Monday, May 19, 2008

England, My England

Pretty, isn't it? This is where I live. It's called "Great Britain" and it is couple of small fishing islands in the Mid-Atlantic, you might have heard of it/them. I actually live in the red bit. That's called "England." It's where all the history comes from.

It's not a bad place to live in, really - despite the weather and the crushing disappointment that is our national football team. I could - after all - have been born a Welshman and that would have been terrible. But I do sometimes wonder what me being born and raised in England actually says about me to the wider world. And, it seems that I'm not alone in this. There is something of a hot debate currently taking place in some political circles - and in the media at large - about that most vexed of subjects the nature of "English identity" and what relevence it can have in this day and age.

Here's a true story. I was in a record shop - Tower Records, I think it was - in Sherman Oaks near Los Angeles a few years ago buying some cheap CDs. I knew that I was likely to be asked if I had any photo-ID so I took my passport along with me. I was chatting to the geezer on the counter and, when requested, pulled out my passport to prove that I was who my credit card said I was. "How come you've got a British passport when you're Irish?", he asked. (I've grown somewhat accustomed over the years to many people - many English people at that - thinking Newcastle is a small suburb of Edinburgh, but I'd never before realised it had moved to become a small suburb of Dublin as well.)

In a St. George's essay in 2002, the songwriter, activist and author Billy Bragg called for the English to reclaim their national identity from the racists and xenophobes who have become so hatefully associated with the English flag. He followed that up with a - genuinely - excellent book on the same subject The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging (London: Bantam Press, 2006). Now, I respect Bill greatly - both as a songwriter and as a human being - but I think he's barking (s'cuse the pun, Bill) up the wrong tree with this whole "English National Identity" malarkey. I don't believe such a thing exists or that it ever has existed (except as an artifical construct of cosy jingoistic nostalgia to be sold as patriotism in times of war or preceived national crisis). And that, even if it did once exist, it certainly doesn't now. At least not in the way that most people would understand the concept of "a national identity."

If I'm ever asked how I would define myself - not that I ever am, but let's just suppose for the sake of argument - then I would say, first and foremost, that I'm a Tynesider and, secondly, that I'm British. And, that I'm very proud of both of those classifications. One is all about who I am and the region that spawned and shaped me and gave me a sense of belonging and the other is about who I came from and what my history is. Because, as the great reggae band Misty in Roots perceptively noted "Without knowledge of your history you cannot determine your destiny." By contrast, I have absolutely no idea what "being English" is supposed to represent - as defined by something that is specifically seperate from "being British." I can understand the Scots, Welsh and Irish having, and celebrating, their own national identity because all three have a very definite and unique aboriginal culture that is completely apart from the generic "British culture" that was imposed on them by English invaders who subsequently absorbed massive chunks of Scots/Welsh/Irish culture into their own. But, what culture should we aspire to from the English and the English alone? The race itself is - and has always been - a polyglot tribe, made up of lots of bits and pieces of different pre-Norman European invaders.

The English language is also an artificial construct, glued together from various Dutch and Germanic languages, along with a bit of Latin, and then given a distinctive Gallic flourish post-1066. England's vision of itself was largely shaped in the Middle Ages by a variety of romantic ideals for some mythical age that never even existed (King Arthur, Robin Hood, Jesus at Glastonbury). And, since the 19th Cenutry, English culture has magpie-like, consumed and digested whatever new ideas it could find from first its Empire and then, when that crumbled, from its immigrants (from Ireland, from the Caribbean, from the Indian subcontinent, from Africa, from Eastern Europe).

Everything - and this is genuinely not a criticism, it's something to be celebrated as far as I'm concerned - from our food, to our language, our music and our architecture takes freely from others to produce something that is ultimately described as "English." However much the Daily Mail may hate the very idea, "being English" doesn't necessarily mean being a middle-aged Tory Miles Cholmondeley-Warner clone from Berkshire who is disgusted because the Wogs and the Poufs and the Reds are conspiring to take over the world. But, of course, that then begs the obvious question if "being English" doesn't mean that what does it mean?

Yes, this is the indeed nation of Shakespeare and Shelley; of William Blake and Christopher Wren; of Tony Benn and Oswald Mosley; of Jane Austen and Hanif Kureshi; of John Peel and The Beatles; of Bobby Charlton and Douglas Jardine; of Bill Oddie and Jeremy Clarkson; of Thomas Beckett and Basil Hume; of Abi Titmuss and Jade Goody. But does that mean that any of these people were specifically shaped by their uniquely English heritage in the way that, say, Rabbie Burns or The Bay City Rollers were shaped by their Scottish heritage?

Whenever one sees a representation of what is supposed to be "Englishness" in the media - and I fully realise this is the kind of crass stereotype I normally rage against with much bile, but bear with me - it's usually a very "home counties" one: It is tea, cricket, the Queen, Stonehenge, Last Night of the Proms and 'Land of Hope and Glory' and England's Green and Pleasant Land. (A side-note: It's remarkable, is it not, just how few commentators bother to read the first verse of Blake's Milton before skipping straight to the second - straight past all of those "dark Satanic mills" - to get to the quaint, middle-class-friendly stuff?) Now, most of the above are totally fine in their own context (I LOVE cricket, for instance) but still, most seemed very alien to me when I was growing up as a fat schoolboy on a council estate in Newcastle in the 1960s and 70s.

Some writers - I'm thinking mainly of Simon Sharma in A History of Britain and Andrew Marr in The Modern History of Britain - have attempted to address this challenging dichotemy but, the very fact that the word "Britain" is prominent in the titles of both of those works says much. We cannot divorce ourselves from the rest of the British Isles - however much some of us would like to - because, quite simply, they are us and we are they ... and we are all together, goo-goo-goo-joob. When Terry Collier delivers his famous rant in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? about never being able to stand the Irish or the Welsh "and the Scots are worse than the Koreans" it is comedy pointed, wholly, at the insularity and small-minded nature of the Little Englander. The rest of the world (right up to, and including, "the people who live next door" whom Terry also can't stand and who provide the joke's punchline) can be divided into neat little boxes. I'm presuming Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais implicitly understood that a sizeable chunk of the viewing audience would be laughing not at Terry but with him and that, in and of itself, is part of the joke.

