That’s the Second Biggest Monthly Review of April 2022 I’ve Ever Seen!

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of the once-formidable computer game developer LucasArts, you might think the title of this month’s review is setting up an almost-but-not-quite record-breaking affair. Not so, dear reader.

As those au fait with the aforementioned studio’s venerable output are doubtless already aware, this month’s title is, rather, referencing a running gag from the Monkey Island games. That was prompted by the recent announcement that 2022 will see the release of a sixth game in the series. The Monkey Island games have been a big part of my life, ever since I played the original on our family’s first PC when I was about six years old, so I’m thrilled that we’re getting another. I’ve already begun replaying the preceding games in anticipation.

None of which has anything to do with films, of course (except for the trivia that Steven Spielberg and ILM did nearly make a Monkey Island film once), other than that it’s taken away some of my film-viewing time. Consequently, the following has occurred…



This month’s viewing towards my yearly challenge

#26 Death on the Nile (2022) — New Film #4
#27 Munich: The Edge of War (2021) — Wildcard #1
#28 Encanto (2021) — Series Progression #2
#29 The Father (2020) — Rewatch #4
#30 High and Low (1963) — Blindspot #4


  • I watched 11 feature films I’d never seen before in April.
  • Just four of them counted towards my 100 Films in a Year Challenge, along with one rewatch.
  • That means I’ve fallen behind schedule for the first time this year — I should’ve reached #33 to be on track to hit #100 in December at a steady pace.
  • I’m not too worried, though. This month, for example, I watched seven films that didn’t count towards the challenge, so there’s plenty of leeway to watch more challenge-compliant films in the future.
  • Nonetheless, I deployed my first ‘wildcard’ in April, counting Munich: The Edge of War as a second 2022-released film watched this month. It’s a nice category to be able to use a wildcard in… but now that I’ve done it once, I can’t do it again. Them’s the rules.
  • In case you weren’t sure, the series Encanto progresses is the Disney Animated Canon (or Animated Classics, or whatever else you want to call it — the official name has varied over time). It’s not the ‘next’ entry I need to see in that series, but that’s okay, because it’s one of the few I’m making my way through in any old order.
  • This month’s Blindspot film saw the great Akira Kurosawa in a Hitchcockian mode for kidnap thriller cum social drama High and Low.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film didn’t happen in the end, leaving me with one to catchup — next month, hopefully.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Death on the Nile and Fast & Furious 9.



The 83rd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Aside from the films listed above, my viewing this month included such acclaimed and/or popular recent releases as Spider-Man: No Way Home and Best Picture Oscar winner CODA. But, while they were good isn their own ways, probably the best film I saw was a classic: Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Nothing truly terrible this month, but Fast & Furious 9 finally burst that franchise’s bubble, for me. Those films have been ridiculous but fun for about half the series’ run now, but I thought F9 tipped the balance too far — it was more ridiculous than ever, but it was no longer fun.

Most Unfortunate Casting That Didn’t Happen of the Month
Withnail & I is one of those films I’ve been meaning to watch forever but never quite cared enough to make the effort to get round to, until this month. Then, entirely by coincidence, I later happened to see on Twitter this bit of trivia: apparently, early in the development of Sherlock, creator(s) Steven Moffat and/or Mark Gatiss mentioned to Paul McGann that they were considering casting him as Watson with Richard E. Grant as Holmes. Now, obviously they’re Withnail & I personas wouldn’t be right for those roles, but they’re both much more versatile actors than that. As great as I think Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were, a film/series with Richard E. Grant as Sherlock Holmes and Paul McGann as Dr Watson is something I now feel we’ve been robbed of.

Most Pointless Extra-Textual Question of the Month
When the trailer for Death in the Nile came out, one line from it went semi-viral: “we have enough champagne to fill the Nile!” Of course, the character is being metaphorical: no one thinks they actually have that much champagne; she just means they have a lot. But, as I said, the line went viral, and therefor you can find multiple articles that tried to answer the question, how much champagne would it take to fill the Nile? The answer? It’s complicated. And, really, for such a fundamentally pointless question (no one’s going to try to do it for real), does any answer closer than that matter?

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Just three posts compete for this honour, once again (hopefully May will be when I finally get back on top of that), and the winner is the one with actual reviews to read: 2022 Weeks 9–11.



Every review posted this month, including new titles and the Archive 5


I’m going to try to get both my challenge viewing and my general reviewing back on track. We’ll see how that goes…

The Best of 2021

Finally, for the last time (not really the last time): what I consider to be the best (or, more accurately, my favourite) films I saw for the first time in 2021 (that bit’s correct).

This year, I tried to make a start on my list early (I began pondering it and pruning my long-list back in November, whereas normally I don’t even start that until January 1st), all so I could post it fairly promptly once we reached the new year. Well, it’s now the 9th, which is one of the latest dates I’ve ever posted my ‘best of’ list, so that didn’t really work, did it?

Anyway…



The 21 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2021

No, it’s not 21 for ’21 — it’s 10% of whatever my final total is (as it has been since 2016). This year that total was 207, of which the appropriate percentage is 20.7, but I can’t very well include seven-tenths of a film, can I, so it rounds up to 21. (If you think that’s too many for a list like this, feel free to scroll down and start wherever you like.)

As always, all the movies I watched for the first time in 2021 are eligible, not just brand-new releases. However, I did watch 31 films that had their general UK release in 2021, and five of them made it into this list, so I’ve noted their ‘2021 rank’ too.

21=
Holiday Affair
Happiest Season
Anna and the Apocalypse

Reader, I have cheated! After 15 years of sticking to (my own self-imposed set of) The Rules, I have caved and broken the proscribed number of films allowed on this list, and also allowed a tie (I don’t think I’ve allowed a tie before, although one year I did comment that the top 4 were all effectively in first place — but I still sorted them). Why has this happened? As I’ll talk more about in the Honourable Mentions, I got stuck at 32 films for the longest time. I managed to whittle it down to 23, but after days of being stuck there I just gave in. If I could have decided which of these were #22 and #23, they could’ve been taken off the list; but as I can’t, here are all three, tied. At least they’re connected, by being overtly Christmassy films, which is kinda why they’ve all got stuck together — “which of the many Christmassy films I watched this year did I like the most?” Turns out, that’s a three-way tie (unless you also include the one that’s at #9…)

20 Carol

Okay, this one’s quite Christmassy too. Indeed, it’s practically “Holiday Affair but with lesbians”, a comparison I’m sure would’ve come up more if Holiday Affair was better known.

19 Spontaneous
High schoolers begin mysteriously exploding in this sort-of-horror cum comedy cum teen romance, which I found both hilarious and surprisingly emotional.

18 Daughters of Darkness

An erotic horror movie — sounds like schlocky trash, but mixed through a European arthouse sensibility it comes out the other side as a dreamy, surreal experience.

17 Who?
This is a pretty obscure sci-fi spy flick: it has under 700 ratings on IMDb; I hadn’t heard of it before Indicator’s Blu-ray release — but it deserves more. It’s almost like a Le Carré thriller in its slow-burn intellectual depiction of Cold War plotting, but with a dose of just-beyond-the-possible SF mixed in.

