High Society and me. A musical true love

A frothy and glossy escapist musical romantic comedy of 1956, High Society is a terrific example of the ability of filmmakers from Hollywood’s golden age to draw on existing material and fashion a sparkling fresh and brilliant entertainment.

It can also be understood as a great example of producer power, was a commercial and critical hit, and was nominated for two Oscars in the musical categories.

Employing irresistible star wattage of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong, the timeless tunes of Cole Porter and fabulous costume design of Helen Rose, it’s unmistakably the product of MGM, the studio which made the best musicals of the era, including 1951’s An American In Paris, and 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain.

Using a well established dramatic structure, and drawing on elements of American literature, it was produced as the post-war US consensus was being supplanted by the dawn of the teenager as a social phenomenon, and the film’s struggle to wrestle with the real world are all too evident. High Society is politically reactionary and has no sense of itself as herald to the end of the jazz age in which its stars and genre were mired, and sadly for lovers of the studio’s defining genre, High Society is the last great hurrah of the MGM musical.

I absolutely love it.

Kelly, Crosby, Sinatra, & Holm

Based on 1944’s Oscar winning comedy The Philadelphia Story, itself an adaptation of a Broadway play, High Society glides through its 111 minute running time in bubbles of glamour, charm and wit, as we watch a pair of tabloid journalists covering the upcoming high society wedding of a spoilt socialite who’s being courted by three different men.

Bringing four leads together all of whom were previous Oscar winners, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm engage in song, dance, and repartee as they resolve various romantic entanglements over the course of one night and two days in a mansion in the wealthy enclave of Newport, Rhode Island, the high society of the title.

Crosby heads the romantic leads as C. K. Dexter Haven, a wealthy composer who lives next door to his ex, Tracy Samantha Lord, played by Grace Kelly. Meanwhile Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holme are the down at heel muckraking journalists, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, who arrive to cover the wedding for their magazine.

When Crosby isn’t singing, he strolls about in cardigans or black tie, and though it’s not a performance of great range or energy, he delivers his popular brand of avuncular charm, is given a veneer of cool by his association with musicians of the calibre of Armstrong, and is offered some reflected glamour by the glittering star power of Kelly, best known at this point for her work with Alfred Hitchcock.

Kelly

Kelly is perfectly cast in her last Hollywood appearance before abandoning Los Angeles for life in Monaco. Whether in slacks or a ball gown, the luminous Kelly sweeps all before her in a series of gorgeous costumes, including a far from revealing but indecently sexy swim suit.

Plus she delivers a terrifically accomplished performance in the mould of screwball-era Katharine Hepburn, and whether being deliberately over the top, drunk, angry or playful, Kelly can wordlessly make us aware of what she’s thinking, in the manner of another Hitchcock blonde, Ingrid Bergman.

Presumably the casting call asked for an actress less attractive than Kelly to play the second female lead. On this showing that would be every other woman in the world at the time. Which is hugely unfortunate for the wonderfully droll Celeste Holm, who’s teamed up with Sinatra in my favourite big screen performance of his.

Sinatra plays well with Holm, and he’s either smart enough to allow her space to shine, or possibly barely able to keep up with her, and Holme brings a level of dignity and self-awareness lacking in other characters. But Holm was repeatedly ill-served by Hollywood, and after High Society she didn’t make another film for five years.

Elsewhere Lydia Reed is winningly confident and sparky alongside Kelly as her young sister Caroline Lord, and John Lund plays George Kittredge, the culturally barren, nouveau rich cattle baron who’s Tracy’s intended beau.

Playing himself, Louis Armstrong is an invitee performer at a jazz festival Crosby’s character is holding on his estate, a plot device which allows Armstrong to pal about with Crosby and duet together on the number ‘Now You Have Jazz‘, which is supposedly – but clearly isn’t – filmed in front of a wealthy white festival crowd.

Jazz musician Louis Armstrong is granted not inconsiderable screen time, performs three songs and is granted the first and last words. This is fitting for his screen ‘character’ is a Greek chorus to the comedy, a dramatic device used by later musicals such as 1972’s Cabaret, 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and 1978’s Grease.
I could write an entire post about radio broadcasters in movies acting as a Greek chorus by starting with 1979’s The Warriors and taking it from there.

Acting as a Greek chorus to the story, introducing the setting and then commenting on events as they unfold, as well as being a character in the story, Armstrong is mostly at one remove from the narrative and he could be excised from the film entirely without his absence changing the story.