Let me ask this question: The average person - an average working, tax-paying, TV viewing, newspaper reading, CD listening, we're-going-on-holiday-to-Fuetreventura-this-year man or woman - in, let's say Newcastle, or Liverpool or Sheffield, to use two other fine Northern cities. Does that average Northern person have more in common with the average man or woman in London or the average man or woman in Glasgow? I would suggest the latter, no question - we share a similar history of industrialisation, a similar sense of humour, similar traditions, similar - predominantly working class - forms of identity and social interaction, similar tastes for beer and football, or whatever. That kind of destroys the idea that a format for being "English" can be written down as a set of shared ideals for all of The English, when a good half of them have much more in common with our Celtic neighbours to the North or the West than we do with other Englishmen.

So how DOES one define "Englishness"? The major influence on almost all of our pop groups - and, indeed, the vast majority of our post-war films, television, literature and other media - are just about exclusively American; our railways and most of our major cities were built by the sweat of Irish immigrants; our Patron Saint was Turkish and we've got a monarchy that's mostly German with a bit of Greek thrown in. I dislike the wretched bellowing yobs who've already tarred one of our great national games and who are in danger of tarring the other as much as the next man but, in all seriousness, are they any less of an example of "Englishness", whatever that is, than some haughty red-coated huntsmen from the Countryside Alliance singing 'Jerusalem' on Songs of Praise? It was, after all, the scum of the back streets and the sewers of London and other British cities (not exclusively English, please note) that won the battles of Cressy, Agincourt and Waterloo, that drowned in the mud of Passchendaele and drove the tanks through the desert of El Alamain and the carnage of Monte Cassino.

I imagine yer average skinhead numbskull, his tattooed knuckles scraping the concrete as he chants another drunken chorus of "Come and Have a Go if y'think yer Hard Enough" at some helpless Belgian shopkeeper or Portugeuse barman or Italian waiter genuinely believes he's following in the gloriously violent footsteps of the soldiers whom Henry V called his band of brothers. (It's noticeable, of course, that when they all went home, Prince Harry didn't seem overly keen on having any of them round his gaff for tea and crumpets. I'll give his 21st Century namesake that much - at least he seemed to remember who his mates were once he got out of Afghanistan.) In short, are the teenage hoodies and pikeys and chavs who drink their alcopops on our streets and seem intent on stabbing each other to death with such abandon any less of an example of "Englishness", per se, than Hugh Grant and Keira Knightley sipping tea on the manicured lawns of Thomas Hardy's Wessex?

I've always thought of "Englishness" as being more of a casual ethnic tag rather than a national identity in and of itself. What was it Benjamin Zephaniah said? "Me come from afar but me live here/And all me want is an equal share." Rite on, brother.

On a, slightly, linked subject I'm putting up an extended version of one of my Top Telly Tips for tonite. Because, it's something I feel rather strongly about. You might've noticed. Comments are welcome, as always. Especially from the lady herself if she happens to stumble across this whilst scouring the Internet for unkind comments about her daughter's girth.

The Duchess in Hull – 9:00 ITV

Quite possibly the most single offensive show on television this year as Sarah Ferguson moves into a council estate on Humberside ("errr, nerrr") to help (I say “help”) the Sargersons - a family of overweight smokers. Or, since this is Hull, smirkers. It’s not just the crassly smug and self-delighted nature of the pre-publicity blurb for this show or the fact that the highlight (I say “highlight”) of the Duchess in question’s previous TV career being It’s a Royal Knockout, but rather a comment she made about her hosts last week: “Tonia [the mother] and I have identical views on certain issues, but we're not the same. I come from a privileged background and have been educated.” Because, of course, nobody who crawled from the primal sludge of a council house ever progressed beyond finger painting, did they Fergie? Sorry, remind me again how many O Levels you and Diana managed to get between you? It's 2008 - this used to be a free country, these days you can't even have a cigarette or a bacon sarnie without some member of the bloody royal family coming around your gaff and telling you to cut it out. But, what I really object to most is the fact that I spent several years my life watching my taxes - and everybody elses, for that matter - being used to subsidise the Duchess of York's lifestyle via the Civil List. A lifestyle which let us remember seemed to consist largely of her going on skiing holidays every other week between 1987 and 1992. Why anybody with an ounce of self-dignity or pride in themselves or their identity would want to watch this abomination - for either entertainment or information, the two things which television is supposed to be there for - is completely beyond me. But some readers may like to give it a go. For novelty - or, indeed, car-crash - value if nothing else. If you do tune-in then please let me know what it was like because I, myself, won't be watching it. I'll be over on Channel 4 checking out tonight's Team Team Special. Because like, I'm from a council estate, me, and as a consequence, am as ignorant as pigs shit. According to royalty, no less. If I watch enough TV I might, therefore, learn something from it - like wot my betters with their education and their privilege have. And she was crap in that episode of Friends as well.

I must remember to post-angry more often.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The J to M of Groovy Movies

Yeah, I know, three updates in a week.

What's all that about, then?

Jaws (1975): “Cold eyes! Dead eyes!” Awesome, suspense-filled Spielberg blockbuster about a shark terrorising a coastal community and the three men (Roy Scheider, Richard Dryfuss, Robert Shaw) who sail off the kill it before it kills them. Full of memorable set-pieces (if you didn't jump when the face appears in the hole at the bottom of the boat, you have no nervous system) and lots of memorable one-liners ("you're gonna need a bigger boat!")

J.F.K (1991): “You’re a goddamn liberal, Mr Garrison. You don’t know shit cos you’ve never been fucked up the ass.” Oliver Stone's riveting, obsessive, preachy, maddeningly self-righteous but fundamentally pulsating journey into the dark heart of US conspiracy theory. One of the most technically dazzling film experiences ever (the Oscar winning editing and cinematography should be watched by anyone who wants to know how to put a film together). There are moments in J.F.K where the viewer genuinely doesn't know if he's watching real archive footage or not. As a piece of dramatic storytelling, it's superb but ... it's also got faults and one of the biggest is not knowing when to say "stop!" The Donald Sutherland character is a case in point (based on genuine conspiracy loon, Fletcher Prouty, he almost derails the movie on his own). Great acting (Costner, Oldman, Joe Pesci, Laurie Metcalf and many others). Stone never made a movie a tenth as good as this again (and The Doors and Nixon are both fine films). With J.F.K, though, there's always a "but" lingering around the corner of ever compliment. The Director's Cut is almost four hours long but is, marginally, a better movie than the cinema version (30 minutes shorter).