16 Futureworld

Another ’70s sci-fi thriller that I think deserves better. This widely disparaged sequel to Westworld is very in keeping with other films of its era: it’s a paranoid thriller about a pair of journalists investigating a corporate conspiracy — in this case, Delos’ attempt to rehabilitate their robot theme park after the disaster in the last film.

15 Love Affair
A prototypically romantic melodrama (it’s been explicitly remade twice, not to mention the other films that have borrowed from it), I was expecting a bit of fluff but ended up finding it surprisingly affecting. It dodges the clichés I thought it was bound for, in addition to being beautifully shot.

14 Strictly Ballroom

Another one that confounded my expectations. As Baz Luhrmann’s debut feature, I expected a dry run for where he’d go stylistically in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! But to regard Strictly Ballroom as anything less than a fully-fledged member of the Red Curtain Trilogy is to do it a disservice. Its ludicrous, over-the-top treatment of a ludicrous, over-the-top world is both absurdly hilarious and totally captivating.

13 Godzilla vs. Kong
2021 #5 Big monkey punch giant lizard! No one’s going to call this movie high art, but goddamn if it isn’t entertaining pulp-SF gubbins with giant-size fights thrown in for good measure. Honestly, I don’t know what some people expect from movies like this when they go about criticising them. If giant animals having a brawl isn’t to your taste, fair enough, but if you were expecting a meditative character-driven insight into the human condition or something, more fool you.

12 The Invisible Man

The fourth feature from Universal’s genre- and studio-defining run of horror films in the early 1930s. Dracula and Frankenstein may have become more iconic, but, for my money, this is the best movie from the bunch (and I’d rank The Mummy second). The special effects are more extensive than you might expect for the era, and even hold up pretty well today, while Claude Rains is superb as the cackling villain, James Whale’s direction is highly effective, and there’s a nice vein of humour to balance the darkness.

11 Captain Phillips
That Tom Hanks wasn’t even nominated for most major awards for his performance here is a crime against cinema. He’s extraordinary as the eponymous captain of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates. Paul Greengrass brings his usual edgy tension to proceedings, but its Hanks’s humanity that ultimately elevates the piece. The final scene is one of the greatest single pieces of acting we will ever see.

10
The Hound of the Baskervilles

Hammer does Holmes. Peter Cushing is a note-perfect incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective in what was, sadly, the famed horror studio’s only attempt at filming Sherlock. Personally, I’ve never thought The Hound of the Baskervilles was a particularly good detective mystery novel — but it is quite a good gothic adventure, which makes Hammer the perfect studio to have brought it to the screen. As that, this version doesn’t disappoint, with Terence Fisher’s direction leaning hard into the appropriate atmosphere, plus a superb cast — alongside Cushing, André Morell is a superb Watson. I wish they’d done a whole series with the pair.

9
The Green Knight

2021 #4 Some people seemed surprised when this film delivered exactly what its trailers had promised: an arty-yet-fantastical interpretation of the Arthurian myth. It’s a moody, earthy take on the material, but one that also has room for magical realism, fairytale-esque fantasy, and flights of inexplicable oddness. The measured pace and off-kilter tone (plus the pitch-dark cinematography) was never going to be to everyone’s taste, but for those on its level, it’s intoxicating. And if you think Die Hard counts as a ‘different’ Christmas movie…

2021 #3 I was worried that I’d find Nomadland a bit boring and “not my kind of thing”. It seemed like the kind of film where you hang out with the characters and their landscapes, rather than a piece of clear narrative storytelling. And it is that — but, for once, it worked for me. It’s almost like a TV travelogue, visiting places worth seeing and unusual people worth meeting. You watch to appreciate the scenery, to understand the people, to experience a different way of life. It’s a film to escape with — to get away from ordinary life and spend time in these captivating places. Within and alongside that, it creates a beautiful, deeply humane, quite powerful experience. [Full review.]

7
Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Having grown up reading sci-fi magazines, I’m very aware that, when it comes to Star Trek movies, “even ones good, odd ones bad”. And this first one has a particularly poor rep — “slow” and “boring” seem to be commonly-attached adjectives (which I can’t help but feel stems back to expectations on its original release, which came in the wake of the success of Star Wars, so presumably people expected a fast-paced action-adventure). But as I settled down to begin watching all the Trek movies from the beginning, I found myself in for a very pleasant surprise. It’s not even trying to be a Star Wars-style adventure, but something different entirely; almost more akin to 2001 in its sense of wonder and exploration, digging into an imagining of a genuinely alien lifeform rather than running about blasting rubber suits with laser guns. Engaged with on the right terms, I enjoyed every minute of it.

6
WolfWalkers

The third film in Irish animation outfit Cartoon Saloon’s Folklore Trilogy — and Wolfwalkers really does feel like an authentically-told folktale, not a Disneyfied modern reimagining. A big part of that is the animation style. Even if you think you’re becoming inured to it from the studio’s previous work, it has surprises in store; moments of additional innovation or beauty. It’s constantly impressive and regularly breathtaking. Combined with the magical story, the result is a simply gorgeous film.

5
Dune: Part One

2021 #2 Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably one of my favourite novels, and previous attempts to film it have either been interesting but fundamentally flawed (the 1984 film) or faithful but limited by format (the 2000 miniseries), so when it was announced a new version would be masterminded by Denis Villeneuve — one of only two directors to top my year-end best-of list twice, once with another tricky-to-pull-off re-envisioning of a sci-fi masterpiece — well, my hopes were high. Suffice to say, he delivered, albeit in a film that is ‘very Villeneuve’. That is to say, it’s a rather brutalist take on the material, lacking the fanciful, weird interpretations of Lynch, Jodorowsky, or even (to a lesser extent) the TV version. In some ways that’s a shame, but it’s also true to the filmmaker. That the film has to abandon the story halfway through, forced into a rather low-key cliffhanger, is merely a factor of the length of the material rather than a fault of the filmmaker — some have taken serious issue with it, but, personally, the film ended where I always expected it to. And, as a fan, I’d rather this two-part adaptation, giving the story the necessary screentime, even if that means a limp end to Part One, rather than have the whole book in a rushed three-hour single shot. That said, this might be why it’s at #5 on my list rather than becoming Villeneuve’s third #1. I’m optimistic that, once we get Part Two (and, possibly, a Part Three adapting Herbert’s first sequel), the whole will be even greater.

4
The Kid Detective

This is one of those high concepts you wonder why someone hasn’t though of sooner: what would a ‘kid detective’ (you know, like the Hardy Boys or the Famous Five or whatever) be like grown up? One answer to that would likely fuel a CW-esque YA series, but here we get a more real-world treatment: the detective who was exalted as a kid, a quirky story for the local paper and whatnot, is now a washed-up has-been as he tries to follow the same career as an adult. Like several other films on this year’s list, here was a film that looked like it would tickle a particular itch of mine, and delivered — it was everything I expected it to be and more. It’s both an amusing extrapolation of its central premise and a solid mystery in its own right, with a surprisingly moving conclusion. One part in particular gave me goosebumps, and you’ve got to love anything that can elicit such a physical reaction.

