My 10 favourite James Stewart films

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James Stewart – perhaps Hollywood’s best ever ‘everyman’ actor – had a film career of over half a century, from a supporting role in 1935 crime movie The Murder Man to a voice part in 1991 animation An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. In between he starred in some of the biggest and most important movies around, so on what would have been his 111th birthday, here’s a list of his 10 best.

10. Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall)
James Stewart appeared in several Westerns throughout his career; it was a genre he especially enjoyed. This was his first – and it’s often played like a comedy. He stars as Tom Destry Jr, an unconventional lawman who takes on a criminal gang but refuses to carry a gun. Marlene Dietrich is top billed as the local saloon owner and gets as couple of songs to sing. Other decent Westerns starring James Stewart include two films directed by Anthony Mann – the episodic Winchester ’73 (1950) and the predictable but well made The Man from Laramie (1955) – as well as…

9. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford)
A classy team-up with director John Ford and his favourite star, John Wayne. In the late 19th century, US Senator Ranse Stoddard (Stewart) arrives in a low-key town to attend a funeral. The bulk of the film is then a flashback to 25 years later, showing Stoddard’s first visit to the town during which he encountered and stood up to a savage local thug. There’s a good supporting cast – Vera Miles as the love interest, Lee Marvin as the heavy – as well as effective themes about how memories and myths can’t always be trusted.

8. No Highway in the Sky (1951, Henry Koster)
A character part for Stewart here, as he plays an aviation engineer who fears that a new fleet of commercial aircraft will fail. His character, Theodore Honey, has a razor-sharp intellect and a passionate determination – but is also a befuddled widower who forgets where he lives. This fun British film has a smart, understated script and some terrific production values. Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, Jack Hawkins and a young Janette Scott co-star.

7. Harvey (1950, Henry Koster)
A delightfully breezy comedy about a man who has an imaginary friend in the form of an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit. Elwood P Dowd (Stewart) is a benign eccentric, but his sister attempts to have him committed – which leads to a farce-like plot of misunderstanding, whimsy and humour.

6. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Frank Capra)
This social satire sees Stewart as a naïve man elevated to the US Senate by cynical political operatives; they think they can manipulate him into voting their way, but don’t count on his guile and decency. The plot peaks with a grandstanding sequence where Jeff Smith (Stewart) filibusters for 25 hours to block a dodgy bill passing through the Senate, but there’s also lightness and romance along the way too. (This was the second of three times Stewart worked for director Frank Capra.)

5. Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)
The highlights of James Stewart’s career were often his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock; the two men made four films together. In the decent The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Stewart plays one of his classic everyman roles – a husband and father who gets caught up in international espionage. But his first character for the Master of Suspence was Rupert Cadell, a sly university professor who attends a party hosted by two of his former pupils. Slowly it dawns on Cadell that the men have done something dreadful: they’ve murdered a friend as an intellectual exercise, hidden his body in a trunk, and then invited his loved ones round for drinks… The movie, famously shot in long takes, is absolutely gripping throughout. Click here for a full review.

4. Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)
A courtroom drama shot like a film noir with a jazz score by Duke Ellington. Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, a small-town lawyer who takes on the defence of a man accused of killing a love rival. It’s a dark film, cynical and seedy at times, but so engrossing that its long running time (160 minutes) is never an issue. Part of the reason for its success is, like all great legal dramas, the details of the case are investigated with such precision; part of the reason is the strong cast (George C Scott as the prosecution lawyer, Ben Gazzara as the defendant, Lee Remick as the defendant’s girlfriend); and part of the reason is Stewart’s endlessly watchable performance as Biegler, a melancholic character who likes fishing and playing the piano.

3. Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
Stewart’s second role for Hitch was, like Rope, in a concept film. This time he plays LB Jefferies, a photographer who’s housebound due to a busted leg. During a heat wave, from his apartment window, he watches life going on outside – and then comes to belief that he’s seen his neighbour committing murder. The camera never leaves Jefferies’s side, so we see events totally from his point of view. It’s a spectacularly effective piece of filmmaking. Click here for a full review.

2. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
For a long time, there was a cliché that was often pedalled about It’s a Wonderful Life: that it’s an overly sugary, sentimental film without much depth – the very model of a ‘feel-good’ movie. But it’s now become just as much a cliché to point out that that’s not the case. Yes, there’s a stunningly upbeat ending – an explosion of joy and positivity and happiness that has no equal in cinema. But before we get there, this is a dark, shaded drama about a good, decent man who’s driven to the point of suicide. Stewart excels as small-town guy George Bailey, a role that allows the actor to display his astronomical charm and comic timing but also show us what a great dramatic performer he was. George is in virtually every scene and you feel every setback, every dent to his dreams.

1. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
James Stewart’s final role for Alfred Hitchcock was in a movie that has sometimes – such as in Sight & Sound’s most recent big poll of experts – been called the greatest ever made. A twisted, seductive story about obsession, Vertigo sees the actor as Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop who’s hired to keep an eye on a troubled woman. When she dies in front of him, Scottie is racked with guilt. He then becomes unhealthily focused on the dead woman, and later happens to see another woman who looks uncannily similar… Alfred Hitchcock shows a masterful command of both form and feeling; Stewart carries off an enormously complex performance throughout.

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Ten Things I Love About Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is an intoxicating neo-noir mystery story, a masterpiece of art direction and cinematography, and one of the best examples of science-fiction in any medium. It also, however, feels like a self-contained piece of work – a glimpse into a world that is all the more fascinating because we only spend two hours there.

So producing a sequel 35 years later was something of a risk. Scott himself has recently directed two follow-ups to his other sci-fi classic, Alien (1979), and both fell a very long way short of that movie’s seductive terror. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is *at least* the equal of the 1982 antecedent. Made with an understanding of the original’s power but also with a distinct voice by director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a big film, a difficult film at times, but an engrossing and hugely rewarding experience.

There are a multitude of reasons why it’s quite so wonderful. Here are just 10…

1. Connections
A sequel can do several things. It can go down the James Bond route of presenting another adventure involving the same character/s; essentially a new self-contained story. Or it can be more like the films in the Godfather or Star Wars series, which are discrete units but also work to develop an ongoing narrative. In other cases, ‘sequels’ actually have precious little to do with their originator – see Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which takes place in a different continuity, or The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), which presents a whole new cast. But the latest Blade Runner film goes down its own path. It’s set 30 years after the events of the original movie and focuses on new characters. But its storyline is inexorably linked to the first movie; it could not exist without it. It is a sequel, there’s no denying that. But it might be more useful to think of 2049 as a companion piece to Ridley Scott’s film; an extension; a development. It’s not just the literal narrative that’s being picked up and run with. It’s also the themes.

2. K
The story’s lead character is a replicant (a human-like synthetic lifeform) played by Ryan Gosling. The actor has recently developed a brand of impressively impassive acting that says nothing and everything all at the same time. He glides through this film, outwardly not emoting much or reacting very demonstrably to anything. But Gosling, whose wonderful deadpannery can also be enjoyed in great films such as Drive (2011) and The Nice Guys (2016), has grown into one of the best *movie actors* of recent years. Knowing his face will be enormous when viewed on a cinema screen, he’s able to convey curiosity, anger, frustration, excitement and especially melancholy with remarkable restraint… The slight rise of an eyebrow, an adjustment of the mouth: these moments always tell you exactly what his character is thinking and feeling. Like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the first Blade Runner, KD6-3.7 – K for short – is an LA cop who tracks down and deals with renegade replicants. (We still don’t get told why they’re called Blade Runners.) When he stumbles across some bones buried under a tree, however, he discovers a volatile secret: replicants can procreate. Knowing this information could cause widespread panic and unbalance society, his boss Lt Joshi orders K to find the child and ‘retire’ it – in other words, kill it. K’s gumshoe storyline also leads him to remember details from his own childhood, and he starts to wonder if *he* is the missing child…

3. Pace
In 1930, the average length of an individual shot in an American film was about 12 seconds. By the start of the 21st century, this had decreased to just 2.5 seconds. Coupled with the increased running times of movies in recent years, and that can mean an awful lot of shots. (Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong, for example, has over 3,000 of them. It’s a decent film, but no one would disagree with the notion that a few trims would help.) Many people point to the influence of television, music videos and services like YouTube as the reason for this increase in cutting speed. The idea is that we’re all losing the ability to pay attention. But there’s actually no evidence for this. Studies have shown a steady decrease in shot length across the decades, irrespective of other media. (It’s probably more down to the development of user-friendly technology in editing rooms.) However, in an era of non-stop cutting and a fear that audiences will get bored if you linger on one image for too long, Blade Runner 2049 is pointedly slooooow. It’s more deliberate than your average blockbuster and it *takes its time*. The rhythm of the storytelling feels old-fashioned – joyfully so – and allows the plot, the characters and the world to just *be*, to exist and develop. The film seduces you, grips you, and doesn’t let go. It’s lyrical, cerebral and beautiful. If most sci-fi films are rock songs, this is a symphony.

