Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

There are some characters who are perennially reinvented for a new generation. Frankenstein, Dracula, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Superman, Batman…the list goes on and on. These iconic figures have something in common; they may now be more well known to audiences from films but they all originated in printed media be it books or comics. It’s hard to think of a character created for movies or television who has shown this kind of lasting appeal…with one exception.

There are the horror franchises of course but they are a relatively new development, it’s only been 35 years since the creation of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees is 33 and Freddy Krueger isn’t even 30 yet. You could make an argument for Kirk and Spock from Star Trek both recently re-imagined for modern cinemagoers but they’ve so far only been played by two actors and it remains to be seen how long the current iterations will last.

Please feel free to correct me in the comments but I can only think of one character created for film and television who has shown the sort of longevity I’ve been talking about and appropriately enough he’s a Time Lord. The Doctor is 50 and even if you can think of another example of a character with that sort of staying power there’s something that sets him apart. Unlike those examples I gave at the start and any others you care to think of the Doctor’s story is unique and what makes it unique is just that, it is one ongoing story, an epic 50 year narrative that while frequently reinventing itself has always remained true(ish) to its history. Sean Connery and Daniel Craig give us their interpretation of James Bond, William Hartnell and Matt Smith are playing the same man.

I imagine like many a Who fan I’ve long harboured an ambition to watch every episode of the series in chronological order (some have already accomplished it) and on Saturday 23rd November 2013 at 5:16, exactly 50 years since the first episode aired I started this little odyssey. There are currently 799 episodes which at one a day will take me a little over 2 years and 2 months. Of course by the time I get to that 799th episode, The Day of the Doctor there will have been at least one more season, hopefully two and a few Christmas specials so the end date isn’t set yet. Anyway without further ado let’s turn our attention to the first Doctor Who story An Unearthly Child (please note there will be a few spoilers).

Anyone coming to this story having watched any of the later Doctors is in for a bit of a shock. William Hartnell’s Doctor is unfriendly, self-serving and downright devious, at least here at the start he is, he’d mellow as time went on.

While the Doctor may be decidedly different this story did lay the groundwork for much that would follow in the next 50 years. The first episode, titled An Unearthly Child, introduces us to the shows recurring cast. We have the mysterious teenager Susan, far too clever for her years. Then there are Ian and Barbara, two of Susan’s teachers. Determined to solve the riddle of this girl with a genius IQ and a liking for Sixties pop music they follow her home only to find home is a junkyard in which stands an incongruous Police Box…

As opening episodes go Doctor Who’s is a doozy. There may not be much action, we only leave the junkyard in the episode’s final moments and most of the character confrontations are verbal (although the Doctor does electrocute Ian at one point, I told you this was a very different Doctor) but the cast play it so well and the script is so good that the 25 minutes zip by. It doesn’t feel like a Sixties drama in pacing or structure, it’s use of flashbacks to fill in some back story feels very modern.

That’s not to say it’s flawless. There are fluffed lines (“Get back to the ship child” says the Doctor to granddaughter Susan when they are already in the TARDIS and about to take off) and Ian gets a bit of dialogue that’s less science teacher and more mad scientist in a 1930’s Universal monster movie (“It’s alive!” he exclaims when he puts his hand on the outside of the Police Box and feels it vibrating). But these are minor quibbles and the fluffed lines are something we will become accustomed to during Hartnell’s time in the TARDIS, being affectionately known among fans as BIlly fluffs.

So the pilot gives us companions, the TARDIS (one can only imagine how the “it’s bigger on the inside” concept went down with those initial viewers, it is the shows first WOW moment), and of course that wonderfully terrifying theme tune that would regenerate along with the Doctor over the years but would never get better than this, the original incarnation.

That theme tune, which would send youngsters scurrying behind the sofa for years to come, is just one example of how Doctor Who was born out of combined ideas, in this case composer Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Everyone knows who created Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry in case you didn’t) but Who, while the initial brainchild of Sydney Newman, had many parents. It’s that cross pollination of ideas I think that made An Unearthly Child the success it is.

The rest of the story is a little underwhelming after that excellent opening. The TARDIS comes to rest in the distant past. At least we assume it to be the past just as we assume it’s Earth but the Doctor’s hurried exit from 1963 or a TARDIS malfunction result in the “Yearometer” not working. What follows is three episodes involving cavemen and their quest for fire which would add some more familiar ingredients to the show’s formula, namely capture, escape and running.