3
Joint Security Area

Before Oldboy or The Handmaiden, director Park Chan-wook gained international attention for this 2000 military thriller about a shooting in the DMZ between North and South Korea. After a South Korean border guard apparently kills two North Korean soldiers and wounds a third on their side of the border before fleeing back to the South, heightened tensions between the nations rest on an investigation by a neutral investigator. As the Swiss Army major tries to find the truth of what happened amidst conflicting accounts, the obvious point of comparison is A Few Good Men, but JSA also made me think of Paths of Glory in its ultimately-tragic message about the wasteful futility of war. But although these point towards its tone and effect on the viewer, it outshines simple comparisons to be its own magnificent thing.

2
David Byrne’s American Utopia

I’m not a music critic — heck, I don’t even listen to all that much music on a regular basis, if I’m honest — and yet what is essentially a concert film has made it almost to the top of my favourite movies this year. What gives? I wish I could explain it properly, but, I confess, I don’t quite understand why I loved American Utopia, all I can say is that I did. It had an almost profound impact on me that I can’t quite account for. Of course that’s mostly down to the music and staging by Byrne and his fellow performers, but Spike Lee’s direction and editing transform the theatrical show into a near-perfect cinema version. My only unfulfilled wish is that this had been made during the world’s 3D phase, because movement in a three-dimensional space is a key part of the show’s staging, and I’d love to be able to watch that in 3D.

1
The Matrix Resurrections

2021 #1 This belated return to and continuation of the Matrix trilogy has divided critics and audiences alike. You’ll find plenty of people online prepared to slag it off at the slightest prompt. But for others of us, it’s a borderline masterpiece. Personally, it’s not just a film I enjoyed, but something I’ve almost been waiting for — and by “almost” I mean that I never expected to actually get it. This isn’t a by-the-numbers attempt to recreate the adrenaline highs of an enduringly popular action movie. Instead, it’s the kind of wild-swing hyper-meta self-deconstructing take on a popular franchise that I’ve always longed for a legacy sequel to attempt, but no one has been bold enough to try (or, possibly, no one’s ever been able to convince the suits to allow it). Sure, if all you want from a Matrix movie is people looking cool in sunglasses while they engage in precisely-designed epic action sequences, then Resurrections will leave you disappointed. If you appreciate a film that has something pertinent and meaningful to say about our current entertainment culture, there’s a lot to like.


As usual, I’d just like to highlight a few other films.

Normally I’m loathe to mention any films that just missed out on the top list — it is what it is, and if I wanted it to be longer I should just find an excuse to make it longer. That said, this year my “top 21” was stuck at 32 films for the longest time — as I mentioned back at #21, you may remember. So, it feels like those 11 almost-rans deserve a mention; except it’s nine almost-rans, because I couldn’t even get it all the way down to 21. I’m not sure these are truly #24–32 (for that distinction, I’d have to properly reconsider some others from my 89-film long list that I’d eliminated earlier), but, nonetheless, there were (in alphabetical order) The Father, Festen, The Mummy (1932), My Fair Lady, My Man Godfrey, Official Secrets, The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, Psycho Goreman, and The Quatermass Xperiment. In other years, maybe they would’ve been luckier.

That said, they’re not the only films that might feel aggrieved to have missed out (if films had feelings), because, while there are 4-star films in my top 21 (even in my top ten), there are 5-star films that didn’t make the cut. I awarded 25 films full marks in 2021, and 13 of them made it into my top list — namely Captain Phillips, Carol, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Dune: Part One, The Green Knight, Joint Security Area, The Kid Detective, Love Affair, The Matrix Resurrections, Nomadland, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Strictly Ballroom, and WolfWalkers. The less fortunate (but still great) ones were The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Cinema Paradiso, The Father, Festen, Kind Hearts and Coronets, My Fair Lady, My Man Godfrey, Official Secrets, Sansho Dayu, A Single Man, When the Wind Blows, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There were also full marks for the original King Kong when I gave it the Guide To treatment.

Additionally, let’s recap the 12 films that won Favourite Film of the Month at the Arbies, some of which have already been mentioned in this post and some of which haven’t. In chronological order (with links to the relevant awards): WolfWalkers, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Captain Phillips, Official Secrets, The Invisible Man (1933), Strictly Ballroom, The Kid Detective, The Green Knight, Dune: Part One, Nobody, and The Matrix Resurrections.


This year I watched 31 movies that had their general UK release in 2021, but that means there were a considerable number I missed. So, here’s my annual alphabetical list of 50 films from last year that I’ve not yet seen. In the past I’ve used IMDb’s dating to settle what was eligible for inclusion as “a 2021 film”, but nowadays I’ll allow in something that’s listed as 2020 if it’s only due to festival screenings or (as was the case with one film this year) its own premiere.

The main downside to watching so few big new movies is that there’s not much room here for the stuff that’s smaller but still significant, which is a shame. And where I did make space for those films, some of the year’s big-but-not-huge movies lost out. That said, in some ways it made selection easier: normally I begin with a long-list of something like 120 titles, in which I typically find 20 to 30 ‘must includes’, then I weed through the rest to choose the remainder. This year, the ‘must includes’ numbered 46. I could easily have doubled this list and still been featuring films everyone’s heard about, not least because I did leave out some multiplex fillers in favour of artier-but-acclaimed films. Maybe next year I’ll finally go all-out and make this a list of 100. That would fit the site’s name, after all.

For now, it’s 50 once again. As ever, the included films were chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety, and designed to include a spread of styles and genres, successes and failures.

Army of the Dead
Free Guy
The Last Duel
Luca
Shiva Baby
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Candyman
Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Last Night in Soho
Old
Spencer
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Army of the Dead
Belfast
Candyman
Censor
CODA
Cruella
Dear Evan Hansen
Don’t Look Up
Drive My Car
Encanto
Eternals
Fast & Furious 9
Finch
Free Guy
The French Dispatch
Ghostbusters: Afterlife
House of Gucci
In the Heights
Judas and the Black Messiah
King Richard
The King’s Man
The Last Duel
Last Night in Soho
Licorice Pizza
The Lost Daughter
Luca
Malignant
The Many Saints of Newark
The Mitchells vs the Machines
Mortal Kombat
Nightmare Alley
Old
Petite Maman
Pig
The Power of the Dog
A Quiet Place Part II
Raya and the Last Dragon
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shiva Baby
The Sparks Brothers
Spencer
Spider-Man: No Way Home
The Suicide Squad
tick, tick…BOOM!
Titane
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
West Side Story
The Worst Person in the World
Wrath of Man


And that, ladies and gents, is officially the end of 100 Films in a Year — not just for 2021, but for ever.

Well, you already know that’s not exactly true. But it’s the end of the challenge as I’ve been attempting it for 15 years, replaced by a new take. In 12 months’ time, when a new “best of year” list is due, it won’t be drawing from ‘the challenge’ in the same way… though, that technicality aside, I rather suspect it won’t be too different from this post. And if, once again, I’m so spoilt for choice that I struggle to get it down to whatever number I decide the list should include, well, is that actually such a bad thing?