In contrast to the previous year’s drama, Blackboard Jungle, the film which made a star of future Oscar winner Sidney Poitier, High Society’s principal black star is clearly at times not on same set at the same time to white actors and has to be edited into scenes in which he is ostensibly a part.

Check out the final scene (from 2.27mins) where although nominally in the same scene, he never shares screen time with Grace Kelly. Armstrong is included but never incorporated.

A generous reading of Armstrong’s separation from the main narrative would be to suggest his performing and recording scheduling conflicts prevented a deeper integration in the narrative. A less charitable reading would be the studio were wary if not frightened of too much interaction of a black character with white ones, and Armstrong’s certainly not allowed to interact with the white female cast members in any way. And good luck spotting a black female actor.

Crosby & Armstrong performing ‘Now You Has Jazz

It’s important to recognise High Society was released in 1956, and although the segregation of public schools had been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, it was many years before this decision was universally implemented. Other laws of segregation weren’t overruled until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

With race being the defining political fault line of the US, High Society wants to exploit Armstrong’s cache as a long established and popular crossover artiste by contributing his jazz bona fides to the soundtrack and bringing his own fanbase to the films audience, but his role suggests a nervousness on behalf of the filmmakers who had to sell the film in a US market place.

MGM had at the time previous form with being vary of the controversial subject of race. The studio’s 1951 version of Show Boat notably tones down any ‘controversial’ racial elements compared to previous cinematic adaptions of the stage show on which it’s based.

However in theme and plot the film enforces existing racial boundaries. As one might expect of a mainstream entertainment which recognises social division in its title, maintenance of the status quo is a key theme of the film.

The script was written by a playwright John Patrick who’d previously written the NBC radio series Streamlined Shakespeare, and there’s a strong influence of Shakespeare scattered through the script – more of which later – so Armstrong’s narrator role may well have been included in the earliest draft. If so then casting Armstrong as the Chorus could be read as a deliberate act of segregation rather than a creative solution to a scheduling issue.

Patrick doesn’t steer away from the plot of the original film adaptation or the stage play which preceded it, but adding the Chorus – which Shakespeare used in Henry V for example – the audience to be guided into the heightened and otherworldly setting of High Society, as if leading us into a magical forest of one of Shakespeare’s arboreal comedies, one populated by the fairy Kings and Queens such as found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps.

The Chorus is a visitor to this world of wealth and definitely not of or from it, a point underlined by Armstrong’s casting, and the musician’s persona can also be read as ‘blue collar’ and so acts as surrogate for all those in the audience not born to wealth. The film wants us to be amused by the superficiality of the Lord’s family behaviour and regard them with a mocking if warm detachment, and having the Chorus played by Armstrong helps to underline the idea the wealthy do things differently to the rest of us, they are apart, they are ‘other’.

This is story is about maintaining society’s status quo, keeping the high safe and separate in their gilded mansions and the rest of us, well, anywhere else. There is to be no storming of the barricades here, no tearing down of social division, but a determined raising of the drawbridge. This is a piece of high end comfort cinema, lavishly dressed with great tunes. If you want social conflict and a conscience, check out the Poitier flick instead.

Fitting the Shakespearean comic pattern there are two central couples, and all four must gain insight into themselves to find happiness with the correct person, and ‘correct’ is defined as with one whom not only shares a social standing, but also the person who reinforces the rigidly defined social divisions. The rich and the poor have their place, and are happier when the rigid social hierarchy is maintained.

We’re safe in assuming the family name at the top of this society is ‘Lord‘ is deliberately in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of nominative determinism.

Taking place in a gilded world of enormous drawing rooms, private pools and a butler who offer visitors the south parlour as a waiting room, the film can feel as distinct from reality and as gloriously make-believe as a fairytale, a feeling underlined the magical appearance of a secret mechanical private bar from a book-lined wall.

Gatecrashing this magical realm are two journalists – rude mechanicals in Shakespeare terms – who cast a wry and cynical eye over the fabulous wealth the residents seem to treat with barely a second thought. And though they are drawn to it, they realise they are and cannot ever be part of it. Mike Connor’s brief fling with Tracy is comparable with the encounter between Bottom and Titania the Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That Sinatra is playing Mike, comparable with the idiot turned donkey, Bottom, is surely am unacknowledged joke at the actor’s expense by the film’s producer. More of him, later.

This is a fantasy which asks us to engage and sympathise with a wealthy white upper class family as they negotiate concurrent romantic entanglements. And the softening of the cynical stance of a pair of muckraking journalistic interlopers encourage us to find sympathy in ourselves for this madly wealthy household rather than maintaining or hardening of our critical stance.