Kids Are Alright, The (1979): Jeff Stein's exhilarating, non-linear history of The Who, told through archive TV and concert clips and interviews with the band. It could have gone all pretentious and serious (like Marty Scorsese's The Last Waltz), but the humour that the band (and, especially, Keith Moon) inject into the movie manages to put a break on Townshend's more arch moments. Too many great moments to list (but the bit of The Smothers' Brothers Show that opens the movie is worth it's weight in comedy gold). The DVD release restores about ten minutes of footage edited out of the original cinema release. Sadly, Keith died before he got old and missed the movie's premiere.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949): One of the greatest comedies ever made as Dennis Price sets out to murder numerous members of his family (all played by Alec Guinness) to gain an inheritance. Urbane, witty, full of punning social comment and wry observation. Ealing studio's finest hour.

Knack And How to Get It, The (1965): Inventive Dick Lester commentary on 60s Mod London. Quick-paced, stylish and with some keen observations on sexual politics. Rita Tushingham remains disturbingly alluring throughout.

LA Confidential (1995): Vivid, lithe and atmospheric recreation of the film-noire genre in the sleazy underbelly on 1950s Los Angeles. Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and, especially, Kim Bassinger are fabulous in James Ellroy's celebrated tale of corrupt cops, prostitution and human degradation.

Last King of Scotland, The (2006): Incredible feature debut for documentary film-maker Kevin MacDonald based on the novel of life in Idi Amin's Uganda in the 70s. Some brilliant performances (James McAvoy especially) but nothing can compete with Forrest Whittaker's extraordinary, manic, eye-bulging and Oscar-winning turn as the dictator. A staggering achievement for all concerned. Even Gillian Anderson’s English-rose accent is passable.

Last of Sheila, The (1973): With a script by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim it's worth it for curio value alone but this madly inventive thriller about the games played by a bunch of the international jet-set idle rich, leading to murder is clever and witty beyond it's station as a kind of cut-price Sleuth. Brilliant cast (James Coburn, James Mason, Ian McShane, Raquel Welsh) and assured direction by Herbert Ross and one of the cleverest last twenty or thirty minutes of any film ever made.

Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951): Charles Crichton's beautiful and hilarious heist movie concerning a gang of inept bank robbers in post-war London has matured well and is, if anything, even funnier these days than it was the 50s. A key-note example of Ealing comedy with a terrific cast (Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, Audrey Hepburn). "£25,000. Enough to keep me for one year in the style to which I was unaccustomed!"

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Towering in scope, conceit and homoeroticism(!), David Lean's epic - in every sense of the word - biopic of T.E. Lawrence still stands as a monument to those who said he'd never be able to match Bridge on the River Kwai again. O'Toole, Guinness and Sharif are great in this - the latter's arrival in the movie, in an agonisingly-held long-shot through a mirage, is one of cinema's most imitated shots.

Let it Be (1970): A voyeuristic look at the process of a group breaking up, Let it Be began with great intentions - the Beatles rehearsing and then performing an LP’s worth of new material. But the rehearsals, at Twickenham in January 1969, were a disaster – Ringo was bored, Paul had his bossy head on, John was strung-out on smack and distracted by Yoko’s presence and George got so pissed-off with the whole deal that he walked out. With hindsight, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s editing decisions often seem to highlight the tensions within the band and some present have suggested that the atmosphere wasn’t nearly as bad as Let it Be makes out. Still, if its only contribution to the Beatles archive was the exhilarating version of ‘Get Back’ as the police arrive to break up the rooftop concert, Let it Be is a worthwhile document of a painful month. “I’ll play whatever you want me to play…”

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943): Another brilliant, original gem from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. A darkly funny and touching memoir of the title character (Roger Livesey) through fifty years and three wars and which manages to be sentimental without ever resorting to mawkishness. Made at a time when war movies were largely crass propaganda, this one has a genuine sense of pacifism (perhaps that was why Churchill reported hated it so much and refused to let Laurence Olivier out of the army to participate).

Likely Lads, The (1976): Just about the only TV-to-movie adaptation ever to stand an even vague comparison with the show that spawned it. A key text to the 'sober and unemployed' 1970s Britain, a world of unwanted change, class consciousness and harsh realism after the joyous abandon of the 60s. James Bolam and Rodney Bewes reprise their TV roles in a comedy with laughs, touching moments and some sharp and bloody teeth. 'In the chocolate box of life, the top layer's already gone and somebody's nicked the orange crème from the bottom!'


Live And Let Die (1973): Roger Moore's debut as 007 followed the brash, sleazy, over-the-top template of Sean's last outing, Diamonds Are Forever, in this complex narrative mixture of gangsters and Caribbean voodoo that could be best described as The Saint Gets Shafted. Brilliant, pithy Tom Mankerwicz script and it features one of the series' best villains (Yaphat Koto) and sexiest Bond girls (Jane Seymour). Full of quotable dialogue ("Names is for tombstones, baby. Y'all take this honky out an' waste him!") and terrific set-pieces (the boat chase). Roger's Bond was never this hard or callous again.

Local Hero (1983): Bill Forsyth transplants a 1930 Frank Capra "feel-good" movie to the Scottish Islands in the 1980s. Enchanting and very funny, with a stunning Mark Knoffler soundtrack and great performances (Denis Lawson, Peter Riegert, Burt Lancaster, Fulton MacKay, Peter Capaldi). The sequence with the rabbit pie is as dryly funny as British comedy ever gets.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998): Guy Ritchie's feature debut is a astonishingly pacey and often amusing Pulp Fiction-style clash of numerous storylines all surrounding the seamier side of Cool Britannia London. Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran and Jason Statham are terrific as four mates caught up in one ridiculous cock-up after another. Vinnie Jones simply astonishes as the psychotic Big Chris (“it’s been emotional!”), Lenny McLean is wonderfully foul-mouthed. Even Sting couldn't screw this one up. Though he does try his best. Great soundtrack too. Most of the same cast returned in Ritchie's follow-up Snatch – which is twice as long and half-as-good.

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962): Tony Richardson’s grim and gritty adaptation of the Alan Sillotoe play about the shackles society places on rebellious youth. Tom Courtney (in a career-defining role), James Bolam and Michael Redgrave at their absolute best. Keep your eye out for a cameo by a hideously young John Thaw. “I'm going to let them think they've got me house trained, but they never will, the bastards. To get me beat, they'll have to stick a rope around my neck.”


Longest Day, The (1962): Probably costing far more than the actual Normandy D-Day operation The Longest Day works on several levels - the most obvious being the "don't blink or you might miss several" nature of the Star-Studded cast. Much of the cast works very well (Sean Connery's comedy double act with Norman Rossington is an unexpected highlight). Some less so, and some is just downright tokenism - Rod Steiger getting all of 43 seconds on-screen for example. But overall, it's always a highly watchable and beautifully shot movie. It's also an admirably balanced film - far from the expected conceits of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum taking on the Third Reich virtually single-handedly - how many other WWII films include both German and (almost uniquely) French perspectives of the war to such an extent that almost half of the dialogue is in a language other than English. The Longest Day is a film about five beaches, many battles, and many men - some, as Richard Burton says, dead, some crippled and some lost. Epic in every sense of the word.