The story isn’t really what’s important here though, it’s the interplay between the characters as they get to know each other. The Doctor and Ian have a clash of egos, Susan gets to show her screaming ability and Barbara takes on the role of mediator. Action wise there is a rough and tumble fight between two cavemen that’s surprisingly brutal for the time and an attack by a beast of some kind which leaves the leader of the cavemen wounded. It’s at this point that Hartnell cements just how un-doctor like he is here, as he’s quite ready to bash the wounded man’s head in with a rock.

It’s strange to think that audiences just accepted the fact that cavemen (and later all sorts of aliens) spoke perfect English. It wasn’t till much later that the series would offer up an explanation for this.

We find out little about the Doctor in this opening story. He refers to himself as an exile and a wanderer in the fourth dimension but that’s as far as his back story goes. We also get one more important reference in this story and that’s to the TARDIS’ chameleon circuit which seems to be broken, the ship being stuck as a Police Box which is very out of place in the world they find themselves in. It has to be said though that the device is of questionable use even when it is working as a Police Box is hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a junkyard.

So we’re off on our travels through space and time. This first story may not have offered a particularly thrilling plot or memorable villains but it does serve as an excellent introduction to the cast.

(Anyone keeping track of dates will know that I should have completed season one by now and in fact I have just started watching the first story of season two, Planet of Giants. Finding the time to do the reviews has proved more difficult than finding 25 minutes everyday to watch an episodes but hopefully things will speed up a bit now.)

Genesis of a Doctor Who Fan

Hello! It’s been a while I know.

I’m here to tell you about the future, but in order to tell you about the future we’re first going to take a little journey into the past…

The internet shares a thing or two with the TARDIS. It can transport us back in time and space. Not physically of course but as a repository for memories; words and pictures that trigger something in our minds that can take us back to simpler, less complicated times.

It’s also bigger on the inside.

So let’s do a little time travelling. Our first stop on this journey is going to be a Saturday teatime in 1971. 5:30pm on January 2nd to be precise. This marked the start of Season 8 of Doctor Who with the first episode of Terror of the Autons. This is the story that introduced Jo Grant. It also introduced a young lad, about two weeks shy of his sixth birthday, to the world of Doctor Who.

Or at least that’s how I remember it. I certainly watched that story and I have no recollection of Liz Shaw, the Doctor’s previous assistant (they weren’t referred to as companions back then) but I can’t say with 100% certainty that this was the first episode of Who that I was ever exposed to. It’s definitely the one that hooked me though, that ignited the little flame that separates the casual viewer from the avid fan.

That flame was fanned into a fire a couple of years later. The exact time is lost in the mists of memory but the location remains clear in my mind: A Cub Scout hut in Horley, Surrey. I wasn’t a very outgoing child, I’d much rather stay indoors with a pile of comics than socialise with other kids. That’s probably why my parents sent me to Cubs in the first place. That shyness was also the reason my Dad would end up coming to cubs too, because at first I really hated it. He went by the name Baloo.

You’re probably picturing some sheltered only child but that’s a far cry from the truth. I have two brothers, one older and the other just over a year younger. The younger also went to Cubs, so I wasn’t going there alone. I think I just preferred my own company and certainly the things I enjoyed doing were solitary pursuits…which brings us back to that unknown time in that little hut.

It was a sponsored silence. For most children that age this required a real effort of will, a rowdy pack of Cubs can make a lot of noise. For me it required little will at all, give me a good book and this was pretty much my natural state. And a good book was exactly what I went in armed with thanks to my parents taking me and my brother shopping beforehand. That book was Doctor Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton, one of the first Target novelisations.

Having been exposed to the Doctor’s previous incarnations in the tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors the Target books allowed me to explore the show’s rich history. After the Third Doctor’s mostly contemporary earthbound adventures this was mind-blowing! Alien worlds were the norm not the exception, not to mention lavish (for the imagination is not hampered by a BBC budget) historical dramas.

These books played a big part in the development of many a Who fan including some now working on the show, particularly Mr Moffat and Mr Gatiss who have written introductions to the recent BBC reprints. Gatiss has even produced a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the books called “On the outside it looked like an old fashioned police box” which is well worth half an hour of any Who fans time.

But childhood must come to an end and eventually I moved away from Doctor Who. It happened slowly. I was 16 when Tom Baker left and while I would continue to watch the show until its cancellation in 1989 it wasn’t with the same fanatical fervour of old. It was no longer the end of the world if I missed an episode and gradually the missed episodes began to outnumber the watched.

So is this the end of our journey? It took a few years but a series of events conspired to draw me back to the show.

The BBC had started releasing selected stories on VHS while the show was still on air with the first release, Revenge of the Cybermen coming out in October 1983. But the releases were few and far between with most years seeing only three releases. Things would pick up in the Nineties but in early 1991 it’s fair to say that they weren’t even on my radar.

