Rich and Strange (1931)


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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: In the US, this film was released as East of Shanghai.

An English couple inherit some money so go on a round-the-world trip, but hit problems when they reach Singapore…

The ‘rich’ comes when – after a frustrating commute home to the suburbs from his City job – a middle-class man and his wife learn that his uncle is giving them a huge amount of money. The ‘strange’ is not so much that Fred (Henry Kendall) and Emily Hill (Joan Barry) decide to set off on a cruise to the Orient. It’s more that the film plays it all for laughs. This is Hitchcock directing a throwaway comedy.

When the humour works, the film does too. There aren’t many belly laughs but a few smiles are raised. Kendall and Barry indulge in some funny drunk acting, while Elsie Randolph plays a fellow tourist who gets several bits of comedy business. (The character is a middle-aged spinster. The actress was 27. Her second Hitchcock role came 41 years later in Frenzy.) Also, the prologue showing Fred’s tiresome journey home from work is a joy: dialogue-free and full of sight gags, it’s like something Charlie Chaplin would have shot.

In fact, at this point Hitchcock was only two years into working with sound and you wouldn’t say it was Rich and Strange’s strength. The score is too prominent and you soon tire of heavy-handed sound effects such as footsteps. Perhaps the director was already nostalgic for the silent era, hence the many sequences without dialogue. There are even expositionary title cards to push the plot along. But he was certainly keen on making the film look as modern as possible. As well as sending a camera crew off round the world to capture shots of some real locations – such as an elaborate and daring stage show at Paris’s Folies Bergère – he also built large sets of the ship back at Elstree Studios.

As entertainment, the film passes the time without ever really impressing you. A big problem is that it’s not especially *about* anything: it’s an extended comedy sketch with the loose appearance of a story. Hitchcock historian Noël Simsolo disagrees, once saying it’s an ‘almost tragic’ film because it deals with a childless couple idly filling their lives with frivolity. ‘They are empty,’ he purred. ‘They are sterile.’ In the same lecture, though, Simsolo also claimed that Dale Collins – the demonstrably real man whose story was adapted into the film – never existed. So what does he know?

Six games of deck tennis out of 10


Blake’s 7: Gambit (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On the hunt for a doctor who knows the location of the Federation’s Star One facility, the Liberator crew visit the hedonistic Freedom City…

Series B, episode 11. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: George Spenton-Foster. Originally broadcast: 20 March 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (11) is now working as a bodyguard for a man in hiding – although the man is using a pseudonym, he’s actually Docholli, a cyber-surgeon and one of the few people who know the location of the Federation’s vital Star One control centre. Travis is duffed up by some heavies and taken to see his old boss Servalan, who’s recently arrived in the Las Vegas-like Freedom City. She wants him to identify Docholli so she can eliminate him before he blabs what he knows. She also secretly hides a bomb in Travis’s robotic arm.
* Blake (24), Jenna (24) and Cally (21) teleport down to Freedom City to look for Docholli. Blake needs to know Star One’s location so he can attack and cripple it. During their search, Jenna and Cally stage an argument (“You slut!” “A 10-credit touch!”) as well as a sadly unseen cat fight so Blake can sneak into a back room unnoticed. Eventually, they track down Docholli – he confesses that he doesn’t know where Star One is (d’oh!), but tells them that a colleague called Lurgen did. The problem now is that Lurgen may have been killed…
* Vila (24) is killing time on the Liberator, playing computer chess and having a bitching session with Avon (23), when they come up with a plan. While Blake, Jenna and Cally are looking for Docholli, why don’t the pair visit Freedom City’s casino? Eventually, Vila – with some secret help from Orac – wins five million credits. But he was drinking while playing, and in a drunken stupor agrees to a double-or-nothing (nothing meaning death) bet on a game of speed chess with a grandmaster called the Klute. When Avon realises what’s happening he spits out his food. But he needn’t have worried – again with surreptitious guidance from Orac, Vila is able to tie the game, survive and waltz off with the cash.
* Servalan (10) has come to meet Krantor, Freedom City’s flamboyant casino boss, because she needs help to find both Docholli and Travis. She has with her a never-mentioned-before sidekick called Jarriere – basically so she has someone to collude with. When she has Travis brought to her, Servalan offers him a deal: if he points out Docholi, she’ll let him kill Blake. But she’s actually double-crossing her old colleague (obviously!) and secretly plants a grenade on him…
* Orac (10) is tricked by Avon and Vila into – and this is a real head-scratcher of a moment – reducing his size to an eighth. The men can then smuggle him into the casino and use his amazing abilities to cheat at the roulette table. Let’s reiterate that: Orac, the universe’s most complex, most amazing, most perfectly productive computer, is conned into doing something because Avon and Vila use reverse psychology on him.

