Category: TV remake

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Sexist, violent, crude and deeply disgusting. Transformers continues to make you weep for your childhood memories

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Josh Duhamel (Colonel William Lennox), John Turturro (Seymour Simmons), Tyrese Gibson (Robert Epps), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Carly Spencer), Patrick Dempsey (Dylan Gould), John Malkovich (Bruce Brazos), Frances McDormand (Charlotte Mearing), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Alan Tudyk (Dutch Gerhardt)

I’m ashamed to say when I saw it in the cinema I sort of enjoyed it. Goes to show how the excitement of a trip out can make the most ghastly, horrible, vile piece of work feel like fun. Even at the time, I recognised enjoying Transformers: Dark of the Moon was like becoming engaged with the story-telling in a porno. Doesn’t change the fact it’s a crude exercise, pandering to your baser instincts.

The plot? Autobots. Decepticons. Blah, blah, blah. Don’t worry if you’ve not seen the previous films: this merrily contradicts them. In the 60s an Autobot ship crashes on the moon, the moon landings were all about exploring the wreckage. In the present day our “hero” Sam (a never more annoying, unlikable Shia LaBeouf) can’t land a job and the Decepticons hatch a plan to destroy the planet by bringing their homeworld Cybertron here. Former Autobot Boss Sentinal Prime betrays everyone. Optimus Prime doubles down on being a psychopath. It’s very loud and makes no sense.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon exposes Michael Bay’s aesthetics as those of a porn director. Everything is crude, huge, brash, obvious, tries to do as much work for you as possible and panders to your worst instincts. Dark of the Moon is shocking in almost every possible sense: from its crude sexism and leering camera, its revoltingly heavy-handed, end-of-the-pier, terminally unfunny comic relief, its overlong, explosive battle sequences (shot with the slavering longing of a pornographic gang-bang). Dark of the Moon is a revolting film, a disgusting perversion of what was a kids cartoon.

Can you imagine letting a child watch this? Let’s deal with its disgusting sexism first. Megan Kelly had been sacked between this and Revenge of the Fallen for denouncing Michael Bay’s working basis (I’ll admit calling him Hitler went too far). Every chance in the film to disparage her character is taken (two appallingly unpleasant tiny Autobots all but call her a bitch). She’s replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, introduced walking up-stairs, the camera starting at her feet and trailing up, lingering on her bottom (she’s wearing just a slightly-too short shirt). Later two characters will discuss “the perfect curves” of a car – while the camera pans up her body. Those are only the most egregious of the deeply uncomfortable sexual objectification of this poor woman.

How about its crude humour? Several actors enter a private competition to give the loudest, least funny comic cameo. Malkovich gurns and rants as Sam’s pointless, kung-fu obsessed boss. John Turturro does whatever he wants as a Transformers obsessed former-agent. Kevin Dunn and Julie White are eat-your-fist levels of unfunny as Sam’s parents. Worst of all is Ken Jeung as a Deep Throat style informer whose every scene is crammed with homophobic jokes about anal and oral sex. Remember, once upon a time this was for kids. All this alleged humour does is add to the already bloated run-time. You’ll suffer through every single word, because you certainly won’t miss it due to laughing. Bay’s idea of funny is if the joke is delivered LOUD by a wild-eyed actor, preferably accompanied by a whip-pan. He’d probably love Roy Chubby Brown.

The film has two of the least likable heroes perhaps ever placed on film. Shia LaBeouf must have genuinely hated himself by the time he made this. Perhaps that’s why he makes no effort to make Sam even one per cent likeable. Sam is a whining, petulant man-child, alternating between bitching about his job to bragging about his trophy girlfriend (whom he spends half the film whiningly chasing). In the first of these films, LaBeouf had a goofy charm. Now the character is just a deeply arrogant little prick, with major entitlement issues. LaBeouf shouts and screams throughout, but mostly just looks really angry at himself for even being there.

Then we come to the pièce de resistance: Optimus Prime. When I was a kid, this noble warrior was like the perfect Dad. Traumatised kids wept when he died in the animated movie. Revenge of the Fallen started turning him into a violent killer. This completes the journey. Bay probably thinks Prime is a bad-ass taking names. He’s actually a violent, psychopathic killer who arrives at a battle with the inspiring words “We will kill them all”. Prime allows the whole of Chicago to be destroyed (at the cost of millions of lives) to prove a point to the stupid humans. At the film’s end he reacts to Megatron’s offer of a truce by ripping out his spine and then executes Sentinel Prime by shooting him point blank in the head while Sentinel pleads for his life. Ladies and gentlemen: our hero.

It’s customary to say the special effects are good, so: the special effects are good. The violence is pornographic, shot often in slow-mo, with explosions, fast editing and huge noise filling the screen. Transformer bodies are mauled, beheaded, eviscerated. There are several rather chilling executions. Prime rips out the equivalent of heart, lungs, eyes and brains. Bay adds a reddish oil to the transformers, which looks like blood spraying up. Just like the humour, the action goes on FOREVER. The final Chicago battle takes up fifty minutes of buildings falling, brutal slaughter and triumphalist flag-waving. After repeated viewings it’s not just boring, it starts getting offensive.

Dark of the Moon is, quite simply, only just (only, only, only just) better than Revenge of the Fallen – and it says it all that it’s because it’s not as racist. In every other sense it’s simply revolting: violent, crude, sexist and homophobic. This is a horrible, horrible film made by a soulless director. It genuinely is like a beautifully shot pornographic film that wants you to respect the craft that’s gone into it while you finish yourself off. For a brief few seconds you might get sucked in – but you’ll certainly not be boasting about it afterwards.