4. Joi
K leads an empty life, alone in a small apartment in a seedy building full of thugs. His one source of solace comes from an ersatz girlfriend – an artificial-intelligence hologram called Joi, played by Ana de Armas. It’s fair to say that this film has come in for some criticism around the character, given that she’s essentially a spin on the ‘sex robot’ cliché. She’s a mother/lover totem who switches from domestic goddess to flirty girl in the flick of a hologrammatic beam; she’s artificial and has been programmed to serve and ‘love’ anyone who buys her. But does this miss the point? The central theme of the Blade Runner films is ‘What is life?’ (The novel that the original movie was based on, after all, was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Here, a pointedly provocative character is being dramatised so we can question what it means to be alive. K is ‘artificial’ too, after all: he’s a replicant. But he’s capable of emotion and independence and sentience. We don’t question his right to life or to be treated with respect. We accept him as a character worth investing in. Why is Joi any different? At several points in the film, she seems to make complex and human-like decisions out of genuine love – she even sacrifices herself to save K. We later see a giant, 3D advertisement for her model and it presents a crasser, more sexualised version. ‘Our’ Joi had broken away from this cliché and become a unique personality. Doesn’t that make her ‘alive’? Joi has been programmed, yes, and has pre-set parameters that control her actions and ‘feelings’. But how is that any different from a human being? Our personalities and psychologies are shaped by natural characteristics, our upbringing, our surroundings and a host of other factors outside of our control. It doesn’t stop us being us.

5. Visuals
Cinema is imagery. If it were just people talking, it would be a radio play. And Blade Runner 2049 understands the beauty and power of visual images better than any other Hollywood movie of recent years. Just like in the 1982 original, both the physical world and the cinematography are *achingly* wonderful. Production designer Dennis Gassner and director of photography Roger Deakins (who both have Coen brother and Bond movies on their CV) create something that feels 360-degree real, 100-per-cent immersive, 3D vivid. It’s a logical development of the neo-noir LA we saw in Ridley Scott’s original – there are still cluttered streets and smoggy atmospheres and dramatic skyscrapers and neon adverts and dangerous shadows. But 2049 also moves the world on: America is now more Brutalist than Deco; more straight than curved; more scathing than seductive; more stark than sleazy. (Tellingly, director Denis Villeneuve’s keyword when trying to convey the film’s tone to colleagues was ‘brutality’.) There’s also still the Japanese influence we saw in 1982 (the bad guy’s lair is based on Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient temple in Kyoto), while several scenes take place away from urban sprawl: on a desolate farm, in sandblasted ruins. Each location has its own identity – a cold and sterile police station, the ethereal, golden offices of the Wallace Corporation, a cyberpunky brothel alley, an industrial factory, the faded, entropic ruins of Las Vegas – but they all feel part of the same whole and they all contribute to telling the story. There’s also a constant sense of size and scale: Blade Runner 2049 takes place in an enormous, wide-angle fictional world. Deakins rightly won an Oscar and a Bafta for his work on this film; Gassner was nominated at both ceremonies. The craft and skill involved in producing something so wonderful beggars belief.

6. Luv
If there’s perhaps one blemish on this film it’s the lead antagonist. For the character of Niander Wallace, an eccentric, blind businessman who runs LA’s most powerful conglomerate, Villeneuve initially hoped to cast David Bowie. ‘He embodied the Blade Runner spirit,’ the director said. But then Bowie died. It would have been an interesting piece of casting, given the associations the actor would have brought from other roles and his career in general. Sadly, Jared Leto – an acquired taste of an actor – is a poor second choice. The character has a plan to steal the bones that K has discovered, because he wants to learn how replicants can conceive and then use this to expand his business empire. But Leto plays Wallace in such an affected and theatrical way, especially in a perverse scene when he kills a naked replicant, that the character teeters on the edge of silliness. He doesn’t fit with the movie’s mood or world. Thankfully, much more watchable is Wallace’s second-in-command, Luv, played with icy control by Sylvia Hoeks. She’s essentially the film’s ‘heavy’, who acts as Wallace’s proxy because he’s too important/lazy/scared to leave the sanctity of his palatial building. Luv carries out his orders and kills mercilessly when needed.

7. Music
The first Blade Runner movie has a famously good score, so 2049 had a lot to live up to. Much like the look of the film, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s incidental music manages to both honour what came before *and* push things forward. The score begins with ominous, reverb-heavy noises that echo Vangelis’s music from the first film, but this is no empty copy. Zimmer has become Hollywood’s premier composer over the last 25 years or so, known for music that feels enormous but which still has telling emotional weight. His work with Wallfisch on Blade Runner 2049 is no different.

8. Names
K’s boss at the police station is Lt Joshi, played with intelligence by Robin Wright, and she’s one of several characters in Blade Runner 2049 with an intriguing name. In Japanese, for example, jōshi with a long ‘o’ sound (上司) means boss while joshi with a short ‘o’ (女子) means female. Elsewhere, K’s single-letter moniker is a nod to Philip K Dick, the man who wrote the story on which the original Blade Runner movie was based. Niander Wallace’s name is a pun on Homo Neandertalensis, a now-extinct species of humans (suggesting he is destined to be superseded by replicants). Ana Stelline (played by Carla Juri) is an enigmatic woman who designs complex fake memories for replicants, and has a name that refers to anastellin (a natural substance that suppresses tumour growth and metastasis – ie, she keeps things alive). The implication of Luv’s name when said out loud is obvious… but if you don’t understand why Joi’s name has that spelling, ask your older brother.

9. Deckard
In recent years, Harrison Ford has been reprising the roles that won him such a venerated place in genre cinema history. In 2008, he got out his archaeologist’s hat and whip for a fourth time in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Seven years later, he returned to the Star Wars universe to give Han Solo one last Kessel Run round the block. Then he completed the hat-trick of heroes in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049… Rick Deckard doesn’t appear on screen until after 100 minutes, and for anyone who’s seen the poster or DVD cover and knows he’s on his way, this delay gives his return to the two-film narrative a huge amount of significance and weight. A trail of clues has led K to the post-apocalyptic ruins of Las Vegas, where he encounters his Blade Runner predecessor. ‘You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you?’ asks Deckard. It’s a quotation from Treasure Island, a book about a young man on a dangerous, revelatory quest for an enormous prize. The line is said by Ben Gunn, a pirate who has been stranded alone for a long time – in much the same way as the isolated and bitter Deckard. After a punch-up that plays out against the gleefully absurd background of a stop-start hologrammatic Elvis Presley concert – another masterpiece of lighting from Roger Deakins – the two cops discuss the case. Ford is sombre, soulful, sanguine; there are decades of anguish carved into his granite face. (Commendably, this film maintains the original Blade Runner’s ambiguity over whether Deckard is himself a replicant. Evidence weighs towards yes, but it’s not conclusive.)

10. Rachel
As well as Deckard, two other characters from the original movie have presences in Blade Runner 2049. Edward James Olmos returns for a one-scene cameo as Gaff, the prissy detective with a fondness for the multi-lingo Cityspeak. K visits him in a retirement home when he’s trying to track down Deckard. It’s a scene that could have been cut: precious little information is learnt and it’s largely a geek-pleasing moment (Gaff even does some origami – tick!). Much more significant is the reappearance of Deckard’s late lover – the replicant Rachel. She’s died in the decades since the first film, but makes a haunting cameo when Wallace taunts Deckard by presenting him with a facsimile of his lost love. In the finest use of computer-generated imagery yet seen in any film, the character appears exactly as she did in the original Blade Runner. Sean Young, who played Rachel in 1982, advised body double Loren Peta how to move and stand, then the latter’s face was replaced digitally. This kind of thing has been done a few times recently, most notably in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One (2016). But Blade Runner 2049 exceeds anything done in that film or elsewhere. It’s a stunning moment, full of awe and wonder. If Blade Runner 2049 is about anything – and actually, it’s about a lot of things – then it’s a movie built on memories. K questions his own recollections, searches for his real history, and tries to create new memories with Joi. Ana specifically designs artificial memories for other people. Deckard, meanwhile, is haunted by the past – and Wallace knows that. The latter takes the former prisoner because he needs to know what happened to his and Rachel’s child. He taunts Deckard by playing him an audio recording of his first meeting with Rachel, then offers an incentive to talk… ‘An angel, made again,’ says Wallace as a millimetre-perfect recreation of Rachel sashays into the room. ‘Did you miss me?’ she says, totally believable. ‘Don’t you love me?’ Deckard is stunned by being confronted by something so beautiful, that he loves so much, but that he thought long gone and that has been made anew. So are we.