Best bit: Krantor has an ornate dressing mirror that, at the swipe of a hand, turns into a video phone. It’s a fab piece of direction, allowing us to see both characters as they FaceTime each other.

Worst bit: At one point there’s a tiresome scene – admittedly played for laughs – as Servalan tries to explain the plot. It takes *two minutes* of exposition and Jarriere asking questions. Jacqueline Pearce really earnt her money that week.

Review: I’m taking neither the credit nor the blame, but this was the first episode of Blake’s 7 broadcast after my birth. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that, at four days old, I was near a television while Gambit was being transmitted. Obviously it wouldn’t have made much sense to me then. But it doesn’t *totally* make sense to me now. Writer Robert Holmes, director George Spenton-Foster and especially the design team worked hard to create an interesting, entertaining and playfully postmodern setting for the story – and Freedom City is a very enjoyable place to visit, not least because we viewers can spot the influences. We start in a bar that combines a Western saloon with a 1920s speakeasy. In the casino, the aging hostess emcees proceedings like she’s in the film Cabaret. Krantor models himself on the Prince Regent. There are definite echoes of Star Wars too, especially from the 1977 movie’s famous cantina. In its exterior scenes, Freedom City feels like a precursor of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, with decent filming in an underpass near the Royal Festival Hall in London – a wind machine, a smoke machine, some set dressing and sound effects making the location feel otherworldly and textured. There’s also a close-up of Jenna that looks like something from an ABBA video.

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But as much fun as all this is, the episode feels punch-drunk with its fictional world and its flamboyant guest characters. The episode weaves about between science fiction, the heist genre, Blake’s 7 politics and various levels of camp, never really knowing which area it prefers. The Liberator crew are all squeezed out to the edges, feeling like interlopers in someone else’s story. And the performances are hardly what you’d call consistent. There are two plots – the search for Docholli and the casino con – yet both are overshadowed by actors indulging in so much ham you could revive the pig with the kiss of life. What a maddeningly perplexing episode of television. For the first time in over 500 blog reviews, I honestly don’t know what score to give something…

God knows how many trekkers ready to challenge the Klute out of 10

Next episode: The Keeper

Saboteur (1942)

Saboteur 00

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A man goes on the run after being framed for a devastating fire at an aircraft factory…

Alfred Hitchcock films are not political tracts. Most of them are gloriously shameless entertainment set in a fantasy world of heightened situations and colourful characters. They are not intended to be taken as literal representation of the real world. But that doesn’t mean they don’t reflect the times in which they were made: all films do, whether knowingly or not.

Saboteur was released in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Habor – news of which actually broke while Hitchcock was attending a pre-production meeting. So as well as being a fast-paced thriller about a cross-country hunt for a criminal, it’s also drenched with the concerns of a society that has just entered the Second World War.

This is a film where characters take time to extol the virtues of duty and the villains are insidious intellectuals rather than greedy thugs. The sabotage that kicks off the plot is especially egregious because it’s a fire at a factory producing vital aircraft for the war effort. The story ends, symbolically, at the Statue of Liberty – one character even reciting its famous engraving about huddled masses yearning to breathe free, then mentioning the current woes of France, the country that donated the landmark. Made 10 years earlier or 10 years later and Saboteur would be a very different beast.

This wartime context is perfectly understandable, of course. In April 1942, the world had far more pressing concerns than a Hollywood thriller, so it’s hardly surprising that Hitchcock and his colleagues bent their espionage plot into a minor morality lesson. They were far from the only people doing it. During the Second World War was rather obviously a fertile time to make a Second World War film – and many of these movies had political aims as well as populist ones.

Just a sample of the genre in the year of Saboteur’s release, 1942, throws up numerous examples of the war having a direct impact on Hollywood. Director John Huston was partway through filming a Second World War movie called Across the Pacific when he himself was called up for military service. Black Dragon, a film about the Japanese colluding with the Nazis, was rushed into production after Pearl Harbor. Captain of the Clouds, a movie about Canadian pilots and starring James Cagney, was made with the direct help of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and the Royal Canadian Air Force. (It had been planned as a way of swaying American public opinion into supporting the war. By the time it was released, the US had already joined the conflict.) The series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce illogically but rather admirably moved its characters from the Victorian era to the 1940s, all the better for fighting and defeating Nazis. Nineteen forty-two also saw the release of the virtuoso Casablanca, a tale of heroic resistance and imperishable romance in the face of Nazi oppression.