0202 tsuguA fo weiveR ylhtnoM ehT

It’s been quite a year, but now things are returning to normal… or some people are pretending they are, anyway. I mean, schools are going back, cinemas have reopened, and my film viewing has dropped back down towards 2019 levels.

Worse, my reviews are lagging. It’s been a whole year since I hit 2,000 listed reviews, but I’m still over 50 away from actually being able to say I’ve published 2,000 film reviews. Hopefully I’ll get there before the end of 2020. In particular, I’ve fallen behind with my 100-week roundups already; and there was no new TV column this month, which was also a mistake. I’m aiming to get both back on track in September.

For now, though, let’s reflect on what I did watch and post in August…


#185 Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
#186 The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912), aka Le mystère des roches de Kador
#186a The Stunt Double (2020)
#187 RoboCop 3 (1993)
#188 Color Out of Space (2019)
#188a Frankenstein (1910)
#189 The Man Who Laughs (1928)
#189a The Dancing Pig (1907), aka Le cochon danseur
#190 Pearl Harbor (2001)
#191 Yes, God, Yes (2019)
#192 The Assistant (2019)
#193 Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
#194 Bad Boys for Life (2020)
#195 A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
#196 Tolkien (2019)
#197 The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story (2019)
#198 Entrapment (1999)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Bad Boys for Life

Entrapment

.


  • I watched 14 new feature films in August.
  • That beats January’s 12, so it’s not the lowest month of 2020, but it’s also the first month since February with a total below 28.
  • It’s my eighth month in a row with 10 or more features, which is my second-longest streak of months with 10+ films. (The longest is 60 months, from June 2014 to May 2019, so there’s literally years to go before I rival that again.)
  • It tops the August average (previously 12.5, now 12.6), but falls short of the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 19.3, now 18.9) and the average for 2020 to date (previously 26.3, now 24.75).
  • I may not have quite got to #200 this month, but #198 is still the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of August. It also means 2020 overtakes 2016 to become my third highest year ever, with four months still to go.
  • Further to what I wrote last month about years from which I’d never seen a feature film, The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador is my first from 1912. That just leaves 1915 as the only year since the US and UK started producing features (in 1912) from which I haven’t seen a film.
  • Watching Pearl Harbor means I’ve now seen all of Michael Bay’s films. That and 6 Underground are still scheduled for review, leaving only The Island unreviewed on this blog. I last saw it at the cinema back in 2005. I quite liked it and always meant to revisit it (I even own the DVD, but obviously never watched it (typical)). At some point I’ll get round to that rewatch and cover it then.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched The Assistant, Bad Boys for Life, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Color Out of Space, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
  • Talking of failures, I didn’t watch a Blindspot film this month. That’s the first time I’ve slipped in 2020, so hopefully I’ll just catch it up next month.



The 63rd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
The notion of whether “favourite” means “best” or “most enjoyable” is on my mind with this month’s selection. Probably the best film I saw this month was abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but, understandably, it wasn’t “enjoyable” per se. On the other side, then, the film I’m most likely to end up purchasing and rewatching is, a bit to my surprise, Bad Boys for Life — as a belated threequel it should by all rights be mediocre, but I think it might actually be the best instalment of the trilogy.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Nothing truly terrible this month (at least not among the features — some of the shorts I was less enamoured of), but something must be chosen. I enjoyed Pearl Harbor more than most, so it would seem unfair to pick that. Instead, I’ll say The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador, which I was sold on by Movies Silently’s review but unfortunately didn’t enjoy that much. Never mind.

Film I Haven’t Actually Seen But Nonetheless Used as a Title Theme of the Month
It’s Tenet, ylsuoivbo.

Decade I Most Miss of the Month
Entrapment reminded me how much fun a solid studio programmer could be. Two stars, a few reasonably-scaled action scenes, and a mid-range budget add up to a couple of hours of fun. Not a great movie, but one I enjoyed enough to not regret the time spent watching it. It’s the kind of thing the major Hollywood studios are backing away from in favour of just making mega-budget super-blockbuster tentpoles, but that smaller indie studios aren’t up to providing. I feel like the ’90s did that kind of thing particularly well, too.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
No one post really caught on this month — this month’s highest charting new post was down at 55th overall (behind mostly TV columns, but also a dozen older film reviews). Even my review of a new release (Yes, God, Yes) didn’t generate a huge number of clicks (I guess it is a pretty niche title), although the victor only beat it by one hit. Said victor was Ready or Not.



My Rewatchathon continues at pace, which means I’m still about a month ahead of schedule. Although this month I finished a series that’s been a major part of it this year…

#34 Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
#35 The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
#36 Terror by Night (1946)
#37 Dressed to Kill (1946)

The first time I watched the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, it took me eight years. Now, I’ve rewatched them all in eight months. A much more reasonable pace, let’s be honest (the first time I was spacing them out so as not to rush them, but took it a bit far…) My original reviews are linked above, and I put some new thoughts on Letterboxd about Pursuit to Algiers, Terror by Night, and Dressed to Kill in these links.

My fourth film this month was also Sherlock Holmes themed, albeit turned into a mouse courtesy of, appropriately enough, the Mouse House. Disney’s 26th animated film used to be known as Basil the Great Mouse Detective here in the UK, but it’s been brought in line with the US for the Disney+ era. I’m only surprised it took them so long. (Now, if they could just sort out the UK list of the Animated Canon…) I’ve been on a bit of a Sherlock Holmes kick this year, so it was only natural I’d revisit Disney’s version. It manages to be both a very good Disney movie and a very good Sherlock Holmes one at the same time, mixing the comedy and charm of Disney animation with a healthy dash of the investigation and adventure of a Holmes story. It comes just before what fans call the Disney Renaissance, but it’s also directly responsible for it: after the failure of The Black Cauldron, Disney’s animation studio was under threat, but the success of The Great Mouse Detective allowed them to continue. The rest, as they say, is history.


After four months of no cinema releases to comment on, they’re back! It’s a gradual re-opening, of course, with Tenet the only truly major title on wide UK release so far (The New Mutants had previews, but isn’t technically out until this Friday). At least some people I follow on Twitter seem to have dived back in headfirst, but I remain a little wary — as I said earlier, I’ve not seen Tenet yet; whether that’ll change in the coming week or two, I’m undecided.

Netflix attempted to fill the blockbuster void with originals like Project Power, a super-powered action-thriller starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but the mediocre reviews put me off actually watching it (so far). This month they also bolstered their catalogue with the fourth and final Ip Man movie, and the only Tim Burton film Iv’e not seen, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Over on Amazon Prime Video, meanwhile, new-ish additions included Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang and true-story whistleblower thriller Official Secrets. Other newcomers of note include Mississippi Grind, which I heard recommended a couple of years ago and have been waiting for a chance to see since, and Roger Corman / Vincent Price horror The Masque of the Red Death, which is supposedly due on disc in a new 4K restoration later this year, but I don’t know if Amazon are streaming that.

As for the other streamers, Sky Cinema / Now TV had Terry Gilliam’s much-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; Disney+ had diverted-from-cinemas The One and Only Ivan (which I think I’ll give a miss anyway) and a doc about lyricist Howard Ashman, Howard (which does interest me); BBC iPlayer has a pair of films I’d like to rewatch, The Lost Boys and Love & Friendship, not to mention the original Poltergeist, which I’ve never seen; and on All 4 I missed the chance to see Wild Tales (the 183rd greatest film ever according to IMDb voters).

