Category: Family film

Paddington (2014)

Paddington (2014)

Michael Bond’s lovable bear makes an almost perfect screen-transition in this heart-warming tale

Director: Paul King

Cast: Ben Whishaw (Paddington Bear), Hugh Bonneville (Henry Brown), Sally Hawkins (Mary Brown), Madeleine Harris (Judy Brown), Samuel Joslin (Jonathan Brown), Julie Walters (Mrs Bird), Nicole Kidman (Millicent Clyde), Peter Capaldi (Mr Curry), Jim Broadbent (Samuel Gruber), Imelda Staunton (Aunt Lucy), Michael Gambon (Uncle Pastuzo), Tim Downie (Montgomery Clyde)

If there is one thing we need in troubled times, it’s kindness. Few characters are as overflowing with warmth and decency as Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear. First introduced in 1958, the lovable marmalade-consuming little bear all the way from darkest Peru is never anything less than kind and decent – even as the well-meaning bear gets himself into a string of catastrophes.

Paddington is one of the most universally beloved figures from post-War British culture – surely no surprise he was the perfect tea-party guest for that other beloved icon of the same period, the Queen. The pressure was on for a Paddington film – could it match the tone of the books? The answer was an over-whelming yes. Paddington is an endlessly heart-warming triumph, which it is impossible to watch without a warm glow building inside you, and a goofy smile on your face.

Explorer (Tim Downie) discovers a species of intelligent, marmalade-loving bears in darkest Peru. Forty years later, after a terrible earthquake, a young bear travels to find a new home in London. He meets the Brown family – overly cautious father Henry (Hugh Bonneville), caring Mary (Sally Hawkins) and their children Judy (Madeline Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) – who take him into their home and name him Paddington after the train station where they found him (his bear name being unpronounceable). Paddington (Ben Whishaw) works hard to settle in with his new hosts – but danger looms from an ambitious Natural History Museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who longs to make Paddington the centrepiece of her collection.

Directed with a great deal of unobtrusive flair by Paul King, Paddington is a truly endearing film about the triumph of opening your heart to strangers. The Brown family don’t realise it, but they are in need of a burst of kindness in their lives to help bring them together. They get it in spades with Paddington. The film captures perfectly the little bear’s personality. This is Paddington exactly as you remember him: polite, decent, kind and hilariously accident-prone. King’s film also gets the tone exactly right – there are no pop-culture references or rude gags (although there are a few subtle double-entendres of a sort) and the film is set in a timeless mix of 1950s London and today.

The film’s CGI Paddington is gorgeously designed – a wonderful rendering of the bear’s appearance tailored with more realistic fur, but still the same as the book– and perfectly voiced by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw was a late replacement – Colin Firth voluntarily withdrew, as he felt his voice was ill-matched to this naïve, gentle young bear – but his light and gentle tones convey all the warmth you need. It’s a superb performance, humane, kind and deeply funny, and so well suited you suddenly realise in your head Paddington always sounded like this.

King creates a series of gorgeously handled set-pieces to showcase Paddington’s possibilities for well-intentioned mayhem. On his first night in the Brown household, he duels with toothbrushes, mouthwash, toilet flushes and showers, culminating in flooding their bathroom with a swimming pool’s worth of water. He gets mummified in sellotape, slips up in the kitchen and causes several marmalade-sandwich involved disasters (most hilariously a marmalade baguette-pneumatic tube mix-up). But he always means well: a caper-filled set-piece through the London streets sees Paddington finally collide with a man he’s trying to return a dropped wallet too – allowing someone we’ve known all along to be a pickpocket to be apprehended by the police.

The Brown family’s home – already a beautifully designed dolls-house made real, with a tree blossom mural that changes to reflect the mood of the scene – comes to life with Paddington in it. (Watch how the colours of their clothing change depending on how much Paddington is part of the family or not). Mary (a wonderfully warm Sally Hawkins) is already eager for him to stay. Judy and Jonathan (superbly sparky performances from Madeline Harris and Samuel Joslin) are quickly won over by him. It’s only Mr Brown – a performance of perfectly judged fussy, pinickity, rule-bound caution and stuffiness by Hugh Bonneville which flourishes into something warmer – who is unsure. But then this is a man so obsessed with his risk analysis job, he prevents his children from doing anything (34% of all childhood accidents happen on the stairs!) and has forgotten how to have fun.

Watching Mr Brown slowly warm to Paddington is a huge part of the film’s charm and warmth. Who could imagine the man who tries to leave him at the train station (and urge his family not to catch the bear’s eye, muttering “stranger danger”) would later be dressing up as a Scottish cleaning woman to help him infiltrate the Geographer’s Guild building? (This sequence is a little comic physical and verbal tour-de-force Bonneville.) It’s a larger part of the film’s wider – and most rewarding – message: the importance of treating migrants to this country with respect and care.

The pro-migration message is throughout the film – and the film is a fabulous reminder to many of what we have gained from those who have come to this land from across the seas, from NHS staff to political leaders to entertainers. Paddington’s journey to London – in a small boat, then sneaking past customs – is all-too-familiar.  Next door neighbour Mr Curry (a comically ingratiating Peter Capaldi) voices many of the “concerns” of anti-immigrant communities (let one bear in and who knows how many will follow?). Even Mr Brown voices worries about bears telling you sob stories to win your trust. The important message here is the value migrants bring us. A recurring calypso band reminds us of parallels with the Windrush generation. It’s not spoken but Jim Broadbent’s antique shop owner’s accent and memories of arriving on a train in London as a child clearly mark him as a Kindertransport child. Paddington has a subtle and truly important message for people: when we open our arms to people, we gain as much as they from the exchange.

Paddington throws in a few moments of darkness: the shock death of Uncle Patuszo is surprisingly affecting and Nicole Kidman’s taxidermist is possibly the scariest villain you’ll see in a kid’s film this side of the child catcher. But in some ways this enhances the warmth even further. By the film’s end you’ll feel your own life has been enriched by the small bear’s presence as much as the Brown’s has. We need him in times like this.

Eternals (2021)

Eternals (2021)

A cast of diverse actors are totally crushed in this pompous, dull Marvel film

Director: Chloé Zhao

Cast: Gemma Chan (Sersi), Richard Madden (Ikaris), Kumail Nanjiani (Kingo), Lia McHugh (Sprite), Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos), Lauren Ridloff (Makkari), Barry Keoghan (Druig), Don Lee (Gilgamesh), Harish Patel (Karun), Kit Harington (Dane Whitman), Salma Hayek (Ajak), Angelina Jolie (Thena)

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time… Marvel had already turned one little known gang of superheroes into a huge hit with The Guardians of the Galaxy. World defining stakes had been the core of most of The Avengers films. An ensemble cast of diverse actors were pulled together with an acclaimed (and now Oscar winning!) director at the helm. They only forgot one thing: to make the final film interesting, engaging or feel in any way original.

Our heroes are a group of very serious God-like Aliens called Eternals, who have been sent to Earth thousands of years ago by even more God-like Celestrial Aliens to protect humanity from savage monsters called Deviants. By 1521, the Deviants are defeated and our heroes are left unsure of what to do. Ordered to never interfere in the events of humanity, they go their separate ways and settle down into life on Earth. But in the present day the Deviants return – and the Eternals start to uncover dark facts about their mission.