The head of the Lord household has placed his ‘kingdom in a state of chaos due to his latest extra-marital affair, a scandalous fling with a ballerina, and in doing so has become estranged from his daughter, Tracy.
Peace and order will only be brought to the kingdom when father and daughter are reconciled, which will only happen when she choses the correct romantic partner and comes to understand her parent’s worldview, making her fit to succeed her father in due course.

Father knows best, especially where his daughters love life is concerned, is a thoroughly 1950’s attitude.
This is also a coming of age tale, and if Sidney Blackmer as patriarch Seth Lord isn’t given a huge amount of screen time as the stern but loving father who uses his own discretions to teach his daughter about the adult world, it’s their reconciliation which signals the end of the movie. And the curtain comes down with a pleasing and impressive speed which some modern day filmmakers could learn from.

Like Ayesha, the white queen of H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 adventure novel, ‘She’, Tracy’s power seems only to exist as long as she remains in her own world, and the suggestion is if John Lund’s character, the cattle baron George Kittredge, is successful in his courtship of Tracy and takes her away, then she will become ordinary, a mortal being almost. Much is made of George’s wanting to put Tracy on a pedestal and adore her.

One thing the wealthy do differently to the rest of us is put on a music festival in their home. Crosby plays a composer whose house is full of musicians. And the life of Tracy Lord is full of the arts. She and her sister dance, sing, and play piano. They have no regard, interest or knowledge in the ordinary or everyday.

In part George Kittredge is a poor fit not because he’s self-made – Crosby’s character is only second generation wealthy – but because he values commerce above art.

Cole Porter’s fabulous songs have endured even more successfully than the film itself and have achieved a life of their own beyond the confines of cinema. ‘True Love‘ was Oscar nominated for best song but lost out to ‘Que Sera, Sera’ from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Some of them have been successfully re-recorded by later generations, such as ‘Well, Did You Evah!‘, the film’s best song, which was originally written for 1939’s DuBarry Was a Lady, and latterly recorded by Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop as part of a HIV/AIDS benefit project.

Sinatra & Crosby performing ‘Well, Did You Evah!

Being the greatest lyricist of his generation, Porter was capable of writing lyrics reflecting the film’s sense of magic and otherworldliness. He drops in classical references such as ‘Circe‘ the Greek goddess in ‘Little One‘, while also referencing more contemporary concerns, such as uranium, in ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?‘ And yes, the song did inspire the name of the popular TV quiz show. And ‘she got pinched in the Astor Bar‘ from ‘Well, Did You Evah!‘ is as sly and funny now as it was then, especially with Sinatra’s astutely comic phrasing.

Not all the songs have aged as well, ‘Now You Has Jazz‘ is a decent example of the form, but the lyric ‘Jazz is the king, jazz is the thing that folks love the most.‘ seems unduly optimistic as jazz was about to be swept off the pinnacle of popular culture by rock ‘n’ roll.

However that’s aged nowhere near as badly as the icky staging of the torch sing Crosby sings to Kelly’s screen sister, which summons up the spectre of child sexploitation rife at the time in the Studios, and should be shocking to a modern audience in the era of #MeToo. And were High Society be remade today it’s the song that wouldn’t make the cut. As highly problematic as it is, it sadly it fits in with other songs of the era, notably ‘Little Girls‘, from MGM’s 1958 musical, Gigi.

Director Charles Walters was a choreographer turned director who as as well as directing films for Ginger Rogers and Esther Williams, made 1948’s Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, received a Best Director Oscar nomination for 1953’s Lili, and directed the Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds 1955 comedy, The Tender Trap.
There’s no signature artistry, just the absence of ego of a professional going about his business. When your star is also your producer, there’s rarely opportunity to do anything other than what you’re told. Certainly there’s none of the daring brush with 3D technology of 1953’s Kiss Me, Kate, or Gene Kelly’s experimental dance and design found in 1951’s An American In Paris.

Cinematography Paul Vogel as an Oscar-wining studio veteran journeyman who went on to shoot George Pal’s 1960 sci-fi adaptation, The Time Machine. His shots are always well balanced and composed so the audience know who’s the most important person in the room. Characters are usually fairly static within the frame, making it all the more startling when Kelly or or her screen sister flurry across a room.

The best we can say of his camerawork is it’s efficient and economical, with occasional daring pans from left to right, and though the camera becomes more agile in the musical numbers, it’s movement generally reflects Crosby’s laid back performance style.