Finally, my new purchases on disc, of which there were a lot — some 54 films I could list (egads!) The bulk of those come from Arrow’s Gamera box set (with 12 films plus four alternate cuts), although Criterion’s Bruce Lee set was no slouch (with seven films plus one extended cut). The latter came as part of a belated order placed during Barnes & Noble’s Criterion sale back in July, which also included 1984, Come and See, and the four-part 1966-7 War and Peace; plus their editions of films I’ve already seen like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. There were also a bunch of silents (I got good deals on eBay for US DVDs of the French serials Judex and The House of Mystery; plus an import of a French DVD set of French films from French director Raymond Bernard; and Masters of Cinema’s latest Buster Keaton three-feature box set) and a bunch of noirs (more from Masters of Cinema in the shape of No Way Out and Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window; and Blu-ray upgrades for the BFI’s releases of three Otto Preminger noirs and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City). Meanwhile, on 4K, I got Arrow’s UK format debut, Pitch Black, and their US format debut, but in its UK edition from StudioCanal, Flash Gordon (in a tat-filled box set. I love tat. It’s always kinda disappointing when you actually get it, but I can’t resist).

And that isn’t even everything, but it’s more than enough to be going on about.


Mulan comes to Disney+ for an additional fee (which varies by region). I’ll tell you this for nothing: I won’t be paying it.

Dressed to Kill (1946)

aka Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code / Prelude to Murder

2015 #200
Roy William Neill | 69 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Dressed to KillIn the seven-and-a-bit years between 31st March 1939 and 7th June 1946, there were a total of 14 films released starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. By coincidence rather than design, I’ve spent nearly eight years viewing and reviewing them all for this blog — so yes, it’s taken me a little longer to watch them than it did to make them, which is ridiculous, but there you go.

This final film in the series sees Holmes in pursuit of a criminal gang who are on the trail of three music boxes, and are prepared to kill to acquire them. The boxes were all made by a prisoner and contain coded messages which, when combined and decoded, will reveal the location of stolen Bank of England printing plates — a literal licence to print money. Well, apart from the licence bit, because it would be illegal. But you get what I mean.

The Rathbone Holmes series was only sporadically adapted from the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but this entry takes loose inspiration from several tales. The use of secret codes is reminiscent of The Dancing Men (previously the basis for The Secret Weapon), while the plot device of having to track down multiple identical items that hide something comes from The Six Napoleons (previously the basis for The Pearl of Death). I don’t know if that suggests there are only a few Doyle tales actually worth adapting, or if the makers of the series were running out of fresh ideas by this point.

There are also elements of A Scandal in Bohemia, the story most famous for featuring Irene Adler, aka The Woman, but screenwriters Frank Gruber and Leonard Lee have an unusual method of including it: Dressed for the occasionthe story is explicitly referenced in the film, Watson having just had it published; then the film’s villainess turns up, played by Patricia Morison, functioning effectively as an Adler stand-in — and using some tricks she learnt from reading Watson’s story! The series hasn’t featured Adler before, so why not just name this character Irene Adler, have her devise those tricks from her own imagination, and be done with? Who knows.

Dressed to Kill is an ending to the Rathbone/Bruce films only in the sense that it’s the last one, this not being an era of “series finales” or what have you. It isn’t among the top tier of Holmes adventures starring the pair, but it’s still an entertaining mystery. In some respects that’s a good summation of the series, and why they’ve endured in popularity for over 75 years: even when not at their very best, they remain enjoyable.

3 out of 5

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016)

2016 #1
Douglas Mackinnon | 89 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 15

Screened in UK cinemas simultaneously with its TV premiere (and coming to the big screen in various other countries over the next week or so, too), the latest episode of the BBC’s modern-day Sherlock Holmes series is actually a standalone adventure set in the character’s original Victorian time period.

The rest of this review will be spoiler-filled, but before I get into that I’ll say this: if you’re someone who’s a Sherlock Holmes fan but not keen on Sherlock and are wondering if the changed temporal setting means this special might be of interest to you, then I think it’s fair to say it won’t.

1895: detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his sidekick / companion / chronicler Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) learn of the case of Emelia Ricoletti, who committed suicide by shooting herself in the head in public… and then later that evening murdered her husband. Despite the intriguing impossibility of the crime, Holmes’ thoughts are for some reason preoccupied with his deceased nemesis, Prof. Moriarty…

It would’ve been a bit weird if Sherlock completely abandoned everything that has marked the series out for an aside of an adventure in Victorian London, and so it is from the start. While there is certainly a different feel — not just the obvious trappings of horse-drawn carriages, candlelight, costuming, and so forth, but in the way the characters speak and behave — it’s still spun from the same cloth as the regular series. These are recognisably the Holmes and Watson we commonly know as Sherlock and John, surrounded by versions of Mrs Hudson, Mary Watson and Inspector Lestrade that aren’t so very different from their present-day incarnations.

The case they find themselves embroiled in is a little more period than usual, however, with lashings of Gothic and some of the trappings of a Christmas ghost story. The episode is co-written by series creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and anyone familiar with Gatiss’ wider work can clearly see his influence here. Moffat brings his trademark fast-paced intricately-tricksy plotting, for which individual viewers’ mileage varies greatly: some find it genius, some find it tedious. Is it clever, or does it just think it’s clever? Is it impossible to follow, or were you just not paying enough attention? As to the first question, I think it’s a bit of both; as to the second, I think the episode ultimately answers everything, but you might need to realise a few things for yourself.

Much of The Abominable Bride is a lot of fun. The mystery is fairly engrossing, though we’re frequently sidetracked into character interplay — such is Sherlock’s way. There are many entertaining scenes of this, however, not least Holmes and Watson’s arrival at the Diogenes Club and the state of the version of Mycroft they find therein. Douglas Mackinnon’s direction is atmospheric, retaining the series’ usual flashy, whizzing editing and camerawork at times, and incorporating suitably horror-esque elements at others. Anyone after a fully traditional take on a Victorian Holmes and Watson can always revisit Jeremy Brett — here we have Victorian Holmes through the filter of Sherlock, and it works.

Until the last half-hour or so, anyway, when the modern version suddenly comes crashing in. At first it seems like a clever interlude; a little reminder of the true time period for this version of the characters, and a tease for season four. But it quickly transpires that, no, this episode isn’t actually a wholly standalone aside from the main series — Gatiss and Moffat have found a way to integrate it into continuity. For me, this is where the special begins to come apart at the seams; not because I inherently object to this integration, but because from that point on the episode begins to jump back and forth between the present, the imagined past, and various other dream-state asides. It’s almost entirely justified by the beautifully-shot Reichenbach Falls sequence, but a spot of cinematographic prettiness doesn’t really excuse the way the story goes a little haywire. The least successful part of all, for me, is that it calls into question the solution for the case we’ve just been presented with… but then doesn’t get round to offering another, meaning you kind of feel like the case hasn’t been solved, even though it presumably has been, with the first solution. I think.