Long Good Friday, The (1980): John MacKenzie's violent London gangster movie (with political overtones) set a new benchmark for British cinema and spawned a generation of imitators - most with about a fiftieth of the dazzling wit and outrageous passion of this. Bob Hoskyns and Helen Mirren in, literal, star-making performances. "What a diabolical fuckin' liberty!"

Looking for Richard (1996): Highly personal documentary following Al Pacino's attempts to stage a production of Richard III that's both relevant to modern audiences and faithful to the text. A wonderful dissection of a brilliant text - contributions from Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh and James Earl Jones, amongst others. Hugely original.

Loot (1970): Farcical, yet curiously satisfying adaptation of Joe Orton's cause celebre stage comedy and bank robbery, sex and death. Roy Holder and Hwyel Bennett are terrific as the cosh boys with a problem of where to hide their haul although Lee Remick is badly miscast as their partner and Richard Attenborough only works spasmodically as the epically inept police inspector, Trubshaw (the stage role made Michael Bates a star). Nice outré mod trappings and some hilarious dialogue cover most of the cracks.

Lost Boys, The (1987): The film that made Kiefer Sutherland a star and without which Buffy the Vampire Slayer would never have happened. Joel Schumacher's testosterone-charged movie kick-started the concept of a modern urban-horror stripped of it's gothic roots but with a vital ingredient added, humour.

Love and Death (1975): Woody Allen takes the piss out of 'War and Peace' with a wit and genius the he was seldom able to match thereafter (when that famous line in Stardust Memories talks about his "early, funnier" movies, this is probably the one to which it refers). Loads of stand-out moments and hilarious one-liners ('I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Actually, make that I run through the valley of the shadow of death') and with a stunning use of Prokofiev's music. 'Funny', a word Woody would soon forget he ever knew the meaning of.

Magnificent Ambersons, The (1942): Not quite the film Orson Welles wanted to make (he hated the obligatory "happy ending" inserted after he'd been forcibly removed from the project and described the 88 minute version as "edited with a lawnmower") but still a quite extraordinary achievement. An ambitious retelling of the Booth Tarkington novel. Agnes Moorhead won an Oscar for her role as the headstrong Fanny.

Manchurian Candidate, The (1962): Based on Richard Condon's novel, John Frankenheime's tingling tale of post-Korean War political paranoia and assassination plots was, reported, one of John Kennedy's favourite movies, which makes the climax all the more horrendous. A career highlight for most of those involved (Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and, especially, Angela Lansbury - it's impossible to watch the manipulative bitch she plays here and believe it's the same woman in 973 episode of Murder, She Wrote!) Cool, sophisticated, menacing and with some very harsh things to say about parental love, forget the crappy remake with Denzil Washington, this is the real deal.

Man Who Fell to Earth, The (1976): Shit-weird Nic Roeg adaptation of Walter Travis's novel which saw David Bowie, essentially, take his stage-persona to the movies and emerge ... sort of bald and with funny eyes. Three quarters of The Man Who Fell to Earth is riveting, original, and features one of the greatest moments in movie history (when Thomas Newton reveals his true self to his girlfriend and she pisses her pants). Sadly, it all falls apart towards the end and gets muddled as the CIA subplot takes over.

Man Who Would be King, The (1975): John Huston's last great movie, loosely based on a Kipling short story about two British soldiers mistaken a God and his priest in Northern India by the local tribes. High adventure of the kind you'd expect from the man who directed The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and double-dealing inevitably followed. Michael Caine and Sean Connery are an unparalleled double act (it's such a shame they didn't make more movies together). Full of magnificent dialogue ('Listen to me you benighted muckers, we're gonna teach you soldiering. The world's noblest profession. When we're done, you'll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men!') and a stirring, passionate ending. A masterpiece.

Masque of the Red Death, The (1964): One of the most colourful and *least boring* films ever made! Everything is right in this handsome and majestic movie. The titles, splattered Technicolour-red, point the way to the literate, almost Shakespearean, tragedy that follows. The cast respond to Charles Beaumont and Wright Campbell’s accomplished screenplay, whilst Nic Roeg’s camerawork is the stuff of legends. The Masque of the Red Death rejects many traditional horror-movie clichés to deliver a powerful and well-observed essay on the culpable depths of human depravity. It is also an admirably balanced film; Prospero (Vincent Price), for example, is told that each man creates his own heaven and hell – a cunning rejection of the, somewhat shallow, orthodox good-thumping-evil climax that the genre traditionally demands. Most memorably, there is the final scene, depicting death’s weary messengers trudging ever onward. A morally satisfying end to what is, undoubtedly, Roger Corman’s masterpiece.


Ma Soeur!, À (2001): Catherine Breillat's tense, unusual story follows the sexual development of two French sisters in their early teens. Their middle-class family embody the social mores and protective attitudes that, they feel, stifle them. Terrific performances by both two girls - Anaïs Reboux and Roxanne Mesquida. However, nothing will prepare the viewer for the absolutely shocking conclusion which comes completely out of left-field. English title: Fat Girl.

Matter of Life and Death, A (1946): “What’s your name?” The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger should be studied by anyone who has a wish to understand the complexity, strangeness and reassuring warmth of the British psyche. A studded allegory of war, love and loss, this remarkable movie gloriously slaughters many sacred cows in its clever construction. Even real-life accidents seem serendipitous in hindsight - the lack of enough Technicolor stock meant that half the film (the 'Heaven' sequences) had to be shot in black and white. David Niven's finest performance. A thing of fragile and intricate beauty. Belatedly released in the US under the horrid alternate title Stairway to Heaven (talk about msising the point).

Melody (1971): Sweet and charming portrait of adolescent romance in early 70s Britain starring Jack Wild, Mark Lester and Tracy Hyde. A beautiful movie full of naively wonderful middle-class takes on teenage rebellion and defiance wrapped up in a love story between 13 year olds. The magnificent soundtrack (by the Bee Gees) is also worthy of considerable praise. Also known as S.W.A.L.K. Directed by Waris Hussain.