By this point I was working in a sales office, the usual 9 to 5 grind. It wasn’t what I wanted to do but I’d ended up there anyway. A job is a job after all. Until the company I worked for decided relocating to the Midlands made good financial sense. Then a job became a redundancy.

So one day in 1991, again the exact date is a mystery that only a real TARDIS could solve, found me in the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street in London. I think I was in London looking for a job. I’d got the idea that working in a comic store would be more spiritually rewarding than another boring office job. I still had a deep love of comics and I figured I could put that passion to good use. That didn’t happen although I would end up working in retail.

Anyway I found myself looking at the video racks in Virgin and I stumbled across the Doctor Who section. Here at last were some of the stories I had only previously experienced in book form! I couldn’t resist. I picked up four cassettes that day, one for each of the first four Doctors. An Unearthly Child, The Seeds of Death, Spearhead from Space and The Ark in Space. The latter was a story I remembered fondly but the others were new. Best of all An Unearthly Child’s cover announced it was “The first ever televised Doctor Who adventure” something I’d never even experienced in book form, the novelisation having finally come out in 1981 by which time I’d moved on to more grownup books.

Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, just when I thought I was out the Doctor pulled me back in. And in I’ve remained, through the false hope of the TV movie in 1996 to the eventual rebirth of the show in 2005.

Which brings us to now and to that future I spoke about at the beginning of this article. Who is 50 this year (I’m not far behind) and while most have been celebrating the buildup to that momentous anniversary I’ve decided to use it as a starting point. So on Saturday 23rd November 2013 at 5:15 I’ll be watching An Unearthly Child and I’ll be watching one episode every day from there on. At the end of each story I’ll be posting a review on Mine Was Taller. For the missing episodes I’ll either be using the Loose Cannon reconstructions or the BBC audio CDs with linking narration. Maybe both.

So that’s the plan for now. From there I may expand things to include some of the Who novels, comics and audio dramas but we’ll start with the TV episodes and see how we go. We’ve had false starts on here before but if there’s one thing that should keep me writing it’s writing about something I love and I love Doctor Who. I have since I was six and hopefully I’ll be able to bring some of that little boys sense of wonder to the reviews. I’ve got great-nephews now who are fans of the show and it’s nice to be able to share something that has lasted so long it’s transcended…well time and space I guess.

Feel free to join in. I think allowing ourselves 25 minutes or so out of every 24 hours to try and recapture that magical feeling that only the Doctor can provide is time well spent.

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Film7070 Week 7: 2004

2004: Brotherhood

Brotherhood is an epic Korean war movie in the same mould as Saving Private Ryan. Like Spielberg’s film it features some shockingly brutal battle scenes but it also suffers from Ryan‘s biggest failing – an overly sentimental story.

The tale of two brothers who are pressed into the service of the South when it goes to war with North Korea is overly melodramatic. Before the war they’re living a poor but idilic life, one of the brothers is getting an education while the elder helps pay for said education by doing shoe repairs. War shatters their plans but the elder brother makes a deal with his commanding officer – if he gets a medal his younger brother will be allowed to return home. Thus big brother becomes a super soldier, singlehandedly wiping out half the North Korean army. What makes this cloying sentimentality bearable is the realistic battle scenes, there’s a randomness to the battlefield that really puts you in the thick of things.

Sadly the story takes a contrived twist towards the end that sees the two brothers fighting on opposite sides. It’s at this point the film lost me and any interest I had in the resolution of the siblings story evaporated.

Brotherhood is half a great war movie but it falls down with it’s central characters and thus the viewers emotional involvement. It also makes no effort to explore the politics of the conflict – Communists are bad is about as deep as it gets, although in fairness it does show that atrocities were perpetrated on both sides.

Just a final note on the Saving Private Ryan parallels, both films feature scenes set in modern times with Brotherhood bookended with the surviving brother being contacted by the army when they uncover the remains of those who died during the films climactic battle scene. This adds nothing to the film though other than an extra dose of sentimentality.
[rating:3]

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Film7070 Week 6: 1961 & 1990

1961: Tierra Brutal aka The Savage Guns

I had high hopes for Tierra Brutal. It’s a film that’s not easy to find, but, being a fan of Richard Basehart since watching him as Admiral Nelson in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as a boy, the prospect of seeing him take the lead in what I’d heard described as a proto-spaghetti western (it was filmed in Spain) was hard to resist. So perhaps my expectation were a little high when I finally tracked it down. I was hoping to unearth a hidden gem, what I got was a fairly standard B western that has little of the style of the spaghetti westerns that were to come a few short years later.