All of this takes place over a runtime which feels pretty bloody eternal itself. Essentially the film opens with an info-dump, then spends a couple of hours getting the gang back together (interspersed with occasional additional info-dumps) before the inevitable final-act smackdown to save the world. The stakes have arguably never been higher: but with the film’s indolent pace and thinly sketched characters it sure-as-hell doesn’t feel like it. There is a lot of uninvolving world-building and its ends up feeling every bloody minute of its epic runtime.

With its group of characters, essentially a loving family that has fallen out, this should really be an intimate, character-driven film. But it never balances the huge cast, the epic action and building relatable characters swiftly. Instead the Eternals rarely seem like anything more than heavy-handed sketches defined by basic character traits: a caring empath, a warrior princess, a slightly austere would-be-leader, a mentor destined to die, an eternal child frustrated about never growing up, a natural showman, a cold mind-controller, a deaf athlete and a gay guilt-ridden inventor. The cast (as very proudly trumpeted in its marketing material) is on paper the most diverse ever in Marvel. But it’s like simply making it representative was enough and they didn’t need to bother creating rich, engaging and multi-faceted characters.

All of them are squashed into a film that really feels like it could have been made by anyone. For all Zhao’s occasional indie visual beauty, this is totally free of authorial voice, with completely routine action set-pieces. There is the odd joke, but Zhao’s attempt to put her own mediative personality on the film only really ends up making the bits between the fights dry and boring. Put quite simply, Marvel seems to have rather crushed any life out of her. We get endless solemn moments, as characters watch with horror the results of the development in mankind they have encouraged (from the genocide of the Incas to the bomb at Hiroshima). These nearly always feel on-the-nose and obvious. It all stems from Zhao failing to make us care about these characters.

So, when they find out they have been betrayed by their masters – that their purpose is to fatten the Earth for feasting, not raise it in good health – its rather hard to feel the impact of the betrayal. The film isn’t even smart, or daring, enough to acknowledge that the same manipulative Gods who have used the Eternals have done the same thing to the Deviants. The film continues to treat these as wicked killers, when in fact they are as much victims as everyone else. Would it have killed Eternals to acknowledge this for a moment, to explore the implications of this more?

Especially since it’s so bloody long. It takes almost two hours for the film to bring the gang back together. Each reunion with a new Eternal is basically played the same – a brief bit of banter and then a horrified reaction as they discover the truth. Which means we basically see versions of the same scene play out six times, with diminishing levels of interest. Can’t these guys conference call?

There is no momentum to this ever. Where is the pace? Where is the urgency? The Eternals have been told they’ve only a few days to save the Earth, but they seem to spend most of it ambling around chatting and catching-up. Even when the end-of-the-world starts, most of them still sit around starring at the middle distance sadly and bemoaning their lot. This – and soft spoken intensity and lackadaisical wandering – are constantly used by the film as a short hand for seriousness, a self-importance the film wears very, very heavily.

All of the actors get crushed under the weight of the film. Nanjiani stands out pretty much as the only one having anything approaching fun while only Lee gets to show some sort of warm, uncomplicated human connection. Keoghan, Ridloff and Henry do decent work, but the rest of the cast seem hampered by how very, very, very serious they need to be all the time. One of them, of course, is a wrong ‘un (you can make a pretty decent guess early on which in it will be), but they turn out to be the dullest most stick-up-the-butt character of the lot. Despite the huge amount of time we spend with them, lead characters like Chan’s Sersei and Madden’s Ikaris remain enigmas we can’t be bothered to find out more about.

Eternals is pretty much a failure. It’s long. It builds an expansive universe with a series of clumsy lectures and fails to make any of these interesting. It’s got long battle scenes which feel like several other films. It’s got no personality or vibe to it. It sets up the odd interesting idea then takes it nowhere. It makes the end of the world a massive yawn, while telling you it’s a hugely important and daring film (it’s neither of those things). You end up feeling this might be the most forgotten Marvel film since The Incredible Hulk.

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Nuns and a drifter find mutual respect (eventually) in this quaint, gentle drama

Director: Ralph Nelson

Cast: Sidney Poitier (Homer Smith), Lilia Skala (Mother Maria), Lisa Mann (Sister Gertrude), Isa Crino (Sister Agnes), Francesca Jarvis (Sister Albertine), Pamela Branch (Sister Elizabeth), Stanley Adams (Juan Acalito), Dan Frazer (Father Murphy), Ralph Nelson (Mr Ashton)

One day Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) stops at a small Arizona farm to ask for water for his car. The farm is run by refugee Eastern European Nuns. Homer does a few repair jobs, teaches them a little bit of English and stays for dinner, assuming he’ll be paid in the morning. But the fearsome Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) tells Smith (or Schmidt as they call him) his presence is a gift from God and recruits him to build them a chapel, in return for food and lodging (but not money). Smith finds himself accepting – and, as the building work begins, finds a passion for the project building in him. Amen!

A humble “nice” film, based on a successful novel, Liles of the Field was shot in about two weeks by Nelson – who got the financial backing when Poitier agreed to play the lead. It went on to scoop a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars and a Best Actor Award for Sidney Poitier. To be honest there isn’t really anything in Lilies of the Field that you won’t see a hundred times before or since. Shot with an efficient (if Televisual) low-keyness by Ralph Nelson, it’s an inspiring tale about inspiring folks with a few laughs and smiles, set in a world that shows what we could achieve if mutual respect and decency were mankind’s watch-words.

Lilies of the Field is decisively a spiritual, feel-good film but it’s pleasantly told without any over-emphasis or lecturing, which allows it to remain a charming, engaging (if slight) watch. The story of the building of this small chapel in the middle of nowhere is as inspiring as seeing how a passion for the project gives Smith a focus and purpose he perhaps has lacked elsewhere in his life. But it’s also crammed with some charmingly loose scenes, such as Poitier playfully teaching the Nuns basic English phrases (far more useful than the ridiculous – and useless for everyday life – phrases the Nuns are learning from a record) and, later, the fundamentals of Gospel music.

Roughly in the centre is a rather sweet and well-drawn gentle struggle of wills between Homer Smith (an honest guy who expects an honest wage for an honest day’s work) and Mother Maria (a woman who has learned that you don’t get without asking again and again and again). These two feud using bible quotes (rather wittily, Mother Maria uses a massive embossed tone while Homer uses a well-thumbed pocket copy), butt heads on Mother Maria’s refusal to accept anything less than Smith agreeing to do the work gratis and Smith’s frustration at what he sees as her dictatorial stance. But, inevitably, respect grows between them over time (as it does in movies like this).

You could pretty much predict most of the beats in Lilies of the Field. Of course, the whole desert community rallies around to help. Of course, Smith and Nuns reach an understanding of mutual affection. Of course, the building contractor Smith works for part-time to keep himself in dollars (played by the director Ralph Nelson) overcomes his condescension to Smith to chip in. Of course, Smith falls in love with the chapel – and sees it as a chance to live his dream of becoming an architect. None of this should surprise you.

But it works because it’s all quite gentle and charming. A big part of this is down to Poitier’s performance. So many of his roles dripped with nobility and grandeur, that it’s really pleasant to see him cut loose and have some fun. This is surely one of the most relaxed performance Poitier ever gave, his Homer Smith loose-limbed, witty and relaxed, enjoying the comic banter and gracefully breaking into (dubbed) gospel singing. He has a natural and easy chemistry with the other actors – most of all Lilia Skala (also Oscar nominated) who is perfectly dry and starchy as Mother Maria – and keeps the whole enterprise just the right side of light and breezy. It’s Poitier getting a light, personality part very different from the roles he’s more associated with. He became the first black man to win an Oscar – and only the second person of colour after Hattie McDaniel.