Marty (1955)

Betsy Blair and Ernest Borgnine are two shy people out on a date in Marty

Director: Delbert Mann

Cast: Ernest Borgnine (Marty Piletti), Betsy Blair (Clara), Esther Minciotti (Mrs Piletti), Augusta Ciolli (Aunt Catherine), Joe Mantell (Angie), Karen Steele (Virginia), Jerry Paris (Tommy)

Strange to think today, but until Parasite, only one other film had won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Picture. That film was Marty and if that fact seems odd today when you watch the film, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary a film about a regular guy with an average job and boring life was back then. Films were about larger than life guys doing big manly things. They weren’t about butchers who lived with their mamas and can’t get girls.

Our butcher is Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) and one night he meets Clara (Betsy Blair), an equally shy chemistry school teacher. They spend the whole night talking, and Marty excitedly plans to call her the next day. Problem is, a brief meeting with his mother (Esther Minciotti) is a disaster – not least because she’s worried Clara could mean her being thrown out of Marty’s home like her sister (Augusta Ciolli) has been – and Marty’s best friend Angie (Joe Mantell) doesn’t think Clara is much to write home about. Under these peer pressures will Marty make that call or not?

That plot summary by the way effectively covers 95% of the film. Today Marty seems so lightweight and slight it’s almost a puff of air. The film was adapted from a one hour TV play, and beat a host of Broadway adaptations (Picnic, The Rose Tattoo and Mister Roberts) to the big one. Today of course a TV play would never be adapted into a movie (in fact if anything Paddy Chayefsky’s play would probably be expanded into a ten episode Netflix drama), but in 1950s America a TV play would have been screened once and then disappeared forever. What better for Hollywood but to assume the one-off delights of TV could be as mined as easily as the best work on Broadway?

So Marty was made and won and it’s a decent, reasonably charming movie even though it’s really hard to see what the fuss is about now. The main delights lie in the script by Paddy Chayefsky, one of the greatest screenplay writers of American film history here winning the first of his three Oscars. The script is simple, well observed, full of cracking little lines, creates some marvellously rounded characters and is careful not to overbalance the overall low-key effect of the film. 

Chayefsky has teed the whole film up so well that most of those involved simply run with the great material they have been given. None of the actors – or Delbert Mann, who received a generous Best Director Oscar – ever hit these heights again. But then that’s about right for a film that is all about the triumph of the little guy (or at least the little guy getting a small day in the sun). Mann marshals the actors (some of whom were in the original TV production) to good effect and basically doesn’t get in the way of the script.

The story itself covers just two days in the life of Marty, but it’s still a gift of a part for Ernest Borgnine, who won an Oscar (surely to the chagrin of Rod Steiger who played the role on TV). The role subtly subverts Borgnine’s persona – Marty has the build for muscular action that matches the series of smarmy, working-class heavies Borgnine had played up to this point (characters much like some of his friends in the drama) but he moves with the nerves of a timid man. Borgnine is as gentle and careful as the picture itself, a shy man who has given up on good things happening to him but comes alive when he meets someone who sees him for who he is rather than what he is not.

That first long date – it takes up well over half the film’s runtime – sees him slowly go through stages from nerves, to stumbled confessions to an excited jabbering as he is so excited to be with Clara he keeps failing (accidentally) to let her speak so keen is he to share everything with her, through to a protective regard and a euphoric celebration. The only slight dated misstep is Marty’s reaction when denied a kiss – which he goes for with the entitlement of a Mad Men era male – but it’s swiftly course corrected in the film as another sign of Marty’s clumsy lack of knowledge of how relationships work. Throughout all this Borgnine is charming, heartfelt, tender and sweet and deserving of recognition for the role.

Opposite him for most of the film is Betsy Blair, who won the role after vigorous campaigning from her and her husband Gene Kelly (who announced he would refuse to do his next film if she was not cast). Mousy, timid and shy but looking for warmth and affection in life, Clara is just like Marty: a woman who isn’t sure what the next step in her life is but is certain that she doesn’t want to spend it growing old alone. It’s another heartfelt performance. The cast is rounded out by the sort of solid minor supporting players who don’t usually stand out, with Joe Mantell getting an Oscar nomination repeating his role as brash best friend Angie from TV. Stand out though is Esther Minciotti (also repeating her role) as Marty’s loving but domineering mother.

It all comes together into something very small, sweet and low-key and if it’s strange to see what the fuss is all about, it’s probably because there have been so many more movies made about ordinary people since then that this first trend setter now looks like nothing too special. But with a marvellous script and some wonderful performances from actors who never got an opportunity like this again, it’s truly a magic moment for all concerned, a once in a life-time film before most of them returned to jobbing roles once more.

The Man From UNCLE (2015)

Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill try, and fail, to get some zing out of The Man From UNCLE

Director: Guy Richie

Cast: Henry Cavill (Napoleon Solo), Armie Hammer (Ilya Kuryakin), Alicia Vikander (Gaby Teller), Elizabeth Debicki (Victoria Vinciguerra), Jared Harris (Adrian Sanders), Hugh Grant (Alexander Waverly), Luca Calvani (Alexander Vinciguerra), Sylvester Groth (Uncle Rudi), Christian Berkel (Udo Teller), Misha Kuznetsov (Oleg)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.was a 1960s TV spy caper series, which I confess I’ve never seen an episode of but I’m reliably told (by my wife who has) that it’s all larks and fun. This Guy Ritchie remake, on the other hand, is a tonal mess that has no idea what the hell it is. Only Hugh Grant gets anywhere near to appearing in a caper movie – probably because he’s virtually the only member of the cast who might have grown up watching the original series.

Anyway, in the early 1960s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is an international master-thief turned CIA agent (this suggests his character is a whole lot more fun than he actually is). Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a KGB super-agent, dealing with issues of psychosis (yup more fun to be had there). This odd couple are ordered to team up and work with car mechanic (no seriously) Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose father is working with renegade Italian fascists, led by femme fatale Victoria Viniciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), to build a new nuclear mastery over the world. Or something.