Modern Times (1936): Charlie Chaplin's pointed satire on the mechanisation of modern life and industry is well realised and occasionally hilarious. The last great silent movie.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): A film that manages to poke fun at - and the list of not inclusive - BBC radio sound effects, swallows, the French, left-wing politics in Britain in the late 1970s, the French, the monarchy, religion, traditional notions of bravery and cowardice, the French, rabbits, medieval justice, historian Kenneth Clark and, most notably, the French. A wildly ambitious movie, particularly given it's frugal budget, full of hilarious set pieces (the Knights Who say 'Ni', Arthur's fight with the Black Knight, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch) and some of the most quotable dialogue in movie history ("your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!") Daft, from start to finish. And brilliant.


Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979): Controversial, challenging, hilarious knee-to-the-groin of organised religion by Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Jones, Idle and Palin. As with Holy Grail, the targets are scattergun (you can see the glee in John Cleese's eyes as he gets to poke fun at his old Latin teacher in the 'Romani ite Domum' bit: "If it's not done by sunrise, I'll cut your balls off!") Again, a script that can be chanted along with ('what have the Romans ever done for us?' "Splitters!' 'Biggus Dickus' etc.) and who else but these fellahs could have even thought about getting away with the crucifixion being accompanied by 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'? Spike Milligan appears in a cameo, as does Executive Producer (and 'saviour') George Harrison as the man who loaned them the money for the sermon on the mount! Any film that can provoke a reaction like this one got deserves all the success this one achieved.

Monty Python's Meaning of Life (1983): Often overlooked in the light of past triumphs but in many ways, Meaning of Life is the Pythons most ambitious movie. A caustic variant on The Seven Ages of Man, it's got some cracking jokes (the machine that goes 'ping'), accurate observation on the delicious ironies of life and some downright effing weird bits ("Fishy, fishy!"). And, a handful of terrific songs - indeed, it's essentially a musical (with the Arlene Phillips choreographed 'Every Sperm is Sacred' sequence a particular highlight). And you have to see it with the hugely enjoyable - and rather moving - support feature, Gilliam's 'Crimson Permanent Assurance'. Just, you know, stay away from that wafer-thin mints.

Mummy, The (1959): Terence Fisher's use of Technicolor literally smacks the viewer in the face in this handsomely designed and well-scripted film. He had a tough time playing the role, but Christopher Lee's performance is one of the best of his entire career - a silent, unstoppable killer, the literal stuff of nightmares. Jimmy Sangster's urbane script catches the mood perfectly, presenting the strange customs of an alien culture transplanted, seamlessly, into Hammer's omnipresent rural Victoriana. It was also part of a significant trend in British cinema of the late 1950s which commented upon the horrors of Britain's colonial past and how the disintegrating Empire was, frankly, ready for some payback. Fantastic photography by Jack Asher, matched by Bernard Robinson's designs and Roy Ashton's make-up for Lee. A lavish, groundbreaking production, and one of Hammer's very best.

Murder by Death (1976): Neil Simon spoof whodunit notable for an amazing cast (Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk, Elsa Lanchester, Truman Capote). Taking the piss out of every genre cliché imaginable makes it a must for fans of detective movies.

Murder by Decree (1979): Intriguing mixture of Sherlock Holmes (a great performance by Christopher Plummer), conspiracy theory and Jack the Ripper (the idea that the murderer was the queen's doctor Sir William Gull as part of a Freemason plot had first appeared in Stephen Knight's 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution). Beautifully filmed by Bob Clark with loads of intricate period detail and a fabulous cast (James Mason goes down the Nigel Bruce route for inspiration for his Watson, though he still gets some lovely one-liners).

My Darling Clementine (1946): John Ford's stunning dust-bowl Western retelling of the OK Corral legend. Henry Fonda is a great Wyatt Earp although Victor Mature's Doc Holliday chews scenery with the best of them. Historically questionable but a work of considerable merit.

My Fair Lady (1964): One of the most loved musical comedy's ever made - even people born twenty years after it was made will know most of Lerner and Loewe's classic songs (‘One the Street Where You Live’ – sung in the film by Jeremy Brett – is my particular favourite). Occasionally flat, stagy and faüx naïf direction by George Cukor by Audrey will simply melt your heart as Eliza Doolittle (and, despite rumours to the contrary she did do her own singing).

Groovy Movies will return. Eventually.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The G to I of Groovy Movies

The third in an occasional series of 200 words of less reviews of movies that are, generally speaking, worthy of an hour and a bit of your time. Or, in the case of The Godfather, three hours and a bit of your time.

Get Carter (1969) - A movie that takes place - at the turn of a decade - in the cracks between a crumbling old world and a harsh, concrete-scape new one. Michael Caine has never been better than as the cold-eyed assassin Jack Carter in this, perhaps the ultimate British gangster movie. The Newcastle and Gateshead locations are almost a character in and of themselves. (The multi-story car park that Caine pushes Alf Roberts off to his death is still standing to this day, though it's due for demolition soon - the only reason that the monstrosity has lasted this long being largely due to it's associations to Get Carter). Timeless and influential in a way that even the wretchedly-botched Stallone remake couldn't diminish.

Gimme Shelter (1970): The Maysles Brothers outstanding documentary of The Rolling Stones 1969 US tour culminating in the chaos and carnage of Altamont. Gripping stuff, particularly the oddly dispassionate way in which the murder of Meredith Hunter by Hell's Angels is captured to celluloid. Watch the camera refuse to leave Mick Jagger as he winces and squirms when watching the footage. Cinema Verité at its absolute peak.

Go (1999): Tarantino-inspired movie about a Los Angeles drug deal from three separate points of view. Flashy, fast-paced, brutally edited, with a loud soundtrack. Katie Holmes' presence is what will give the movie a shelf-life but keep an eye on the Desmond Askew sub-plot which is both funny and clever.

Goal (1966): The greatest football film ever made, the official FIFA movie of the 1966 World Cup has a genuine cult status in England where it is viewed as a both time capsule to another world and as a valid social document in its own right. Numerous lines of Nigel Patrick's clipped commentary (from Brian Glanville's script) have passed into popular consciousness. ('The locals adopt the North Koreans and call them "Us". "Us" beat the Italians!') Never has mid-60s Britain looked more colourful and more exotic. And more real.

Godfather, The (1972): A staggering achievement given that the director was almost sacked before the first week of shooting was over, Coppolla's homage to good old fashioned Italian virtues (murder, extortion, beating the wife up) transcends less-than-appealing conceits with a series of bravura set pieces (the wedding, the hospital, Michael killing the police captain, the Sicilian car-bomb, Sonny's murder, the shooting of Don Vito) with a swagger that says to all imitators "give it yer best shot, Marty, but it's gonna have to be good to be better than this." In fact, there's only been one movie that could claim to best Coppolla's vision here and, by an astonishing coincidence, he would make it himself two years later. The cast are flawless; Brando took the plaudits but Pacino, Caan and (especially) Bob Duvall deserve a slice of the cake. Great music too.