The film has a few beats of racial tension: Nelson’s contactor condescendingly calls Smith “Boy” (much to his quiet anger) and there are references to prejudice. But what the film wants to celebrate is people coming together – which is what Smith, the Nuns and the (mostly) Latin American community do to winning effect. It does this with such honesty and simple pleasure that, for all its predictability and lack of narrative invention, it’s rather winning. It’s a simple, almost forgettable, little film – but when watching it you’ll at least feel heart warmed.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)

It’s the classic, feel-good film that seems to divide people than few others

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Julie Andrews (Maria von Trapp), Christopher Plummer (Captain van Trapp), Eleanor Parker (Baroness Elsa von Schraeder), Richard Haydn (Max Detweiler), Peggy Wood (Mother Abbess), Charmian Carr (Liesl), Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich), Heather Menzies (Louisa), Duane Chase (Kurt), Angela Cartwright (Brigitta), Debbie Turner (Marta), Kym Karath (Gretl), Daniel Truhitte (Rolfe)

Has there been any film in history that has aroused feelings as strong as this one? Busloads of tourists conduct pilgrimages to Salzburg to follow in its footsteps – it’s a bigger draw than Mozart. Sing-along performances are attended by people in costume who know every nuance of Do-Re-Mi. On the other side, those who loath this musical, do so with the burning heat of a thousand suns, practically cheering the Nazis on or choking back vomit at the opening note of Edelweiss. It was ever thus: The Sound of Music was slaughtered by critics – Pauline Kael called it “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat” – but became a box-office phenomenon, one of the most popular films ever and gilded with Oscars aplenty.

It’s loosely based on the real-life experiences of the von Trapp family. Maria (Julie Andrews), a young novice, arrives at the home of the widowed Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) to serve as nurse for his seven (count em!) children. Von Trapp runs his house (literally) with military precision, but Maria introduces some fun into the children’s life. And, to his surprise, the Captain’s life as he finds himself drawn towards the wholesome and sweet Maria instead of his initial intended, the Baroness von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker). Marriage is inevitable – but then the family finds itself in a terrible position as the Anschluss weds Austria to Germany and the Captain is ordered to take up office in the Nazi navy. Will he do so – or will the family escape over those hills?

You would probably be fair to call The Sound of Music one of the most manipulative films of all time. But then aren’t films supposed to be about manipulating our emotions for effect? On that score you could possibly call it the greatest film ever made. I won’t, but there is a sentimental, feel-good charm to The Sound of Music that – in small doses (and some people watch this multiple times a year – once every few years is surely enough!) – can really hit the spot in the way few other films can. Sure, it tugs on your heart strings with never a trace of subtlety, but basically it’s heart is very much in the right place. It’s a kind, gentle music that, for all its treacle, is a tribute to warmth, love and family. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so embraced by so many.

Even the cast were aware it could all tip over the edge into outright sentimentality. Julie Andrews was worried it might be a little too similar to Mary Poppins (she was right in a way – Poppins is a darker film, but the success of this cemented Andrews in people’s mind as the World’s nanny). Most famously Christopher Plummer overcame huge uncertainty to star, partly to practise his singing for a Broadway musical (as it happened he got dubbed), partly on the promise he could add a tougher edge (no sign that happened). Plummer’s hate-tolerate relationship with the film is famous (he called it The Sound of Mucus) and at several points in it he is all too obviously only just avoiding sinking his head into his hands, but he even he eventually acknowledged any film that moved people as much as this, must have done something very right indeed.

It’s that emotional investment people make in this film that lifts it eventually above criticism. It’s a long film, with a slender plot. But it mines this plot for every single touch of emotional investment. It’s the ultimate triumph of one of Hollywood’s most reliable middle-brow directors, Robert Wise. Taking over from William Wyler (who just couldn’t get interested and left to make the almost diametrically opposite The Collector), Wise successfully keeps the momentum flowing and shoots the film in an economical way that lets the songs do their work. He still finds room for classic shots: that helicopter shot sweeping into Julie Andrews running up the hills is just about perfect (Andrews was literally blown over every time by the helicopter, explaining the sudden jump cut edit for her famous twirl and burst into song). Wise’s editing skills really come into play with Do-Re-Mi that cuts the song across several locations and he makes excellent use of a number of Salzburg locations (for which the tourist board thanks him).

A major part of the film’s success though must surely be directly connected to Julie Andrews. This is a career – perhaps even a life – defining performance. And even the most cynical watcher can’t help but admit Andrews is a superb, gifted performer. Her singing is beautiful, and very, very few performers could have managed to make Maria charming, sweet and someone who want to hug, rather than twee or slappable. Andrews makes you really invest in every single event in the film: she’s hugely endearing (from singing in those hills, to her little stumble of excitement as she runs from the Abbey to take up a job at the von Trapps), she’s completely unaffected and when she’s hurt (by her seemingly hopeless love for the Captain) you just want to give her a hug.

No wonder the children love her. Who wouldn’t? Sure, the film’s weakest beat might well be its romance between Andrews and Plummer (for which Plummer is mostly to blame), but it captures a wonderful sense of family loyalty and protection. Everyone, at some point, is a sucker for stories where sad and lonely children are introduced to a life where they can mess around and have fun – and get that emotional investment the Captain has (accidentally) denied them. After spending the first two hours of the film getting to know this family and seeing it come together, we feel even more intently their fear and panic at being forced into goose-stepping line with Hitler’s war machine.

The film’s final sequence around the Abbey is also surprisingly tense: the family sheltering behind tombs and trusting in the half-truths of the Nuns and the wavering loyalties of wannabe SA officer Rolfe to make their escape. Wise’s films successfully communicates the stakes. It also mixes in some comedy even here: the final lines going to the Nuns confessing their sins of sabotaging those Nazi cars. All this before we go back to where we started – Maria walking the hills, full of music, this time accompanied by a beloved new family.

It’s that desire to be part of a loving family that perhaps explains why The Sound of Music has been so popular – and why so many people turn to it for comfort time and again. With its heart-warming songs and themes, it’s a warm comfort blanket that makes people feel part of its loving family. You can’t argue against it being manipulative – but that’s the nature of films, and manipulation as effective and good-natured as this is a sort-of triumph of film-making art.

Oliver! (1968)

Oliver! header
Mark Lester asks for More. You may not share his sentiments in the Oscar winning Oliver!

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Ron Moody (Fagin), Mark Lester (Oliver Twist), Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger), Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), Shani Wallis (Nancy), Harry Secombe (Mr Bumble), Joseph O’Conor (Mr Brownlow), Hugh Griffith (Magistrate), Peggy Mount (Mrs Bumble), Leonard Rossiter (Mr Sowerberry), Hylda Baker (Mrs Sowerberry), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypool), Megs Jenkins (Mrs Bedwin)

1968. The Vietnam War gets worse. The My Lai Massacre is a low-point in America’s global reputation. MLK is assassinated. Student protests rip through campuses, culminating in Chicago riots at the Democratic convention. RFK is assassinated. In the UK, Enoch Powell talks about “Rivers of Blood”. A flu pandemic sweeps the world. The USSR ends the “Prague Spring” with tanks. It was a year of horrific global turmoil. Perhaps it’s not a surprise the Oscars chose as Best Picture something as blandly comfortable and utterly disconnected from all this mayhem as Oliver! A personality-free re-tread of a successful stage musical, with a few good tunes bolstering a lobotomised adaptation of Dickens’ novel, Oliver! is so coated with sugar it must have helped the medicine of 1968 go down.