It should be a ridiculous, overblown, mix of Bond and high 60s camp. Instead it’s dreary, chemistry-free, largely uninvolving sub-Mission: Impossible high jinks that I’m not ashamed to say I dozed off during at one point. Would that I had slept through more of it. It’s quite damning when the most enjoyable thing about it is thinking about the accent Olympics going on (we have a Brit playing an American, an American playing a Russian, a Swede playing a German, an Australian playing an Italian, an Irishman playing an American…).

No matter which way the three leads are arranged, Cavill, Vikander and Hammer have no chemistry at all in any combination. There is precisely zero bromance between the two leads. Vikander and Hammer have a will-they-won’t-they romance that comes from absolutely nowhere and leads nowhere (set up for sequels that will never come). Cavill looks the part, but completely lacks the cheeky, self-confident, “I’m-enjoying-all-this” charm that the part requires – instead he’s flat and boring. Hammer has more of the winking-at-the-camera cool, but he’s saddled with a part that frequently requires him to burst out in hotel-room-trashing outbursts of anger. Vikander just looks a bit bored with the whole thing.

These rather joyless characters go through a series of action set pieces, none of which got my pulse racing, and all of which felt like off cuts from a lousy Mission: Impossible sequel. Car chases, fisticuffs, gun fights, explosions, boat chases – they all tick by with no wit or pleasure involved anywhere. In these sort of things, you need to feel the characters are such adrenaline junkies that they sorta enjoy the crazy antics they get thrown into – you don’t get any of that from these three.

Much as I like Elizabeth Debicki, she can do little with her underwritten part – I mean I get that the plot isn’t the main thing in a film like this, but they could have at least given our villain a character. Instead she is as cardboard cut-out as the rest of the storyline. The acting from the bulk of the cast is also really odd – some seem aware they are in a tongue-in-cheek spy film, others seem to think they are in an espionage thriller. It’s a mess. There are scenes of pratfall comedy followed by grim scenes of torture and violence. In one juddering moment of this spy romp, the flipping Holocaust is dragged in as a shorthand for identifying a character as an “ultimate villain” – which given he had our hero strapped to a chair and was about to torture him, I think we could all have worked out without exploiting genocide. Anyone else think pulling this appalling real world event (with photos!) into a stupid caper movie is really tasteless? Did no one watch this thing while it was being edited?

I will say the design is pretty good and it’s well shot. But compare this to the fun and games of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films (which this is obviously trying to emulate) and the total lack of chemistry at its heart becomes immediately clear. Hugh Grant is a complete relief when he turns up as he’s the only actor who actually looks like he is enjoying his part and wants to be there. It was a big box office bomb and it’s no surprise. No one is having fun, the spirit of the original series seems to have been completely lost, and the lead actors totally fail to bring the leading-man pizzazz the film needs. Perfect if you want a nap.

Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash Gordon: Sometimes words fail you

Director: Mike Hodges

Cast: Sam J Jones (Flash Gordon), Melody Anderson (Dale Arden), Max von Sydow (Ming the Merciless), Topol (Hans Zarkov), Ornella Muti (Princess Aura), Timothy Dalton (Prince Barin), Brian Blessed (Prince Vultan), Peter Wyngarde (General Klytus), Mariangela Melato (General Kala), Richard O’Brien (Fico), John Osborne (Arborian Priest), Philip Stone (High Priest Zogo), John Hallam (General Luro)

Well. If almost 40 years on, Flash Gordon is a cult favourite and beloved by millions, then there is hope yet for Jupiter Ascending. By any objective standards, Flash Gordon is a terrible film. But it gets a pass from millions because it’s one people have grown up with. I dread the same reaction to The Phantom Menace from those people whose first exposure to Star Wars was through that film.

Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) rules the planet Mongo and decides to destroy the Earth for his own amusement. Disgraced ex-NASA scientist Hans Zharkov (Topol) is the only man on Earth who believes a series of natural disasters are the actions of invaders from space. Zharkov flies a rocket into space to find them – accompanied, for strange reasons, by professional football star “Flash” Gordon (Sam J Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Arriving at Mongo, they encourage its citizens – especially the forest people led by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and the hawkmen led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) – to unite and rise up against Ming.

Yup you read that right. It’s all as barmy as you might expect. Any film that asks to believe Brian Blessed can fly is always going to be odd. Flash Gordon does at least have its tongue firmly in its cheek. The whole thing is as camp as Christmas. In an age where science fiction and comic books are treated like holy texts, it is at least interesting to see a film that treats its source material with such a breezy lack of respect. The entire film is an exercise in high camp, cheaply put together, that refuses to take anything seriously and actively encourages the respected actors in its cast to take the piss.

So what is Flash Gordon? Is it a big old joke? Yes it probably is. No one is taking it seriously. The actors clearly think it’s a pile of campy rubbish. The producers seem determined to throw as much technicolour cartoon colours at everything as possible. The film is so cartoonish it all but has “Pow!” and “Thwack!” appear on screen as punches land. At a time when Star Wars (and it’s hard to believe it, but George Lucas only made Star Wars because he couldn’t get the rights for this) took its space opera roots rather seriously, this seemed to miss the point completely. It’s a would-be Star Wars rip off that has nothing in common with the tone of the thing its ripping off. Usually that would be a good thing: here I’m not sure it is.

So the dialogue is terrible, the plot line makes no real sense, the film barrels around telling jokes against itself as inopportune moments. Characters shrug off events with no problems at all – at one point a character undergoes brainwashing torture: two scenes later he’s fine (“I just didn’t think about it” he gleefully tells someone. It’s never mentioned again.) The special effects, even for the time, are shockingly bad (the backdrops are sub-Doctor Who. The costumes and design are ludicrously overblown, like an explosion in a campy dressing-up box. It’s a terrible display of excess married with a complete lack of understanding about what made the things it’s trying to rip off successful in the first place. But yet, and yet, and yet it’s still in a terrible, terrible, terrible way quite good fun.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about its campy rubbishness, is how much odd sexual stuff creeps in under the radar. There are also lashings of sadomasochism, incest, orgasms, sex dens, threesomes, swinging, voyeurism – acres of cheeky sexual humour. Ming has a ring that can induce orgasms (it’s so effective on Dale Arden that it’s even commented only Ming’s daughter has had such a response). Ming has a harem, full of opiates to encourage “performance”. There are references to pleasure planets and sex toys. Ming’s daughter is whipped while tied to a bed by Ming’s henchmen (while Ming watches eating some popcorn). The arborians have a bizarre ritual which seems laced with wanking references. It never stops. At least they had some fun.