There are no big theatrical set pieces and even the big ballroom scene at Tracy’s hen party, a great excuse for a swirl of costumes if ever there was one, hints rather than shows a crowd. And the big song and dance during the hen party is set in a drawing room where Crosby and Sinatra hide away.

In fairness the number is the storming duet ‘Well, Did You Evah! and remains not only only my favourite song in the film, but also one of my favourites in the Hollywood musical canon. Even the one crowd scene at the festival during the number ‘Now You Has Jazz‘ seems an out-take from a different picture.

Ralph E. Winters editing style allows the performances to breathe and to hold the audience in the moment. This is in contrast to the more excitable contemporary and haphazard style seen, for example, in 2019’s musical monstrosity Cats.

High Society’s production budget was an unadjusted-for-inflation $2.7 million, and US box office was a healthy and profitable $8.2 million. This compares favourably with 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain which scored for $7.2 million on a budget of $2.5 million.

Holme & Sinatra performing ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

Distributed by MGM, High Society sits high in their pantheon of great musicals, but was a joint production between two production houses, Sol C. Siegel Productions, and Bing Crosby Productions. Presumably the first provided the finance and the latter the talent, with the whole concept intended as a vehicle for Crosby.

Appearing in cinemas two years after Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and Brigadoon, High Society is notable for what its not doing that those prior films did. Due to Crosby’s limited dancing ability there’s no outrageously macho and colourful ballet such as the barn building dance in Seven Brides, or the muscular staging of a Gene Kelly number. In fact none of the leads or support are famed for dance skills, though Sinatra could hoof his way through a scene if required.

Although never upstaged Crosby is canny enough to let others have their time in the spotlight. However
there’s an unmissable line concerning how handsome he used to be, and by implication still is to a degree.
This doesn’t soften the achingly clear and embarrassing age and glamour gap between romantic leads Crosby and Kelly.

Crosby, 5′ 7″ & Kelly, 5′ 7″

Having an older male starring a younger female seems to remain every Hollywood producer’s dream pairing. And Crosby certainly isn’t immune to the fantasy. Crosby was 53 years old at the time, Kelly was 27.
Helen Rose’s costumes achieve their aim of making Kelly look divine.

Though the use of studio sets, projected backdrops and second unit location work with extras driving cars pretending to be the leads now look decidedly false, they were common practice and would have been accepted by audiences at the time.

Lacks the scale of non-MGM musicals which shortly followed, such as 1961’s West Side Story, or 1965’s The Sound of Music, which addressed the themes of social conflict and Nazism head on. Compared to those behemoths High Society is a frothy endeavour, with even Julie Andrews’ movie featuring a singing nun-turned-nanny who marries her rich boss, seem hard hitting.

The golden age of MGM musicals kicked off with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in 1948’s Easter Parade, includes 1949’s On The Town, and you can argue amongst yourselves whether 1954’s An American in Paris is ‘better’ than 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain. I love both but always favour the latter for a rewatch as its joyous frivolity makes for the easiest of watches.

High Society saw the MGM studio declining as a creative force. It’s principal stars were ageing – by Hollywood standards – and cinema was threatened by the usual suspects such as the growth of TV, changing demographics and tastes, and the social creation of the teenage generation. But for a run of flamboyant escapist entertainment, the MGM golden age is hard to match.

MGM released ten musicals in 1948, then nine in 1951, and ten more in 1953. It released eight musicals in 1955, before High Society became one of four films released in 1956. There were five the following year, only one in 1960, none in 1961, and only five in total in the 1960s. There was one original musical in the 1970, and the anthology That’s Entertainment!, a showcase of MGM’s greatest hits and a great introduction to their musicals. Two more anthologies followed, though they were seen primarily a way of generating cash in the pre-home video era for MGM’s new owners.

Of two hundred MGM musicals listed on IMDB.com, High Society is number 177 by release date. The only ones of note which follow it are 1957’s Silk Stockings featuring Cyd Charisse, and 1958’s wildly problematical Gigi.

From the sense of other worldliness, images of ruined houses and the backdrop of fin de siècle, the ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 Jazz-age novel The Great Gatsby, are inescapable. The book was enjoying a renewed interest and re-evaluation and its influence is clear. It can be seen in Crosby’s character throwing not only an extravagant party in his house but an entire festival, one clearly designed to attract the attention of his beautiful soon-to-be-married-to-someone else next door neighbour. And he pointedly describes himself as inheriting the wealth of his bootlegger father, the same means by which Gatsby acquired his fortune.

