactly went on, but I believe the long and the short of it is Klaus Badelt wrote the most music that was actually used and so got the credit on the CD. Presumably Hans Zimmer didn’t think the film would be all that big and didn’t care — he certainly took the credit for the sequels’ scores, though. Anyway, this recognisable main theme actually has its roots in another Zimmer score, Drop Zone, as you can hear here. Shocking self-plagiarism, ain’t it? Still, this improved version is the one everyone knows now, and it’s wound up my most-played soundtrack track.

Tomorrow: never-ending stories.