Some of the actors are also clearly enjoying themselves. Of course Brian Blessed throws himself into it: an actor who never knowingly underplays, Blessed rips through a bizarre role that sees him perform in a jockstrap with some unconvincing wings. Timothy Dalton channels Errol Flynn. Max von Sydow chews the scenery and virtually everything else in sight as a campy, moustachio-twirling Ming. Peter Wyngarde has a great voice and uses it to marvellous effect as pervy security chief Klytus, while Mariangela Melato plays his dominatrix assistant. There are bizarre, eclectic casting choices: so we get Look Back in Anger author John Osborne playing a high priest, Blue Peter’s Peter Duncan as an initiate, and Richard O’Brien (of course!) playing – well to be honest himself.

Sam J Jones is of course simply awful as Flash (wooden, dull and confused). Melody Anderson isn’t a lot better as Dale Arden, while Ornella Muti gets some awful dialogue which she does at least deliver with some conviction (sometimes too much: “Not the BORE WORMS!” sticks in the mind as a bizarre moment of over such over conviction that it simply becomes funny). It’s a bizarre mix of acting styles and overblown, fourth-wall leaning. It’s so bad, I suppose, that to many people it’s good. But actually it gets a little overbearing.

Because nothing is taken seriously at all, the film actually becomes a bit wearing after a while. The writer later regretted playing everything for laughs: it removes any stakes from this ridiculous film. It says a lot that Brian Blessed – the most overblown actor in it – is the only one who really emerges with dignity intact. Blessed at least knows it’s utter crap and plays it like he’s taking the piss in every scene. He commits so fully to the scenery chewing that it sort of works. The rest of the cast can only aspire to his levels of camp. Flash Gordon is a terrible film. But age and fondness have been kind to it, and made it remembered as something better than it is. It’s a misfiring gag with some great Queen songs. It goes on forever, it looks awful but it fails utterly as anything but a joke. But hell maybe that’s enough.

Addams Family Values (1993)

The Addams Family Values: Goth meets summer camp fun in this engaging comedy

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Cast: Anjelica Huston (Morticia Addams), Raúl Juliá (Gomez Addams), Christopher Lloyd (Uncle Fester), Joan Cusack (Debbie Jellinsky), Christina Ricci (Wednesday Addams), Carol Struycken (Lurch), Jimmy Workman (Pugsley Addams), Carol Kane (Grandma Addams), David Krumholtz (Joe Glicker), Peter MacNicol (Gary Granger), Christine Baranski (Becky Martin-Granger)

The Addams Family was a serviceable family comedy about a bizarre group of Halloween style characters, who delighted in leading lives of cartoony horror. It drifts along, and was a big hit, but its sequel Addams Family Values is several times smarter, more confident and funnier. As a comedy family saga mixed with cartoon creepiness, it’s hard to beat.

Celebrating the birth of their new child (“He has my father’s eyes” / “Take those out of his mouth”), Morticia (Anjelica Huston) and Gomez (Raúl Juliá) hire a new nanny, Debbie Jellinsky (Joan Cusack) to care for the baby. On her advice, they also decide to send the insanely jealous Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) to a summer camp – needless to say they do not fit in with the All-American, Apple-Pie ideals championed there. Debbie meanwhile has wicked designs on becoming the widow of their rich Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd).

Addams Family Values gets a lot of comic juice out of some very witty set-ups. Everyone involved in the film feels more relaxed and happy to let the comedy breathe. Sonnenfeld lets the set-ups come naturally and allows the characters to come to the fore. Every joke in the film comes from watching the characters bounce off their circumstances. Of course, a lot of this comes from the fact the film doesn’t need to do any of the heavy lifting of introducing the world or the characters – it rightly assumes we know what we are getting from the start – but it still makes the film hugely entertaining.

A lot of the humour comes from the brilliant summer camp plotline, with its passive-aggressive, jolly-hockey-sticks owners (a very funny Peter MacNichol and Christine Baranski) and their naked favouritism for the popular kids. Placing the Addams children into a world of normal teenage politics and the forced jollity of adults who would rather still be one of the popular kids at school is a brilliant touch. This clash of values makes for no end of comic glory, culminating in a disastrous Thanksgiving play, which is a triumph of the sad and overlooked over the popular kids (because who watching any film favours the popular kids?).

Christina Ricci is brilliant in this – her deadpan sense of comic timing is spot-on. Every scene and every one-liner is stand-out. The film even finds time for a sweetly semi-romantic plotline between her and loser Joe Glicker (David Kumholtz, also very good as the kind of kid who likes to read A Brief History of Time). Ricci ends up carrying a lot of the film’s comic material, and she’s so perfect in the role that to a lot of us she will always be Wednesday Addams, never mind what she does.

The summer camp plotline is so drop-dead funny and memorable, it rather overshadows the film’s actual plot about Debbie’s attempts to seduce and murder Fester. Sonnenfeld struggles to make this main plot come to life – his real delight is in the sketch-based comedy of the summer camp and the Addams’ love for the grotesque and the extreme. Having said that, Joan Cusack is wickedly sexy and funny as a heartless social climber.

Anjelica Huston and Raúl Juliá remain divinely perfect as a couple so besotted they can barely look at each other without bursting into a steamy tango, or an avalanche of flirtatious foreign language banter. Juliá rips into the dialogue with a flamboyant gusto, and he’s a perfect foil for Huston’s supercool, arch one-liners. Sonnenfeld never lets the introduction of a baby affect their comic darkness in any way, which is a perfect set-up for comedy.