Perhaps this lack of continental flavour shouldn’t have come as a surprise, the film was directed by an Englishman, Michael Carreras, a name that’s more familiar to horror fans than western aficionados. Michael was a producer and director with Hammer Films and the son of the studios founder Sir James Carreras. Not the sort of background you’d expect for a western movie director but he does a competent, if decidedly unspectacular, job.

Basehart does well as the gunfighter who’s looking for a place to hang up his guns (yes that old chestnut) but finds it’s never that easy to escape your past. The rest of the cast is made up of minor American actors, attractive Spanish ladies and a presumably hard up Fernando Rey. All of which leads to a frankly rather dull 90 minutes.
[rating:2]

1990: The Reflecting Skin

Philip Ridley is a director who divides audiences, is he pretentious and deliberately obscure or a visionary filmmaker who gives us a quirky, and often bleak, view of the world? After watching The Passion of Darkly Noon I was leaning more towards visionary than pretentious and The Reflecting Skin has pushed me further that way.

Told from a child’s perspective but with little of the happy nostalgia such films usually foster, this is a bleak look at depression era rural America. The film lacks any characters you can really identify with, everyone is a little weird, not least our central character, ten year old Seth Dove, and they’re not very sympathetic either. The film has a very dark tone and yet it’s also strangely beautiful, there’s some gorgeous cinematography.

It isn’t without it’s weak points – Jeremy Cooper, making his screen debut as Seth, isn’t a strong enough actor to carry the film and the pace at times is too slow, although whenever you feel your attention starting to wander the film throws another level of weirdness at you that pulls you back in.

I don’t want to give too much away, I knew very little about the film going in and I think that worked in its favour. It’s a hypnotic, at times deeply disturbing drama with some strong supporting performances, Duncan Fraser as Seth’s Father being worthy of special mention, as is Sheila Moore as his tyrannical and mentally unstable Mum. It’s not a film that’s quickly forgotten, there is at least one truly horrifying moment and enough disturbing images for a few nightmares but there’s also the question of what Ridley was trying to say with his portrait of this truly dysfunctional family. Ridley’s view of childhood certainly isn’t the rose coloured golden years that the movies often promote it as. The superficial beauty of the setting contrasting with the dark secrets that all the characters have.
[rating:3.5]

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Film7070 Week 5: 1957

1957: The Tall T

I’ve often heard the classic westerns produced by Director Budd Boetticher and star Randolph Scott spoken of with a reverence reserved for the likes of the Mann/Stewart and Ford/Wayne partnerships but until watching The Tall T my only experience of the pairs output was the superior revenge western 7 Men from Now. It’s fair to say that after watching The Tall T I’m now a fan and you’ll probably see a couple more of their films popping up in Film7070 in the coming weeks.

Several things set the The Tall T apart from the crowd of low budget westerns of the period, for starters there’s the script from Burt Kennedy. The first twenty minutes or so are spent establishing Scott’s character Pat Brennan, and it’s twenty minutes full of information – he’s a rancher, he works alone, he quit his previous job as a foreman on a larger spread to try his luck on his own, he’s unmarried and he’s not adverse to a gamble, the latter fact leaving him afoot when he wagers his horse against a prize bull. The result of all this is that we feel like we know Brennan in a short space of time, and we like him, he’s a happy-go-lucky kind of guy who takes the rough with the smooth and doesn’t bear a grudge, although he’s not one to be laughed at. The beauty of Kennedy’s script is that we get all this information from a few exchanges that never feel anything but natural, there’s no sense of forced exposition. This deftness of touch is apparent throughout the film as we are introduced to other characters.

The film also features two fine performances, firstly from Scott and also from Richard Boone as the films main villain Frank Usher. Scott’s an actor I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve got older, growing up I always found him wooden and unconvincing. It took Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country to convince me there was more to Scott than I’d originally thought and I think he’s certainly an actor who improved with age. Here he’s given a wonderfully rounded character to play, and he exudes rough charm and ready wit as Brennan.

It’s rare for a western villain to be as fleshed out a Boone’s Usher. He’s far more than the usual ‘black hat’ for the hero to face. He’s charming, funny and, were it not for some of the acts he’s instigated, he’d be a likeable guy. There’s a sense that, under different circumstances, he could have been living Brennan’s life, the two characters being similar in many respects. I may not have cared for Scott as I was growing up but Boone is an actor I’ve always admired. I’m too young to remember his most famous roll as Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel but I remember watching Hec Ramsey, which started in the early seventies when I was about seven or eight. The Tall T came out the same year Have Gun Will Travel debuted on TV and it’s easy to see how he made the leap from supporting actor to TV star.