Ten wooden horses out 10

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018, Ron Howard)

SoloStarWars

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ten years before his encounter with Luke Skywalker in a cantina, Han Solo becomes embroiled in a job to steal a valuable fuel source for a gangster…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one.

GOOD GUYS:

* When we first meet him, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is hot-wiring a land-speeder in a rusty, rundown city on his home planet of Corellia. It’s a place dominated by crime lords, even though the fascistic Empire are technically in command. Han – a young man in his late 20s – is scratching out a living for himself and girlfriend Qi’ra. He’s accumulated enough cash to buy their way out of the ‘control zone’, but while attempting to escape the planet Qi’ra is arrested by the authorities. Needing to hide, Han hits upon the idea of joining the Imperial military. When the recruiting officer asks his name, Han admits he doesn’t have a family and therefore no surname, so the officer plucks one out of the air: ‘Han… Solo.’ Three years later, Han is an unhappy grunt in the Imperial infantry. However, backchat to superior officers leads to him being thrown into a punishment pit with a ‘beast’. The monster actually turns out to be a sympathetic creature called Chewbacca, and rather than fight to the death the pair collude to escape their prison. (Handily, Han speaks a bit Chewy’s language.) Fleeing the army, Han and his new pal hook up with a criminal called Beckett, whose crew are planning to steal some valuable fuel from a speeding train. This opportunity pleases Han because his long-term goal is to earn enough money to get home to Corellia and save Qi’ra. However, despite Han getting to show off his piloting skills, the heist goes wrong: Beckett’s lieutenants are killed and the loot is snatched by a third party. So Beckett and Han must go cap in hand to Drydon Vos, the crime lord who hired them and the leader of a terrorist organisation called Crimson Dawn. On board Vos’s palatial Art Deco yacht, Han is stunned to bump into Qi’ra – she escaped Corellia on her own, and now works for Crimson Dawn. He then cuts a deal with Vos to steal the loot from somewhere else. This involves travelling down a dangerous space route known as the Kessel Run (take a gulp if you’re playing the drinking game), but for this they need a fast ship. Luckily Qi’ra knows a guy who has one. At first, Han attempts to win the craft in a card game – but the cad with the transport, a slick fella called Lando, beats him and insists on a cut of the take for the use of his ship. When Han then sees Lando’s vehicle – the Millennium Falcon, a disc-shaped Corellian YT-1300 – he goes all misty-eyed and mentions that his father helped build this brand of spaceship. The gang travel to the planet Kessel, where they steal the coaxium Vos wants, then flee via the Kessel Run. Lando’s pilot was killed during the job, though, so Han must take the controls of the Millennium Falcon – he actually completes the run faster than anyone ever before. Meeting up with Vos, Han is betrayed by both Beckett – who attempts to steal the loot for himself – and Qi’ra, who chooses a dark path. So as the film winds down, Han and Chewy seek out Lando again, and Han wins the Falcon from him in a rigged card game. They then head for the planet Tatooine, where they’ve heard a crime lord is putting together a new job… Charged with the task of taking over such a venerated character, Ehrenreich is absolutely terrific. He brilliantly evokes Harrison Ford’s smirky charisma but never resorts to a hollow impression. Actor and script capture the tone of the Han Solo we know – the swashbuckling heroics, the playful cheek, the romantic streak, the hubris and failure – but as this is a younger Han, he’s also more optimistic and idealistic. (Fun fact: Alden Ehrenreich was given his first name in honour of family friend Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Sneakers and Field of Dreams.)

* Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) seems initially to be an infantry officer in the Imperial Army, but soldier Han quickly deduces that he’s an imposter: a thief for hire who pulls off jobs with a couple of cohorts. After allowing him to join his crew, Beckett becomes a kind of father-figure type for Han – offering advise, encouraging him, all that. This doesn’t stop him betraying his protégé, however, when he steals the coaxium for himself. Han gives chase and, before Beckett can talk his way out of it, shoots him dead. (Han shoots first, you see.) Harrelson is typically watchable.

* Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau) is Beckett’s pilot: a small, monkey-sized, multi-armed Ardenian with a sarcastic manner and a New York accent. The character is *in no way* a blatant rip-off of Bradley Cooper’s Rocket from the Guardians of the Galaxy series. He dies during the train heist.

* Val (Thandie Newton) is Beckett’s partner, both professionally and personally. A spiky, entertainingly rude character, she also dies attempting to steal the fuel – which is a real shame, as Newton is a fun presence while she lasts.

* Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is a 190-year-old Wookie – a seven-foot-tall, furry alien – and has been locked up by the Empire, who are treating him like a savage animal. When we first see him, his fur is matted and he’s in an understandably bad mood. Han soon wins him round, though, especially by speaking to him in his own language, and the pair not only escape the Empire but become quick pals. During the Kessel Run, Chewy jumps into the Millennium Falcon’s co-pilot seat, establishing a spaceship-flying partnership with Han. At one point, we also learn that Chewbacca is searching for his lost family. Presumably, he’s referring to the Wookies seen in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. (A sad side note: I was doing a final pass on this blog when I heard the news that Peter Mayhew had died at the age of 74. He played Chewbacca in five Star Wars movies from 1977 until 2015 before passing the baton on to Suotamo.)

* Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman) initially seems to be the leader of a gang of pirates. She and her pals – one of whom is Warwick Davis’s Weazel, a character who first appeared in 1999’s The Phantom Menace – beat Beckett and co to the loot during the train heist. They must be crims, then? No, when Nest shows up near the end of the story we discover that she’s actually the leader of a nascent rebellion against the evil Empire. She asks Han to join their cause, but he declines. Kellyman, who only appears without a facemask in the final third of the film, is a bit earnest.

* Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) is said to be the best smuggler around, and is a dashing, louche, cape-wearing smoothie who enjoys cheating at card games and being economical with the truth. He signs up to Beckett’s mission to steal some coaxium, but wants 25 per cent of the take. However, after completing the job and running into more trouble, Lando leaves his new comrades behind and sneaks away with his ship. Later, Han tracks him down and suggests another game of Sabaac… Glover is tremendous value, echoing original actor Billy Dee Williams but bringing his own brand of swagger. (He also pronounces Han’s name with a short A, to match Williams in The Empire Strikes Back.)

* Droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is Lando’s first mate. She’s a vaguely human-shaped robot with an oversized head (all the better for containing, as Lando points out, the best navigational database in the galaxy). She’s also a fierce defender of ‘droid rights’, and is first seen pleading with other mechanical life to stand up for themselves. Despite being in a permanent bad mood, she has a thing for Lando (‘How would that work?’ asks a dubious Qi’ra) and maybe he has one for her too… On Kessel, she’s movingly upset by the sight of droids being held as slaves so incites a revolution – but then is fatally shot during the ensuing combat. Lando is *distraught*. (So are we.) L3’s navigational database is then uploaded into the Millennium Falcon’s computer… She might be a CGI creation, but you wouldn’t know that from the absolutely seamless way the character interacts with the actors and the physical sets. (Technology has moved on A LOT since Jar-Jar Binks, hasn’t it?) Waller-Bridge’s voice work is really brilliant: very funny and full of sass.

BAD GUYS:

* When Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) returns to the story on Crimson Dawn’s luxury yacht, she’s clearly a changed woman. She’s harsher, colder, and now a gangster’s moll-cum-advisor. But she’s also genuinely pleased to see Han again, and when the old flames travel to Kessel together they actually share a kiss in Lando’s cape room. (Yes, Lando has an entire room to store his capes. He’s *that* cool.) ‘Am I interrupting something?’ says a cockblocking Beckett, who’s not sure his new protégé should be cosying up to Drydon Vos’s aide. Qi’ra helps on the Kessel Run scam, pretending to be an Imperial official with Han as her shackled prisoner – then late in the film she turns into a samurai-sword-wielding badass, kills her boss and takes over his criminal empire. She then contacts his shadowy benefactor… This is a tough role for Clarke, who filmed Solo in-between seasons of Game of Thrones. Qi’ra may as well have a neon sign above her exceedingly pretty head that reads ‘I’m not who Han thinks I am’, but the actress disguises it as much as she can by using natural charm.