All of which kerfuffling makes The Abominable Bride a tricky beast. From the promotional trailers and blurbs, it may’ve looked like a standalone Victorian Sherlock Holmes adventure that happens to star the cast of the present-set Sherlock — hence why I felt it worth offering that clarification back in paragraph two, because, despite not being connected to a full series (the next one of which will probably appear in exactly one year’s time), in reality this is Episode 10 of Sherlock — and, tonally, feels like it.

As someone who enjoys Sherlock Holmes in his proper era but is also a fan of this modern day version (I would say “a big fan”, but I’m not one of those people), I’d rather they’d played this a little more straightforward. Not a lot — it’s still under the umbrella of Sherlock after all, and the era-transposed stylistic flourishes in the first hour-ish worked very nicely in my opinion — but the mixed-up mishmash of the final act dilutes the effectiveness of the entire experience. There’s fun and thrills to be had along the way, but in another form it could perhaps have been a Sherlockian classic in its own right.

4 out of 5

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride is available on the BBC iPlayer for most of January. It’s in cinemas worldwide over the next few days, including in the US on the 5th and 6th. An extras-filled two-disc special edition is out on the 11th.

The Climactic Monthly Update for December 2015

Happy New Year’s Day, dear readers!

The quest for 100 films has little regard for it being the first day of a new year, however — it’s still the start of a new month, which means it’s time to reflect on the last. And as it’s the last month of 2015, to reveal just what my final tally actually was…


#183 Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
#184 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
#185 Terminator Genisys (2015)
#186 A Most Wanted Man (2014)
#187 Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)
#188 Begin Again (2013)
#189 Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
#190 Le Mépris (1963), aka Contempt
#191 Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
#192 About Time (2013)
#193 Happy Feet Two (2011)
#194 Morning Glory (2010)
#195 Dreamgirls (2006)
#196 Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996)
#197 AfterDeath (2015)
#198 Heaven Can Wait (1943)
#199 Slow West (2015)
#200 Dressed to Kill (1946)


  • #200 is the final Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film. It’s taken me almost eight years to get through that series — longer than they took to make — so it seemed an appropriate choice for such a momentous number.
  • With four WDYMYHS films left, I managed to watch… one. That was Le Mépris. On the one hand, not watching 25% of my list is a bit of a failure. On the other, watching 75% of it means I’ve watched nine films this year that I should’ve seen but hadn’t got round to, and almost certainly wouldn’t’ve got round to without WDYMYHS. So it shall continue next year, though I’ve not decided on the selection process yet.
  • Remember back in my October update, when I mentioned re-watching the Veronica Mars movie to get 2014 finished? Bloody well didn’t bloody happen, did it! I’ll do it in January.
  • Apropos of not very much, the version of Rawhide sung by the elephant seals in Happy Feet 2 is awesome.


The headline news here is, of course, that this year I reached #200.

That’s my highest final tally ever, by 64 films — 47% higher than the next best year! You could add together my two poorest years (2009 and 2012) and you’d still be nine films short of 2015’s solo total. Anyway, more whole-year stats in my next post — for now, let’s just look at December.

This month I watched 18 new films. Most importantly, that exceeds this year’s ten-per-month goal, making 2015 the first time I’ve done it for a whole calendar year. (It’s also the 19th consecutive month.) It’s only the second-highest December ever, just behind 2008’s 19, but it does pass the December average (10.86; now 11.75) and beats December 2014’s total of 15, the 11th month this year to beat its previous equivalent (only November let the side down). In terms of 2015, it beats the monthly average of 16.67, and is actually the third highest month of the year, settling in behind the record-breaking feats of September and October.

I always end these analyses with a look ahead to the rest of the year… which is now over. So what for 2016? Having reached 200 films in a year, will I be seeking to equal it next year? Perhaps even to better it? I can confirm that…

No. No I won’t.

There are so very, very many films that I want to see — and they keep making more of the darn things! So many that even watching 200 new films isn’t enough to make a serious dent in the “to see” list. But there are also TV series I want to watch, books I want to read, audio dramas I want to listen to — not to mention movies I want to re-watch — and the film fixation engendered by a goal as vast as 200 new films in a year is counterproductive to doing anything but watching new films. So of course 100 Films will continue, and maintaining my ten-per-month streak would be nice, but if this time next year I’ve watched 200 new films and not watched many TV series, or read books, or listened to audio dramas, then I won’t be dancing a victory dance. Quite the opposite. Whatever the opposite of “dancing a victory dance” is.

In conclusion, my personal goal for next year is… well, 100 films — that’s why it’s the name of the blog. But I’ll be aiming to maintain my ten-per-month run, making the target 120+ Films in a Year. Plus lots of TV and books and audio drama and films I’ve seen before and special features and goodness knows what else. There still won’t be nearly enough time, anyway.


Thanks to the advent calendar, 44 films were reviewed this month(!) Here’s a full alphabetical account:



The 7th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
It’s not been a bad month, but there aren’t a great many stand-out options here. Although I hugely enjoyed the new Star Wars, and some other 2015 blockbusters I caught up on weren’t as bad as expected, the winner is easily best-of-year contender Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
It’s not been a bad month, but there are still a few three-star-level contenders here. In the end, I decided to pick the film I felt I was most likely to never bother to watch again, and while there are a few I’m not likely to ever revisit, the least likely was AfterDeath.

Best Use of Time Travel
Was it to visit a wondrous future city of joyous technological advancement? Or to spend more precious time with your dying father? Or to send a cyborg to protect your mother from your robot enemy before your best mate arrives to stop that enemy murdering her before you’re born then trying to disable said robot enemy before it’s ‘born’? Or to get Emilia Clarke naked? How about using it to make Rachel McAdams fall in love with you in About Time. That and the dad thing.

Best Theme Tune
Oh sure, there’s John Williams on Star Wars… but of course there was. And I’ve already said how much I liked Rawhide in Happy Feet 2, but it’s not functioning as theme tune there. So the winner is composer Joe Kraemer finally giving Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme a suitable big-screen rendition not once but twice in Rogue Nation.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
When you think about it, this should come as no surprise. In a month that featured 47 new posts (it sounds a little insane when you put it like that), the most-read is one that was a hive of activity for 25 days: the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015.


…will be 31 days into 2016. Before all that, though, I’ll thoroughly look back and dissect 2015 — the largest year of 100 Films ever!

(Dog-loving regular readers will be pleased to know that (further to September’s update) Millie is still with us, and coping admirably with there already being a new Irish Wolfhound puppy in the family.)

Terror by Night (1946)

2015 #140
Roy William Neill | 57 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

After the previous Basil Rathbones-starring Sherlock Holmes adventure set its tale almost entirely aboard a boat, this time we find ourselves in the confines of a train. It’s a sleeper travelling from London to Edinburgh, with Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) aboard because they’ve been hired to guard the Star of Rhodesia diamond after an attempt was made to steal it in London. In short order, their employer is murdered and the diamond is missing. The crime can only have been committed by one of the handful of other passengers in the same carriage, but which?