Boetticher weaves these elements together to create a tense little film that’s low on gun play but high on character, but when the lead does start flying he handles the action with as much aplomb as the psychological thrills that have gone before. He even manages to make you wonder if things will follow their usual path for a low budget oater i.e. the villains lying dead in the dirt while the hero rides off with the girl, although in this case the girl, Maureen O’Sullivan, most famous (to me at least) as Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan, hadn’t been a ‘girl’ for some time. It’s one more thing that sets Boetticher’s film apart, it’s not just the maturity with which the film is handled, it’s the maturity of the characters themselves.

I think I’ll stop now as this is coming dangerously close to a full review, something that was never the plan for Film7070 posts, but I will leave you with this – if you are a fan of the western genre then you owe it to yourself to seek out The Tall T. Trust me you won’t regret it.
[rating:4]

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Film7070 Week 4: 2007

2007: Hot Fuzz

Well if the idea behind Film7070 was to see how films have influenced each other over the years then I doubt I’ll find a film where the influences are easier to spot than Hot Fuzz. There’s no subtlety to Hot Fuzz’s filmic referencing, the characters talk about then, we see the videos on display and, just in case you’re a complete novice when it comes to the action movie genre, we even get clips from a couple (Point Break and Bad Boys II). It’s this OTT action movie lovefest that sets the film apart from the same creative teams superior Shaun of the Dead.

Shaun payed tribute to it’s zombie forbears with a nod and a wink, and if you missed it in didn’t matter, the film worked perfectly well without. Shaun was a horror comedy while Hot Fuzz is a spoof, and as a spoof it requires you know what’s being spoofed, because if you don’t the film doesn’t work. This may sound like a complaint, and to some degree it is, but a good spoof can still be an entertaining film, just look at Airplane or Blazing Saddles. It’s also something that’s very hard to do well, just look at…well pretty much every other spoof.

Hot Fuzz does it well, it hits the target far more than it misses and even scores a couple of bulls-eyes. It’s not as well written and it’s characters aren’t as believable as those in Shaun of the Dead; who do you relate to more, Pegg’s supercop or Shaun who works in a shop, has trouble with his girlfriend and likes a drink down the pub? That was a rhetorical question by the way, unless John McClane’s reading this. It’s our identification with the characters that makes Shaun such a joy to watch, with Hot Fuzz it’s the situations that elicit the humour.

I guess what it comes down to is I’d rather watch a comedy than a spoof, but if I’ve got to watch something being lampooned then I hope it’s as entertainingly done as Hot Fuzz.
[rating:3.5]

Next up some classic western action from 1957 with Randolph Scott in The Tall T.

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Film7070 Week 3: 1970

1970: The Dunwich Horror

This early attempt to bring the work of H.P. Lovecraft to the screen owes as much to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as it does to the master of cosmic horror. There’s little of the Old Ones here, the focus of the movie is Wilbur Whateley’s attempt to seduce innocent Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) over to the dark side and in so doing put a devilish bum in her virgin oven.

Producer Roger Corman may have been the antecedent of Asylum, modern purveyors of direct-to-dvd knock-off trash, but at least when Corman did it he did it with class. He also knew talent when he saw it, with many great filmmakers getting their start with him and The Dunwich Horror features an early screen credit (as writer) for future Oscar winner Curtis Hanson.

The Dunwich Horror is no classic, but it does have some things to enjoy. Dean Stockwell’s creepy Wilbur (could there be a less menacing name for a villain?) ranks at the top. There’s a perverse malevolence to Stockwell’s performance and he’s always good value for money in villainous roles.

Another plus is the films restraint when it comes to showing Wilbur’s monstrous sibling. Rather than show the obligatory craptastic monster, it keeps it hidden, either offscreen or behind a very sixties psychedelic light show, making the viewer add the details from their own imagination. Whether this is down to a stylistic choice by the filmmakers or to the fact the monster was so bad they dare not show it I don’t know but it definitely works in the films favour.

I can’t say I’d recommend The Dunwich Horror to any but the most diehard horror fan, there have been far better Lovecraft adaptations since (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Shatterbrain and Dagon come to mind) but there are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
[rating:2.5]

For more Film7070 check out Jordan McGrath’s review of the classic 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident

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Film7070 Week 2: 1978

1978: The Shout

What to make of The Shout? Well this late seventies attempt at art house horror was, for me at least, a disappointing failure. It doesn’t lack for quality acting talent, Alan Bates is as broodingly demonic as only Bates can be, while John Hurt does a decent job as the philandering husband who’s household Bates insinuates himself into, although sadly the late Susannah York’s talents are underused, she’s little more than a symbol for the two men’s power struggle and not a fully fleshed out character. The concept is also not uninteresting, Bates character utilising mystical powers he’s learned while living with the Aborigines in the Australian outback to exert his influence over York and Hurt.