Godfather Part II, The (1974): Sequels better than the film they're a sequel to: The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II and ... it's a pretty exclusive list! The reason for GII's superiority is simple - The Godfather had two hours of Marlon Brando. The Godfather II has two hours of Robert De Niro. 'nuff said. It may not have as many memorable moments as the first movie (although it's got more than a few - the Cuban sequences not least among them) but Michael Corleone's decent into hard-faced, paranoid psychosis whilst chanting the mantra "I'm a businessman" is one of the most chilling screen performances ever. Pacino would never even come close to matching it again (particularly in the bitterly disappointing Part III). There are 1,000 other fine movies on this list but The Godfather Part II is, quite simply, the best movie of all time.

Goldfinger (1964): Third and best James Bond movie with Connery at his manly peak, iconic women, a classic supervillain, great gadgets (a deadly bowler hat!) and the coolest car in cinema history (that Aston Martin DB5). "D'yexssssshpect me to taak?" "No, Meeeeeezda Bont, I expectttttt you to DIE!" The movie every 11 year old boy wanted to be in!

GoldenEye (1995): Outstanding return to form for the Bond franchise with Pierce Brosnan effortlessly slipping into Connery's metaphorical shoes. Much was made at the time of both the "back to basics" approach and the film's rejection of Bond's crass misogynistic baggage in a post-AIDS world (which, frankly, amounts to one brief exchange between Bond on the new M - Judi Dench). Outstanding support cast (Joe Don Baker, Robbie Coltrane) and the best Bond villain since Goldfinger (Sean Bean). "I trusted you, Alec." Ian Fleming would certainly have approved (and then spent the royalties on champagne). Excellent.

Goodbye, Pork Pie (1981): The best movie ever made in New Zealand? Forget Lord of the Rings and rent this gorgeous, witty, amiable and exciting road-movie about two very different men (Kelly Johnson and Tony Barry) who bond as brothers whilst dodging the law in a stolen car. Should have seen all concerned (including director Geoff Murphy) go on to many greater things but, curiously, never did.

GoodFellas (1990): Not only Scorsese's finest film, but one of the most spellbinding movies experiences of the last fifty years. A schizoid look into the dark heart of America that is by turns, amusing, warm and nostalgic and also sickeningly violent and depraved. GoodFellas pulls off the seemingly impossible and makes the audience understand (and even, on occasions, sympathise with) the murderous thugs whose story it tells, whilst never - quite - taking their side. The central trio of characters are loathsome, brutal, dangerous men that are impossible to like but, strangely (and this is a staggering tribute to Scorsese, De Niro, Liotta and Pesci), you actually do. The movie is very funny in places ("I amuse you?!") knowing exactly when to push the humour button and when not to (Tommy shooting Spider in the foot is a good example). But there is no redemption for Henry Hill at the end of this movie (unlike, say, Travis Bickle, or Jake LaMotta), as the Variety reviewer noted on the films release "sympathy is not the issue here; empathy is." We've entered into a forbidden world and we celebrate that but after a while we realise that, like all forbidden worlds, it has a grotesque, sleazy, dirty side to it. Scorsese's treatment of the wise guys women is particularly impressive.

Great Escape, The (1963) – John Sturges’ masterpiece and Elmer Bernstein’s most famous score. The cast reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood and Britain. Jim Rockford and Donald Pleasance crashing a plane! Nigel Stock being a prat and giving the game away! Steve on a bike! And, all the English getting shot at the end - what more do you want?

Great Rock and Roll Swindle, The (1979): Julian Temple's homage to the "official" Malcolm MacLaren-created version of the Sex Pistols' history and demise. Cleverly pieced together from various sources (including Russ Meyers' abandoned Who Killed Bambi?) and featuring a brilliant debut performance by Steve Jones as a kind of cockney Philip Marlowe, walking London's mean streets to find out where his fuckin' royalties went! The combination of terrifyingly brilliant archive footage just about makes up for John Lydon's lack of participation. Highlights: The Bill Grundy Show, the Thames cruise debacle and the animated 'Friggin' in the Riggin'' climax. "What a fuckin' rotter!"

Guns of Navarone, The (1961) – Based on the novel by Alastair MacLean, this explosive WWII actioner boasts a stellar cast (Gregory Peck, David Niven, Stanley Baker, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, James Darren, Richard Harris), Oscar-winning special effects and superb production values. David Niven, inevitably, gets all the best one-liners. “Heil everybody!”

Hannibal Brooks (1969): Just to prove that if he puts his mind to it Michael Winner can make a decent film as evidenced by this pleasant Oliver Reed vehicle about a prisoner of war details to evacuate an elephant from Munich zoo which turns into an escape saga and a piece of violent anti-American militarism (Michael J Pollard is terrific in a supporting role).

Hard Day’s Night, A (1964) – Pop cinema’s first 24-carat masterpiece. A film that, quite literally, broke all the rules. Then it made some new ones and broke them as well. It's not just an evocation of Beatlemania, it is Beatlemania, made flesh. There are many magic moments in the movie but perhaps the best is when The Beatles break out from their prison of a TV studio and play like children in a field to 'Can't Buy Me Love'. 138 seconds of pure escapism.

Head (1969): Possibly the strangest film ever made. The Monkees fragment the mainstream zaniness of their TV show in a series of vignettes that encompass the history of cinema and some great songs (Circle Sky, As We Go Along) before ending up as dandruff in Victor Mature's hair. Throughly weird from start to finish but often entertaining and occasionally brilliant (the cavalry sequence featuring a very young Teri Garr for instance). Director and writer Bob Raefelson and Jack Nicholson would go on to greater success elsewhere but they would never be as downright barmy as they were here - not even Jack in The Shining.

Hell Drivers (1957) – The premise is downright fruitcake – English truck drivers are forced to drive fast over death-trap roads in order to keep their jobs at a cheapskate firm. It’s all very macho stuff with some thrilling driving sequences, but it’s the superb cast that put this film on a different level to many of these kind of cheap late 50s efforts: Patrick McGoohan, David McCallum, Sean Connery, Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Sid James, William Hartnell, Alfie Bass and Gordon Jackson to name but nine.