For what is the shortest film in the series, screenwriter Frank Gruber and regular director/producer Roy William Neill have constructed a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. The supporting cast are fairly colourful, and there’s a spot of genuine mystery to be had in which of them is the culprit. Okay, one or two red herrings are glaringly obvious, but I don’t think the teapot-loving couple were ever meant to be serious contenders anyway. Elements of the canon are incorporated willy-nilly, not least some memorable parts from The Sign of Four, which adds flavour.

Rathbone and Bruce are on fine form as ever, with the latter getting a kind of sidekick of his own in the equally-portly form of Alan Mowbray as an old chum, Major Duncan-Bleek. He keeps Watson occupied so Holmes and Lestrade (series regular Dennis Hoey, in his last appearance) can go about their business, anyway. Sadly, the next most noteworthy cast member is Renee Godfrey, who is remarkably bad as the suspicious Vivian Vedder. Perhaps it’s just because she’s clearly struggling with an atrocious variable accent, the quality of which makes it rather distracting whenever she opens her mouth. Having used Moriarty plenty, the series finally accepts that he’s dead and moves on to his right-hand man, Col. Sebastian Moran. Considering the identity of the conniving colonel is a mystery for most of the movie, however, his involvement is perhaps no great shakes.

Terror by Night is good fun for the most part, with a decent array of suspects and clues to keep us guessing in its moderately atmospheric setting. For what it’s worth, I’d put it a step above most of the other films in the series that I’ve rated 3, but a step below those I’ve rated 4. That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.

3 out of 5

Terror by Night is on TCM UK tonight at 7:50pm.

Haiku Review

Ev’ry August film
reviewed in haiku form. (And
you thought drabbles short!)

I can’t even remember what gave me the idea, but the other day I started writing haiku-sized reviews of films I’d watched, and before I knew it had written one for every film from August. So, in what may or may not become a new regular feature, I’m going to share them with you. You lucky, lucky people.

Technically a haiku is more than just the 5-7-5 syllable structure most people know: it should be about nature, and (to quote Wikipedia) “the essence of haiku is ‘cutting’… often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.” Obviously these haiku have nothing to do with the first of those conditions; as to the second, well, it comes and goes. At times, I’ve tried; others, less so. Hopefully none are just 17-syllable sentences split in three. Nonetheless, I don’t promise poetic quality with these.


Contagion
Gwyneth Paltrow eats,
whole world at risk of grim death.
Scares ’cause it could be.

End of Watch
Cops film selves, sort of.
Inconsistent P.O.V.
undermines reel-ism.

Inherent Vice [review]
Pynchon’s comedy
filmed by P.T. Anderson.
Laughs for weed users.

Interstellar [review]
Two-Thousand-And-One,
A Space-Time Anomaly.
Mainly, spectacle.

Justice League: The New Frontier
Uncommon premise
raises expectations, but
promise is squandered.

Life of Pi [review]
Tiger on a boat:
CG extravaganza!
Better than the truth.

Monsters: Dark Continent [review]
Genre transplanted,
but soldiers pose same quand’ry:
aren’t we the monsters?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
This: way the world ends —
not with a bang or whimper,
but a love story.

Shallow Grave
Danny Boyle’s debut.
Cold cash leads friends to distrust
and dismemberment.

Sherlock Holmes (1922) [review]
Moriarty v.
Barrymore. Gillette-derived
slight Sherlock silent.

Shivers
Amateur work by:
biologist, kills neighbours;
Cronenberg, upsets.

Space Station 76 [review]
Groovy future fun,
undercut by theme of frac-
tured relationships.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Epic history,
too personalised for some.
Piqued insight abounds.

Stranger by the Lake
French gays have the sex
with a killer in their midst.
A slow-burn beauty.

The Theory of Everything [review]
Eddie Redmayne won
awards, but the film’s heart is
Felicity Jones.

The Thing (2011) [review]
Under prequel’s guise,
computers doodle a mere
Carpenter rehash.

The Haiku Review may return next month. We’ll see how things go.

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

aka Moriarty

2014 #106
Albert Parker | 85 mins | streaming | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English)

Sherlock Holmes, aka MoriartyAmerican actor William Gillette was the most iconic portrayer of Sherlock Holmes on stage, penning his own play (with permission from Conan Doyle) that he performed 1,300 times between 1899 and 1923. It was filmed in 1916, a feature long thought lost but announced as found in October 2014 (and to be released on disc by Flicker Alley this coming October — expect a review eventually). Before then, the only thing approaching a filmed record of that iconic interpretation of the Great Detective was this: a 1922 remake starring John Barrymore as the famed sleuth, originally released in the UK as Moriarty (possibly for legal reasons, possibly (according to David Stuart Davies in Holmes of the Movies) due to “the mediocrity of so many of the earlier Holmes films”).

This film was also considered lost, until elements were discovered in the ’70s — not the film itself, but original negatives “in which every take — not every sequence, but every take — were jumbled out of order” (as per William K. Everson’s programme notes for the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, via Wikipedia). These were painstakingly reassembled into something resembling the original film, although around 26 minutes are still missing. Nonetheless, the film remains completely followable: nothing important to our comprehension is missing, with some storytelling rough edges the only vague sign that anything may be amiss.

Said story diverges from the canon so much it’s liable to give any particularly canon-focused Sherlockians a conniption. It begins in Cambridge, with what many reviews call a “prologue”, usually preceded by an adjective such as “overlong”. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as the first act. There, a student, Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny), third in line to the throne of somewhere-or-other-in-Europe, has been accused of stealing from the university, but he claims innocence. His friend John Watson (Roland Young) recommends he seeks the assistance of a chap in his year, one Sherlock Holmes (Barrymore). Holmes and Wastson, 1922 styleYes, shades of 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn there are fewer CGI stained glass window knights here, though.

Holmes quickly uncovers the real culprit, another student by the name of Forman Wells (the screen debut of William “The Thin Man” Powell, looking ever so young). However, Wells is acting under duress, forced to commit the theft by Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), an obviously evil-looking fellow who sits at the centre of a spider’s web of criminal activity. Holmes confronts Moriarty in Wells’ stead, to little effect, the criminal genius swatting the student away as one would a fly. Undeterred, our young sleuth commits to stopping Moriarty as his life’s very purpose.

That and finding a girl he saw once and instantly fell in love with.

Meanwhile, Prince Alexis is informed that his two brothers have died in a car accident, making him heir to the throne, and so he can no longer marry Rose Faulkner, a British commoner he’d been courting. Rose is the sister of Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster), who just so happens to be the girl Sherlock fell for. When she learns of the split, Rose commits suicide.

And that’s just the so-called prologue. I’m loath to explain the whole plot of a movie, but the tale spun here is actually somewhat intricate. Personally, I thought it was quite a good yarn. It’s flawed in the telling — it’s not particularly Holmesian, and there are far too many overlong title cards (Everson calls it “one of the ‘talkiest’ silents”) — but I don’t hold with criticisms that it’s slow paced, or that the lack of any real mystery is a problem. Sherlock Holmes tales are remembered as “detective stories” because that was his profession, Sherlock Holmes in lurveand in many respects they led to the abundance of crime-solving fiction that fills bookstores and TV schedules to this day, but there’s a reason most of Conan Doyle’s stories are prefixed with “The Adventure of” rather than “The Fiendishly Difficult to Solve Mystery of”.