Or does he? The structure of the film leaves you wondering just how much of what you’re seeing is actually real, the film being told by Bates while an inmate in an asylum. This too works in the films favour, giving it an element of mystery that means you’re never sure where the film is heading, always a plus in this age of by the numbers plotting.

No, what ultimately disappointed me was the films climax, for it felt as if not only did the viewer not know where the film was heading but neither did the director. After a slow and purposeful buildup the film hurries headlong into a frenetic, madcap and, frankly, downright silly final ten minutes. It felt as if all concerned had grown bored with the films concept and decided to wrap things up as quickly as possible. While there were certainly things I enjoyed about The Shout, ultimately it’s the feeling of dissatisfaction the ending engendered that has stayed with me and it’s left me with little desire to seek out any of Jerzy Skolimowski’s other films.
[rating:2.5]

I’m already behind on these write-ups having just started week 4′s viewing, so I’ll try and get week 3 done this week as well, which will feature the rather less highbrow Roger Corman production of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror.

For more Film7070 check out EatSleepLiveFilm.com and Movie Waffle

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10 Films that made me Laugh, Cry and Squirm in My Cinema Seat in 2010

So now that we’ve covered what I missed and got those that under-performed out of the way it’s time for my top ten films of 2010. Just to qualify the list before we start – these are the ten films I enjoyed the most at the cinema this year, I make no claims for their artistic merit. They provided me with a good time at the cinema and it’s in order of my level of enjoyment that I’ve listed them in here.

My Top 10 Films of 2010

10. Date Night – That this is the only comedy on my list probably shows that it’s not my favourite genre. Having said that I do like a good laugh, although my sense of humour may not be considered normal (I find Jerry Lewis funny and I’m not even French). 2009′s top grossing comedy The Hangover barely raised a smile so the fact that Date Night is on here may mean it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Steve Carell and Tina Fey share wonderful onscreen chemistry and perfect comic timing making a convincing married couple and the film moved at a brisk pace so if any jokes did fall flat you didn’t have long to wait for another. There were also some amusing cameos from James Franco and Will i Am, not to mention Mark Wahlberg sending up his beefcake image.

9. Red Hill – If there were marks for originality Red Hill would score a flat zero. There is nothing in it’s plot or characters that we haven’t seen before, it’s a revenge western albeit one that’s transported to modern day Australia. So why did it make my top 10? Well I do love a good western and, despite it’s lack of originality, Red Hill is a good western. It contains three strong performances – True Blood‘s Ryan Kwanten as a young police officer just arrived at his new small town post, Steve Bisley as the town’s veteran police chief and Tommy Lewis as the escaped convict on his way to town with vengeance on his mind. Red Hill may cover familiar terrain but sometimes it’s nice to go for a ride over familiar ground.

8. Solomon Kane – When it comes to the current crop of British horror directors Michael J. Bassett has always seemed to me an also-ran, not in the same league as Neil Marshall or Chris Smith. Until Solomon Kane that is. Bassett does an excellent job of bringing the grim world of Robert E. Howard’s Puritan adventurer to the screen. For all his good work though it’s James Purefoy’s performance as Kane that’s the main reason the film makes my list. When I first heard Purefoy had been cast I was disappointed. I’d always imagined Kane to have a gaunt appearance, in my head he looked liked Peter Cushing in Twins of Evil only younger, and Purefoy looked a bit too well fed for my liking. What a pleasure it was to be so wrong! Purefoy is now Kane in my minds eye and I just hope we get to see him in the role again.

7. The Killer Inside Me – Another film that made my top 10 due to an excellent central performance. Few films have done such a fine job of taking us inside the mind of a psychopath as The Killer Inside Me. Michael Winterbottom’s film is uncomfortable viewing and yet, thanks to a career best performance from Casey Affleck, it’s also totally mesmerising. Good as he was in Gone Baby Gone it’s as disturbed individuals in this and the underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that Affleck really excels. It also contains some of the most disturbing violence I’ve seen this year…and I’m a regular FrightFest goer and not easily shocked.

6. Kick-Ass – Would Kick-Ass have been half as much fun without Chloe Moretz foul mouthed Hit-Girl? Lets just be glad we didn’t have to find out and enjoy the scene-stealing performance of an actress who is sure to go on to bigger and better things. I just hope Matthew Vaughn can do as good a job rebooting the X-Men franchise as he did at adapting Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s graphic novel.