Young Oliver (Mark Lester with his singing voice dubbed) is an angelic orphan, thrown out of the workhouse for asking for “more” (Never before has such an event occurred), eventually escaping to London (Where is Love eh?). There he finds the Big Smoke to be nothing less than a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Invited by pickpocket The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) to consider himself part of the family, he’s soon learning how to pick a pocket or two from Fagin (Ron Moody). It’s not all fun and games though: violent criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) is a wildcard, although his devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis), the sort of girl the boys will do anything for, remains loyal to Bill for as long as he needs her. But there’s a secret in Oliver’s past – who are his parents?

Carol Reed could once make a claim for being the greatest director in the world. You couldn’t make a case for that based on this cosily chocolate-box, unimaginative trudge through a musical that has little other than a couple of catchy tunes to really recommend it in the first place. The real MVP here is Onna White, whose choreography is very impressive. White takes everyday acts and, with a little bit of jazz and a dollop of musicality, turns them into dance movements. It gives the dance numbers a heightened reality that kind of works and provides nearly everything worth looking at it in the film. Reed certainly leaves her to it, carefully setting the camera up with simple wide and medium shots to capture as much of it as possible.

And you could argue that’s his job. But he brings nothing to the other parts of the production. Of course, Lionel Bart’s musical is a much lighter affair than Dickens’ original (although, in actual fact, this is much more of a musical remake of Lean’s Oliver Twist, making many identical cuts and sharing nearly all the same dialogue), but you’d think the director who gave us Odd Man Out and The Third Man could give some drama and character to London’s underbelly. Not a jot. They have the same muted technicolour cleanliness of everything else, and any hint of ruthlessness, criminality or moral conundrums are well and truly left at the door. What we get is a world where everyone – apart from Bill – is fundamentally nice and decent, and rapacious old men using children as criminals is basically not a lot different from running an after-school club.

It isn’t helped that Oliver!, like Bart’s stage original, has a weak book that offers little light or shade for its characters other than to typecast them into simplified “goodies and baddies”. Reed and the film either can’t or won’t stretch this much further – although the film does rearrange some events of the original production to give a bit more motivational heft to actions and introduce Bill earlier to at least add a bit more tension. The film is as quickly bored with the angelic Oliver as the original is – fair enough since he’s a tediously saintly chap – with Mark Lester alternating between looking winsome and shocked at the company he finds himself amongst.

Nothing can interrupt the overflowing “niceness” of what we are seeing. Ron Moody’s Fagin had been honed from performing it on stage so often (and he is very good). But his Fagin is a cuddly uncle, the sort of grown-up scamp you would invite over for a drink, only keeping an eye on the silverware when you did. This is, let’s not forget, a bloke who colludes in murder (though the film reduces his responsibility), kidnapping, grooms kids for a life of crime and willingly lets them die for him. Not a whiff of this is allowed onto the screen. The Artful Dodger (played with a cheeky but tellingly amoral charm by Jack Wild, who tragically never hit these heights again) is given more light and shade than Fagin.

Like the musical, the film downplays the abusive relationship at its heart. Nancy is little more than a walking embodiment of the cliched “tart with a heart” trope, and the film adaptation chooses to praise her for not just sticking with her abuser, but slavishly devoting herself to him. In fact, beyond being casually kind to a child once in a while, this devotion is pretty much Nancy’s entire personality – and the film approves of it. This isn’t a dark picture of a violent man victimising a young woman, folks, it’s love! See, there’s a ballad about it and everything!

It’s a family drama so her murder takes place off screen (just her death spasm legs are seen), but you’d like to think the film could have taken a few moments to put a bit of light and shade on just why this character feels the way she does and does the things she does. In fact, the film is quite dependent on Oliver Reed, the only actor in it who dares to touch some sort of psychological depth – it’s quite telling that, even though he was a famed drunk, he’s the only member of the cast to have had any success after the film was released.

Instead, this is a great big, colourful, empty pantomime of a musical, devoid of character and (outside of its choreography) inspiration. It’s a great big explosion of tasteful sets, mugging actors, pretty colours, prancing and the odd catchy tune. It’s got no idea what the original novel was about at all, and no interest in even touching some of the themes of poverty and criminality Dickens was aiming at. Reed directs the entire thing with the indifference of a gun-for-hire.

Its syrupy sweetness and hammering tweeness leaves you punch-drunk rather than sugar-rushed. Oliver is such an insipid fella you’ll be delighted when he shuts up and sits in the background for most of the second half. It clumsily unveils a mystery and then drifts towards a conclusion that lacks any real drama. It studiously avoids anything that could remotely stretch the viewer. It’s trying so hard to charm you and hug you, it comes across like a lecherous stranger offering you sweets. Oliver! wasn’t even the best musical of 1968, let alone the best film. But in a year when the world was going to hell in a handcart, perhaps a kid-friendly fable bending over backwards to charm and reassure you was what the world needed. Doesn’t mean I need to stomach it now.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Charlton Heston and James Stewart in the infamous (and rightly so) The Greatest Show on Earth

Director: Cecil B De Mille

Cast: Betty Hutton (Holly), Cornel Wilde (The Great Sebastian), Charlton Heston (Brad Braden), James Stewart (Buttons), Dorothy Lamour (Phyllis), Gloria Grahame (Angel), Henry Wilcoxon (Agent Gregory), Lawrence Tierney (Henderson), Lyle Bettiger (Klaus)

When Crash was named Best Picture, did The Greatest Show on Earth do a backflip of celebration? Finally, when the topic “What is the worst Best Picture winner of all time?” came up, the answer would no longer immediately be “Well The Greatest Show on Earth of course”. Now, there could be an actual debate. Hard to believe but this film was the biggest hit of 1952. Its reputation has been shredded since: it’s proof that winning Best Picture can destroy a film’s reputation as much as it can raise it. Greatest Show is, of course, a pretty bad film. But it’s not catastrophically atrocious. It’s merely pretty bloody awful.

Anyway, it’s all set in a Ringwood circus. Manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is so in love with the circus, he has “sawdust in his blood” (drink every time some variation of this phrase comes up, and you’ll be pissed by the hour mark – which might be the best way to watch the rest). To bring in the crowds he hires famed acrobat The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) – which means shunting previous acrobat star (and Brad’s girlfriend) Holly (Betty Hutton) to support act. It’s a rivalry – but wouldn’t you know it, sparks fly and a love triangle forms. In fact, it quickly becomes a love pentagon as elephant artiste Angel (Gloria Grahame) has past with Sebastian, is in love with Brad (who’s interested) and is fending off the interests of fellow elephant artiste Klaus (Lyle Bettiger). Oh, and James Stewart plays a clown who never removes his make-up because he is actually a doctor in hiding for euthanising his wife (“He killed the thing he loved!” a newspaper headline screams).