Anyway, after the Cambridge to-do the film jumps forward some years, to find Holmes a respected detective residing at 221 Baker Street (I guess he also acquired 221a and knocked through or something). Moriarty has still eluded him, but the revival of some matters from his student days are about to change that. Turns out Alice has in her possession some letters from Alexis to Rose, which she intends to publish to ruin him in revenge for her sister’s death. Goodness knows what’s in these letters; the ’20s equivalent of sexting, presumably. Alexis attempts to hire Holmes to retrieve the letters, but Holmes isn’t particularly inclined to do so because he rather agrees with the position of the love of his life (not that he’s seen her since that one time they bumped into each other years earlier). However, Moriarty also wants the letters, in order to blackmail Alexis, so Holmes takes the case so as to get closer to his nemesis.

You’ll notice a lack of Watson in most of this outline. He’s rather sidelined, unfortunately. Some would prefer this to the comical treatment he suffered at the hands of Nigel Bruce, but your mileage may vary. I think Watson’s often one of the most undervalued characters in literature, a very capable fellow who’s usually overshadowed by his grandstanding friend. There’s nothing wrong with Young’s performance, there’s just not much of it.

If I can just focus on the middle distance...Barrymore makes for a solid, if perhaps unremarkable, Holmes. He has the right look for the role, and makes good use of the same staring-contemplatively-into-the-distance furrowed-brow expression that Basil Rathbone would employ a couple of decades later. He has down the precociousness of student Holmes, which develops into a kind of righteousness when older. He’s not as stand-offish and borderline unlikeable as some interpretations of the character, nor as affable as others. As I say, he sits in the middle, doing nothing wrong but not getting a chance to mark himself out either.

The thing that does go terribly wrong, however, is the romantic subplot. Even if you set aside that such palaver doesn’t fit with the traditional Holmes character, this version is unconvincingly handled. Not only has Holmes apparently spent years pining after a girl he met once (it’s unclear why the Great Detective hasn’t been able to find her in all that time), but when he does meet her there’s no chemistry whatsoever. According to Fritzi at Movies Silently in her review, we should attribute the fault here to Dempster. I see no reason to disagree. Apparently Barrymore so disliked his co-star that he refused to perform the final scene with her, which would certainly explain the none-too-subtle way the actress’ face goes unseen at that point.

Young Mr Powell probably gets the best part, in particular a scene in a cab on the way to Moriarty’s lair where we learn his tragic backstory. The young thin manHe crops up in the years-later narrative too, used by Holmes to go undercover in the house where Alice is being held hostage by some of Moriarty’s many villainous associates. A major part of Holmes’ plan hinges on him turning up at these villains’ house, telling them what to do, and them obeying him. That this method succeeds is not due to Holmes’ considerable skill, but more due to the screenwriters’ lack of it.

Von Seyffertitz gives a very good Moriarty, though does err on the side of OTT. In part this is his look: I thought they had perhaps gone a little far with the make-up, turning him almost into a caricature of a villain, but having Googled the actor I think that it may mainly be his face… Still, what a perfect face for playing villains! Naming the film after him for the UK isn’t wholly inappropriate, especially as his role is expanded from Gillette’s play (the prologue confrontation being the main addition) and one of the throughlines is Holmes’ focus on apprehending him. It would certainly differentiate it from all of the other films called simply Sherlock Holmes.

The 1922 version isn’t the best film to bear that moniker, but nor is it the worst. I don’t think it’s a great interpretation of Holmes, but I found it to be a pretty entertaining adventure in its own right. I’d even quite like to see the plot rejigged (and the holes ironed out) to make it more truly Holmesian. Even having enjoyed the film, I must say how entertainingly dismissive I found Everson’s notes: he thinks that “one of the most painstaking recovery jobs ever […] quite overshadows the fact that the film itself Moriarty vs Holmeshardly seems worth such devotion except on a purely academic level.” He goes on to say that “it must be one of the blandest misuses of potentially exciting material ever,” that “it literally has no highlights,” that it “has no pictorial style of its own,” that Barrymore “clearly lends his profile to Holmes, and not much more,” that “if it is a major find, it is also a major disappointment.” Ooh, burn. (The whole thing is worth a read.)

Now, with the discovery of the Gillette film, one wonders if this Sherlock Holmes is destined to become even more of a curio than it already is. It’s not wholly undeserving of such a fate: it’s not bad and I found it solidly entertaining, but one for Barrymore fans and Holmes completists only.

3 out of 5

Sherlock Holmes, aka Moriarty, is available on YouTube here.

This review is part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

2015 #74
Roy William Neill | 62 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Pursuit to AlgiersAfter a fun opening where Holmes and Watson have to solve the world’s most obvious riddle (naturally, Watson is completely oblivious to there even being a riddle), the original dynamic duo are tasked with escorting the heir to the throne of somewhere-or-other back to his homeland, thwarting assassination attempts as they go.

In his production notes on the Optimum DVD release, Sherlockian Richard Valley describes the 12th film in the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes series as “the runt of the litter” — which it is — though he also declares that it “has its own peculiar charm… If it’s not in the same league as Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or The Scarlet Claw, neither is it a waste of time.” Of that I am less convinced.

Ostensibly, Sherlock Holmes stories are detective mysteries. In execution, they’re as often as not about the adventures of our heroes as much as they’re about the ins-and-outs of a case. The mystery is the glue that holds it all together, though. For about the first half, Pursuit to Algiers puts its pawns in place (getting Holmes, Watson and their charge on the boat to Algiers) and sets up its mystery: who is the assassin? About halfway through, Holmes and Watson stand around and very handily list all of the suspects… which just so happen to include pretty much every supporting character. So far, so good. However, it’s only a few minutes later that we actually find out the identity of the guilty party. If the mystery is the glue, then for me this is where the film comes unstuck.

So, Holmes has found out the identity of the assassins. Does he come up with an ingenious scheme to unmask them? Does he battle them and throw them overboard? Does he do anything at all about it? No. Instead, the rest of the film descends (further) into farce as Holmes lets the villains carry on with two or three assassination attempts, Time for a cracker joke?each of which he thwarts last-minute in sometimes amusing fashion. That’s not fundamentally a poor premise for an adventure comedy, I don’t think, but it doesn’t work for Sherlock Holmes. I mean, if you’re trying to prevent someone from being assassinated, why would you let the assassins carry on?! A last-minute twist reveals a sort of motivation, but it’s not a particularly convincing one in my book.

Even leaving the plot implausibility aside, I didn’t feel there was much else to recommend here. There’s altogether too much of Bruce buffooning around; there’s a half-arsed subplot about a jewel theft, seemingly tacked on so you could argue that there is a mystery in the film’s second half; and just generally, I didn’t think it hung together all that well.

Still, in a series where you’re churning out two or three a year, you’re allowed a couple of duds. Pursuit to Algiers is not completely without merit, but it’s certainly my least favourite Rathbone Holmes so far.

2 out of 5

Pursuit to Algiers is on TCM UK today at 3pm and tomorrow at 1:45pm.