Help! (1965): The Beatles’ second film somewhat divides opinion. Many, including at least one of the group, felt it was a let-down after A Hard Day’s Night. The alternative viewpoint - one that this reviewer very much subscribes to - is that Help! is the fantasy mirror-image to A Hard Day’s Night’s proto-socio-realism. The Swingin’ Sixties that everybody imagines happened rather than the real one (because, as they always say, if you can remember the sixties then, in all probability, you weren't really there). Great cast: Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron, Victor Spinetti, Roy Kinnear, Patrick Cargill. Hugely influential, Help! personifies fantasy sixties-London in much the same way that The Avengers or The Italian Job do. Many great moments – the ‘fiendish thingy’, Paul’s Exiting Adventure on the Floor, the tiger – and, despite the overwhelming impression that John, Paul, George and Ringo are floating through the movie on a marijuana high (‘Boys, are you buzzing?’), plenty of laughs too. Help! remains massively (and snobbishly) under-rated.

Hex (1973): Weird, oddly styled combination of postfeminist Wicca/occult text, dustbowl Western and road-movie. Something of a sleeper but with stunning performances from it's mostly young cast (Keith Carradine is probably the only one you'll have heard of). Hazy, somnambulist direction by Leo Garen. One of a kind.

Highlander, The (1986) - A movie so perfect, so absolutely of its moment that it's annoying the film's memory is sullied by subsequent sequels that simply weren't needed. See the original and forget everything that came later. Even the crap theme song can be lived with.

High Sierra (1941) – Bogie plays a gangster whose day has come and gone, as oddly enough the gangster pictures that made Bogart's name were also winding down. Bogie said goodbye to his then-usual malcontent for a while, with this one, and he plays it for all he's worth, bringing some dimension to what could have been just another walk-through.

Hit, The (1984): Sharp as a needle, Stephen Frears' movie about a gangster-turned-grass (Terence Stamp) haunted by two very different hit men (John Hurt, Tim Roth) is gripping and tense in all the right places.

Hot Fuzz (2007) – “By the power of Greyskull!” An homage to that most American of movie genres – the buddy-cop film - set in a sleepy West Country village and featuring the least likely bunch of villains imaginable (with the least likely series of motives for their wicked and nefarious villainy). A startlingly brilliant movie, right out of left-field with a once in a lifetime cast, Edgar Wright's assured direction and the funniest script not only that Simon Pegg had ever co-written but also that he will ever co-write. So much more than the mere genre parody that it appears to be on the surface with hidden subplots about trust, friendship, first impressions and, erm, swans. Nick Frost threatens to steal the movie from under Pegg's nose ("Have you ever cooked any fools?!") but, doesn't quite, as Timothy Dalton's already nicked it from under his! "He's not Judge Judy and executioner!" Fantastic soundtrack too.

Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1958): Astonishing as it now seems, Hammer's gorgeous recreation of Conan Doyle's Victorian Gothicana world was considered something of a failure on its initial release. These days it is, rightly, considered to be among the most interesting Holmes adaptations. Peter Cushing (in a role he was born to play) and Christopher Lee put in fine performances, but the real star here is André Morell, whose Dr Watson can almost be called definitive. The ingenious use of comic interludes and characters and the script's lightning pace more than make up for a few minor aesthetic drawbacks. From its swaggering opening, to the climax on a studio recreation of misty Dartmoor, Hound works on almost every level with a colourful braggadocio and plenty of verve.

House of Whipcord (1974): Often alleged to be one of the grottiest, nastiest films ever made, Peter Walker's House of Whipcord is actually a very intelligent, ambitious movie with some hard-hitting things to say about corporal and capital punishment and with a very cynical view of the then-current and topical right-wing moral outrage at the permissive society. It features little nudity, hardly any blood and the film's reputation, as a kind of Citizen Kane of S&M movies, is vastly undeserved. What it is, despite all this, is a terrifyingly intense film that exposes the moral bankruptcy of those for whom no punishment is ever considered to be harsh enough.

House That Dripped Blood, The (1970): One of the great surprises of British horror cinema is Peter Duffell’s wonderful patchwork movie. A classic example of a somewhat hackneyed script saved from mediocrity and then pushed towards genuine greatness by a clever director, great casting and impressive design (the centrepiece of Tony Curtis’s interiors being the house’s sinisterly-angled staircase which is almost a character in its own right). All four separate stories have something worthwhile about them: Method for Murder and Sweets to the Sweet are droll variants on some standard genre clichés but with just the right degree of subversion in Robert Bloch's script to keep them interesting. However, Waxworks is a surprisingly sombre little mood-piece, a study of loneliness and obsession, featuring Peter Cushing at his very best. The Cloak - the movie’s best remembered segment - with Jon Pertwee, Geoffrey Bayldon and Ingrid Pitt camping it up for all they’re worth in great style amid a clever assortment of industry gags and pithy humour. Easily the best Amicus anthology movie since Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.

Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1939) –The lovely Maureen O'Hara in one of her earliest roles as the vivacious, riveting, exotic gypsy girl Esmerelda. Oh, and Charles Laughton is quite good as the hunchback Quasimodo, too!

Hunt for Red October, The (1990): Tense John McTiernan Cold War drama about a Russian nuclear submarine apparently gone rogue. Based on the Tom Clancey novel. Fine cast headed by a truly remarkable performance by Sean Connery as the world's first Russian Scotsman. The bit where he starts talking about when he was a "wee boy, fischhhhing in the Black Sccccchhhea" will have you in stitches!

Hustler, The (1961): Paul Newman at his streetwise best as pool-shark Fast Eddie in Robert Rossen's terrific character study. Newman easily deserved an Oscar but missed out - as he did on six other occasions - before finally getting one in the disappointing sequel, The Color of Money 25 years later.

How I Won the War (1966): Vicious Dick Lester satire on the madness, futility and greed of war. Terrific cast (Michael Crawford is especially good) and notable for John Lennon's only solo acting credit (and very fine he is too). Lester only gained the co-operation of the British army in the battles sequences by lying to them about the film's nature.

Ice Cold in Alex (1958): Essential British desert war movie about truth and togetherness in a harsh environment. John Mills has never been more square-jawed and Sylvia Syms never more alluring. And the bar sequence at the end - "worth waiting for!"

Ice Station Zebra (1968): John Sturges's exciting adaptation of the Alistair MacLean novel of cold war intrigue featuring the best performances of Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine's careers and a brilliantly twitchy and sardonic turn from Patrick McGoohan (whilst he was taking a six week break from The Prisoner). Apparently this was Howard Hughes' favourite movie which shows the old lunatic had some taste.