All this is packaged together with the puffed-up self-important portentousness that DeMille bought to his Biblical epics. Cecil himself even delivers a grand voiceover at life-changing events like the raising of the big top and the loading of a train. It’s packaged together with endless stagings of assorted circus acts (this film is very slim in plot, but very long in runtime), all accompanied by continual cuts to the circus audience “oohing” and “aahing” as appropriate, or asking such inane questions as “What’s going to happen next?” (a question no one watching the film is likely to be interested in asking). It makes The Greatest Show even more of a museum piece, a recording of a certain type of grand entertainment that doesn’t really exist anymore.

Away from the big budget and long filming of circus acts, we have a dull, derivative and tedious soapy plotline where ridiculous cliches abound and barely a line of dialogue escapes clunking to the floor with the same heaviness as the Great Sebastian when he (inevitably) falls from the trapeze. No single opportunity for heavy-handed foreshadowing is missed, from that accident to the film’s big train-wreck ending, to the numerous hints dropped about Buttons’ tragic background. It’s all packed into a crude series of homages to the glories of small town America (who appreciate the delights of the circus in the way the big city suits never can) and the glorious romance of not even letting death and a train wreck get in the way of the show going on.

At the centre you get the tedious love pentagon. The central figures of this – Hutton, Heston and Wilde – seem to be involved in a private competition for who can give the worst performance. Heston (in a very early role) is wooden beyond belief, the granite self-importance that made him a perfect Moses ridiculously overbearing for the job of circus manager. He and Hutton play most of their scenes with an absurd energy, throwing themselves into poses. Hutton’s performance is bubbly, chirpy and endlessly irritating. Betty is the worst kind of simpering mess, which culminates in her holding herself responsible for Sebastian’s decision to perform without a net. Wilde is saddled with a bizarre accent (where is he meant to be from? I guess “Europe”), and acts with all the comfort and skill of a vertigo-suffering acrobat.

But then to be honest pretty much everyone in this film is awful. I’ll cut a bit of slack for Gloria Grahame, who gives Angel more charm than all three of the leads put together, and James Stewart who can play the melodramatic crap he’s saddled with standing on his head. But literally everyone else in this film is dire: hammy, over-blown, cartoonish and mugging. There is not a single moment of performance or story-telling that is remotely memorable, and everyone is introduced with a clunky, trailer-friendly line of dialogue.

Nothing will remotely surprise you about the plotline – other than that they manage to stretch something as insipid and uninspired as this out for nearly 150 minutes. Though of course most of that is circus acts, or watching circus marches, or listening to Betty Hutton or Dorothy Lamour sing. (In what passes for wit in the film, while Lamour sings the camera cuts to Crosby and Hope, her old co-stars, watching in the stands hammily chewing popcorn.) There is a certain academic interest in watching these circus acts (performed by real circus artistes – although the actors trained so they could get involved), but after a while you are only reminded that it’s not as interesting or exciting as actually being there.

Maybe that’s why the plot becomes so overblown to try and compensate. Love triangles! Falls from a great height! Gangsters muscling in on the circus! A clown on the run from the cops, meeting his mother during the show once every year! A spurned lover who decides to destroy the circus in revenge! No wonder, after the opening scenes focus on the cost of staging the show and importance of staying in profit to continue the tour, our initial set-up, never gets mentioned again. How could it compete with this bizarre parade of nonsense?

It culminates in a train wreck – and of course Buttons is given “the terrible choice” of letting a man die or revealing his medical knowledge (and identity) to save his life. The train wreck has some decent model work. DeMille certainly looks happier dealing with that than attempting to make anything among his romantic sub-plots feel light, fun or natural.

The Greatest Show on Earth is all about show – and whenever it tries to do anything intimate, it invariably falls flat on its face. There are worse films out there, but attaching the mantle of “Best Picture” to this makes it feel worse than it actually is – and its pretty bad on its own merits. When all is said and done, still possibly the worst Best Picture winner ever.

Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

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David Niven and Cantinflas head Around the World in Eight Days in this Oscar-winning epic

Director: Michael Anderson

Cast: David Niven (Phileas Fogg), Cantinflas (Passepartout), Shirley MacLaine (Princess Aouda), Robert Newton (Inspector Fix), Charles Boyer (Monsieur Gasse), Joe E. Brown (Stationmaster), John Carradine (Colonel Proctor), Charles Coburn (Steamship clerk), Ronald Colman (Railway official), Melville Cooper (Mr Talley), Noel Coward (Roland Hesketh-Baggott), Finlay Currie (Andrew Stuart), Marlene Dietrich (Hostess), Fernandel (Paris coachman), Hermione Gingold (Sporting lady #1), Cedric Hardwicke (Sir Francis Cromarty), John Gielgud (Foster), Trevor Howard (Denis Fallentin), Glynis Johns (Sporting lady #2), Evelyn Keyes (Paris flirt), Buster Keaton (Train conductor), Beatrice Lille (Revivalist), Peter Lorre (Steward), Victor McLaglen (SS Henrietta helmsman), John Mills (London coachman), Robert Morley (Gauthier Ralph), Jack Oakie (SS Henrietta captain), George Raft (Bouncer), Frank Sinatra (Piano player), Red Skelton (Drunk), Harcourt Williams (Hinshaw)

In the 1950s, cinema struggled to encourage people to come out of their homes and leave that picture box in the corner behind. Big technicolour panoramas and famous faces was what the movies could offer that TV couldn’t. This led to a trend in filmmaking that perhaps culminated in 1956 with Around the World in Eighty Days triumphing among one of the weakest Best Picture slates ever seen at the Oscars. Around the World had everything cinema knew it could do well: big, screen-filling shots of exotic locations filmed in gorgeous colour; and in almost every frame some sort of famous name the audience could have fun spotting. It’s perhaps more of a coffee table book mixed with a red carpet rather than a narrative film: entertaining, but overlong.

Faithfully following Jules Verne’s original novel (with added balloon trips), Phileas Fogg (David Niven) is a punctilious and precise Englishman of the old school, whose life is run like clockwork and whose only passion is whist. Nevertheless he accepts a challenge from his fellow members of the Reform Club (among them Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Finlay Currie) to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days or less. Setting off with his manservant – the recently hired, accident prone Passeportout (Cantinflas) – Fogg races around the world, from Paris to Cairo to India to Hong Kong to Japan to San Francisco. Along the way he rescues Princess Aouda (Shirley Maclaine) from death by human sacrifice in India and has to confront the suspicions of Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) who is convinced that Fogg is responsible for a huge theft at the Bank of England. Can Fogg make it back to the Reform Club hall on time to win his bet?

Around the World was the brain-child of its producer Michael Todd. A noted Broadway producer, Todd had been looking to make a similar splash in the movies. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he decided the finest way to do this (after the mixed success of a movie version of Oklahoma) was to produce something that‘s pretty much akin to a massive Broadway variety show. Around the World – as you would expect – is an incredibly episodic film, seemingly designed to be broken down into a number of small sequences either to showcase the scene’s guest star or to provide comic opportunities for Cantinflas to display his Chaplinesque physical comedy.

That and lots of opportunities for some lovely scenic photography. Nearly every major sequence is bridged with luscious photography capturing some exotic part of the world – from the coast of Asia to the Great American Plains. It’s pretty clear this is a major attraction of the film: come to the movies and see those parts of the world you’ve always dreamed of, just for the price of a movie ticket! Surely introduction of a hot air balloon to allow Fogg and Cantinflas to travel from Paris to Spain was purely to allow lovely aerial shots of the French countryside and chateaux. It’s the sort of film that proudly trumpeted in its publicity the number of locations (112 in 13 countries!), the vast number of extras (68,894!) and even the number of animals (15 elephants! 17 fighting bulls! 3,800 sheep!). It’s all about the scale.