5. The Disappearance of Alice Creed – One of the best debut movies and a wonderfully tense and inventive thriller that manages to make that old chestnut – the kidnap that doesn’t go to plan – feel fresh. There are only three actors in the film and they are all outstanding but Gemma Arterton deserves special praise. She was pretty awful in the equally awful Quantum of Solace and forgettable in the equally forgettable Clash of the Titans but give her a decent part and she really rises to the occasion, giving a brave performance as the titular abductee that’s probably my favourite by any actress this year. Director J Blakeson does wonders with no budget and limited locations, I can’t wait to see what he does with a broader canvas.

4. The Crazies – Okay we should get this out of the way at the start – I’m a huge Timothy Olyphant fan. He’s the star of one of the best shows currently on television, Justified (if you haven’t seen it you should, it’s a cracking modern day western) and he really should be a bigger star than he is. Okay now we’ve got that out of the way lets talk about The Crazies. Back when I first saw this at the cinema I tweeted that it was the best remake since Carpenter’s The Thing and I think I’d stick to that bold statement. While I love Romero’s films, hey I even own Bruiser, The Crazies isn’t his best film by a blood drenched country mile. In fact it comes somewhere in the mid-ground, not bad but not as well realised as the concept really deserved. Director Breck Eisner takes that idea of a town going crazy and, with the help of an excellent cast, creates a horror film that generates it’s scares the old fashioned way, by creating characters you actually care about and putting them in life and death situations.

3. Buried – Ryan Reynolds is a damn fine actor. I make that point because the majority of his work has barely scrapped the surface of his ability, so most people may not be aware of how good he can be. In Buried he is required to carry the film because he is the only actor we see, all the other performances are vocal only. If he’d been nominated for an Oscar it would have been well deserved. Buried is also an extremely well directed film, Rodrigo Cortès doing a great job of capturing the claustrophobic atmosphere that Reynolds character finds himself in.

2. Monsters – Back when I wrote about my biggest disappointments of 2010 I mentioned that there were two alien invasion movies made by directors with a special effects background. Monsters is the one that got it right, although to call it an ‘alien invasion’ movie is stretching things a bit. There are aliens, and they have invaded part of out world (unintentionally, it has to be said) but it’s not the aliens that the film is concerned with. Monsters is actually a love story that uses the aliens and the infected region of Mexico they occupy as a backdrop on which to hang its tale of two people finding each other. If Werner Herzog made a science fiction love story I imagine it would be something like Monsters. Gareth Edwards’s movie is one of the most assured debuts for years and a wakeup call to Hollywood – you don’t need to spend millions to make a great movie, you just need a great concept, talented actors and, most importantly a director with a vision.

1. Inception – But if you have a great concept, talented actors and that visionary director and you throw millions of dollars into the pot as well you could end up with Inception. I’m not going to write much about Inception, it was one of the biggest films of last year and you’ll probably have seen it already and have your own opinion. What I would like to say is a big thank you to Christopher Nolan for performing his own inception on Hollywood, inserting an original idea into a summer of sequels and remakes, showing that you can make a summer blockbuster without aiming your film at the lowest IQ in the audience. That Inception has had people talking about it long after they’ve come out of the cinema is the antithesis of the usual multiplex reaction where you’re lucky if you can remember what happened by the time you’ve made it out of the car park for the journey home. I for one am glad that the next Batman movie will be Nolan’s last, it means we’ll get more original Nolan, and that has to be a good thing.

And there we have it, my top 10 films of 2010, and completed just before the end of January! 2011 has started off mixed, so far I’ve seen one film that may be in the number 1 spot when I do this list next year (Black Swan) another that could make the top ten (The Fighter) and one that’ll be hard to beat for the title of biggest disappointment of 2011 (John Carpenter’s The Ward). We’ll see what the rest of the year brings.

I seem to have caught the blogging bug again, just about averaging my one post a week target. The Film7070 journal will continue shortly with week two featuring The Shout from 1978 and I’ll be making a start this weekend on the first of those classic Western TV show reviews I mentioned at the start of the year (it’ll be season 1 of Gunsmoke, the grandaddy of ‘adult’ TV westerns).

KISS ME DEADLY

Film7070 Week 1: 1955 & 1965

What, you may be asking yourself, is Film7070? It started off as a challenge Dan Auty (aka MondoDan) set himself for 2011 – watch 70 films, one from each year from 1940 to 2009. There are a few rules – you can’t have seen the films before, you have to watch at least one film from every continent (with the exception of Antarctica), you can’t go back to a year until you’ve completed all seventy…you get the idea.