Two months after Saboteur’s release came Mrs Miniver, the stoic story of a British housewife, which is imbued – as its director, William Wyler, freely admitted – with the argument that America should fight with the Allies. (A key scene of the lead character confronting a German pilot was reshot after the attack on Pearl Harbor to give it a stronger, more aggressive edge.) In the same month, in the UK, the director/producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger released One of Our Aircraft is Missing, a film set in Nazi-occupied Europe and made under the auspices of the UK Ministry of Information. At around the same time as Saboteur was filming, David Lean and Noel Coward were directing the blatantly rousing, pro-Allies In Which We Serve. (While all this was going on, by the way, Hitchcock was being criticised in the UK for not returning to help the war effort. He argued that he was under contract to an American studio.)

Aptly (and coincidentally), Saboteur’s all-American tone is complemented by Hitchcock’s first all-American cast. But whereas the director later focused his cameras on such Hollywood heavyweights as James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Janet Leigh and Ingrid Bergman, here there’s a real lack of star power. For three of the biggest roles, Hitch initially wanted Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and Harry Carey. When they proved unavailable, he felt short-changed by Robert Cummings (too light to be a convincing hero), Priscilla Lane (given top billing but fairly unmemorable) and Otto Kruger (not menacing enough as the bad guy). One acting success, though, is Norman Lloyd, who plays the elusive Fry with a great combination of sleaze and menace. (Lloyd was also in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, later became a producer on Hitch’s TV shows, and – at the time of writing – is still a working actor at 103 years old.)

Cummings plays factory worker Barry Kane, who is suspected of starting a fire that killed his friend. He thinks the man responsible for both the fire and his framing is an employee called Fry (Lloyd), but when the police find no evidence of Fry’s existence, Kane sets out to track him down – all while on the run from the authorities. Along the way, he encounters a helpful trucker, a kind and hospitable blind man, and a Freaks-style circus troupe – all of whom help him without question. And he teams up with the blind man’s niece, Pat Martin (Lane), who gets dragged along in his quest. Meanwhile, the villains, headlined by Kruger’s silky fascist, are planning another act of national damage by blowing up a new Navy battleship in New York harbour…

The film has some fun, admittedly. It moves along well and is never boring. Hitchcock playfully puts messages commenting on the plot into the production design of roadside billboards and the title of books on a shelf. There’s a great scene at a swanky party with a clever shot of the two leads dancing that keeps them steady in the frame as they move around the floor. And needing a shot of a sunken ship, Hitch sent a crew to film the liner SS Normandie, which was then half-submerged in New York harbour after a fire.

But because it’s a movie built around a succession of episodes – some of which are more enjoyable than others and some of which are more plausible than others – after a while it starts to lose its way. Saboteur is the middle film of an unofficial trilogy of Hitchcock thrillers. It’s another version of the same idea that was used in The 39 Steps (1935) and would be aired again in North by Northwest (1959). Sadly it’s not as successful as either of those genuine classics. We get the same gimmick – an innocent man gets inadvertently caught up in an espionage plot and must travel across country to find out what’s going on – but not the same level of enjoyment.

Seven men outside the drug store out of 10

Blake’s 7: Voice from the Past (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Blake begins to act oddly, his colleagues deduce he’s being controlled by an outside force…