That scale also carries across to the guest cameos. Between enjoying the scenic photography, viewers can have fun spotting cameos. Can that really be Noel Coward running that employment agency! The chap who owns the balloon, I’d swear that’s Charles Boyer! Wait that steward: that’s Peter Lorre! Good lord that’s Charles Coburn selling Fogg tickets for the steamer! Oh my, Buster Keaton is helping them to their seats on the train! Marlene Dietrich is running that saloon – and good grief that’s Frank Sinatra playing the piano! Most of the stars enter into the spirit of the thing, even if they frequently start their shots with backs to the camera, before turning to reveal their star-studded magnificence. Sadly time has faded some of the face recognition here, not helped by David Niven (perfectly cast as the urbane and profoundly English Fogg, so precise that his idea of romantic talk is to recount past games of whist) probably today being one of the most famous people in it.

Todd marshals all this with consummate showman skill. It’s handsome, very well mounted and generally entertaining – even if it is painfully long (it’s not quite told in real time, but can feel like it at points). The film is nominally directed by Michael Anderson. However, I think it’s pretty clear his job was effectively to point the camera at the things Michael Todd had lined up (be they location or stars) – Todd had already dismissed the original director, John Farrow, after a day’s shooting for not being sufficiently ”co-operative”. To be honest it’s fine as this is an entertainment bereft of personality, instead focused on being “more is more”.

Part of its extended runtime is due to the long comedic sequences given to Cantinflas. A charming performer – and possibly the most famous comedian in Latin-America at the time – Cantinflas can be seen doing everything from bicycle riding, to bull fighting (for a prolonged time), to gymnastics to horseback riding. (Far different from the unflappable and spotless English gentleman Niven is playing.) Your enjoyment of this may depend on how far your patience lasts. I’m not sure mine quite managed to last the course. Sadly one of Cantinflas’ greatest comedic weapons, his Spanish wordplay, was completely lost in translation.

There are some decent sections. The iconic balloon flight is well mounted and gives the most impressive images (the famously vertigo-suffering Niven was replaced by a double for much of this). Others, like the bullfight or an interminable parade in San Francisco go on forever. The casting of Shirley MacLaine as an Indian princess is an uncomfortable misstep (even at the time MacLaine felt she was painfully miscast), made worse by an offensive “human sacrifice” storyline – that got cut when the film was screened in India. Robert Newton though is very good value as the misguided but officious Inspector Fix.

Around the World in Eighty Days is grand, handsomely mounted entertainment. But to consider it as a Best Picture winner feels very strange. It’s not a lot more than an entertaining variety show, its plot impossibly slight (made to feel even more so by its vastly over-extended run time). While you can enjoy it in pieces, it finally goes on too long for its own good. Entertainingly slight as it is, it’s still one of the weakest Best Picture winners ever.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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Harrison Ford goes in search for treasure in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Paul Freeman (René Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Major Arnold Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr Marcus Brody), Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich), Anthony Higgins (Major Gobler), Alfred Molina (Satipo)

Indiana Jones is now one of the most beloved – and instantly recognisable – film characters ever created. So, it’s strange to think that Raiders of the Lost Ark was released to such little fanfare. That soon changed when the film came out. In some cinemas it was so popular it played for the whole year. It became a box-office smash, turned Harrison Ford into Hollywood’s leading movie star for the next 20 years, and made Steven Spielberg Hollywood’s leading director. And it did all that because I’m not sure there is a more entertaining, tightly made, funny, thrilling and (at times) scary adventure film out there. Spielberg and producer George Lucas may have wanted to make a film that aped B-movie adventure serials – but they ended up reinventing an entire genre.

It’s 1936 and the Nazis are in search of occult relics. Their latest target is the Ark of the Covenant, which Hitler believes will make his armies invincible. What chance is there of stopping him finding it? Well obviously the US government must put its trust in Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), one of the world’s leading archaeologists who also (fortunately) is pretty handy in a fight. Not only that, but his ex-girlfriend Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen), daughter of his former mentor, holds one of the keys to finding the Ark. Indy and Marian end up on an adventure that crosses continents, taking on the ruthless Nazis and mixing with profound mysteries that man is not meant to know.

Hollywood wasn’t happy about Spielberg making the film. His previous film – the war comedy 1941 – had bombed, losing millions. The studio was insistent with producer George Lucas: if he wanted to see his dream of making an old-fashioned B-movie with his friend Spielberg come true, then he would need to stick tightly to a budget. After all, Spielberg had a reputation for delivering films overtime and overbudget. Our heroes stuck to this deal – and Spielberg has said it was a blessing, as it forced him to keep the film lean, tight and, above all, free of indulgence. Spielberg’s direction is perfect, so good in fact that he set the template for nearly all big-budget directing (in terms of tone, pace, mood and tempo) to come. Every action film since owes something in its DNA to Raiders.

Raiders is far more entertaining – and brilliant – than it has any right to be. It’s effectively a series of set-pieces, threaded together by screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan into a plot. Kasdan’s dialogue though was spot-on – like the film, lean, tight and perfectly focused. With exceptional brevity and focus it brilliantly creates a small core of characters, and then gives them room to bounce off each other. Its dialogue is quotable, fun and punchy. He – with Lucas and Spielberg – also crafts a central character who is flawed but deeply likeable, and a heroine who is independent and dynamic. The script is a big part of the reason why the film is a success – it makes us care deeply for the characters as they get involved in the death-defying stunts and action set pieces that make up a lot of the film.

And we don’t follow any character more than Indy himself. Thank God Tom Selleck had to withdraw at the last minute. George Lucas had resisted casting Harrison Ford as he was worried about the overlap with Han Solo. But the part fits Ford like a glove. Sure, it comes from the same wheel-house as Solo – although Indy is more taciturn, intellectual and a degree less cocksure than Solo, more a man reluctantly forced into danger than a swaggering pirate – but Ford’s skill is faultless. Ford has an everyday quality to him, and he brings a world-weary tiredness to Indiana. He has the confident grin, but he’s just as likely to see that switch to concerned desperation (there is a perfect moment of this in the opening sequence, when the vine he is grasping on a cliff top suddenly works loose). He may be a bit of a rogue (not averse to shooting a swordsman) but he’s also a good man, with the street smarts of a ruffian, who is frequently exasperated by the errors of his sidekicks. This is the sort of man that men want to be and women want to be with – an impossibly difficult trick to pull off.

We relate to Indy because he’s vulnerable. He’s an underdog. The outstanding opening sequence – basically a little mini-movie in itself – showcases this. As Indy heads into a hidden temple for an idol (dodging spiders, bottomless pits, arrows from walls and most famously a huge boulder – a stunt Ford did for real) we get his entire character showcased. He’s astute, resourceful, trusting (sometimes too trusting) and ingenious. But he also takes a hell of a physical pounding, gets scared and above all goes through huge danger only to end up empty-handed. And of course, we find out he can cope with all this, but definitely not snakes (is there a better action set-piece punch line than “Grow a little backbone, will ya!”). It sets the tone for the rest of the film – in fact with the first five minutes alone, Raiders is already better than 99% of all other adventure films.