Word spread on Twitter and others took up the challenge – eatsleepjordan, gilesedwards, MrWengWeng, KYUSS123, emilybwebb, moviedan to name just a few. Some set up their own additional rules – doing the films in chronological order in eatsleepjordan and moviedan’s case.

Always up for a movie watching challenge I jumped in too, like most of the Film7070 crew I saw it as an opportunity to fill in some gaps in my cinematic education, watch some neglected classics that have been sitting on a shelf gathering dust and, at least in my case, spread my horizons a little further afield than my regular viewing, for example I’ve got some Czechoslovakian SF lined up for 1963. Which brings us to this post. Rather than just watch the films and tweet about them after I decided I wanted to write a little more, not a full review but more than the 140 characters Twitter allows, so this is the first of my weekly Film7070 journals where I’ll express my feelings about the films I’ve watched that week.

1955: Kiss Me Deadly

The first film I plucked from where it sat, unloved, on my shelf was Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.

I don’t know what I expected from Kiss Me Deadly. My vision of Mickey Spillane’s PI Mike Hammer was coloured by Stacy Keach on TV and by Armand Assante in I, the Jury (one of my guilty pleasures). Ralph Meeker is something else again.

Meeker’s Hammer isn’t afraid of a little violence, in fact I think it’s fair to say he positively enjoys it. The film features a couple of fight scenes between Hammer and hired goons Jack Lambert and Jack Elam but it’s his encounter with little Percy Helton that stuck in my mind. Helton’s morgue attendant makes the mistake of trying to extort money from Hammer but soon learns the error of his ways when he gets his fingers trapped in a desk drawer. What struck me about the scene wasn’t the level of violence, you don’t really see anything, it was the look of pleasure on Hammer’s face as he tortures the diminutive doctor. It just serves to reinforce the notion that, while Hammer is the film’s lead character, he’s no hero.

Robert Aldrich isn’t a new director to me, I’ve seen a fair few of his films. He’s a director that can’t be pigeonholed, he directed the action classic The Dirty Dozen but could also turn his hand to disturbing psychological thrillers like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. So the fact that Kiss Me Deadly was so well crafted came as little surprise. What did surprise me was how influential the film feels. Surely this must be a favourite film of David Lynch, there’s a sense of almost Lynchian weirdness to much of the film and characters, Percy Helton’s previously mentioned morgue attendant for one and Gaby Rodgers waif-like but deadly femme fatale for another.

But it’s not just Lynch’s imagination that must have been fired by Aldrich’s hardboiled classic. The films glowing ‘great whats-it’ was surely the spark that ignited the radiant car-boot/case/ark in…well you dont need me to tell that you I’m sure. It’s that sense of filmmakers feeding off each other that was one of the things I was hoping to discover with Film7070 and for that aspect alone Kiss Me Deadly would have been a great first film but it’s also a first rate thriller in its own right.
[rating:4]

1965: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Like Aldrich, Martin Ritt wasn’t a name unfamiliar to me, his work with Paul Newman on Hud and Hombre being particular favourites. He seemed an odd choice to helm an adaptation of a John le Carrè cold war thriller though, as I associated him with hot American deserts not drab English and German streets.

How wrong I was! He captures the gritty realism of the spy game just as well as the arid landscapes of the West. Shooting in black and white was a master stroke, everything seems so much more oppressive.

I used to think of Harry Palmer as the antithesis of James Bond, but Richard Burton’s Alec Leamas makes Palmer seem positively whimsical by comparison. Burton’s performance as the broken down, alcoholic spy sent on one last mission behind the Iron Curtain is the heart of the film. That grim black and white cinematography is how Burton’s character views the world, drab and pointless. Only his relationship with an idealistic young woman gives him any respite from the dirty, backstabbing world of espionage and yet he’d rather face death on the job than suffer the slow death of a desk job.

The film isn’t without it’s flaws – a final act that feels rushed, a wayward accent from Sam Wanamaker – but Burton makes it worth seeing. There are also excellent, if a little too brief, turns from Cyril Cusack as spymaster Control and Michael Hordern and Robert Hardy as communist spys.

Like Kiss Me Deadly, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold feels influential, but this time that influence has been felt more on the small screen, from the obvious Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People (both adapted from le Carrè novels and featuring the character George Smiley who makes an appearance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) as well as Callan in the sixties and The Sandbagers in the seventies and even Spooks now.
[rating:3.5]

So that’s Film7070 week one done and two years, and two very enjoyable films down, sixty-eight to go!

For more on Film7070 check out eatsleeplivefilm.com

And don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten that promised top ten, that’ll be coming very soon.