Series B, episode 10. Written by: Roger Parkes. Directed by: George Spenton-Foster. Originally broadcast: 13 March 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* The episode begins strangely. Cally (20) has convinced her pals to try some exercises, so she, Avon, Jenna and Blake are in a small gym room aboard the Liberator. When Blake claims he can hear a tone, then changes the ship’s course without explanation, Cally realises what’s going on. Her leader is haunted by memories of what happened to him five years previously (when he was brainwashed by the Federation), and Cally realises that his trauma has been triggered by an outside force. She has this insight because people from her home planet of Auron developed the technology.
* Jenna (23) looks amused during the early exercise scene: Cally, Blake, even Avon are taking things more seriously, while she just lies on her front, smiling coquettishly. When everyone finds out that Blake has made yet another executive decision – and turned the ship around – she points out that, while he leads, the rest of them don’t take commands. Blake is essentially ill, however, and Jenna agrees to help. This involves undergoing the same hypno-treatment, as a kind of control case. She therefore shares his nightmares and is clearly shaken by the experience.
* Blake (23) sets course for an asteroid called PK-118 – without any discussion. Wracked by nightmares (and voices in his head), he’s in a bad way. The others try to help, but Blake is clearly troubled. He privately tells Vila that Avon and Cally are a) a couple, and b) colluding against them. He then locks Avon, Cally and Jenna in a room, teleports over to the asteroid and encounters a resistance cell. They want him to act as their leader… At the end of the episode, Blake is left with no memory of what happened.
* Avon (22) has to punch Blake when he gets unruly during his treatment – bet he enjoyed that! He then takes command when Blake is incapacitated. After Blake tricks them and escapes down to PK-118, Avon follows and finds Blake with the rebels. He’s suspicious, but reluctantly goes along with the group’s plan…
* Vila (23), sadly, has to be a bit of a moron this week. Despite Blake clearly being unhinged and lying, Vila sides with him and helps him. Perhaps he enjoys being included; he’s certainly proud when the rebels assume he’s Blake’s deputy.
* Zen (20) explains that PK-118 has been mined out, so while abandoned it still has buildings, life-support systems and an artificial-gravity field.
* Orac (9) carries out a diagnosis of the tone Blake can hear. It’s a trigger noise used by the crimino-therapists who brainwashed Blake years previously. It’s now being sent remotely to order to control him, so Orac suggests a process that involves a friend of Blake’s being hypnotically linked to him; he reckons Jenna would be the best candidate due to their ‘closer’ origins (ie, they’re both from Earth).
* The most revered member of the group of rebels is a man called Shivan. He’s a legendary figure in the anti-Federation community and had been thought dead. Covered in bandages and speaking in a croaky voice, he has a plan to expose Servalan’s crimes at a conference of regional governors. However, after everyone else has left for the conference, Shivan whips off his bandages and reveals that… he’s Travis (10) in disguise! Oh no! It was a trap! None of us saw that coming! He’s in league with Servalan (9), whose forces then ambush the rebel leaders and kill them.

Best bit: Servalan’s long-con plan is revealed when the rebels reach a plush auditorium (in reality: Wembley Conference Centre). They realise they’re in trouble when pre-recorded footage of Servalan is projected onto the cinema screen. She gleefully tells them they’re fucked in a short film that contains avant-garde editing and extreme close-ups.

Worst bit: Blake’s visit to the surface of the asteroid is dramatised by some of the cheapest-looking visual effects ever broadcast on British television. Greenscreened against what seem to be paintings, Gareth Thomas looks like he’s in an episode of Mr Benn.

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Review: This demented episode is incredibly difficult to fathom. For about half of its running time, it’s a bottle episode: the Liberator crew are involved in a slice of sci-fi gibberish that requires a lot of explaining and calls for Gareth Thomas to give a mannered, theatrical performance. We then switch to a political plotline with lots of connections to Blake’s 7 continuity. But despite the presence of Travis and Servalan, the references to Blake’s backstory and a return of a minor character from episode one (unfortunately played by a new actor), Voice from the Past doesn’t feel very Blake’s 7-ish. The storytelling is too formal, too aloof. There’s no bite to what’s happening, no guts to it. Some moments are also oddly directed – such as when guest actress Frieda Knorr delivers dialogue straight down the camera lens – and there’s some strangely contemporary filming locations. Most irritatingly, we get the lame television convention of disguising a character’s identity by covering his face and having the actor muffle his voice.

Five so-called course interceptors from Auron out of 10

Next episode: Gambit

The Manxman (1929)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When two male friends both fall for the same woman, it leads to unhappiness and potential tragedy…

Before he established his reputation as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock worked in several genres. In his silent period, for example, comedies and romances sat alongside the early thrillers. And 1929’s The Manxman – based on a 1894 novel by Hall Caine, the man to whom Bram Stoker dedicated his book Dracula – is pure melodrama. But at least it’s pure melodrama done with some sweetness, at least to begin with.

The plot is a by-the-numbers love triangle: The Manxman is more a case of man v man. Two life-long mates on the Isle of Man, fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen), are both smitten with local barmaid Kate (Anny Ondra, who sparkles with charisma in early scenes then brings real vulnerability to the role). Initially, Pete seems to be in with a chance, but Kate’s father objects because Pete has no money. So he sets off abroad to earn his fortune. While he’s away, Philip agrees to look after Kate. But their platonic friendship develops into romance.

Rumours then reaches the island that Pete has been killed in Africa, which makes Kate grimly relieved because she now wants to be with Philip. But when Pete arrives home alive and well, she feels enormous guilt and has no choice but to restart her relationship with him…

For all its orthodoxy, The Manxman is a compositionally beautiful film. Hitchcock opts for lots of straight-on, symmetrical shots and characters often look and deliver dialogue directly down the lens. This brings the viewer right into the heart of the story, making the characters vivid and memorable. There are also several nice, economic ways of advancing the plot. While Pete is overseas, for example, we see close-ups of Kate’s diary. As the weeks go past, ‘Mr Christian’ becomes ‘Phillip’ as they start their romance. Later, when Kate and Pete get married, the sequence is dramatised by a series of slow dissolves.