Tracy holds her hen party in one of the many emptied decaying mansions which line the coast, a situation described in the novel, and it’s possible to imagine long after the credits roll, that the characters and otherworldly kingdom the movie conjures up continue to exist in their own magical bubble of reality quite separate from our mundane reality.

High Society celebrates its 75 years anniversary this year, and as I’ve yet to watch it on the big screen, maybe I’ll get lucky and it will find itself released back into cinemas to celebrate. What a swell party that would be.

FINDING JACK CHARLTON

Stars 4

The life of one of football’s most popular and down-to-earth figures is illuminated in this fascinating, funny, poignant and deeply moving documentary of football legend Jack Charlton, who sadly died this summer.

From winning the World Cup with England to managing Middlesbrough and the Republic of Ireland, ‘Big’ Jack was a highly competitive, uncompromising, honest and passionate talent whose appeal was rooted not only in his success, but also his work ethic, charm and sense of humour.

Filmed during the last 18 months of his life and charting his struggle with dementia, this respectful and compelling account is released to coincide with an awareness raising campaign for the suspected impact of brain damage caused by playing the beautiful game.

Made with full cooperation and intimate contributions from his wife Pat and son John, it’s desperately sad to see this once most vigorous of men unable to remember his sporting exploits, and tragically it was confirmed last week his brother Bobby also suffers from dementia.

There’s room to touch upon Jack’s difficult relationship with Bobby, as well as exploring in some depth how his tenure of the Irish national side helped fuel a rise in national confidence and contributed to the peace process.

Among the excellent footage is the moment he describes his coaching style as simple and direct, which football aficionados might consider overstating the case, and as a coach he admitted to having a distrust of ball-playing centre-halves – so Lord knows what he thought of his England partner Bobby Moore then.

But there’s not enough time spent exploring his time as manager of my team, the uniquely stylish Middlesbrough – a job which would be the crowning glory of anyone’s career.

Although never denying his blunt manner was capable of ruffling feathers, Jack always delivered, was true to himself and always gave 100%, and that’s why he will always remain an inspiration.

THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

Cert 15 Stars 3

An excellent cast fails to inject energy into this studiously low-key drama crafted with painful sincerity and respect for sufferers and carers of mental illness.

One time Bond villain Javier Bardem stars as a near catatonic patient who’s experiencing visions of alternative lives he could have lived, with Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney offering degrees of compassion as the women in his life.

It’s written and directed by Brit Sally Potter who includes some far from subtle political commentary and explores ideas of identity, memory and history previously touched upon in her 1992 arthouse hit, Orlando.

BATMAN: DEATH IN THE FAMILY

Cert 15 Stars 3

The latest of the Warner Bros. animated superhero adventures brings one of Batman’s most notorious stories to dynamic life as the replacement Robin the Boy Wonder, an orphan called Jason Todd, is kidnapped by arch villain The Joker.

The comic book series on which it’s based used a telephone readers’ vote to decide whether Todd lived or died, and in it’s honour this has various alternate versions of the story to entertain.

Also includes four short stories featuring Sgt. Rock, Adam Strange and more. Fun but not for the little ones.

LEGACY OF LIES

Cert 15 Stars 3

Brummie born action star Scott Adkins busts some ferocious action moves in this hard-as-nails global spy-thriller as an ex-MI6 agent making money in illegal bouts.

Honor Kneafsey is fun as his streetwise gun-toting 12-year-old daughter Lisa, who’s unfazed by his ferocious cage-fighting skills, but whose life is at stake when her dad is dragged back into the espionage game and given 24 hours to find some secret files.

The strong location work and glossy menace is anchored by Adkins, an unsung hard working professional and likeable screen presence deserving of a more high profile gig.

I AM GRETA

Cert 12A Stars 4

Hot on the heels of David Attenborough’s big screen rallying cry to save our planet comes this intimate documentary Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, who at only 15-year-old and having Asperger’s syndrome inspired a generation across the globe to go on school strike to demand immediate action on climate change.

We’re given Greta’s eye view of events as this otherwise very ordinary, shy and lonely schoolgirl is thrust into a media and political whirlwind.

Footage of her terrifying wind-powered voyage across the Atlantic Ocean shows it clearly not an empty gesture or a mere showboating of her credentials, and by the time she delivers an impassioned speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York I was fully onboard with her message.

Greta is understandably and deservedly cynical about the posturing of politicians, her modesty about her achievements in raising awareness is remarkable and her composure, resilience and humour in the face of appalling abuse from politicians will make you furious.