* Lady Promixa (voiced by Linda Hunt) is a giant slug-type creature who rules the underworld of Corellia with an iron tentacle. Early in the film, Han is taken to see her when it becomes clear he’s been ripping her off. The character is a nice reminder that the original Star Wars movies were no strangers to bizarre and even risible aliens. Nevertheless, it’s quite a relief that she doesn’t last very long in the story. To escape her oily clutches, Han pretends to have a thermal detonator (a grenade, essentially). Proxima is not fooled: ‘That’s a rock!’ she says. ‘And you just made a clinking sound with your mouth.’ (More than a decade of story time later, Princess Leia will use the same gag in an attempt to save Han from a different alien gangster.)

* One of the Imperial officers in the warzone scenes looks suspiciously like the late actor Don Henderson. Presumably he’s meant to be a younger version of Henderson’s character in the original Star Wars film.

* Drydon Vos (Paul Bettany) is the leader of Crimson Dawn, so therefore is the man Qi’ra now works for. He’s an arrogant, maniacal loon with a violent streak, a love of pithy threats and a scarred face. He also makes an obscure reference to having a sinister boss… After Beckett and co have brought him the coaxium he wants, Vos suffers a double-cross as Qi’ra kills him and takes over his organisation… Michael K Williams was cast in the role, but was then unavailable for some reshoots so Bettany took over. At the same time, the character went through a rethink: he was originally a CG creation resembling a humanoid lion. Whatever the visuals, he’s a bit of a rent-a-bad-guy.

* In a shock twist held back from all the publicity and trailers, Darth Maul (Ray Park; voiced by Sam Witwer) appears late on. He’s the real power behind Crimson Dawn – oh no! We only see Maul as a hologram when he FaceTimes Qi’ra, but we can tell he has robotic legs (in his last appearance, remember, he was cut in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi). Maul summons Qi’ra to come and see him and tells her they’ll be working more closely from now on… This is just a cameo, meant to set the character up for a sequel that will now probably never happen because Solo “only” took $392 million at the box office (ie, the smallest gross of any live-action Star Wars film). Peter Serafinowicz was originally hired to reprise the voice of Maul from The Phantom Menace, but then the strange decision was made to use someone else.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The action is uniformly great in this movie, whether it’s the chaotic trench warfare scenes, or the slick, wind-machined train heist, or the multi-character punch-up on the planet Kessel. Especially impressive is the dieselpunk chase sequence on Corellia with Han and Qi’ra in a land-speeder, a kind of floating car. Unlike most CG-heavy action scenes, this one feels totally real and heavy and locked into gravity. Solid, metallic vehicles career round corners and skirt past palpable obstacles. You feel the speed and the thrill and the danger. It’s like something from a Mad Max film.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Solo’s original directors were Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind the far-better-than-you-think-it’s-going-to-be comedy 21 Jump Street and the everything-is-awesome Lego Movie. But they were fired during production – reportedly for trying to make the film too much of a comedy. Nevertheless, even with the more serious-minded Ron Howard taking over, Solo is still often very funny. L3 is a hoot (‘Is there anything you need?’ ‘Equal rights?’), meaning this is the second Star Wars spin-off running with a comedic droid (cf Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO in Rogue One). Lando as played by Donald Glover is so watchable he *needs* a film all of his own (check out the throwaway moment when we glimpse him recording a vainglorious diary entry). Geeks all over the world will have smirked when the infamous Imperial March music cue is used in-story, as the Empire’s army-recruitment theme tune.

MUSIC: The score is utterly superb, feeling thoroughly and joyfully Star Wars-esque but having a life of its own too. Whether the scene is action or romance or melancholy or humour, John Powell’s incidental music adds a huge amount. Old John Williams themes are quoted if appropriate, such as a 1977 motif when Han first sits behind the controls of the Falcon, but the new stuff is always memorable and engaging. (Williams made a contribution too. He wrote a new theme called The Adventures of Han, which Powell then incorporated into his work.)

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film on 6 June 2018 at the Everyman Canary Wharf in London with my old pal Fraser Dickson. Unlike the December releases of the previous three Star Wars films, Solo came out in the UK on 24 May. WHY NOT MAY THE 4TH?!

REVIEW: This was a huge ask. Huge. To take such a famous and beloved character and *recast* him could have gone catastrophically wrong. Thankfully, both lead actor and the film as a whole are wonderful, vibrant and entertaining. Not that anyone’s going to claim Solo is rewriting the rules of cinema. Being a prequel, for example, it goes down the predictable route of ticking narrative boxes – we learn how Han gained his surname, how he met Chewbacca, how he met Lando Calrissian, how he first encountered the Millennium Falcon, how he gained his gun, why he claims in the original Star Wars that he did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, even how long he’s owned a pair of gold dice that featured beyond fleetingly in the 1977 film then became a plot point in 2017’s The Last Jedi. This kind of dramatised backstory – simply filling out the spaces between established facts – could of course become boring very quickly. Solo, however, has more than enough zip, panache and style to sidestep the issue. It’s full of vivid characters, exiting sequences, humour, romance and adventure. It’s a caper movie, a heist movie, a Western in disguise. It’s enormous fun. It’s Star Wars. 

Nine spice mines of Kessel out of 10

Torn Curtain (1966, Alfred Hitchcock)

TornCurtain

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an American scientist seemingly defects to East Germany, his fiancée follows – leading to them both being trapped behind the Iron Curtain…

Touted at the time of its release as Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th movie (which it was if you discount short films, Elstree Calling and the German-language version of Murder!), Torn Curtain begins with an impressionistic title sequence reminiscent of the James Bond series. Swirling, fiery images play opposite snatched glimpses of characters and incidents while lush music with a ‘full’, orchestral sound tempts us into a world of espionage. 

There had been four Bond pictures by 1965, when Hitchcock began production, but rather than the current vogue for spy films, the inspiration for Torn Curtain actually came from real life. Hitch had been fascinated by the defection to the Soviet Union of the British diplomat Donald Maclean in 1951, and specifically by what that meant for Maclean’s wife and family. Melinda Maclean followed her husband to Moscow about a year later, and Hitchcock wondered how her husband’s choice had affected her emotionally…

The film’s equivalent of Donald Maclean is Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American physicist attending a conference in Norway with his British colleague and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrew). They seem to be deeply in love – our first sighting of them is when they’re cuddled up in bed rather than attending a meal – but Michael soon begins to act oddly. He’s sent obscure radiogram messages, then lies to Sarah that he has to fly to Stockholm. When she learns that his flight is actually heading for East Berlin – in other words, inside communist East Germany – she buys a ticket too and sits a few rows behind him…

It’s typical spy-movie stuff: paranoia and hidden agendas and acrostics and codenames. And it was far from the first time Hitchcock had worked in the genre; he’d dabbled with this kind of material on and off for 30 years. In fact, for the roles of Michael and Sarah, he’d initially wanted to reunite the stars of his phenomenally successful spy film North by Northwest: Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. However, studio bosses insisted on actors who were more ‘current’. Julie Andrews was certainly that: she’d just had a massive hit with The Sound of Music and won an Oscar for 1964’s Mary Poppins. Co-star Paul Newman was hot from movies such as Hud and The Hustler.

Sadly, it often feels like their characters in Torn Curtain have never met before. It’s difficult to recall an on-screen couple in any Hitchcock film who have less chemistry. Hitch presumably wanted Andrews to be one of his classic blondes – an enigmatic female character with sex appeal and a cool exterior, but who is going through emotional turmoil on the inside. The actress, though, plays Sarah too straight, too blandly, to generate much interest. Newman, meanwhile, was a student of the Actors Studio and gives a down-to-earth, tightly wound performance that fails to connect with the heightened tone of the script. (Behind the scenes, Newman infuriated Hitchcock with questions and concerns. The director was more used to actors like James Stewart and Ingrid Bergman – people who showed up, knew their stuff, and did what they were told. When asked about his motivation in a certain scene, a frustrated Hitch is said to have told Newman: ‘Your salary.’)

Landing in East Berlin, Michael is warmly welcomed by the authorities and treated like a celebrity by journalists at a press conference that feels like it was inspired by the Beatles’ famously impressive first public appearance in America. It then dawns on Sarah what’s happening. Michael, seemingly disillusioned with his work at the US defence department being stymied, is defecting to the communists. He’s brusque with his fiancée, refusing to say whether he wants her to stay behind the iron curtain with him or go home.

Thankfully, we viewers don’t have to wait too long for the inevitable plot twist, which anyone who’s ever seen a spy film before will have seen coming from before the title sequence was over. After 40 minutes Michael gives his handlers the slip and heads out into the countryside to meet with a farmer. We’re let into his secret when he and the farmer – who’s actually an undercover agent – discuss how he’s only pretending to defect in order to get some vital information about a revolutionary new anti-rocket system. 