Addams Family Values is terrific good fun and always keeps you laughing. It’s a load better than the original, and has some terrific comic set-pieces in. Sure it’s got a pretty basic plot, but it’s directed with a wicked dryness by Barry Sonnenfeld and its cast are now completely comfortable in their eccentric characters. The tone always seems spot-on between the surrealist darkness and the childish, cartooney horror. It’s a very entertaining film.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Antonio Banderas buckles his swash as Zorro

Director: Martin Campbell

Cast: Antonio Banderas (Alejandro Murrieta/Zorro), Anthony Hopkins (Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro), Catherine Zeta Jones (Elena Montero), Stuart Wilson (Don Rafael Montero), Matt Letscher (Captain Harrison Love), Tony Amendola (Don Luiz), Pedro Armendáriz Jnr (Don Pedro), LQ Jones (Three Fingered Jack), Julieta Rosen (Esperanza De La Vega), Maury Chaykin (Prison Warden)

Zorro is a classic, musketeers/Robin Hood style hero from the old school. A dashing, duelling nobleman who battles the cruel rich to save the struggling poor. It’s the formula of a thousand post-war B-movies. The great thing about that formula is the sense of fun around them is already there – a decent film can capture it. And The Mask of Zorro manages to be lot more than just a decent film.

In 1821, as the Spanish leave California, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) sets a trap to defeat his arch-nemesis Zorro (Anthony Hopkins). Knowing his real identity is Don Diego de la Vega, Montero throws de la Vega into prison after accidentally killing his wife (the woman they both loved) and kidnapping de la Vega’s daughter to raise as his own. Twenty years later, de la Vega escapes just as Montero returns to California to steal its resources. De la Vega teams up with Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), a young bandit hungry for revenge. Taking him under his wing, he trains him as the new Zorro – though both have conflicted feelings when de la Vega’s daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) arrives, knowing nothing of her true heritage.

Few films have captured the magic, Errol Flynn-style thrills of old-school Hollywood swashbuckling as well as The Mask of Zorro. Characters swoop and tumble, and swords swish and clash. It sounds odd to say, but the sound design for the sword fights is amazing, each clash has a metallic, ringing clarity that sounds incredibly cool. Match that with the fact that all five of the principals have clearly spent their time in sword school, and you’ve got pure, sword-clashing entertainment.

The plot also keeps things simple. The story is a fairly straight forward heroic revenge drama, with more than a touch of The Count of Monte Cristo (de la Vega’s prison escape is pure Dumas, while Murrieta disguising himself as a rich don to destroy his enemies from within is straight out of Cristo’s playbook). We also have (in another Monte Cristo touch) the Pygmalion mentor-pupil relationship, with de la Vega tutoring Murrieta not only in sword play, but also the manners of a gentleman. The villain’s plot is not exactly clearly explained (it has something to do with stealing Mexican gold to buy California from the Mexicans) but fortunately (a) the film doesn’t really spend too much time worrying about it and (b) since the plot involves enslavement and ruthless murder, it hardly matters anyway as their villainous credentials are very well established.

As the young Zorro, Banderas (at the height of his roguish charm) is very fine, giving it just the right balance of cocksure confidence and playful exuberance. He also weights the character with a genuine love for his murdered brother, which expands as the film progresses into a sincere empathy for the poor and downtrodden. He also has great chemistry with Zeta-Jones (basically establishing her career here) – they meet in no less than three guises, and with each the romantic spark is exceptional. The famous foreplay sword-fight scene (culminating with Murrieta using precise strokes to remove Elena’s top) works because their sword fight is not only playful, but their romantic interest and mutual respect is clear.

Anthony Hopkins also relishes the chance to take an action role (it’s quite something to think he was nearly 60 at the time of filming). Sure, not all the stunts are him of course – and he had to have a generous application of fake tan to give him a Spanish appearance – but the performance works because Hopkins gives it a perfect playful charm, while never losing the sight of the pain under de la Vega’s surface. He gives a lot of weight to what could otherwise have been a straight “mentor role”.

Campbell directs all this with a brisk, old-school simplicity – the film has a true 1930s swashbuckling feel to it. It’s not exactly the last word in exciting film making, but it doesn’t have to be. The important thing Campbell understands here is keeping the pace up, and presenting us with something fun or exciting (or both) every scene. So whether it is a decent gag, a piece of cool looking sleight of hand (de la Vega using a whip to extinguish candles from a distance) or the clash of swords, something always keeps you entertained.

When you match that with some performances you’ve got a great piece of Sunday afternoon entertainment. It’s possibly a bit too long, and Wilson’s Rafael (while in some ways an interesting, conflicted character) is never really allowed the space to become an effective counterpoint to the heroes. But despite that, it offers more than enough entertainment, excitement and fun. It’s got a decent, fun script with plenty of good lines, and by keeping the focus on a small core cast it really allows us to bond with those characters. It lacks a certain undefinable quality that makes it a beloved film, but it has enough to make it a welcome guest whenever it comes round.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Tom Cruise doesn’t hang about in the most iconic sequence from the first Mission: Impossible

Director: Brian de Palma

Cast: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jon Voight (Jim Phelps), Emmanuelle Béart (Claire Phelps), Henry Czerny (Eugene Kittridge), Jean Reno (Franz Kreiger), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Kristin Scott Thomas (Sarah Davies), Vanessa Redgrave (Max), Emilio Estevez (Jack Harmon), Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė (Hannah Williams)

Everyone knows how it goes right? Bum bum bum-ba-bum-bum bum-ba-bum bum… Yup it’s the Mission: Impossible theme tune. Originally a hit TV series, it’s arguably more familiar now as this Tom Cruise-starring film series, a showpiece for his reckless physicality and insane commitment to ever more elaborate stunts.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is framed as a traitor after a disastrous mission in Prague. While trying to reclaim a list of agents’ cover names, Cruise and his team are betrayed by a mole within IMF. The rest of his team, including his mentor Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), are killed though Phelps’ wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) survives. On the run, he has to steal the real secret list himself to help discover the identity of the traitor.