And if such a small figure can inspire such ire in powerful old men such as President Trump then she’s doing something right.

WOLFWALKERS

Cert PG Stars 5

Be enchanted by this fabulous family fable which is a joyously magical affair, rich in character, astonishingly imaginative, vividly beautiful, wonderfully funny, terrifically exciting, and easily the best animated movie I’ve seen this year.

Set in Kilkenny in 1650, Robyn is a young girl newly arrived from England with her father, and her pet owl called Merlin. While secretly exploring the nearby forest Robyn encounters another motherless and mischievous young girl called Mebh, who is a Wolfwalker, someone who possess the ability to change between human and wolf form.

Giving voice to the pair, Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker have a wonderful rapport full of teasing humour and excitable, conspiratorial exchanges. While Sean Bean brings a weary sadness nobility as Robyn’s father.

But the girls’ blossoming friendship puts Robyn at odds with her father who’s a wolf hunter by trade, and brings them all into conflict with the puritanical and tyrannical Lord Protector, an Englishman intent on ‘taming’ Ireland by force.

Produced by the Irish studio, Cartoon Saloon who’re justly famous for their with their uniquely luscious illustrative style rooted in traditional Irish art, their previous films The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner, were all Oscar nominated for Best Animated Film, and each is on a par with the best of Disney or Pixar. And this is no exception.

Although first and foremost a wonderful children’s action adventure, it’s also undeniably political and ripe with history, but always framed in such a way your kids will understand.

It’s most damning of politicians and rulers who invoke god to support their wars and use fear mongering rhetoric to justify persecuting those who are different. And there’s also a timely environmental message about how forests are destroyed in the pursuit of profit.

As the heartbreaking story unfolded, I cried, howled with laughter and I nearly cheered at one crossbow-wielding moment. Wolfwalkers is Watership Down for a new generation – but with more bite.

THE WITCHES

Cert PG Stars 4

Roald Dahl’s prize-winning children’s book is given a Hollywood fantasy comedy make-over with Robert ‘Back To The Future’ Zemeckis transferring the story from the UK to Alabama of 1968.

Jahzir Kadeem Bruno’s young orphan teams up with on-screen grandmother Octavia Spencer to defeat a coven of evil witches, led
by Anne Hathaway who’s having an absolute blast.

Though Chris Rock’s narration is unnecessary the big budget allows for glossy SFX which brings the action to gleefully grotesque life.

It’s a lively family Halloween treat and if Dahl purists are offended, the tricks on them.

HONEST THIEF

Cert 15 Stars 3

Liam Neeson is back in action mode in this watchable action thriller which is smart enough to plays to his increasingly dour and weary strengths while never suggesting he’s going to be breaking sweat or any new ground.

The scarcely believable set up sees the big Irish actor star as ‘The In and Out Bandit’, a former marine turned bank robber, a gentleman thief who of course who never hurts anyone and is in it for the thrills not the cash.

However when he falls in love his guilty conscience insists he turn himself in and serve his time before settling down, but he’s double-crossed by two FBI agents and soon he’s on the run with his not best-pleased girlfriend, Annie.

Best known from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, Kate Walsh is bright presence, while Jai Courtney is always been better when playing the villain and is on agreeably nasty macho form as a corrupt Federal agent.

There are car chases and shoot-outs and Neeson growls down the phone in a manner familiar from his Taken franchise, but at 68 it may be time to retire the tough guy act.

PIXIE

Cert 15 Stars 3

Following her fabulous turn as Becky Sharp in the period drama miniseries Vanity Fair, Olivia Cooke plays another mischievous smart ass schemer with a silly amount of confidence in this enjoyably raucous violent comedy thriller.

As Pixie she finds herself on the run after a heist has gone wrong with compromising photographs, a body in a car boot and a stolen bag of drugs,
Swept along in Pixie’s wake are her hapless smitten accomplices, played with agreeable self-delusion by Ben Hardy and Daryl McCormack.

A modern day Irish Western set in the err, the west of Ireland it’s a foul mouthed and loose limbed affair, which it wears on its many influences on it’s sleeve.

Barnaby Thompson previously directed 2009’s St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, and does a decent job of aping the tone of the superior Colin Farrell 2008 thriller In Bruges.

The script lacks that film’s flair but there’s an enjoyable swagger to proceedings, some lovely production design and Alex Baldwin gives a much needed boost of energy as a pistol packing priest when the pace begins to flag.