But of course there’s a problem. When he arrived in Berlin, Michael was given a bodyguard, who in reality is there to keep an eye on him. The gum-chewing, American-slang-loving heavy who Michael finds hard to evade is called Hermann Gromek and is excellently played by a sinister Wolfgang Kieling. When Gromek shows up at the farm, Michael initially tries to bluff his way out of the problem – but then must kill Gromek in a blackly comedic scene that’s the highlight of the whole film. With no incidental music to take the edge off the violence, Michael and the farmer’s wife try to subdue their enemy by strangulation, a stabbing, a shovel attack and eventually by forcing his head into a gas oven. (A German gassed in an oven? Hitch was aware of the implication, but later said it wasn’t a political comment.) The scene is a deliberate deconstruction of the spy-film cliché of an easy kill – Gromek is clinging onto life for a long time – and is totally gripping.

Elsewhere, regrettably, some of the filmmaking has not dated well. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to have a high tolerance for artificial devices such as rear-projection screens for scenes in moving cars and matte shots to extend sets and locations. All well and good for a movie made in the mid 1960s. Less excusable, however, is his decision to build an entire – and entirely fake-looking – park on a soundstage for a key scene that comes after 69 minutes. Knowing Gromek’s death will be discovered sooner rather than later, Michael takes Sarah aside and admits that he’s on a secret mission. In a neat trick that Hitchcock used in other films too – Topaz, for example, and North by Northwest – we don’t actually hear the dialogue because it’s information we viewers already know. But the plot swings here: now, Sarah is in the know.

Michael had buried Gromek’s body, but is rumbled when the taxi driver who delivered him to the farm reports seeing Gromek there too. (The taxi driver is played by American actor Eugene Weingard, who went by the stage name Peter Lorre Jr. He actually had no connection to the Hungarian-born star who had appeared in two Hitchcock films in the 1930s – aside from a slight resemblance. The more famous Lorre attempted to stop Weingard using the name, but after the former’s death in March 1964 the latter was free to pretend they were related.)

So the pressure is mounting. Seeking out a famed rocket scientist, Michael tricks him into revealing the secret equations he needs to take back to the States. With the sneaky plot now played out, Michael and Susan then flee down their escape route, which involves a bus service run by the resistance, some help from an eccentric Polish aristocrat (Lila Kedrova’s Countess Kuchinska) and a showpiece finale at the ballet that brings to mind the Albert Hall sequences in Hitchcock’s two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

There’s plenty to admire and enjoy in Torn Curtain, whether it’s the Hitchcockian touch of demonstrating how cold a room is by showing someone breaking up the ice that’s forming in his glass of water, or the cat-and-mouse sequence in a museum that has echoing footsteps creating tension and menace. The blocking – the relative positioning of the actors in a scene – also tells the story just as much as dialogue, such as the distance between Michael and Sarah when she thinks he’s a traitor compared to later when she’s learnt the truth.

However, it’s far from a wholly successful film. It mostly feels too safe, for example. This is the story of a man taking the enormous risk of going undercover in a communist state but it lacks the cynical edge and – Gromek’s death scene aside – the sense of danger seen in other 60s spy films like The Ipcress File (1965) or even the Bond series. Hitchcock also seems to get bored with his lead characters: Sarah in particular goes missing for long stretches, while in the second half of the story both she and Michael feel like passengers rather than drivers of the plot. 

Seven men in the hotel lobby out of 10

Note: In a 1999 interview, Steven Spielberg revealed that as a teenager he’d sneaked onto the set of Torn Curtain to watch the filming. He lasted 45 minutes before someone realised he shouldn’t be there.

Aquaman (2018, James Wan)

Aquaman

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having joined Batman, Wonder Woman and others in saving the world, Aquaman is now a famous superhero, but he’d rather live a quiet life. Then a woman from the undersea realm of his ancestors arrives and asks for his help…

Good guys: After a cameo in Batman vs Superman (2016), Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman) was properly introduced in 2017’s superhero mash-up movie Justice League. (Was he called Arthur in that film?! Honestly can’t remember.) He’s played again by Jason Momoa, who enjoys highlighting the character’s flippancy, sarcasm and reluctance to be a superhero. All this lightness helps distract you from the fact that, aside from a minor subplot about his mother, Arthur has no journey or emotional resonance in this story at all. He drifts through the film, being reasonably entertaining but rarely trying to achieve or learn anything. The film begins with a 1980s-set prologue showing us how Arthur’s parents – a stranded mermaid-type called Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a laid-back lighthouse-keeper called Thomas (Temuera Morrison) – met, fell in love and had a child. It’s a lightly sketched sequence that isn’t too concerned with nuance or texture. In just a few minutes we race through a mini-episode that’s kinda reminiscent of 80s romcom Splash… if, you know, Splash had contained a 25-second shot showing its heroine beating up an invading force of mermen. The sequence then ends with Atlanna being taken away by some goons, back to her oceanic home of Atlantis… In the present day, Arthur is a grown man (a very grown man; seriously, check out his pecks!) but it seems he would rather forget his stint as a world-saving metahuman in the previous film. Then a hot, redheaded woman from Atlantis called Y’Mera Xebella Challa, mercifully aka Mera, shows up and he’s convinced to leap into superhero action again. She’s played by Amber Heard, who’s actually quite watchable despite bucketfuls of woeful dialogue and a character without much personality. Arthur’s help is needed in Atlantis, where Atlanna’s other son has taken control. He wants to combine the seven underwater kingdoms into one force, be ordained ‘ocean master’, become the commander of the greatest military might on the planet, and wage war on the land-based nations. But because Arthur is of royal blood and is Atlanna’s first-born he can challenge his half-brother to the throne. After Atlantean forces launch attacks on the countries of the world, using tsunami to fling battleships and garbage onto shorelines, Arthur and Mera head down into the depths, where Arthur challenges his brother to a ritualistic combat. The film then goes through several genre-movie clichés: fights and chases, cryptic messages and quests, MacGuffins and globetrotting locations, CGI environments and CGI monsters, a sibling rivalry between two men who have never met before and bullshit backstories explained with a straight face… While all this is going on, we also see flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood, where he was trained in the ways of the Atlanteans by a kind mentor type called Nuidis Vulko (a bored Willem Defoe), who also tells him that his mother was executed after she returned to Atlantis. Vulko is still around in the present-day scenes too.

Bad guys: The initial foe for Arthur is a high-tech pirate called David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who we meet while he’s attempting to steal a nuclear submarine. During the heist, though, Aquaman shows up, bests him, and cruelly refuses to save Kane’s father when he’s trapped under a heavy torpedo in a flooding room. So, now with a grudge against Arthur, Kane skulks off to the guy who’d hired him… who happens to be Arthur’s despotic half-brother, Orm Marius (Patrick Wilson, looking so rubbery under the post-production effect of being underwater all the time that he may as well be 100-per-cent CGI). He’s the boss of Atlantis and bobs around his undersea realm in a shiny suit of armour and Aryan hair. ‘The time has come to rise again!’ he says, movie-villain-generically. The culture he wants to dominate is one of those fictional worlds that makes such little sense that you question if *any* thought went into creating it. How can the Atlanteans talk underwater? Why do they speak English? Why do they wear clothes? Why can some people breathe oxygen and others can’t? How have they forged metal underwater? Why has evolution given them arms and legs? And hair? Where does all the light come from at the bottom of the ocean? It’s impossible to take  these scenes seriously. Anyway, Mera’s dad is often by Orm’s side – he’s called Nereus, is played by Dolph Lundgren (no, honestly), and mostly just stands– I mean, swims around saying doomladen things. Later, Kane returns to the story: he suits up in elaborate scuba gear that makes him look like a manta ray, so adopts the superhero-villain name of Black Manta and attempts to get revenge on Aquaman. 

Other guys: There are a host of forgettable characters around the coastline of the story – creatures from other undersea realms who presumably have detailed backstories and personalities that were worked out in story conferences and workshopped in rehearsals but then don’t translate at all into interesting on-screen storytelling. We won’t waste time cataloguing them here.