Who would have thought over 20 years later Tom Cruise would still be heading out on Impossible Missions? The success of the franchise is rooted in this engaging spy thriller. How many times have I seen this film? Countless times. It’s inventive and playful. It’s got a decently intriguing plot that keeps you on your toes.  Above all it’s fun.

At the time of its release people talked about its impenetrable plot, but it’s basically a standard “double cross” film. Someone we think is a hero is basically a wrong ‘un, so our hero has to follow every means in his power to find out who it is – including pretending to be a wrong ‘un himself. Understand that, and the plot is pretty basic. The main reason people find it confusing is the film assumes you’re smart enough to follow what’s going on, without characters sitting down and spelling everything out. Isn’t clumsy exposition the sort of thing we criticise other films for? Isn’t it nice not to have a film that just assumes you can follow the whole thing?

Anyway, the plot and characters are largely there to carry us from one spectacle to another. The film starts with a bang. Can you think of many films that kill off most of the cast (and the recognisable actors) in the opening 15 minutes? It’s such a daring opening it leaves a whiff of peril over everything else – even after we discover some people weren’t actually killed, and despite no other characters dying apart from the baddies.

Killing off the team does mean the film is a bit more “Tom Cruise with some back-up” rather than a team effort – but that doesn’t really matter does it? Wee Tom of course does all his own stunts and looks cracking. Acting wise, he’s “cruising” through his standard turn as a cocky protegee who goes through a steep learning curve. But it doesn’t really matter, because he looks great and everything he does is pretty damn cool. He even manages to mine some real emotional pain when he realise some of the people closest to him have betrayed him.

The film’s centre piece, that famous spiderlike descent from the roof to break into a sealed computer room in Langley, is probably most responsible for making this film a hit. How many times has that scene been spoofed? (So much so people no longer remember its almost completely lifted from 1960s crime caper Topkapi) It carries more impact than the big top-of-the-train scene that ends the film, because we immediately understand the difficulty of what Hunt is trying to do. How many times have we had to balance, played a game where you couldn’t step on something, had to be as quiet as possible, or keep as calm as you can? I’ve never had to balance on top of a speeding train, but I’ve had to do all that stuff. Everyone watching it can relate to the tension of doing this stuff. It’s a little masterpiece scene that also owes a fair deal to Riffi’s silent robbery scene.

The scene also shows what a triumph of style this is. De Palma directs with a breezy lightness and love for the business of spycraft (I suspect he was taking the money big time, as he injects very little of his personality into it, but it works and he has an eye for the memorable shot), Tom Cruise is pretty damn cool. The film understands the simplicity of iconic shots – Cruise jumping away from an exploding aquarium in a restaurant is a simple stunt, but it looks great. The film has a great range of small-scale spycraft as well – from Cruise cracking a bulb and sprinkling the glass outside a door as an early warning detector, to him carefully timing how long to stay on a phone call to allow a trace to go so far.

Of course, some things in the plot make very little sense. The traitor seems rather randomly motivated (he’s basically pissed off at the end of the Cold War, despite earning way more than the average joe and being married to an impossibly attractive younger wife) and his effectiveness and smartness fluctuates according to the demands of the plot (Bond villain-like, he inexplicably leaves Hunt alive at one point for no reason). The idea of a government organisation where missions can be chosen to be accepted or not is in itself rather silly. The use of the internet and e-mail in the film looks hilariously dated today (Hunt basically sends a series of random e-mails to made up addresses – Max@Job314 indeed…).

To be honest, its breakneck pace is probably why some people struggle to keep up with what’s going on, but generally I wouldn’t let it bother you. It helps as well that there is a terrific cast of interesting actors – one of the great strengths of this series has always been its unconventional casting decisions. Would anyone else have thought of Béart and Scott Thomas as secret agents? Each actor has the skill and confidence to invest often paper-thin characters with depth – Rhames plays Luther so well, he stuck around for the rest of the series, despite us learning very little about him here. Voight has a perfect world-weary fixedness as Phelps, Reno is great value as a sociopathic hired gun and Redgrave has a lot of a fun as a cut-glass arms dealer.

Mission: Impossible is, to be frank, tons of fun. It’s basically a simple film disguising itself as a complex one, but it’s rewarding enough that you enjoy working out the plot alongside Hunt. It treats the viewer with a certain rewarding confidence and it’s crammed with distinctive and iconic shots. Is it any wonder Cruise saddled up five more times (and counting) and chose to accept the mission again?

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Tom Cruise and Kerri Russell take on a truly challenging assignment in Mission: Impossible III

Director: JJ Abrams

Cast: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Owen Davian), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Billy Crudup (John Musgrave), Michelle Monaghan (Julia Meade), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Declan Gormley), Maggie Q (Zhen Lei), Keri Russell (Lindsay Farris), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Eddie Marsan (Brownaway), Laurence Fishbourne (Theodore Brassel)

If there is one thing Tom Cruise does better than anyone in the movies, its run. Man, can that guy run well on camera. It’s not as easy as you’d think – watch people run in real life, and they probably look galumphing and awkward. But Tom looks as sleek as a gazelle. Every stride stresses his authority and unflappable coolness. I mention it because Tom does a lot of running in this film. The dénouement is basically him running over a mile and half, nearly in real time, a lot of it one long shot. 

JJ Abrams came to Mission: Impossible off the back of his successful TV series, Alias, in which Jennifer Garner’s undercover agent takes on a variety of disguises, working in a team, on a series of missions to get impossible-to-obtain artefacts against terrific odds. JJ Abrams carries the formula that worked so well in that series straight into this one.

The whole film plays out like an Alias movie. It even uses that series regular gambit of an opening scene throwing us dramatically into the story before flashing back “72 hours earlier”. Just like Alias, we have our lead trying to make a relationship work without saying what they do for a living, a family feeling in the team’s relationship, a geeky tech guy with a heart of gold, double and triple agents, glamourous locations – it’s everything an Alias fan could want, with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt essentially Sydney Bristow in all but name. This also brings out the best in Cruise, who looks like a man born again in the role.