The lightness is giving way now, and the last third of the film contains some overwrought plotting. After Kate falls pregnant, it’s unclear who the father is. She goes to Philip, wanting him to take her away from her unhappy marriage. But his career has taken off – he’s now a Deemster, a Manx judge – and doesn’t want the scandal to damage his reputation. Kate is so alone and desperate she leaves Pete, but he keeps their newborn baby. Distraught, Kate attempts suicide by throwing herself into the harbour. She survives but suicide was an illegal act in 1929, so Kate is taken to court. And guess who the judge is?

The Manxman was Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film and brings to an end the first phase of his career. He soon moved away from romances and embraced edge-of-your-seat thrillers. He experimented with sound and music. His movies became bigger is size and scale and ambition. And he developed a recurring character played by various actresses – a troubled, enigmatic blonde woman – and cast The Manxman’s Anny Ondra as the original iteration. Nearly four decades after shooting it, Hitchcock called this film an old-fashioned story. He was right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still worth seeing.

Seven mills (but no Boons) out of 10.

Blake’s 7: Countdown (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon encounters an old friend with a grudge when the Liberator crew stumble across a bomb that could destroy an entire planet…

Series B, episode 9. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 6 March 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (21) is shocked when he, Blake and Vila teleport down to the planet Albion. Their mission had been to find and capture a Federation officer called Provine, who has vital information about the Federation’s main command centre. But they discover a local resistance group trying to defuse a bomb set by the authorities during a rebellion – and one of their number is a mercenary called Del Grant (a reliable Tom Chadbon). Years before, Grant’s sister Anna had been Avon’s lover. But she was captured and tortured by the Federation, leading to a feud between the two men. Once Avon deduces that the ‘bomb’ is just a remote trigger, he and Grant teleport over to the location of the explosives. By the story’s end, thanks to a heart-to-heart, the two men come to a mutual respect.
* Blake (22) soon realises that, after setting the bomb in motion, Space Major Provine is now loose in the compound. He’s actually masquerading as a rebel and – wouldn’t you know it? – is assigned to help Blake in the search. When Blake deduces who he is, they fight. Just before he dies, Provine mentions that the Federation command centre is called ‘Star One’ and that someone called Docholli knows everything…
* Jenna (22) operates the teleport. (No wonder actress Sally Knyvette was considering quitting the show around this point. The creative team have such little interest in her character. It’s actually getting embarrassing.)
* Vila (22) gets more lock-picking to do: a door and a safe. Later, he also realises that the missing Provine is right under Blake’s nose.
* Early on, Cally (19) relays a message to the others. It’s from the planet Albion, which is handy as that’s where they were heading anyway. Then, yet again, the male members of the Liberator crew go on a mission while the women stay behind and look after the ship. (I imagine there’s plenty of slash fiction out there detailing what Jenna and Cally get up to while the men are away.)
* Orac is mentioned but does not appear.

Best bit: Avon and Grant are about to head off together to defuse the bomb, so Blake calmly but forcibly tells Grant that if he harms Avon there’ll be serious consequences. Despite everything, despite every row and snipe and blatant betrayal, Blake still has a duty of care – and possibly even affection – for Avon.

Worst bit: Trial, Killer, Hostage, Countdown… The creatives weren’t putting a huge amount of effort into episode titles at this point, were they?

Review: You don’t need to check the opening credits to know that Terry Nation wrote this one. Before long, it’s possible to play a game of bingo with his storytelling obsessions: an oppressed local population, po-faced rebels, fascist overlords, extreme situations, radiation, and thin, simple drama. The meat of the story should be Avon and Grant’s relationship, and it is excellent once we get to it, but the episode uses up half its running time before the two men interact. Having said all that, this is still a fun 50 minutes of hokum.