If... (1968): Lindsay Anderson's magnificent surrealist allegory of life in a British public school as 60s politics turned radical and dangerous. Malcolm McDowell's Mick Travis was the epitome of Mod cool - rejecting the past in favour of The Revolution ... but still making sure he'd be home in time for tea (how much of the events of the movie are Travis's fantasy remains a hotly debated subject). Full of startling imagery and dialogue ("Britain today is a powerhouse!") "One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place." Anderson and McDowell would follow this with the equally extraordinary O, Lucky Man! five years later.

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945): Almost the quintessential Powell and Pressburger movie, a tale of the abandonment of English conformity when love comes calling. Roger Livesey is perfect as the gentle man who steals Wendy Hiller's heart. A 13 year old Petula Clark has a small role.

In Cold Blood (1967) – Ignore the crass, schlocky 1990s remake and stick with this, the best adaptation of any of Truman Capote's work. Robert Blake is positively mesmerizing in a role that might have been written for him.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – Connery is a delight as Indiana’s bookish father; the fantastic screen chemistry between Ford and Connery leaves you wanting more. What a pity we never got it. "Nazi's, I hate those guys!" Great villains too (Julian Glover, Michael Byrne).

Insignificance (1985): What if Marylin Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe Dimaggio and Joe McCarthy shared a hotel in a mind-bending evening of relativity in the mid-50s? That's the premise of Nic Roeg's high-concept, funny, disturbing movie. Features Tony Curtis's best film role in about twenty years.

In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger give us a socially-pertinent Odd Couple, without the humour. In this tale of Southern law enforcement having the 20th century thrust upon it, the heat comes more from the climate and the simmering racial tension.

Invasion (1966): A claustrophobic chiller which, despite a severe lack of budget, more than makes up for it with an impressively moody and tense atmosphere. Invasion is the kind of film that, frankly, just doesn't tend to get made anymore - in which ideas are far more important the visual realisation. A sombre, intellectual look at an extraterrestrial visitation, set in one isolated location, the action in Invasion is played out slowly and eerily, with virtually no special effects, apart from some inconsequential stock footage (which, frankly, sticks out like a sore thumb). This, it would seem, forced the writers to deliver a much more literate script than the genre traditionally encompasses. Given the subsequent CV's of authors Roger Marshall and Robert Holmes, it's hardly surprising that Invasion, at times, feels like a collection of all of the best bits from a bunch of superior Doctor Who and The Avengers episodes glued together into a movie. Which is no bad thing. An often-overlooked gem, Invasion is, slowly, starting to acquire the reputation that it deserves.

In Which We Serve (1942): David Lean and Noel Coward's epic tribute to the Royal Navy - based loosely on the real-life sinking of Louis Mountbatton's ship HMS Kelly. One of a trio of British war movies (see also The Way Ahead and Way to the Stars - all made, incidentally, whilst the war was still going on) that rejected crass Hollywood notions of death or glory in favour of a more down-to-earth and realistic portrayal of heroism under extreme circumstances. Wonderful cast of reliable British character actors (it's one of John Mills's best ever roles). Richard Attenborough's film debut.

Incense For the Damned (1969): An awful, virtually unwatchable movie, with just a few interesting hints of what might have occurred had Bob Hartford-Davis been able to make the film that he wanted to. There are unmistakable signs of pusillanimous post-production tampering, with jerky editing, a narrative voice-over trying to cover gaps in the story and, above all, a ludicrous final scene that contradicts everything that's gone before it. Based on one of the great vampire novels of the 20th Century (Simon Raven's Doctors Wear Scarlet) the undoubted highlight of Incense for the Damned is a hilarious cameo by Edward Woodward, who delivers a po-faced, mumbo-jumbo lecture on the depths of human perversion that threatens to turn the movie into a camp exercise in bigotry. A startlingly good cast helps to compensate for many of the negative aspects of the production, although Patrick Macnee and Peter Cushing, in particular, are wasted in virtual cameo roles. Ultimately, what we are left with after all of the post-production nightmares is a movie that had so much potential but which has been destroyed, as an audience spectacle, by financial considerations, under-ambition and an attempt to shoehorn something with an alternative world-view into a rigid genre mould. Also known as Bloodsuckers - which probably tells you all you need to know about why it ended up like it did.

Ipcress File, The (1966): Designed as a necessary antidote to the excesses of the Bond movies, Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels provided Michael Caine with a career-defining persona - the cynical, sardonic-yet-vaguely-sophisticated Cockney wide-boy surviving by instinct in a very dangerous world. Exceptional support cast (Guy Doleman, Nigel Green, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson) and influential, eerie John Barry score. Followed by two sequels neither with the wit or the soul of the original.

I Saw What You Did (1965) – "...and I know who you are!" A gruelling thriller about two prankish girls calling someone at random... and get a desperate guy who's just murdered his wife. Director William Castle had more or less outgrown the gimmicks by this point. Very nice!

I Start Counting (1969): The first, and best, British example of an emerging trend in world horror cinema, the schoolgirl-in-peril movie. I Start Counting is a film which, literally, straddles two worlds - the old and the new. An ambitious and thoroughly disturbing story, it delicately builds in layers to a flawed, but interesting, conclusion. The performances are terrific, particularly the young Jenny Agutter who boosted her emerging star credentials with a completely believable portrayal of naive sexual awakening. A clever move is the way in which Simon Ward's killer is not presented as a drooling madman, but rather as a lonely victim of a cruel world that has no place for him within it.

Italian Job, The (1969): Forget The Sting, this is quite simply the greatest heist movie ever made. A cultural icon in Britain where men of a certain age can chant along with the entire script and its numerous lines of memorable dialogue ('Yer only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!') Michael Caine at his Carnaby Street coolest, Noel Coward's last great movie role, tons of cameos by reliable comedy actors and rising stars (look out for Robert Powell as one of the gang), Tony Beckley utterly stealing the show as Camp Freddy in his pink suit, the Mini Cooper chase through the streets - and sewers - of Turin and the greatest (literal) cliffhanging end to a movie ever. Magnificent Qunicy Jones soundtrack (now, thankfully available on CD). Clever, funny and dramatic script by Troy Kennedy Martin (the ending was imposed on him - he wanted the gang to get away with it). Forget, too, the Christ-awful 2005 remake, THIS is the daddy.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946): And, to think, there are people who regard Frank Capra's intimate study of human scope and magnificence as mawkish and trite. People were burned for such heresy in the middle ages. One of the most warm, perfect and real cinema experiences ever. James Stewart is everyman, facing the worst and best of what life has to offer. Imitated on numerous occasions but never close to being equalled. "There must be some easier way for me to get my wings." Remember, sometimes, it's simply okay to cry.

Groovy movies will return in "The J to M of Groovy Movies."