Best bits:
* Having been taken into Thomas’s home, Atlanna is spooked by a TV playing the title sequence to puppet show Stingray – so she chucks her trident at the screen.
* As a child, Arthur is threatened by some bullies at an aquarium – then they realise the shark in the nearby tank is attempting to smash the glass in order to protect Arthur. All the other life in the tank assembles behind him too, like a gang backing up its leader. (It hardly makes any sense, and the moment – like all moments of drama in this film – is rushed through as quickly as possible, but it’s a decent image.)
* David Kane is a fun bad guy. The sequence that introduces him – as he and his dad storm a submarine – is well shot and works nicely as a character introduction. ‘I’ll do you deal,’ he tells the captured captain of the sub. ‘I won’t tell you how to captain, and you don’t tell me how to pirate.’ There’s sadly then a really awful beat as – right in the middle of taking over a submarine! – Kane’s father decides to pause, give David a family heirloom and impart some parental homilies. It’s almost like he knows he’s not to survive much longer.
* Aquaman shows up! ‘Permission to come aboard,’ he says over his shoulder like he’s in a James Bond film. He then starts beating people up in gleefully cartoony ways.
* Aquaman has a drink in a bar with his dad. A huge, scary, tattooed man aggressively interrupts – ‘Are you that fish boy from the TV?’ – and it seems like a fight will ensue… But the guy just wants a selfie because Aquaman is famous! High-larious.
* The flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood training with Vulko feature an exceedingly irritating child actor giving a wide-eyed performance, but the film actually cuts between the past and the present with a bit of flair.
* It’s quite funny when, in the midst of all the pretentious portent of the Atlantean realm, Arthur is frustrated to learn that he must fight Orm in front of thousands of onlookers. ‘Shit,’ he says to himself.
* Arthur and Mera are in a sportscar-like submersible, being chased by Orm’s henchmen. ‘Heads up, we’ve got a bogey on our six!’ he says. Mera: ‘What does that even mean?!’ Arthur: ‘Bad guys behind us.’ Mera: ‘Well, just say that!’ Arthur, in a high-pitched voice because he’s worried: ‘Bad guys behind us!’ (Momoa and Heard are a pretty good double act. They deserve a much better script.)
* Kane gets an A-Team-style montage as he builds his Black Manta cybersuit, complete with a Depeche Mode song on the soundtrack.
* Needing water to kickstart an ancient hologram machine that they’ve found buried under the Sahara, Mera uses her magical powers to delicately extract a drop of moisture from Arthur’s forehead. ‘Could have just peed on it,’ he later says.
* Hanging out in a picturesque square in Sicily, Mera eats some flowers (because being an ocean-dwelling isolationist means she doesn’t know what they are, I guess).
* Black Manta’s armoured suit looks both cool and ridiculous at the same time.
* Some of the action sequence in Sicily is quite exciting: Mera running across slated rooftops, Manta crashing through walls, that kind of thing. (It’s such an action-movie cliché, though, isn’t it? Characters visit a Mediterranean country? Gotta run across the rooftops! See The Living Daylights, The Bourne Ultimatum, Quantum of Solace, Taken, Skyfall…)
* Mera smashes the facemask of a Atlantean bad guy’s helmet while they fight on dry land. As he can’t breath without the water that’s now drained away, he solves the problem by… plunging his face into a nearby toilet. (Aquaman is basically a kids’ film tarted up with a blockbuster budget.)
* Arthur’s mum is still alive! I did not see that coming when they cast a really famous actress for what seemed quite a small role! She’s been hiding out all alone for several years in an uncharted area of sea near the centre of the planet (I think), so is this film’s equivalent of Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s Michelle Pfeiffer.

Review: One of the most important elements of any film is its tone. Get your tone wrong or a bit off or inconsistent, and you’re sunk. While watching Aquaman – the sixth film in the extremely variable DC Extended Universe series – you start to feel like the filmmakers have approached this issue by attempting 17 different tones all at once. The movie is occasionally so portentously po-faced that you can’t help but giggle (‘You wield our mother’s trident. Powerful, but flawed. Like her. I wield my father’s and it has never known defeat!’). Other times, there’s actually a sweetness and a charm about the characters. Elsewhere, it’s a slapstick comedy, a bombastic action movie or a collection of filler scenes from a computer game. It’s a terrible film. It really is. And it’s not just that it can’t decide on a unified mood; other faults keep piling up too: the dialogue that’s so awful it could have been written by someone who’s never heard human beings speak, the drama scenes done as swiftly and perfunctorily as possible, the self-important characters impossible to find interesting, the fight scenes that lack any impact or consequence, the musical score than hammers home every single point imaginable, the over-reliance on sudden explosions as a way of ramping up the tension, the final third that just becomes white-noise of meaningless action… However… Because the film contains some attempts at humour, and because we get two half-decent actors in the main roles, it is more diverting and slightly more enjoyable than most of the previous movies in the DC series.

Five drumming octopuses out of 10

Downhill (1927, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young man faces a series of hardships when he gallantly agrees to take the blame for a friend’s indiscretion…

Ivor Novello – who also co-wrote the stage play on which this film is based – plays Roddy Berwick, a high-achieving pupil at the kind of English public school later spoofed in the TV comedy Ripping Yarns. He’s the star rugger player and school hottie and an all-round good egg.

We see him larking about. We see him hanging out and listening to music with his pal Tim (Robin Irvine) and local waitress Mabel (Annette Benson). He seems a decent soul. But Roddy encounters problems when Mabel announces to the school’s headmaster that she’s pregnant – and Roddy is the father. He isn’t; it’s actually Tim, but she’s named Roddy because his family are rich. At first Roddy thinks it’s a joke, then the dread dawns on him. He’s faced with expulsion. But he knows that if he points the finger towards Tim, he’d be kicked out instead – and that would prevent the lower-class Tim getting into Oxford. So Roddy takes the blame…

Beautifully restored by the BFI, the print of Downhill now available to view positively gleans with clarity and smooth motion. It’s also been colour-tinted to reflect how audiences in 1927 would have seen it. All this French polishing allows us to appreciate the performances, which while obviously mannered and overly expressive in the style of silent cinema still contain warmth and charm. (There are very few title cards, the visual-minded Hitchcock preferring to let the actors’ expressions and postures tell the story.)

We can also bask in the brilliant mise-en-scene – the sets are very well designed and excellently dressed – as well as Hitchcock’s striking camera angles and lighting. For example, there are long lingering shots of a dejected Roddy standing forlornly on the escalator of a London Underground station or in an elevator. It’s not a coincidence that he’s moving downwards in both images; it’s a reflection of his state of mind. Elsewhere, an actress in a Paris nightclub has different levels of make-up depending on how Roddy sees her. Later, a discombobulated Roddy’s woozy point-of-view shots are achieved by crossfading different takes. His surroundings are often his emotions writ large. It’s German Expressionism transported into a minor British melodrama.

Having been expelled from the school and ostracised by his father, who believes Mabel’s lie, Roddy is left all alone in the world. He gets a job at a theatre, only to fall for a woman (Isabel Jeans in the first of her three Hitchcock roles) who cheats on him and spends all his money. He goes to France and works as a gigolo, but the disappointments keep coming and soon even his health fails him. Eventually – because the moral of this story is that things will come right in the end – an ill and mixed-up Roddy is taken home by some sailors who hope to get a reward. Thankfully, his father has since learnt the truth about Mabel and Tim, and welcomes him back with open arms. The last scene of the film has Roddy back on the rugby pitch of his old school. It’s an unconvincing and perhaps unsatisfyingly happy ending, but the ‘down’ journey there has been be so impressive you don’t begrudge Roddy his moment of ‘up’.

Eight sweetshops out of 10

Horror Marathon: The Hellraiser series

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A few months ago, I saw the horror film Hellraiser for the first time. Impressed and seduced by Clive Barker’s twisted tale, I then decided to delve into its many sequels – some of which Barker was involved with, some of which he’s pointedly disowned (“If they claim it’s from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole”). I found a wide variety of quality within the series, ranging from the abjectly awful to the surprisingly complex. Here’s my journey into darkness…

SPOILER WARNING: Minor plot points will be revealed.