Mission: Impossible: III is truly delightful, big-screen fun, rebirthing the series and placing team interplay firmly back at the centre, setting the tone and template the next two films have followed. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is in semi-retirement, training agents and planning to marry Julia (Michelle Monaghan). However when his young protégée Lindsay Faris (Keri Russell) is captured while investigating sinister arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Hunt sets out to rescue her – and finds himself up to his neck in shady and dangerous goings-on.

Every action scene in the film is brilliantly entertaining (the mid-film drone assault is wind-it-back-and-watch-again exciting.). Of course, Cruise takes more than his fair share of the juicy moments – including a crazy jump off the roof of a Hong Kong building that has to be seen to be believed – but Abrams makes this a team movie in the way neither of the two previous films had been. Each member brings crucial skills to the table, and has moments to shine. Pegg takes the stand-out role of a witty, nerdy tech back at the base (sure enough his role was expanded later), but each feels an essential part of the story.

It also helps that the film has a terrific baddie to bounce off – the series has not had a better villain than Hoffman’s ice cold arms dealer. Sure Davian is pretty much a part Hoffman could play standing on his head – but he’s got just the right balance of rage and ruthless intellect.

If you want to see a single example of why this film works, take a look at that opening scene. Who could resist a film that opens with a scene as masterfully directed as this, sizzling with tension and ending with a smash cut to black over a gun shot and into the opening score? Hoffman and Cruise are excellent (Hoffman’s ice-cold control providing a great contrast to Cruise, who runs the gamut of defiant, furious, faux-reasonable, desperate and pleading), but it sets out the huge stakes for the film, it keeps us nervily waiting for the film to catch-up with what we’ve seen, and it tells us how vitally important what Davian wants is to him – and how desperate Hunt is to protect Julia.

Abrams has a perfect understanding of dramatic construction.  Everything in the film is carefully established and set-up, so we always understand the dangers and the threats. MI3 also uses its macguffin extremely well. What do we learn about “the Rabbit’s Foot”, the possession of which is of such vital importance? It’s small enough to fit in a suitcase, it’s stored in a round glass tube, it’s got a biohazard label and it’s worth millions. That’s it, but it doesn’t matter: Abrams establishes the most important thing – it’s dangerous and Davian wants it more than anything. Everything spins out from that with smooth efficiency.

The pace never lets up, but the characters and their relationships are never left behind. In particular Monaghan and Cruise’s relationship is skilfully established in surprisingly few scenes, and something we end up really rooting for. Abrams never goes overboard – the film is stuffed with action and excitement but never feels bloated or indulgent: the final confrontation is particularly effective because it is fairly small scale and is focused on the Hunts’ relationship.

Mission: Impossible 3 is one of the most joyful entries in a film franchise that deserves a lot of kudos for (by and large) focusing on plot, story and character alongside action sequences that have a feeling of tangible reality about them. It’s not completely perfect – a shock reveal about a turncoat in the IMF is hardly a surprise, considering the small number of candidates and the actors playing them – but it’s about as close as you can get to an endless enjoyable fairground ride.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Laura Palmer and Dale Cooper trapped in Twin Peaks nightmare halfway house between this world and the next

Director: David Lynch

Cast: Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer), Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Mädchen Amick (Shelly Johnson), Dana Ashbrook (Bobby Briggs), Phoebe Augustine (Ronette Pulaski), David Bowie (Phillip Jeffries), Eric Da Re (Leo Johnson), Miguel Ferrer (Albert Rosenfield), Pamela Gidley (Teresa Banks), Chris Isaak (Special Agent Chester Desmond), Moira Kelly (Donna Hayward), David Lynch (Gordon Cole), Kyle MacLachlan (Special Agent Dale Cooper), James Marshall (James Hurley), Frank Silva (BOB), Kiefer Sutherland (Agent Sam Stanley), Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer)

Twin Peaks was a mystifying, but very short lived, sensation. Its first series gripped America with its whodunit mystery around who killed Laura Palmer: it was an early 90s Broadchurch with added mysticism and twisted Lynchian psychosis. Just like Broadchurch, the second series stumbled from disaster to disaster as the answer to the mystery was revealed. Though this plot line was dark, disturbing and haunting, effectively contrasted with the surreal humour of the rest of the show, large chunks of the episodes were, to be honest, terrible. As Lynch’s attention turned elsewhere, the show fumbled through half a season of increasingly bizarre, pointless, laughable and plain rubbish episodes, before rallying at the end with a return to the mysterious dwelling on the nature of evil that the series is now best remembered for.

Twin Peaks is a rare anomaly – a show whose most die-hard fans would probably admit at least a quarter of the episodes were terrible. Ratings had dropped off a cliff as the series went on (sure enough it was cancelled). The cast and crew knew the show had lost something – several actors, most notably Lara Flynn Boyle (here replaced by Moira Kelly) refused to appear in the film. Even the show’s star, and Lynch surrogate, Kyle MacLachlan only agreed to return for this film for a few brief scenes (requiring an urgent re-write). However, Lynch’s interest in the concept had clearly been awakened during his writing and filming of (what would become) the final episode, surely one of the most surreal, unsettling, bizarre, intriguing and disturbing episodes of TV ever screened.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was Lynch’s final reclaiming of the series from the toilet it had dropped into. It also served partly as a “retcon” to tie the foundations of the original series plotline into the mythology the show had deepened in its final few episodes (built upon many surreal elements Lynch had introduced in the first episodes, otherwise hinted at rather than explored). As much of this mythology was unsettling, this movie very much follows that mood, losing much (if not all) of the dark, surrealistic humour that contrasted the darkness so well in the series. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a strange movie that is more like an expanded extra episode of the series, rather than a stand-alone. It makes no attempt at all to appeal to anyone who hasn’t seen every episode of the series: I’d go so far to say it’s almost completely impenetrable without having sat through all of Twin Peaks.

