If you want to make a film that has a reasonable chance of success, but you’re short of cash, the time-honoured approach is to persuade some big names to work for a pittance just because they like the idea. This is known in the trade as ‘ensemble casting.’

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s a dog’s dinner. I saw a couple of films on television last weekend, and one was brill, and two were bloody awful offerings.

Start at the top. V for Vendetta was a gem, even if it fell apart a bit in the final stages. But you get Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Sinead Cusack. The band’s all there in the unsettling tale of a dystopian Britain under the iron control of John Hurt’s high chancellor Adam Sutler. It’s hard to figure out just when the film is set, which is one thing that makes it worrisome.

You get some sterling performances, very intriguing characters, and some skilful plotting. All in all it’s a worthwhile way of spending your two and a bit hours. One of those films that when the commercial breaks come on you yell, ‘Get on with it!’ I do anyway.

The same couldn’t be said for the diabolically terrible Species. I remember seeing this when it first came out and it got my coveted Turkey of the Year award. Even so I had forgotten just how bad it was.

It’s hard to work out how the writer and the director could make such a cock up with a cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina, and Forest Whitaker. It’s not helped by Natasha Henstridge’s terrible performance as the not-even-remotely-scary alien Sil, which is odd because I quite liked her in John Carpenter’s schlockfest Ghosts of Mars.

The whole thing just nicked a load of ideas from Alien (check out the way that Sil gives birth) and didn’t do the job anywhere near as well. Really such a shoddy film you can’t not watch it in horrified fascination. I felt the same way about 2012, which somehow failed to bring out the best in Thandie Newton, John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover.

If you’re a fan of the ensemble genre, I can highly recommend Murder by Death. This came out in the mid 70s and may have passed you by. As I recall it has Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness et al splendidly hamming it up in a country house whodunnit comedy. I saw this 40 years ago and still smile at Maggie Smith’s reaction when she had necrophilia explained to her.

And you even get Fay Wray’s scream as the doorbell.

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