1. Hellraiser (1987, Clive Barker)
When a married couple move into a new house, wife Julia discovers her missing brother-in-law is in the process of returning from hell…

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Produced for under £1m, this British-American horror movie was directed by Clive Barker and based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. Searing and stylish, it’s a compelling watch. Affable American Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his uptight British wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), move into a new home. Then Julia discovers an awful truth. Larry’s rebellious younger brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), was recently sucked into hell after toying with dark magic in the hope of an intense pain/pleasure experience. The device that allowed entry to that world is an ornate, cube-shaped puzzle box. Frank is now in the process of escaping, but is being chased by the demonic Cenobites (Doug Bradley and others)… For all its horror elements – intense violence, torture, nightmarish threats, *extremely* graphic gore – this is a story about a twisted love triangle. It’s a psycho-sexual drama about Frank and Julia’s obsessional affair that almost entirely takes place in one suburban house. (Where that house is, by the way, is difficult to answer. Almost every character is American, yet the filming locations are demonstrably in England.) Added into the mix is Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who becomes the heroine of the story as she uncovers the horror going on…
Nine pet shops out of 10  

2. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988, Tony Randel)
Later that night, Kirsty is in hospital – but her doctor is showing an odd fascination in her case…

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This sequel – made with only light involvement from Clive Barker – is sometimes appealing and has a certain Gothic strangeness. But it’s also often cheesy and hammy and is far less nuanced than the original. Kirsty is in hospital after her experiences in the first film. Her doctor, Channard (Kenneth Cranham), already knows about the Cenobites and is obsessed with them and their mythology. He eventually teams up with Julia (Clare Higgins again, playing her more archly this time) and there’s then a lengthy sequence set in hell, which ticks several predictable boxes: eerie music, endless corridors, macabre circus performers, stop-motion animation, wind and smoke. Meanwhile, the lead Cenobite – now officially credited as Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – gets both a music-video entrance and an interesting backstory.
Four bandages out of 10

3. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992, Anthony Hickox)
A TV reporter investigates a violent death and encounters the Cenobites…

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Frustrated journalist Joey (Terry Farrell from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) stumbles across a story when she sees a mutilated victim being brought into a hospital. This leads her to an underground nightclub, where the slimy owner has recently bought a strange statue… The first Hellraiser film financed by the Weinstein brothers’ Dimension Films company, Hell on Earth is certainly trash. There’s a lot of crass dialogue and a parade of bad actors (several of whom sound like they’ve been dubbed in post-production). Director Anthony Hickox is also a fan of pyrotechnics, Dutched camera angles and early 90s coloured lighting, then gives us a drawn-out, overblown action-movie finale – so subtly is not the order of the day. But there’s just enough atmosphere and arresting images to keep you watching and entertained. Especially fun is the sequence where Joey is given a ghostly tour of the backstory by Pinhead’s human form (Doug Bradley sans make-up).
Six red roses out of 10

4. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996, Alan Smithee)
On a space station in the far future, a man tells the story of the demon-summoning puzzle box and says he’s set a trap…

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Rather joltingly, we start in space. It’s the year 2127 and an eccentric man is holed up in a space station he designed himself. The vibe in part Alien, part Babylon 5. Then the man, Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay), tells a strange story… We cut back to France, 1796. Merchant’s ancestor Phillip (Ramsay again) is a toymaker. He’s built an ornate puzzle box for a client, who then uses it in a bizarre ritual that brings a demon called Angelique (Valentina Vargas) from hell to earth… It’s creepy if hammy stuff with decent production design, editing and music – and we’re also back to the first film’s themes of obsession and of pain, violence and torture being aspects of sexual pleasure. The bulk of the film is then set in the modern day (1996) and features another member of the Merchant family, an architect called John (Ramsay for a third time). Angelique is still around and targets him and his family. Pinhead (Doug Bradley) also shows up… which is a shame because as he takes centre stage (on the orders of the studio), the sexy and intriguing Angelique fades into the background and the film becomes less interesting. By the time we eventually return to the space station, the momentum has dropped out of the story.
Six twin security guards out of 10

5. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000, Scott Derrickson)
A police detective is tormented by hellish visions as he attempts to track down a missing child…

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LAPD detective Joseph Thorne (the David Boreanaz-alike Craig Sheffer) likes speed chess, wordplay and prostitutes but is trapped in a dour marriage. At a crime scene he finds the puzzle box we’ve seen in previous films and nabs it for himself. But when he absentmindedly opens it, his life starts to get *weird*: a hooker he’s slept with is brutally murdered and he begins to have visions of demons… Rather than the baroque horror of the earlier movies, Inferno – the first straight-to-DVD Hellraiser – feels more like a seedy cop movie. In fact, the connection to the Hellraiser concept is pretty loose and Doug Bradley’s Pinhead barely features. Instead, we get clichés such as an angry police captain, a gullible sidekick, and a minor character played by a famous actor who turns out to be the villain. (The production designers were also surely big fans of David Fincher’s 1995 film Seven.) Scott Derrickson, who later made the Marvel movie Doctor Strange, directs with a music–video sensibility, so we do get some striking horror images, but the script lacks clarity. There’s a gumshoe plot going on about a mysterious man called the Engineer who may have kidnapped a child, but the film doesn’t seem that interested in it. There are loose ends, a central performance that doesn’t convince, and a final nightmarish third that toys with silliness. Nevertheless the dreamlike weirdness and tough-guy edge make it reasonable watchable.
Six fingers out of 10

6. Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002, Rick Bota)
After his wife dies in a car crash, a man is haunted by hallucinations and other strangeness…

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This sixth Hellraiser sees the return of the original film’s Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), but in the first scene she drowns after a car accident, and her widower, Trevor (Dean Winters), is left in a bad way. Physically fine, he starts to realise that his memory is not reliable – and because the film is from his point of view we share in his confusion. Did he have an affair? Did he visit a strange warehouse? Was his relationship with Kirsty as happy as it seemed in the opening scene? The film is playing interesting games with perception and reality, presenting us with a puzzle made up of conflicting evidence. (It feels more like a paranoia thriller or an episode of The Twilight Zone than a horror movie. You can also detect the distinct influence of Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento.) As with the preceding Hellraiser, Doug Bradley’s Pinhead is little more than a cameo – just a few brief glimpses and then an exposition scene at the end where we get a pleasing twist ending. The cast lets the film down, especially Winters, who can’t quite convince us of the horrors Trevor is experiencing. However, this is still a surprisingly complex and engaging film.
Seven camcorders out of 10

7. Hellraiser: Deader (2005, Rick Bota)
A journalist is drawn into a terrifying world while investigating Deaders, a group attempting to gain control of the Cenobites’ realm…

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This is a grimy, putrid film: aside from brief scenes at the proto-hipster offices of UK newspaper The London Underground, the story plays out is decaying, flaking, dark spaces; there are flies and sludge and filth. Journalist Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer) is sent to Bucharest to report on a death cult called the Deaders. Her only lead turns out to be a corpse, but she then finds the all-important puzzle box. Opening it, she summons Pinhead – who’s engaged in some kind of battle of wills with the Deaders for control of the Underworld – and her life gets more and more bizarre… The film has a few tense scenes and effective scares, as well as some genuinely out-there weirdness (following a lead to a Metro train, Amy finds an entire carriage given over to a steampunk-themed orgy with Hustle’s Marc Warren holding court). The longer it goes on, though, the more muddy the storytelling gets.
Three VHS tapes out of 10

8. Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005, Rick Bota)
A group of gamers are invited to a party connected to their favourite game, but can they trust the event’s host?

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Clichés abound in this eighth Hellraiser entry, which sees a batch of noughties slackers (one of whom is future Superman Henry Cavill) attend a party but encounter hellish experiences and violent deaths. Let’s list a few of the hamfisted, overused tropes: portentous church music and close-ups of Christian iconography to suggest religious overtones; early scenes with clunky expositionary dialogue; a ‘real’ scene being revealed as a dream; gamers being addicted to an online game that’s clearly too basic to engage anyone; a Gothic mansion; a rave where extras dance out of time to the music; a midrange star cast as the villain (Lance Henriksen); a cute female character who wanders off on her own for no reason; sex scenes shot like a music video… It’s a dreadful film: slow, stupid and simplistic.
One ultraviolet, 24-hour, wildly popular and yet utterly purposeless, embraced-by-the-masses internet roleplaying game out of 10

9. Hellraiser: Revelations (2011, Victor Garcia)
Two young Americans go on a hedonistic trip to Mexico, where they encounter violence and a mysterious puzzle box…

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Shot in just three weeks on a tiny budget – as a cynical ploy by Dimension Films to retain the Hellraiser rights – Revelations should be utter garbage. There are daytime-soap performances among the new characters while Doug Bradley has jumped ship after eight appearances as Pinhead (to be replaced by someone eminently forgettable). The film is also crudely edited and relies too heavily on Blair Witch-style camcorder footage. But despite these limitations, it’s just mediocre rather than offensively awful. In the plus column, the movie digs down deep into the same sordid subject matter as the original Hellraiser – it’s another story about perverse pleasure and obsession. In fact, there are several visual echoes and plot nods to Clive Barker’s 1987 movie, as well as the same love of extreme gore. But it’s still mediocre.
Four bullshit genericas out of 10

10. Hellraiser: Judgment (2018, Gary J Tunnicliffe)
Three police detectives hunt down a serial killer called the Preceptor, but the investigation leads to an encounter with hellish denizens…

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In an unspecified city, a trio of detectives are on the trail of a macabre murderer who kills ritualistically for religious reasons. It’s all very sub-Seven, but then the cops comes across the Cenobites, who are attempting to find new ways of tempting souls into hell… There are several clichés of low-budget filmmaking on show here – shaky camerawork, poor framings, a remarkable lack of people on screen who aren’t the lead actors, and a general sense that corners are having to be cut. The design work is decent (check out the Terry Gilliam-esque typewriters!) and gore freaks will love the amount of graphic mutilation on show. But this is grim, pretentious drivel with some really inept storytelling and a fairly rubbish cast.
Two Star Wars quotations (‘What an incredible smell you’ve discovered’) out of 10

Ready Player One (2018, Steven Spielberg)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 2045, everyone spends their time in a massive virtual-reality game. But then teenager Wade Watts learns that a huge prize can be claimed by finding an Easter egg hidden within it…

Seen before? Once, before which I’d read the source novel.