Eight laser lancers out of 10

Next episode: Voice from the Past

The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Washington, 1971. Just as the owner of a major newspaper is attempting to float the parent company on the stock exchange, its editor wants to publish hugely controversial material…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tom Hanks (here playing legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee) is very watchable as always. But it’s difficult to look past Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham. Graham was the publisher of the Washington Post, an unusual position for a woman in the early 1970s; her father had built up the company’s legacy and she’d inherited her job after the suicide of her husband. So in The Post she’s a woman with a weight on her shoulders. The way Streep plays Graham’s development from someone who nervously fumbles a board meeting to someone who takes brave and bold decisions is wonderful.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The movie is encroaching onto some sacred cinematic ground. In several ways, The Post could be considered a prequel to Alan J Pakula’s masterful thriller All the President’s Men (1976). It’s set soon before the Watergate scandal dramatised in All the President’s Men, features some of the same characters – Ben Bradlee is a big presence in both films – and the two newsroom sets are uncannily similar. The connection is made obvious in the final scene of The Post, which Rogue Onestyle leads directly into the opening of the earlier film. And as in All the President’s Men, the sequences in The Post that feature journalists working on their stories are thrilling. Whether they can – whether they should – publish the expose is the central question of the film and, even if you know the real history, it never loses its jeopardy.

Review: A mid-range Spielberg film is still a thing to behold. It’s doubtful that, in years to come, The Post will top any polls or be remembered as one of the director’s best. But it’s still an immaculate, impressive and incredibly engaging piece of filmmaking. Rushed into cinemas to capitalise on our current obsession with ‘fake news’, the movie concerns the Pentagon Papers. In 1967, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a study of America’s role in the Vietnam War. He intended it for academic posterity rather than political analysis but it contained some incendiary conclusions, not least that successive Presidents had continued the carnage even though they knew an American victory would never come. The Post tells the story of how the report was leaked and published. The movie ticks all the usual boxes for a film about journalists cracking a massive story, but it ticks them with such a rich, stylish flourish that you don’t mind that things are often predictable and occasionally a bit schmaltzy. The well-cast ensemble is led by Hanks and Streep but contains numerous good performances. The attention to period detail is fantastic. And the script never assumes the audience needs hand-holding. Actually, it’s not just the presence of Bradley Whitford and Sarah Paulson in secondary roles that makes this film remind you of Aaron Sorkin. His TV shows, such as The West Wing and The Newsroom, lived and breathed by scenes of clever and principled people arguing about important issues, and that’s what The Post is all about too.

Nine linotype machines out of 10

Blake’s 7: Hostage (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake receives a message from Travis, who has taken Blake’s cousin hostage and wants to talk…

Series B, episode 8. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 27 February 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* After being attacked and chased by Federation pursuit ships, Blake (21) learns that his old nemesis is on the planet Exbar. Travis is now on the run from the authorities. He wants to talk and maybe join forces with Blake – so takes Blake’s cousin Inga hostage as a bargaining chip. Blake heads to Exbar and teleports down alone, despite his colleagues (and the audience) all telling him it’s clearly a trap. He finds his uncle, Ushton, then climbs a hill to search for Travis – but yes, it is a trap and Blake is captured…
* When Blake says he has to try to save Inga, Avon (20) reminds him that while he’s off the ship the others may just leave him behind. (That’s nice.) However, after Blake has gone down to the surface, Avon gets jittery. He decides to follow his colleague, and soon discovers that Ushton has betrayed Blake to Travis.
* Vila (21) is actually open to negotiations with Travis, which is grimly ironic considering the fact that he’s later captured and intimidated by him.
* When the episode begins, Zen (19) warns the Liberator crew that Federation pursuit ships are nearby. He later fails to spot, however, that a single ship is just a few hundred metres behind them. Aboard it is Travis’s replacement as Servalan’s space-commander-of-choice.
* Jenna (21) pilots the Liberator to avoid the pursuit ships (one of the controls seems to be the arm of an adjustable table lamp). Later, she’s tricked into teleporting a ‘crimo’ – one of Travis’s new gang of criminal psychopaths – aboard the Liberator. But she then manages to re-teleport him into space, killing him.
* Cally (18) gets very little to do. She’s mostly taken over Gan’s function in the team: stand around, beef up the numbers, and occasionally say something that doesn’t really develop the plot. Her one moment in this episode is just before Blake leaves the ship. Telepath Cally gets a Deanna Troi-style vague sense of danger.
* Orac (8) picks up the coded message from Travis.
* Travis (9) has been on the run since his interrupted trial a couple of episodes ago. The real reason he’s taken Inga prisoner and coerced Ushton into helping him is because he wants the Liberator. The plan seems to be going well: he manages to capture Blake, Avon and Vila, but then Inga and Ushton turn on him. Blake and co escape, leaving Travis tied up with Servalan on the way…
* Servalan (8) ain’t happy that Blake is becoming a folk hero. To make matters worse, Travis’s replacement turns out to be rubbish at hunting down Blake. She then gets word where Travis is… Once she finds him, they do a deal. If he gets her Blake, she’ll officially list Travis as dead (thereby allowing him to disappear and avoid his execution sentence).