The film explores two plot-lines: the first an investigation by FBI Agent Chester Diamond (Chris Isaak) into the murder of Teresa Banks, a plotline referred to many times in the series. The film then flashes forward a year to cover the final few days of the original murder victim Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and her relationship with her father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), who is possessed by a demonic presence known as BOB, driven by it to perform acts of sexual and physical violence. Laura is aware – and terrified – of the existence of BOB (a greasy haired face from a thousand nightmares) but seems unable to recognise that BOB and her father are one and the same. It’s the discovery of this in the film that will help to tip her over the edge into despair.

If the film is about anything other than expanding the mythology around BOB and the mysterious “Black Lodge” between dimensions, where evil and violence abound, it’s about the damaging impact of domestic abuse. The film intensely explores the personality damage Laura (an excellent and fully committed Sheryl Lee, leaving nothing in the locker room in a performance of fearless intensity) has suffered as a result of years of sexual abuse from her father (Ray Wise equally good as his personality veers wildly between gentle father and possessed evil rapist). Laura’s fractured psyche is the root cause, Lynch makes clear, of her sexual promiscuity, drug addiction and flashes of cruelty. She’s even aware of the damage, as seen in her desperation to protect others (especially the gentle Donna) from being sucked into the nightmare of her life.

The unremitting bleakness of Laura’s disastrous life is intermixed with the horror of the scenes where we witness Leland’s destructive behaviour to her, while the final scene of her eventual murder is haunting in its skilful nightmare imagery and suggestive editing. Lynch’s direction remains humane and tender, and despite putting Sheryl Lee through the ringer she never feels exploited. Instead, the film has an incredible empathy for both her suffering, and the confused, damaged actions she is driven to carry out. It gives us an understanding of the damage that can be done to even the strongest seeming people by abuse.

Alongside this, Lynch unleashes the full range of dark surrealism through a series of disturbing images to build up his mystical backstory. This is a flat out horror film, with twisted images of monkeys, blood and forests guaranteed to haunt your dreams. Nearly every scene in Twin Peaks re-positions the often quirky town of many of the episodes as a nightmareish world of neon, darkened rooms and twisted sexual and physical violence. The portrayal of Laura Palmer’s fragile heart is as intensely moving as it is intensely filmed, while the views behind the red curtain into the hellish underbelly of Twin Peaks’ mystical mythology will stick with you for some time – and is sure to be central to the new third series.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was met with intense hostility when it was released: “It’s not the worst movie ever made,” the New York Times review read, “it just seems to be”. David Lynch publically stated he had clearly done when the network couldn’t do, and successfully killed Twin Peaks. Of course that wasn’t the case – with the new third series finally coming to the screen 25 years after the screening of this film. The re-evaluation of the film has only grown in the intervening period. The nightmarish content (and the final scenes of the series) – the wicked BOB, the nightmare of the Black Lodge and the Red Room, the elements of psychological horror – these are the things that Twin Peaks is remembered as being about: the rotten core of the sweet pie of the town.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Johnny Depp works overtime to make this film unpopular. He succeeded.

Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp (Tonto), Armie Hammer (John Reid), William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish), Tom Wilkinson (Latham Cole), Ruth Wilson (Rebecca Reid), Helena Bonham-Carter (Red Harrington), James Badge Dale (Dan Reid), Barry Pepper (Captain Jay Fuller)

In 2013 this big budget misfire produced a record loss for Disney. Spiralling out of control the film cost a bomb then blew up like one at the box office much to the delight of film critics and audiences alike who enjoy nothing more than watching some suits and A-list stars fall flat on their face. Reviews were damning and the film took its place as one of the ultimate box office turkeys.

All of which is a little unfair, as to be honest this isn’t really that bad a film. Which is not to say it’s that good either, because it ain’t. It’s an average B picture with a huge budget and an over inflated running time, but it has a decent Act 1 and Act 3 and ends with an excellent train chase sequence that I enjoyed so much I watched it again immediately after the film finished.

So what are the problems? The main one for me is Johnny Depp, who here is at the absolute peak of his wave of replacing acting with a bunch of mannerisms and quirky moments. This is one of the most irritating Depp performances on film, his Tonto a pile of odd costumes, muttered gags and winks to the audience. I can see Depp is amused, but I’m not sure anyone else is. I also suspect Depp announced this was how he was going to play the role and if Verbinski didn’t like it he could get stuffed.

But other than that, Armie Hammer is rather sweet and endearing as the straight as an arrow Ranger, displaying a lot more wit than Depp’s painted showing off. Ruth Wilson does her best with a truly thankless damsel in distress role. Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner and Barry Pepper present three very different villains. Helena Bonham Carter gives a bizarre performance as a madam with ivory legs (yes you read that right.).

The film’s main problem is it is far too long and too poorly structured. The opening act is engaging and introduces the characters effectively with a decent action scene or two, but it starts to overdo its welcome after 40 minutes or so. A framing device of Tonto narrating the story to a child in the 1920s offers nothing more than padding and more Depp showing off. Act 2 meanders around slowly, working up to showing that all the suspicious people in the film are working together, draining the momentum out of the film. Shock baddie reveals are only surprising to those of us who have never seen a film before.

However the film is partly redeemed by its final 30 minutes, in particular an astonishingly high octane, exciting and fun train chase sequence, brilliantly cut to the Lone Ranger theme that gives every character a chance to shine and both grips the viewer and leaves them with a smile on their face. Shame the rest of the film can’t match it, but it’s still better than many others manage.

A single sequence doesn’t make it a classic, and an engaging actor (Hammer) who creates a character that you care about doesn’t keep the attention throughout the whole 140 minutes, but it’s far from a disaster and much better than many successful big budget hits. Shame about Depp. And sorry for those who loved turkeys. This is just an average film. In about 10 years it will probably be getting a re-evaluation.