Best performance: Wade’s love interest in the story is a fellow ‘gunter’ (ie, Easter egg hunter) known by the moniker Artemis, who we initially only see as a digital avatar – a kind of cartoony, anime-ish representation of herself. The character might be a CGI creation in these scenes, but the eyes sparkle and the smile is infectious; actress Olivia Cooke (The Limehouse Golem, TV show Bates Motel) radiantly pops through the mo-cap technology. There’s a subplot going on here about Artemis being ashamed of the way she looks; that’s why she doesn’t want to meet Wade outside the RPG fantasy of the virtual-reality game. Of course, seeing as we’re dealing with a Hollywood movie here, when Wade (Tye Sheridan) does finally encounter her in reality she is captivatingly pretty even with a minor birthmark.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The film is based on a terrific 2011 sci-fi novel, which is full of references to popular culture of the 1970s and 80s. Wade has a love for and a deep knowledge of the period and the book sings with a geeky passion and enthusiasm. The movie does too, and the nods soon begin to mount up: He-Man and The Wizard of Oz, Batman and Superman, Star Trek and Star Wars, Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club, a-Ha and New Order, King Kong and Godzilla, Alien and Silent Running, Back to the Future and Tron, The Buggles and Tears for Fears, Dark Crystal and The Iron Giant, Beetlejuice and Buckaroo Bonzai, Bill & Ted and Monty Python, RoboCop and Freddy Krueger, Last Action Hero and Dune, GoldenEye (the game) and Saturday Night Fever, and many, many, many more. When adapting Ernest Cline’s novel for the screen, however, one key section caused a problem. In the book, Wade’s quest takes him into a digital recreation of the futuristic LA seen in Blade Runner. However, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic was in production at the same time as Ready Player One, so Spielberg couldn’t get hold of the rights. As a replacement, the creative team instead used the setting of the 1980 horror movie The Shining. And the sequence is a wonder: a pixel-perfect recreation of the sets, lighting schemes and general mood of Stanley Kubrick’s best film. (Quite what it all means if you’ve never seen The Shining is another matter!)

Review: Ready Player One is certainly a visually dazzling film. Huge stretches of the story take place inside the virtual-reality world of a MMORPG called the Oasis – ‘a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination’. Near-flawless CGI is used to create a sleek, sweeping, 360-degree, photorealistic and immensely detailed environment. It’s a gamer’s wet dream, and there are hundreds of pop-culture references to spot and feel smug about spotting. But for all this razzmatazz and Spielbergian panache, the core of the movie is ultimately hollow. There’s a sense of a good adventure and some decent gags, but the longer the film goes on the more it gets bogged down with boring action scenes. Wade is a limp, uninteresting lead character who lacks the zip and charisma evident in the source novel’s first-person prose. An affected Mark Rylance is miscast the Oasis’s geeky creator. There are some weak young actors in secondary roles (a real rarity from the director who had strong juvenile performances in ET, Jurassic Park and A.I. Artificial Intelligence). And despite a typically watchable turn from Ben Mendelsohn, the story’s business-exec villain is as one-note as they come. It’s not a dreadful film – far from it – but all the fantasy could do with a bit more reality.

Seven corn-syrup droughts out of 10

Five years of reviews…

When writing reviews for this blog, I usually end with a score out of 10. It’s just meant as a bit of fun, but because today (Tuesday 2 April 2019) marks five years since my first review I thought it’d be appropriate to explain the grading system.

The mark is simply a reflection of how much I enjoyed seeing or listening to the thing. It’s a gut reaction, just a number that feels right. However, I do have some principles that I try to stick to. Firstly, I want to keep an optimistic frame of mind. I go into a review hoping I’m going to like the film/show/album and, when writing the blog post and deciding on the score, I try to accentuate the positive. This isn’t always possible, of course – have you *seen* Carry On England?! – but popular culture is important and it’s worth celebrating when we can.

I’m also keen to judge a work on its own merits – in other words, how does it rate against other examples of its type? (There’s no point slagging off a low-budget comedy for not having huge action scenes, that kind of thing.) This can mean that the scoring system is not really consistent across the board. A 10/10 episode of Blake’s 7 is not necessarily as good as a 10/10 James Bond film. Those series have differing qualities, expectations and levels of success.

Anyway, once I’ve watched the movie or the TV show or listened to the album, I come up with a score out of 10 to express how good I think it is. Here’s a guide to what I think the numbers mean…

10 – A masterpiece. Something I adore and think is essentially perfect (it may have flaws but they simply don’t matter). Something I enjoy returning to often. Something that is pretty much as good as it can be.
Examples: action film Die Hard, Beatles album Abbey Road, Hitchcock movie Rear Window, the Fawlty Towers episode The Kipper and the Corpse, all three Back to the Future films…

9 – Excellent. It perhaps lacks that stratospheric element that would push it up into the 10s, but it’s still extremely impressive, very enjoyable and something I think is worth shouting about.
Examples: superhero film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the pilot episode of Firefly, the Blake’s 7 episode City at the Edge of the World, silent movie The Lodger, the idiosyncratic Escape from the Planet of the Apes

8 – Very good. Better than the majority, obviously, and perhaps better than it needs to be. There’s something notable that lifts it above the crowd.
Examples: Hammer horror Dracula A.D. 1972, 80s comic-book movie Superman III, sitcom Blackadder the Third, Hitchcock’s Marnie, Tarantino’s Django Unchained

7 – Enjoyable. Given that I select projects to review, and rarely choose something I know I won’t like, 7/10 can be considered par. It denotes something that is solid, decent, entertaining, but may have some issues. Every review starts out as a 7, so the film/show/album must do something significantly bad to score lower or have something especially admirable about it to score higher.
Examples: 80s comedy Weird Science, 90s Bond picture Tomorrow Never Dies, Spielberg’s first film, ABBA’s final album, Star Wars spin-off Rogue One

6 – Yeah, it was good. Far from perfect, but I liked it. Nothing special but nothing offensively bad or anything.
Examples: the remake of The Karate Kid, blaxploitation chiller Blacula, Oasis album Be Here Now, Marvel movie Thor: The Dark World, sci-fi sequel Alien: Resurrection

5 – Hmm, that’s got problems. It *fine*, I guess. I don’t regret watching/listening. But maybe I found more things I disliked than liked.
Examples: the schlocky Alien vs Predator, the slooooow first Star Trek movie, 90s vanity folly Four Rooms, the clunky 70s remake of King Kong, superhero misfire Suicide Squad

4 – Oh, come on. That’s not great. A movie, episode or album that makes you question whether you’re wasting your time.
Examples: Tim Burton’s lumpen Planet of the Apes, the worst series of comedy show Red Dwarf, limp kids film The BFG, the empty The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the rotten remake of The Omen

3 – Fairly awful. We’re talking properly rubbish here. Something that, while maybe showing promise, really doesn’t work as a piece of entertainment.
Examples: the horror spoof Stan Helsing, the worst film Alfred Hitchcock ever made, the irritating-as-hell Natural Born Killers, the first Ewoks TV movie, the 1960s Casino Royale

2 – ARE YOU SERIOUS? THEY RELEASED THIS? Something that is undoubtedly dreadful. Our lives would be better off if it had never been made. But perhaps there’s one element – a performance, say, or a certain scene – that prevents it getting the worst score possible.
Examples: the depressingly tatty Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the disco-themed vampire flick Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula, the stunningly misjudged Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, an inept 1965 episode of Doctor Who, a jaw-droppingly awful Carry On TV special that contains comedy paedophilia…

1 – Without merit. Total crud. Something that is not only disastrous, it also *annoyed* me when I reviewed it.
Examples: the putrid fifth Die Hard, the Coen brothers’ worst film, the pathetic Carry On Emmannuelle, the amateurish kinda-sequel to The Wicker Man, the gobsmackingly cheesy Star Wars Holiday Special