Best bit: Pretty much anything Avon says or does. It’s another terrific episode for the show’s most enigmatic character. He acts cool and disinterested in Blake, but then risks his life to save him (again). This is clearly a man with a complex psychology. He’s also part of the episode’s best plot twist – it’s he who sends an anonymous message to Servalan telling her where Travis is.

Worst bit: During an action scene on the surface of Exbar, there’s a *very* polystyrene-y avalanche of rocks.

Review: One of the pleasures of Blake’s 7 is the way it develops across the episodes. This is not a show with a reset button at the end of every adventure. Travis, for example, has a character arc – once a respected and feared officer in the Federation military, he’s now reduced to a mercenary on the edge of society. And that kind of thing makes the series more interesting. (He certainly fairs better than Jenna and Cally do: this is yet another episode where the male crew members get action and story, and the female crew members get standing-around-on-the-Liberator.) Too simple to be really enjoyable – we all know it’s a trap and it is – Hostage passes the time well enough.

Six kissing cousins out of 10

Next episode: Countdown

Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Captured and imprisoned on an alien word, Thor is forced to fight an old friend in gladiatorial combat. But back home on Asgard, his evil sister has taken control…

Despite cynics claiming that all superhero films take themselves too seriously, there’s been comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series since day one. The Iron Man strand has given the world lots of droll sarcasm from Robert Downey Jr. Ant-Man and its star Paul Rudd often have tongues placed firmly in cheeks. Even the muscular thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier uses gallows humour alongside its high-octane plotting. But even so, there was still something very significant about 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

As much an out-and-out comedy as a sci-fi adventure film, Guardians was very funny indeed. There were actual gags as well as playfulness, satire and self-deprecation. It was a risk, but it earned a huge amount of money and reviews were great. Coupled with the similar success of the likewise light-hearted superhero film Deadpool, and Marvel Studios knew they were onto a winner. Guardians soon got a sequel, but its influence also extended to another floor of the MCU skyscraper.

There had been two previous Thor films. Neither was without merit, but both suffered from a lack of distinction. The character’s debut movie, 2011’s Thor, hardly rewrote the rule book. Its sequel, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, was the closest the MCU’s got to being actively boring. But for the third movie, there were big changes. It’d be underselling it to say Thor: Ragnarok is influenced by Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s more a shameless copy. Jokes are never far away from any scene. The film constantly pokes fun at itself and the genre as a whole. The colour scheme has switched from The Dark World’s grim, earthy dirge to an explosion of bright, bold, pop-art colours. And old music is used as score.

Inside five minutes, for example, there’s a confrontation between Thor (Chris Hemsworth, who knows how to handle comedy) and a mystical, all-powerful entity. It’s a moment seen often in genre films, yet here it’s played entirely for laughs. Then, as the action kicks in, so does the heavy-metal chugging of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song (1970). As the film develops, we get pop-culture references, slapstick, insults, a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, another confident turn from Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and even guest appearances from Matt Damon, Chris Hemsworth’s brother Liam and Sam Neill as actors playing Loki, Thor and their father in a play loaded with in-jokes for attentive viewers.

It’s fun. Bags of fun. Enormous fun. A lot of the credit must go to director Taika Waititi, who also voices a very funny secondary character (‘I tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets so hardly anyone turned up.’). It would be very easy for a film like this – where the cast are clearly having a ball and where the writers are running free of the usual shackles – to descend into self-indulgent nonsense. Thor: Ragnarok teeters on the edge a few times, but Waititi always keeps it upright.

Having said that, long-term MCU fans do have to let a few things go. This film bears such little tonal relationship to Thor’s previous outings that it may as well be a spoof. Humour is no bad thing in a multi-million-dollar franchise blockbuster, but here it can sometimes feel flippant (a problem that the Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy movies have always sidestepped). When Jeff Goldblum shows up and gives the most Jeff Goldblummy performance in the history of Jeff Goldblummary, it’s certainly entertaining. But it doesn’t exactly help with the suspension of disbelief.

Because, buried under all the silliness, there is actually a plot going on. On a far-off planet, Thor is captured by a sometimes drunk bounty hunter with a secret heritage called Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson, very good). He’s sold into slavery, forced to have his Nordic locks cut off, and must fight as a gladiator in an intergalactic amphitheatre. His opponent? As revealed in the film’s gleeful trailers, it’s Hulk! Thor’s trepidation instantly dissolves as he sees his old pal (‘We know each other! He’s a friend from work!’) but the two superheroes are forced to brawl for the paying audience. Eventually Hulk calms down and, for the first time in two years, reverts into Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, always good value). Then Thor gets word that home planet Asgard is under threat, so he and Bruce – the latter wearing a Duran Duran T-shirt – escape with the help of Scrapper 142 and Loki. The quartet form a team, jokingly self-named the Revengers.