But then this is a director working at the top of his game. All the elements come together perfectly here: Spielberg always knows when to keep the tempo up, cuts the action superbly and also presents us with a brilliant mixture of tension, excitement and awe. He and Lucas brilliantly understand the power of images – there is a reason why a rolling boulder has become part of cinema’s language. The design of Raiders (one of its five Oscars) is absolutely perfect. Nothing like these temples could really have existed in real life – but as an evocation of 1930s adventure serials they are perfect. Mix that in with that brilliant sound design (those whip cracks for staters) and John Williams’ majestic score (from the classic Indy march to the haunting strains that tie in with the Ark) and this film is a masterclass for affecting the senses.

Then those set-pieces are told with just the right balance between thrills and wit. Again, Harrison Ford is a big part of this: he’s never smug, his trademark furrowed brow suggesting stress as much as his grin communicates relief at surviving. The truck chase – which sees Indy move from horse to truck, to under a speeding truck to back in the driving seat, half the time with a bullet in his arm – is a masterclass in thrills and superb editing. It’s such damn good fun that the film even gets away with a nonsensical beat where a car-load of Nazis is pushed off a huge cliff (the first and last indication that we are anywhere near a cliff in the whole scene!). Just like the opening sequence our hero’s combination of ingenuity, never-say-die determination and vulnerability is what makes it compelling (the Williams score also plays a huge part in building both the excitement and the triumph).

The whole film is a series of triumphant set-pieces. Spielberg also tinges the film with just enough darkness as well. The Nepal gun battle carries a real sense of danger, Indy’s fight with a tough Nazi air mechanic culminates in a quite gruesome death (although the fight beforehand has plenty of wit to it, as Indy is hopelessly outmatched physically by this giant). That’s all before the film’s famous closing sequence as the Ark finally opens up to reveal the power of God – bad news for the assembled Nazis crowded around it. The face-melting horror (and it’s hard to imagine any action adventure film doing something this horrific today) is impossible to forget, brilliantly executed and carries just the right amount of dread.

The darkness though is counter-balanced throughout by sly wit and a sense of fun. Wonderful jokes – from Major Toht’s nunchucks that become a coat hanger to an exhausted Indy responding to Marian’s kisses by falling asleep – pepper the script. The cast are fabulously chosen. Karen Allen is perfect as the independent Marian. Paul Freeman is chillingly austere and charmingly amoral as Indy’s rival Belloq. Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody is excellent as an older, wiser version of Indy very different from the comic buffoon he would become. The same can also be said for John Rhys-Davies Falstaffian but shrewd and loyal Sallah.

Raiders of the Lost Ark sees every element come together perfectly. Spielberg’s direction – the film did come in on time and on budget, going on to be the biggest success of its year – is completely perfect. Ford creates a character who from his first appearance is iconic (the zoom to introduce him is a wonderful tip of the hat to John Wayne’s classic entrance in Stagecoach – continuing the homages, the final shot is also a lovely nod to Citizen Kane). Every action set piece is a brilliant mix of thrills, danger, triumph and even a touch of horror (be it gruesome deaths or dreadful beasts). It’s a film that can not fail to entertain, raise a smile – and still have you hiding behind the sofa at points. Lucas and Spielberg wanted to make a film that would remind them of the adventures of our childhood. They were so successful that their film ended up defining the childhoods of millions of us.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

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Harry Hamlin takes on monsters in Clash of the Titans

Director: Desmond Davis

Cast: Harry Hamlin (Perseus), Judi Bowker (Andromeda), Burgess Meredith (Ammon), Maggie Smith (Thetis), Sian Phillips (Cassiopeia), Claire Bloom (Hera), Ursula Andress (Aphrodite), Laurence Olivier (Zeus), Susan Fleetwood (Athena), Tim Pigott-Smith (Thallo), Jack Gwillim (Poseidon), Neil McCarthy (Calibos), Donald Houston (Acrisius), Flora Robson, Freda Jackson, Anna Manahan (Stygian Witches)

It’s almost impossible not to have a soft spot in your heart for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion magic. The best of Harryhausen – and for me surely that’s his superb Jason and the Argonauts – has a magic that few other films can match. A magic born of awe at the technical skill and patience needed to bring it to the screen and the boundless imagination behind them. For all that they are no more real than the CGI of today, there is an emotional connection you can form with watching something where you know each frame was painstakingly hand-made, that you can’t quite feel for the scope of a computer-born Marvel world. Clash of the Titans was the last hurrah for Harryhausen. It’s far from perfect, and even in 1981 it looked dated and almost a relic from another era – but it still carries enough entertainment value.

We’re back in the mythology of ancient Greece. As a boy, Perseus (Harry Hamlin) and his mother are sent out to sea to drown by his Grandfather King Acrisius of Argos (Donald Houston), jealous of her love from Perseus’ father, the God Zeus (Laurence Olivier). Zeus orders Argos destroyed by the Titan sea monster the Kraken. Years later Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) of Joppa is due to marry Calibos (Neil McCarthy), son of the Goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith). But Calibos is cursed by Zeus, turned into a monster for his crimes. Andromeda is cursed by Thetis to only marry a man who can answer a riddle (set every night by Calibos). Perseus – using gifts from Zeus – discovers the answer to the riddle, confronts Calibos, cuts off his hand and is set to marry Andromeda.

But when Andromeda’s mother Cassiopeia (Sian Phillips) claims her daughter is more beautiful than any of the Gods, Thetis condemns the Andromeda to be consumed by the Kraken, or the city to be destroyed. To stop this, Perseus – with the quiet help of Zeus and his winged horse Pegasus – must travel across Greece to obtain the head of Medusa, who turns all who look upon her to stone.

Well, in case you were in any doubts (and I really struggled to write those last couple of paragraphs), one of Clash of the Titans main faults is that it’s plot is a mess (a combination of several Greek myths into one story) and lacks either a clear narrative thrust or a clear villain. It’s without focus, flabby and has so many sub-clauses in its structure, you either need to concentrate or just switch off and take it on a scene-by-scene basis. It’s summed up by the meaningless title which – for all Flora Robson’s Stygian witch shrieks “a titan against a titan!” mid-way through the film – barely relates to the plot.

The film also suffers from an over-abundance of characters (Gods, Kings, warriors, monsters) many of them only vaguely outlined. But with so much going on (and so much plot to cover in the slight running time) it all pulls focus from our two leads. Harry Hamlin’s Perseus is a dull, uncharismatic figure who it’s hard to get interested in. Judi Bowker fares a little better as Andromeda, but her brief moments of proactivity are only byways before she becomes a damsel in distress, chained to a rock. Neil McCarthy as nominal villain Calibos is undermined by only getting to play the character in close-up (in all other shots he’s all too obviously replaced by a tailed stop-motion monster), and in any case the character is barely given any decent motivation or background.

It doesn’t help these underpowered leads that there are a host of famous actors picking up pay cheques around them. Laurence Olivier made no secret of the fact that a large cheque (and only a week’s shooting time) was what bought him on board as Zeus (although the part is a good fit for his grandeur). Claire Bloom and Ursula Andress signed up for similar reasons. Maggie Smith (who was married to the screenwriter) seemingly did the film as a well-paid favour. Burgess Meredith repackages his role from Rocky as a poet turned advisor to Perseus. I will say Tim Pigott-Smith does a decent turn as the head of Joppa’s royal guard. But these are paper-thin characters, given what life they have by the actors rather than the script.