Meanwhile, Hela – the goddess of death and Thor’s never-before-mentioned sister – is taking over Asgard, killing millions and waging war on the universe. She’s played by Cate Blanchet, who gamely wears a skin-tight costume and black eyeliner as she rants and raves and pontificates. The actress also has a Lord of the Rings reunion with Karl Urban, who here plays a cockney wide-boy Asgardian who unwillingly becomes her sidekick. But, as talented and entertaining as the pair are, their section of the story never really takes flight. The relentless comedy works against the story here: with the script constantly undercutting her pomposity, it’s too difficult to take Hela seriously.

In fact, the whole Asgardian section of the story feels unnecessary. Thor, Bruce Banner and co having breezy, riotous adventures in a colourful, sci-fi setting – all scored by 1980s-ish electronica and 1970s rock music – would be even more enjoyable without it.

Eight hairdressers out of 10

Screenshot 2018-05-21 22.31.37

Blake’s 7: Killer (1979)

Screenshot 2018-03-31 19.33.47

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Avon and Vila attempt to steal a cipher machine, Blake encounters a derelict spaceship with a dangerous cargo…

Series A, episode 7. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 20 February 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (19) teleports down to the planet Fosforon with Vila, and together they break into a Federation command centre called Q-Base. There, Avon seeks out his old friend Tynus (Ronald Lacey) and asks for help in cracking the Federation’s new communications encryption. Tynus is reluctant, but Avon blackmails him into starting a small fire as a distraction while he and Vila nab the technology.
* When a derelict space craft drifts close to the Liberator, telepath Cally (17) senses that there’s life aboard. She says it’s something malignant…
* After Vila (20) has helped Avon break into Q-Base, he enjoys some of Tynus’s booze while they wait to acquire the crystals used to decipher Federation messages. Then, later, he stumbles across a note from Tynus to Servalan – Tynus has betrayed them and is stalling until back-up arrives!
* While Avon and Vila are away on their mission, Blake (20) becomes aware of a nearby derelict ship. He deduces that it’s centuries old and is about to be salvaged by Q-Base. But the people on Fosforon don’t know that the ship contains some kind of life, so Blake teleports down to the planet and warns lead scientist Bellfriar (Paul Daneman, who skilfully underplays everything). When the ship is opened, a body is found inside. While being autopsied, it awakens and kills a doctor…
* Jenna (20) wants to search the derelict, then is very nervous indeed that Blake plans on beaming down to Q-Base – what if he’s caught?! What if they take his teleport bracelet off him?! (The fact Avon and Vila are already down there doesn’t seem to bother her. Neither does the fact they’ve all been in similar situations many times before.)
* Zen (18).
* Orac (7) does the research on the derelict ship (he Googles it, basically) and tells Blake that it’s K47, a Wanderer Class-1 ship that went missing with three crewmembers 700 years ago.

Best bit: This is a terrific episode, with action, intrigue and horror. But it’s a tiny character moment that sells the terror the best. The station is eventually overrun by a deadly virus that strikes and kills quickly. After Blake and co have escaped, Bellfriar contacts them via the radio to tell them about the antidote – but as he’s explaining, he realises that he’s forgotten how to read. Looking at his hands, he sees bubbling scars. He’s been infected too.

Worst bit: It’s unavoidable perhaps, but the fact the long-dead corpse is clearly an actor in full-body make-up tips us off that it’s going to reanimate.

Review: Scholcky but entertaining. No, scratch that: it’s entertaining *because* it’s schlocky. This is space pulp that zips along very enjoyably. Robert Holmes had been the writer or script editor of some of the best Doctor Who of the previous decade, and in this script you can see several of his favourite themes. There’s a love of horror-movies ideas (the episode soon becomes a zombie story). There’s an understanding of historical precedent (Blake mentions Field Marshall Jeffrey Amherst, an 18th-century British Army officer who tried to deliberately infect Native Americans with smallpox – though Blake calls him Ashley for some reason). There’s the idea that space travel is dangerous, with exotic risks at every turn. There’s a complex guest character who’s not what he first appears. And there’s a distinct lack of interest in women (Jenna and Cally are noticeably peripheral to the action). Ronald Lacey, meanwhile, becomes the second future Indiana Jones villain to play a duplicitous official on a space station in Blake’s 7 (cf Julian Glover in Breakdown).

Eight A-line messages using a new pulse code out of 10

Next episode: Hostage