But Clash of the Titans is all about those Harryhausen set-pieces, with everything else just over-complicated filler to get us from place-to-place. Desmond Davis’ uninspired and flat direction doesn’t help, with the action too often presented in basic medium shot and frequently over-lit – a lighting set-up that doesn’t help to make the effects look particularly convincing. The film feels confusingly pitched, part a kids film, part an appeal to nostalgic adults. Neither seems to particularly work, and the film ends up looking rather uninspired.

This was the last hurrah for this sort of stop-motion. Star Wars had reset the table completely for adventure films like this. Clash of the Titans feels like a feeble attempt to address this challenge – right down to the irritating robotic owl Bubo, a clear rip-off of R2-D2 right down to his bouncing movement and dialogue of beeps. The film goes for making things as big as possible – the gigantic kraken, the huge scorpions – but everything in it looks a little tired.

Davis’ uninspired direction and the film’s flatness doesn’t help – or its general air of fusty, dusty oldness. If Jason and the Argonauts has all the charge and energy of a young man’s film (from its sharp direction, pacey plot, neatly drawn characters and Herrmann’s score), this really feels like a middle-aged Dad trying to be hip. The Kraken’s destruction of Argos seems to consist of little more than a few toppling pillars. The beast is slow, cumbersome and takes forever to do anything. An extended sequence where our heroes fight a two-headed dog is both dull and laughable. The only classic piece of stop-motion here is Medusa. Surely no coincidence that this is the most atmospherically shot sequence, with lighting that helps to hide the joins between stop-motion and reality in a way the rest of the film ruthlessly exposes.

Clash of the Titans is a film you can feel a nostalgia for – but really it’s actually rather naff. It’s badly plotted – surely the story could have been told in a cleaner way than this confused mess. Too many actors either phone it in, or fail to deliver the charisma needed (Todd Armstrong in Jason is no Olivier, but at least he had a matinee idol robustness Hamlin lacks). It’s limply directed. Worst of all, too much of the stop-motion looks a little silly – the film failing to cover up the cracks and too frequently exposing the joins rather than disguising them. Show this one to someone first, and you’ll never get them back to watch the best of Harryhausen. While I always enjoy it – for nostalgia if nothing else – its a cult classic, but no classic.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

James Stewart discovers he has lived a good life in It’s a Wonderful Life

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Henry F Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy Bailey), Henry Travers (Clarence Odbody), Beulah Bondi (Ma Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie Bishop), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet Bick), HB Warner (Mr Gower), Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S Hinds (Pa Bailey)

For many people it’s as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and Santa. Any list of the greatest Christmas films of all time – in fact any list of the most beloved films of all time – isn’t complete without It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s emotional, heart-warming, seasonal tale encourages us to take a breath and look at the riches in our life, to look past the surface frustrations and disappointments. It seems to have something to say to everyone. There’s a reason why it has been a staple of Christmas for decades.

The small town of Bedford Falls is a place George Bailey (James Stewart) has always dreamed of leaving for a life of adventure. However, circumstances always meant he has stayed in the town, running the family savings and loans business. He’s made a success of the business, raised a family with his wife Mary (Donna Reed – extremely good in an unshowy role), helped half the town into decent affordable homes, and changed his whole community for the better. So why is George standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve, contemplating throwing himself into the river? And will his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) persuade him there are things worth living for?

Capra’s film is very easy to see as a wallow in sentimentality. Certainly, the film is in love with its image of small-town America, here a nirvana of folksy lightness where everyone knows everybody’s name. In reality, America as a whole, even at the time, probably had more in common with Potter’s grasping capitalism or the nightmare vision Clarence conjures of a neon-lit Potterville of loose morals and vice. But the film would never have worked if it was just sickly sentimental – or if it had been a cynical satire for that matter. Instead it works because it is overwhelmingly human, empathy dripping from every pore. It invests us deeply in this whole community and succeeds in making the viewer relate to them at every step.

This is partly because Capra has such a masterful skill for how the little touches can make a story come to life. The loose banister cap that Bailey keeps dislodging in his home. The drawing Donna has made of George’s offer to lasso the moon. The film is full of small moments of character, that create the over-whelming richness of a whole life. It’s also a story full of charm and genuine feeling for its characters, that understands the pain little griefs and small tragedies have.

Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons for the love people have for it. Because, let’s not forget, this is a film set on the darkest day of its lead character’s life, when he considers ending it all. One of the things I find the most touching about the film is that it never stigmatises depression, guilt or feelings of inadequacy. If someone as universally loved as George can look at his own life as a disappointment, and that this feeling is treated as both reasonable but also mistaken in the best way, it reassures as all not only that we shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling this but hopefully that we are as mistaken as George is. Failure is all in the perception – and It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that perception is often unreliable when we turn it on ourselves.

Capra’s film relies strongly on our bond with George – so the casting of James Stewart in the role plays off perfectly. Stewart is quite simply superb, completely human and deeply moving. Capra provides Stewart with several striking set-piece speeches (all of which he delivers with aplomb). The entire film is essentially a riff on Stewart’s charm and likeability – but also his everyday quality, the sense that when we watch him we are looking at someone like us. Stewart makes Bailey honest, decent and kind. You can immediately see why people like him. His principles and sense of justice drive him every day to do the right thing – and what makes him such a deeply relatable character is that this so often flies in the face of his own desires and interests.

What Capra also understands – and taps into so well here – is the darkness in Stewart. Because someone so like us is surely as likely to suffer from  depression and disappointment as the rest of us. You can never forget this is a man who has dreamed his whole life of leaving this town, of making it as an architect, of forging a broader life for himself. He never wanted to be the pillar of the community and family man he becomes. There is disappointment in Bailey at every turn, however much he treats the world around him with warmth. This isn’t what he wanted. No matter if it has won him love and respect from all around him.

And who hasn’t ever felt that? But we know that deep down – even if he doesn’t always realise it – Bailey is happy with his lot. That if he didn’t care deeply about town, friends and family he would have left years ago. We know he’s a good man: that later he will deeply regret berating his poor befuddled Uncle Billy (a gloriously cuddly Thomas Mitchell) for losing $8k and losing his temper at his wife and children on Christmas Eve. There is a pain for us to see such a good man, a loving man, who we feel we understand, angrily ask his wife why they had so many children. Everyone has lashed out like George – and everyone has, at some time, looked at where their life is and felt “I could have been more than this”. Far fewer people have taken the time to look at all the good alone in their lives and what a good mark they have made on the world.

But that’s the genius of the film. Taking its cue from Dicken’s Christmas Carol (I’d also say Lionel Barrymore’s brilliantly hissable Potter is clearly a version of Bleak House’s vile moneylender Smallweed), effectively Clarence is the Ghost of Christmas Present, showing George what the world would have been like without him. Sure some of this is overblown – Potterville for goodness sake! – but the impact is those personal stories. The brother drowned as a child. The pharmacist imprisoned for manslaughter. The affordable homes never built. The family that never even existed. The mix of science fiction and classic morality tale helps us all to reflect – so many of us have people all around who care for us, whose lives would have not been as rich as they are without us, however much we may disappoint ourselves at times.

That’s perhaps behind the love for the film. It’s about hope, while never closing its eyes to despair. It recognises that sometimes we are not happy – and it tells us that that’s okay, so long as we don’t lose hope. It encourages us to take a look at ourselves in the round and to appreciate the whole picture, not just a part of it. You can call that sentimentality if you want – but at Christmas time this message of hope and love is sometimes exactly what you need.